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Donald the Destroyer: Assessing the Trump Effect

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Photo by Carnaval.com Studios | CC BY 2.0

Oh please say to me
You’ll let me be your man
And please say to me
You’ll let me hold your hand
Now, let me hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

So, we’ve officially gone from The West Wing to Animal House. To the regret of Democrats and liberals, Donald Trump cuts a presidential image far removed from the Sorkinite Aristotelian Quaalude (h/t Emmet Penney) of a Jed Bartlett in the Oval Office. To the chagrin of Republicans and corporate conservatives, his demeanor increasingly resembles the adolescent antics of a Bluto punching it out ringside at the WWF. Politicians and commentators from both sides of the narrow aisle are all shocked and saddened at the ongoing insult to American “presidentialness.”

In a recent irruption of his self-sabotaging panglossia, Trump has given a bizarre interview to the New York Times in which, among other gems: 1) He warned the Special Counsel to stay away from his businesses.  2) He stated that health insurance costs $12 a year. 3) He taught his interviewers that the head of the FBI does not report to the Attorney General. And 4) In a series of blurts that I find particularly bizarre and telling, he repeatedly emphasized that French President Emmanuel Macron is a “strong” guy who “loves holding my hand… people don’t realize he loves holding my hand…He’s a very good person. And a tough guy…but he does love holding my hand.” As the man with the cigar might say, textbook symptomatic utterance.  (It’s such a feeling…I can’t hide. I can’t hide. I can’t hide.)

These are all signs of Trump’s complete ignorance regarding policy fundamentals as well as his overwhelming narcissism. It’s quite a bonus that it comes so obviously tinged with a familiar “bromantic”–I  i.e., per cigar-man, homo-erotic–attraction for strong men who (he imagines) give him the love he so desperately needs. There are charming versions of that in the playfulness of the locker room or at the chessboard, but it’s somewhat more disturbing as a central, unrecognized obsession of the pussy-grabbing leader of the most powerful country in the world, whose discourse seems to whirl around a black hole of narcissism and need. It makes for a hollow and dangerous man.

People who have dealt with him in New York City over the past decades have come to know Trump’s boundless self-obsession very well—and not just leftists who were disgusted by his horrid screed about the Central Park Five. My nephew worked taking bids for a contractor in the city whose first rule of business was: “No Trump properties. We do not work on Trump properties. He doesn’t pay.” I also have a high school classmate who invested in one of his projects. Trump packed the Board of Directors with his cronies, sucked all the money out, and bankrupted the company. The late Wayne Barrett chronicled Trump’s quasi-criminal business dealings masterfully and relentlessly. As his warnings about Mueller indicate, Trump’s real pedestrian crimes as the High Rise Grifter (rather than his fictional treason as Putin’s Secret Agent) are what he is afraid of, and what might bring him down, should RepubliDems and their plutocrat patrons dare to open that worm-laden investigative precedent.

Now that he’s entered the glass-walled penthouse of political power, his blatant, grabby, unreliability and untrustworthiness become a different kind of liability. Trump comes to this high level, high stakes political game with no political experience or organization, confronting the resentment and/or enmity of the entire political establishment—including the many Republicans he left in the electoral dust. Unlike them, Trump has no political apparatus—what we might call strategic political depth—in Washington, and his incoherence, impulsiveness, and need for constant, absolute adoration, is driving away even his closest henchpersons (Buh-Bye, Sean! Watch your step, Jeff!).

Paranoia is part of the narcissism, and it’s contagious. Trump can neither trust nor be trusted, can neither give nor receive loyalty—only its simulacrum: shallow and fleeting obsequiousness.

It’s wonderful to behold how this is playing out with Trump’s new Director of Communications, the too-perfectly-named Anthony Scaramucci. Nobody has taken the measure of Trump more accurately than Scaramucci—who, not so long ago, called Trump “anti-American,” a “hack,” an “unbridled demagogue,” an “inherited-money dude from Queens County,” only qualified to be “president of…The Queens County bullies.” Anthony would know, since he is himself a low-road hedge-fund grifter and mini-Trump. According to Reuters business reporter Felix Salmon, Scaramucci, like Trump, ” has two ways to make money: either find stupid people to give him their money, or else shower himself with so many conspicuous indicia of success that people just want to buy into his perceived success.” Tony S’s flourish on the art of deal-making includes soliciting clients with the admonition: “Always invest with an Italian.” (I guess that’s a weak attempt at invoking some kind of motivating appeal to ethnic stereotype, like a Bernie Madoff saying: “Always invest with a Jew”—although in some other register. The Dapper Dick?)

And nothing epitomizes the hollowness of people like birds-of-a-feather Trump and Scaramucci, as well as the hollowness of the political culture they represent (which includes Clinton and the Democrats, whom Trump and Scaramucci both eagerly supported—and got love from in return—when convenient for all), than Scaramucci’s instantaneous, transparently opportunistic, pivot to obsequious adoration of Donald Trump. Really, a dozen or more times: “I love the President,” “We love the President,” “The American people love the President,” because Donald Trump has “some of the best political instincts in the world and perhaps in history.”

Yup, Scaramucci’s got the measure of the man alright. Knows exactly what he wants, and needs. I’m sure they will be working together, The Dapper Dick and The Donald, hand-in-tiny-hand. Cage aux Folles.

Until Anthony, too, is chased off the stage like the other characters in this comedy. Nobody who works for Trump comes away the better off for it. All of this insecurity, impulsiveness, and constant churn of personnel makes for a politically surrealistic whirlpool of uncertainty and instability. Was that the Nightly News or Twin Peaks?

Combined with Trump’s lack of any coherent political program or political apparatus, it adds up to an administration in chaos and disarray, and it makes Trump a startlingly weak president. He maintains a core base of support among his voters, but he has no intrinsic support among Washington power brokers and policy makers, the Congress, the intelligence apparatus, or any sector or the permanent government known as the Deep State. It’s not a matter of disagreement, but distrust. Everyone distrusts him, in a radical sense, and for good reason: No one, including him, knows what he will do or say next. He’s got some stubs of ideas, a few of which are not bad (Let’s get along with Russia. Let’s fight ISIS, not Syria.) and most of which are terrible, but he doesn’t have the intellectual capacity for thinking any of them through, let alone the political facility for executing them. He is way out of his depth.

With all these weaknesses, Trump’s only possible political role is to serve as the front man for congressional Republicans, who do have thought-out political ideas and programs, and dangerous ones. They hoped he would play, or could be forced to play, that role for them. The Republican Party is itself a precarious mix of factions—hardline libertarians, religious fanatics, neocon hawks, and legacy Chamber of Commerce types—all of whom are frantically trying to stay united around their one common priority: the worship and protection of capital. They need a leader who can mediate among them, and be an effective and reassuring presence to the public, helping them put over policy changes that are going to devastate the lives of most Americans. What they got instead is an incoherent, peripatetic, self-obsessed incompetent, who can’t control his cabinet, his family, or his mouth, and who only further confuses their agenda.

This is a good thing.

From the Republicans’ perspective, it’s become clear that Trump is another problem that they will have to move out of the way or continually work around and make excuses for. From a slightly more nuanced perspective, Trump’s confusion and disarray are helping to cover and deflect theirs. Trump does nothing (and can do nothing, since he understands nothing about it) to help the Republicans pass their healthcare “reform,” but the real obstacle is the fact that even some of them, who do understand what it’s about, are afraid of the social cruelty it represents. Donald Trump will sign just about anything the Republicans put before him, and declare it a huge win. Donald Trump won’t stop the healthcare bill; Susan Collins & Co. will.

The crisis that is fracturing the Republican Party is a result of its victory, which calls its bluff on all the purportedly virtuous libertarian policies they’ve been promoting—the enactment of which, they know, will create social catastrophe for the American people and political catastrophe for them. Trump doesn’t create that crisis, but he does exacerbate it.

And that’s a good thing.

The Democrats’ aggressive attacks, through an overwhelming array of sympathetic media and Deep State channels, have worked to provoke and exacerbate the ongoing decompensation and self-sabotage of the Trump administration. Clearly, the Democrats hope the disarray around Trump will drive enough of their constituency, many of whom left the playground in the 2016 election, to return to the Democratic end of the electoral seesaw. This is not such a good thing.

But Trump’s election caused a crisis in the Democratic Party, too—or, more accurately, made critical faults therein impossible to ignore. The Democrats’ insistence on burning Trump on the stake of Russian-agent treason gets no purchase on the concrete issues of permanent austerity and war that flipped so many voters from Democratic to Republican over the past few election cycles. It ignores the concerns of the millions of voters and Democrats who rallied around Bernie Sanders, making the self-identified socialist the most popular politician in America. That constituency tends to see the Russia fixation, per Max Blumenthal, as “a way of opposing Trump without doing anything remotely progressive.” It ends up highlighting the Democrats lack of a comprehensive, coherent program of their own, and fueling their decomposition and disarray.

Indeed, whatever damage has been done to the Trump brand, Hillary Clinton is still more disliked.  And it is corporate-donor Clintonism—including Hillary’s personal henchpersons—that still remains firmly in control of setting the Democratic Party agenda, engendering increasingly widespread and active resistance from the Democratic constituency. Governed by its commitment to the worship and protection of capital, the Democratic party’s leadership still refuses single-payer healthcare—which is immensely popular, is recognized even by some conservatives as the only “fix” for the current horrible “market” system, and would guarantee electoral success. It also proposes a “Better Deal” for disaffected working-class voters based on that one-hit wonder from the 80s mix tape: “a large tax credit” for businesses to re-train workers to become computer programmers Uber slaves. Zombie Clintonism, paving the way for a Democratic dream ticket. Kamala Harris and Mark Cuban

Me, habitual non-voter in semi-rural PA county that flipped Obama-Trump: “Well, now that I’ve heard about the small business tax credit…”

— Jacob Bacharach (@jakebackpack) July 24, 2017

So, Trump’s incompetence may be used to increase voter disaffection with the Republicans without increasing voter affection for the Democrats at all.  And that would be a good thing.  As I’ve argued before, I think it would be a good thing if more people reject the plutocrat-controlled, designed-for-fraud, two-party election circus.

At this point, both domestic political parties want rid of Trump. Both adamantly oppose his incipient positions on improving relations with Russia, and are assiduously working to cage him in the aggressive posture they demand. The constant pressure of the Special Counsel investigation is one tool of that. The new anti-Russia sanctions legislation that sets an unprecedented constraint on presidential authority in the matter, which passed the Senate and Congress overwhelmingly, is another. They have plenty of ways to discipline Trump, and are not going to be shy to use them.

Besides, Trump’s positions are not just incipient, they are inconsequentially weak. Schrödinger’s Trump is for and against healthcare for everyone, for and against NATO, for and against the war on Syria. (We’re stopping our support of CIA-sponsored rebels, except we’re still paying their salaries, “pouring” arms into” Syria, and maintaining ten military bases.) Trump is susceptible to any determined bi-partisan pressure–indeed, to the last authoritative voice that has shouted sweet praise in his ear. He has no firm political ideology or organization that can resist such charms. For all his bluster, he is swinging wildly, and easily pushed around. As we’ve seen, he’s especially impressed by tough, strong men who know how to handle his narcissism and need. The military and the neocon Deep State are full of Mad Dogs.

The real problem is that it’s always going to be a struggle for the Serious Politicians of both parties to work around Trump’s confusion and inconsistency, and that effort will only highlight and complicate their own decomposition and disarray. So, both parties want to think they’ll find a way to tame him. They won’t. They can’t control him, and he can’t control them. His personal impulsiveness will not abate or be discretely managed, and maintaining four years of constant investigation and media hysteria against him will only increase the sense that the American government is losing its grip. Confusion—indeed, dread—hangs over Wahington as this realization dawns on the congress and the media.

And that’s a good thing.

It’s not anything Russia did that’s undermining American democracy; it’s what the Trump victory lays bare about abysmal state of America political culture: the contradictions within the ruling parties; the discrepancy between their public and private policy positions, and the plutocratic corruption that represents; the silently tolerated, atavistic and anti-democratic elements of our constitutional and federal arrangements (i.e., the Electoral College); the infantile understanding of the world promoted throughout the narrow spectrum of mainstream media from Fox to MSNBC. That media apparatus constitutes the principal form of mass political education. It creates a political world in which someone like Donald Trump can be been seriously as a presidential candidate, and the seesaw between him and someone like Hillary Clinton can be taken as anything other than the insult to the people that it is. It’s all that which undermines the credibility of actually-existing American democracy, and It’s all that which will become more embarrassingly obvious every day that Donald Trump is president.

And that’s a good thing.

Trump is diminishing the aura of the presidency, and generally gumming up the works. As Rob Urie puts it: “The most public political tension now playing out is between those who prefer the veil of ‘system’ against the venal vulgarity of that system’s product now visible for all to see. What Mr. Trump’s political opponents appear to be demanding is a better veil.” Not I. The lipstick is off the “presidency” and the whole political beast it sits atop of. Good. Let’s have no nostalgia for a time when a smooth operator was picking your pocket with a smile while you were transfixed by his mellifluous patter.

After all, it’s not as if Donald Trump is the first incompetent to be president. Ronald Reagan and Woodrow Wilson both occupied the office for years in a mentally-enfeebled state. Popular media history just ignores that, and both still have millions of admirers who are blissfully unaware of the holes in the story, and in their heroes’, and their own, minds.

Nor is Trump the first (or worst) liar. He’s just the worst at it. Indeed, it seems a category error to say Trump is “lying.” His discourse is so obsessively fixed on emphasizing how great he is that he seems unaware of the meaning of what he’s saying, which is all meant to reinforce that self-aggrandizement. Effective, ongoing political deception is an art. It requires skill and finesse in soliciting an audience—on a national scale, that means a wide and diverse audience—to identify with you as the projected image of their needs and desires, without seeming to center yourself. Trump gets away with some of that for some of the people for some of the time, but he’s a rookie. Obama was the champ—easily the most successfully deceptive president I’ve lived under. He’s still got legions of empty-pocketed fans thanking him for his service. I only hope that fewer Trump voters will remain in his thrall four or eight years from now.

It’s also undeniable that Trump does not get the pass for his flaws that most of his predecessors got, and most of his contemporary colleagues still get. His many flaws get exposed and magnified and scrutinized on a daily basis. He’s under the most relentless pressure put on a president since Nixon. It is a witch-hunt, and Trump does keep riding his broom straight into it. Appointing a Special Counsel was a trap that precisely demonstrates how out of his depth he is. The Special Counsel investigation constitutes a permanent, limitless, intrusive machine that works under the three felonies a day rule. It’s an ongoing threat, put in place to enforce his compliance with Deep State mandates.

So, is Trump going to be impeached (and convicted)?  Leaving aside the substantive question (Why would anyone want to? To have Pence and Cruz running the country?), it’s virtually impossible. Do the math. It would require a majority of an overwhelmingly Republican Congress, and two-thirds of a Republican-majority Senate.

Then do the politics. Sure, as I suggested above, many Republicans would like to get rid of Trump and replace him with a Pence-Cruz government. But almost every Republican also knows s/he can only lose by championing that. Paul Ryan will not get any Democratic votes by voting to impeach Trump; he will only be sure to get fewer Republican votes, and probably get primaried. Despite the current situation, the Republican Party is electorally very weak, as would be obvious if it weren’t for gerrymandering and election rigging. Trump brought out anti-establishment voters who are convinced that the bi-partisan elite is contemptuous of them and would like to nullify their choice. They are right, and impeachment would prove it. Republicans will never vote to impeach Trump unless he does something that’s egregious for those voters, who also aren’t too impressed with the aura of the presidency. Good luck with that Russiagate thing.

So, impeachment would help neither the Democrats nor the Republicans. Barring a deus ex machina—and a fortuitous lone gunman cannot be ruled out—we are going to have Donald Trump to kick around for a lot more time.

And here’s the main reason that’s not such a bad thing: Every day of Donald Trump’s presidency further erodes the thin remaining patina of America’s “soft power” in the world. That’s a very good thing, more likely to yield substantive benefit than any domestic turmoil.

The headlines tell the tale: “Allies Fear Trump Is Eroding America’s Moral Authority” (NYT), “European leaders fear Trump’s political chaos is undermining U.S. power” (WaPo).

According to Alyssa Rubin in The New York Times, more than a dozen diplomats, international politicians, and other such mucky-mucks she interviewed, worry that, although “America’s own actions over the years [mentioning torture, Guantánamo, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan] have already eroded its moral standing,” there is great fear that under Trump, who “appeared like some kind of Attila,…[the United States] was poised to cede…its ability to lead by example.” With Trump as president, the United States might lose the “moral authority [that] has imbued America with a special kind of clout in the world,” or even “its ability to make needed alliances.”

In the Washington Post, Michael Birnbaum reports that “Washington’s closest allies in Europe are increasingly worried that rising political chaos in the United States is undermining the strength of the most powerful nation in the world,” and quotes a Dutch member of the European Parliament that: “this internal chaos in the United States is growing to an unimaginable scale,” creating a “vacuum [that] may encourage people all over the world to seize the moment of an absent United States.”

Under a kind, tolerant president like Obama of Assisi, you see, things like torture and multiple state-destroying imperial wars don’t really affect America’s “moral standing” or its “ability to make alliances.” Only the “political chaos” brought on by Atilla the Trump “undermines the strength” that allows “the most powerful nation” to do those things while maintaining its “ability to lead by example”–that is, its ability to get compliant European governments to get their war-averse populations to go along with the alliances needed to wage American imperialist wars in the guise of international humanitarian crusades. In the vacuum that Trump is creating, European countries might actually have to seize the initiative to make independent decisions, maybe driven by the needs of their own people rather than by the precious, special clout of the most powerful nation in the world. The horror!

A better argument for what a good thing the Trump-effect is would be hard to find. I’ll take Atilla.

I am not one who thinks the Trump administration will be any less aggressive and imperialist than its predecessors. It’s simply not in the nature of who he, or the American presidency, is. He probably has some sincere bits of thoughts about better relations with Russia and winding down the war on Syria, but I do not think he has the intrinsic commitment, or the ability in the face of Deep State pressure, to effect substantive change in America’s fundamental imperial policies. I see the cessation of aid to certain rebel groups in Syria, for example, as part to a pivot to a Plan C—an option that may give up on the “Sunnistan” part of breaking up Syria, but drives forward on tearing away a Kurdish statelet, as well as gearing up for new and dangerous aggression against Iran. I doubt Trump understands much of that, but he’ll do it, hugely.

It’s not that Trump will be any less imperialist than Obama was or Clinton would have been; it’s just, again, that he’ll be worse at it—from the whole “moral standing, needed alliances” point of view. The insufferable sanctimony of American exceptionalism has been an ideological pillar of the imperial project, and anything that undermines it should be welcomed. I doubt anything coming out of the #Resistance, the electoral seesaw, or the thoroughly marginalized radical left in the United States will be more consequential.

In sum, the Trump effect is destroying the graven image of the presidency, the Euro-American imperial alliance, the Republican and maybe even the Democratic, Party.

That’s a very good thing. Let’s give it a hand.

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Jim Kavanagh edits The Polemicist.

CounterPunch Magazine


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