Catastrophic Thinking as We Head to the Inauguration

“You fool!” croaked the frog, “Now we shall both die! Why on earth did you do that?” The scorpion shrugged, and did a little jig on the drowning frog’s back. “I could not help myself. It is my nature.” Then they both sank into the muddy waters of the swiftly flowing river.

 It may be President Trump’s nature to turn this liberal American democracy into a very illiberal one and on the way use the presidency as a means to increase profits for his brand.

Some expect that and are on the look-out. Trump followers will be on the look-out to shout back at those Trump critics who come up with something. But as it is a gambler’s bet as to how long it will be before President Trump’s nature will topple him out of office, the “frogs” of fear prefer not to take him across the river, although President Obama asks us to take the chance.

There is not simply disdain for the man but a fear and trembling in regard to the future of the country in his hands that psychiatrists call “Catastrophic Thinking.” Trump can do a lot of damage nationally and internationally before he stings us and himself, as it is in his nature to do so.

There is urgency in Catastrophic Thinking. Here is what it looks like from the outside: We need to act quickly. We cannot wait for Trump’s followers to realize that all those appointments of Goldman Sachs billionaires are going to scrunch them in ways the Great Recession never could. These are the big players President Obama did not want to indict because he apparently felt such strong actions would trouble his visionary “post-partisanship.” But it is in their nature to scrunch, or more precisely, axiomatically follow the mandate maximizing return on investment.

It is in the nature of le ROI, return on investment is all, to creatively discard the bottom 80% of the population. Catastrophic Thinking cannot wait for a populist and political “Great Awakening.” The writing is on the wall. Paranoia sinks deeply and unexpectedly into the American mass psyche.


Talk of this being a “populist” victory compounds the fear because it would seem then that the “populus,” the People, who did not appear in polling results or in the mind of Hillary followers, connect to Trump and not to them. Fear rises when it emerges from a hitherto unknown source, which totally disregards what you assume is your obvious superior hold on reality.

Actually, the “populism” as mirrored in numbers, at least, is not on Trump’s side if your concept of “populism” is confined to who wins the popular vote. The headline of the British online Independent concluded: “Donald Trump has lost popular vote by greater margin than any US president.” (www.independent.co.uk) 2.8 million votes. There were 98 comments following this report, beginning with denying a popular vote mattered and then quickly pivoted to a typical mosh pit vitriolic exchange regarding Brexit, England’s own fire bomb. It seems that an attendant feature of populist movements here and elsewhere (Wikipedia lists 14 countries) is a descent into the maelstrom of bitter, heedless, angry discourse. Your facts are always unheeded.

Thus, these “news facts” regarding who won the popular vote seem to do no more than anger Trump, as do climate change facts and so on. If, however, you define “populism” as a political outburst from the audience and not from the stage, from those myriads outside the corridors of wealth and power, then Trump did indeed have populist support, regardless of the fact that he is, for all his oral and written condescending, not from “The People.”

Are “The People,” i.e., Trump’s followers on their way to Catastrophic Thinking or still enjoying Hillary’s defeat and the tears and fears of the Liberal “elite”?

If you think stacking the cabinet with Wall Street executives or key Federal departments and agencies with genuine Haters, as the Millennials express it, of those posts will unnerve Trump’s followers or darken their adulation of Trump, then you are assessing your own reactions, not the followers. We know very little about the mass psyche of Trump’s followers. People’s Daily, the news voice of the Communist Party, “excoriated the American news media, including The New York Times, for failing to anticipate and explain Mr. Trump’s rise, especially among blue-collar voters.” (Chris Buckley, “Chinese Media Says Trump Can’t Cure `American Disease,'” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2016) The Chinese source was quoted as saying “It’s difficult for such a media to reflect the realities of America.”

The failure is a failure of representation in the sense of bringing what is absent or even inconceivable to presence, a bringing to light what was not known. When that task is in the hands of those who share blindness, a culturally shaped incapacity to see what lies outside their own frame of seeing, then you can expect what did happen in this election. Those who were invisible or discounted by media, the pollsters and Hillary voters entered the privacy of polling booths and voted their presence.

Catastrophic Thinking is triggered by a “shock of recognition,” of suddenly becoming aware of what was there all along but missed, of a politically powerful mass of people whose thinking seems alien, and who are now in charge of a reality you thought you owned. The political segues into the pathology of Catastrophic Thinking as well as a deep ontological unsettling, a dis-ease, an existential crisis of an American cultural imaginary that has divided. One side does not know what the other side dreams of anymore.

What we observed as the divide — the Liberal/Neoliberal — did not challenge a unified imaginary regarding the American Dream, i.e., riches via capitalism. This election does. The Donor/Gentrified class, Democrats and Republicans, has no idea what the Trump followers are after, although if you have been following the slow plutocrat zing of the country since Reagan, you would find fear of a rising frustrated, nervous and angry populace with a growing sense of being cheated.

Perhaps the failure of knowing anything about the mass of people who put Trump into office has been itself an incentive to vote for Trump. Trump masterly hit all the right notes in a mass psyche that has moved the Hillary and Bernie supporters to an amazed incredulity followed by a dismissive anger, a discounting of what they cannot comprehend or imagine. Thus, xenophobia, like Nietzsche’s view of reason, seems to be working on both sides of the street. It is in the nature of the gentrifiers to shake their heads in amazement at the ungentrified. They are not only strange but also repellant.

So, Trump’s followers will not be seeking to indict him. It will be awhile for those so yearning for change to realize that Trump is a con artist. And it is unknown whether those disenchanted will turn against Wall Street’s “art of the deal,” a deal that has every class but owners, whether of corporations, stock portfolios, robots and AI, patents, real estate, bonuses and “Golden Parachutes,” destined to the dust pile.

An immediate upsurge in financial well-being, continuing for an unknown period, will certainly keep Trump’s followers loyal. Every event Liberals and the Left see as catastrophic will not detract from a flush of solvency. But Hillary’s followers who remain astounded by the very existence of Americans who have made Trump the president already live within the bounty of surplus capital and have proven themselves incapable of inhabiting the place of populace hardship. Their politics has been a kind of Donor class volunteer/docent personal investment on the outskirts of real efforts of economic recuperation. If it had been anything other, the unseen but angry populace seeking to “shake things up” would not have finally emerged.

The 30% of Latinos who voted for Trump, to the amazement of Hillary supporters, chose a greater chance of jobs under a Republican president and Congress than the social justice that Hillary’s identity politics offered. Overwhelming African-American support of Hillary tells us no more than the fact that Democrats talk equality and social justice before economics while Republicans have subsumed race within the play of market competitiveness and African-Americans see race as a first political concern.

The thinking here is that if you eliminate racism, economic justice follows. But it seems that what an amoral, axiomatic economic system does is nullify everything but the possession of money. Wealthy black, browns, reds and yellows that are flush with stocks, houses, boats and planes are not shunned because of color. Money is the wash. Black Lives Matter would have greatly benefited all racial minorities as well as the poor if they had rallied round Bernie Sanders instead of berating him for not putting race first.

Those who gave Hillary almost three million more votes than Trump received will be, or, rather are, presently rushing to indictments and judgments. (See “To Combat Trump, Democrats Ready G.O.P. Tactic: Lawsuits,” The New York Times, December 15, 2016). This aggression will not stand” is once again a call to arms, this time Trump is now the aggressor against every marginalized group as well as the planet, Earth, reason, democracy, and an order of things that has, in truth, kept the plutocracy in place.

So much danger ahead, so much flooding the banks of Catastrophic Thinking on the part of all those who have been the gatekeepers of the planet, reason, etc, as well as the plutocratic order that suits them. David Runciman puts it succinctly: “[T]he generation of Americans represented by the Clintons . . . had inflated one bubble after another in their desperate desire to avoid facing hard truths and continue their own soft existence.” (“Is This How Democracy Ends?” London Review of Books, Dec. 1, 2016) Dividend receiving Neoliberals and Liberals has equally enjoyed the soft existence that globalized capitalism has afforded them. Both affiliates are in various stages of seizure over Trump as president and stunned and confounded by the realities of those who made him president. This does not negate the actualities of a truck load of reasons as to why a populist electorate sought to upend conditions and political parties that excluded them.

Hillary voters are not alone in their fear. There is Catastrophic Thinking at work on the part of business owners whose fear is engendered by successes of the “Fight for Fifteen” or the fight to compensate employees as employees and not deny them workers’ rights already achieved by classifying them as “independent contractors.” Everyone historically reaping rewards from grossly asymmetrical economic conditions has suffered with Catastrophic Thinking.

Fear of a crisis on the horizon can be powerfully felt, regardless of its source. The threat must be erased. Evidence is needed. It may be evidence of, say, violation of the emolument clause which prevents an American officeholder from receiving whatever aggrandizes his own personal fortunes. The woven state of the Trump brand and the Trump presidency seem set to cause problems. But violations of Constitutional rights as well as the check and balances tri-cameral set up of American democracy seems also be a briar patch in which President Trump may get entangled.

Nothing is really set up legislatively or judicially for an Imperial rule or for a Gestapo-like squad instructed to find and punish “enemies of the State,” which in Hitler’s case meant anyone who pissed off a certifiable psychopath. Whether or not “the basic durability and decency of America’s political institutions” will protect anyone from catastrophe remains to be seen.

It seems debatable right now whether there are a sufficient number of Americans who can recognize a real threat to the country in the form of a crippling skepticism regarding the security of elections, a rejection of the authority of established traditions, laws and protocols of political and social behavior, and the absence of any card in anyone’s deck, including that of scientists, able to countermand one’s own opinion. These are not future possibilities. They are very much present right now and they seem not to be generating as much future fear as Trump’s presidency. He did not create this post-truth world; he only used it to his advantage.

Because evidence based on facts now seems to be always just “your” evidence and “your” facts, it may be more difficult to make a case against Trump than it was against Nixon. And making that case was a nightmarish struggle even though there were no Nixon followers blindly impervious to the evidence brought against him. But Watergate in 1973 was followed by the O.J. Simpson trial in 1994 when Americans glimpsed the possibility that facts had only the heft you assigned them,  that they could be weighted variously, as some 25 years later Truth descends to just someone’s opinion tweeted.

It is not a surprise then that now we have a man who says, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” We cannot expect that making any kind of case against him will be easy, or even possible.

President-elect Donald Trump shows no sign yet of suffering from Catastrophic Thinking. It is not in the nature of a narcissist whose wealth ab ovo has nurtured that narcissism to fear a disastrous collapse. Warned that he was heading for a criminal conflict of interest as president and business owner, Trump tweeted that the media was making a big deal of an issue that was not complex. As of this date, a plan to avoid multiple conflicts of interests has been deferred by Trump until sometime in January, most likely after his inauguration.

It seems clear that Trump’s hope is that the issue — of monetizing the presidency — will fade from the collective memory, as has submission of his tax returns. The New York Times reports that Trump noted, “His election victory is bringing big money into his businesses.” (Dec. 16, 2016) No doubt his two sons, who will be running a company with “holdings that exist in many countries and in many industries with foreign partners who are already currying favor with him [Trump],” will keep their father apprized as to what politics may best increase their profits.

Even though Trump has tweeted that “The Presidency is a far more important task!” it remains a position he may occupy for just a term, a position whose salary he foregoes while his business empire extends further in his life and his family’s and remains the source of his wealth. The best assumption we can make is that the presidency of the US is not more important than his Trump Empire to Mr. Trump.

A brazen aggressiveness is what we see, far from the Catastrophic Thinking racking both the established plutocratic order of Republicans as well as the politics of the fringe “Other” that is the Democrats huckleberry. In short, the most effective dissolution of a Donald Trump presidency will likely be conducted by Donald Trump himself, rather like the way Nixon’s own demons and not his many violations of presidential power in his bombings of Cambodia, Laos and Viet-nam led to his resignation in the face of certain impeachment and removal from office.

Magnates in the finance industry including hedge fund managers and bank CEOs world-wide are now balanced perilously on the edge of Catastrophic Thought syndrome by the election of Donald Trump.

Return on investment — le ROI — is not the champion of any issue based on an intrinsic moral or democratic worth. Everything, from wages, health care, or the identity struggles of the LGBTQ community, or global warming threats, or rescinding Roe v. Wade or the Affordable Care Act can be abused as long as the Dow Jones is not affected. Powerhouses of the financial sector are thus not on the edge of Catastrophic Thought because Trump will appoint another Scalia to the bench, or “Obamacare” will be repealed and so on down the lists of Liberal fears. It is their fears, however, if realized, that will end Trump’s presidency.

If Trump de-stabilizes the global investment environment, a full throttle Catastrophic Thought reaction will emerge among the financial community and contemporaneously a strategy to either contain or remove Trump will come into play. As Trump’s enterprises are wedged within a powerful globalized real estate, banking, and investment network, rather like a mouse in a hole in a mansion wall, he cannot withstand a coordinated effort to ruin him, either totally or sufficient for a commanding leverage to be applied.

That the President of the United States can be reached in such a fashion plunges everyone but Trump himself into the fears and anxieties of Catastrophic Thought. One wonders also what leverage Putin may also have on Trump based on arcane dealings, money owed, and favors already received.

Early signals made by President-elect Trump reveal that it is in his nature to monetize his presidency and enrich his Trump brand.  Whether he does so without disrupting the profits of that cabal within which his brand is allowed to float but rather increases their returns, is undoubtedly the central conflict of this unique presidential drama. That both those who voted for him and against him are focused elsewhere in their Catastrophic Thinking is certainly what turns drama into farce.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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