Don’t look away. I mean it! Keep on staring just like you’ve been doing, just like we’ve all been doing since he rode down that escalator into the presidential race in June 2015 and, while you have your eyes on him, I’ll tell you exactly why you shouldn’t stop.
To begin with, it’s time to think of Donald J. Trump in a different light. After all, isn’t he really our own UnFounding Father? While the Founding Fathers were responsible for two crucial documents, the Declaration of Independence (1,458 words) and the Constitution (4,543 words), our twenty-first century UnFounding Father only writes passages of 140 characters or less. (Sad!) Other people have authored “his” books. (“I put lipstick on a pig,” said one of his ghostwriters.) He reportedly doesn’t often read books himself (though according to ex-wife Ivana, he once had a volume of Hitler’s speeches by his bedside). He’s never seen a magazine cover he didn’t want to be on (or at least that he didn’t want to claim, however spuriously, he had decided not to be on). He recently indicated that he thought the Constitution had at least one extra article, “Article XII,” which he promised to “protect,” even though it didn’t exist. (My best guess: he believed it said, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved neither to the States respectively, nor to the people, but to Trump and his heirs and there will be no inheritance tax on them.”)
None of this should be surprising since, for him, the Constitution is undoubtedly a hearsay document, as is much of the rest of life. Still, at 71, who could doubt that he himself has the constitution of an ox, thanks perhaps to those Big Macs he reportedly adores, the Trump Steaks he tried to peddle, and the taco bowls (“I love Hispanics!”) that he once swore he gobbles down. As someone capable of changing his mind on almost anything (other than himself), his attention span tends to be short. So briefing him on the state of the world, if you happen to be in the U.S. Intelligence Community, is evidently a challenging task. You reportedly want to keep it, well, brief — no more than a page per topic, three topics per visit, lots of visuals. And don’t forget to skip the “nuance,” as well as any dissenting or conflicting views (especially on him, since that’s the rare subject he truly cares about).
His daily briefings reportedly have only a quarter of the information President Obama’s had, perhaps because the world’s gotten simpler since those godforsaken days. Thank you, Rocket Man! And to give him credit where it’s due, he’s done a remarkably thorough job of turning the Oval Office into a business venture for himself and his kids. (Hey, if you happen to be a foreign diplomat, lobbyist, industry group of any sort, cabinet member, or White House adviser who wants anything from the Oval Office, let me recommend the new Trump International Hotel just down the block on Pennsylvania Avenue for a meal or an event! There’s no better way to curry favor, even if you happen to be an Indian businessman and there’s no curry on the menu. Don’t miss those $24 chocolate cigars!) For the rest of us, we’ve gained immeasurably from his business ventures since his election. Otherwise, how would we know what the once-obscure word “emoluments” actually meant.
Thank you, big guy!
He’s Da Man!
Keep in mind, though, that none of this makes him any less historic. As a start, it’s indisputable that no one has ever gotten the day-after-day media coverage he has. Not another president, general, politician, movie star, not even O.J. after the car chase. He’s Da Man!
Since that escalator ride, he’s been in the news (and in all our faces) in a way once unimaginable. Cable news talking heads and talk-show hosts can’t stop gabbling about him. It’s the sort of 24/7 attention that normally accompanies terrorist attacks in the United States or Europe, presidential assassinations, or major hurricanes. But with him, we’re talking about more or less every hour of every day for almost two-and-a-half years without a break. It’s been no different on newspaper front pages. No one’s ever stormed the headlines more regularly. And I haven’t even mentioned the social media universe. There, he has, if anything, an even more obsessional audience of tens of millions for his daily tweets, which instantly become The News and then, of course, the fodder for those yakking cableheads and talk-show hosts. Think of him not so much as a him at all but as a perpetual motion machine of breaking headlines.
Part of that’s certainly attributable to the fact that no presidential candidate or president has ever had his knack for attracting the cameras and gluing eyeballs. Give him credit for a media version of horse sense that’s remarkable. It’s a talent of a special sort fit for a special moment. What catnip is for cats, he is for TV cameras. He was the Kardashian candidate and now he’s the Kardashian president.
But that’s the lesser part of the tale. To grasp why we can’t help staring at him, why we essentially have no choice but to do so, you need to understand something else: this sort of attention hasn’t been a fluke. It doesn’t represent a Trumpian black hole in time or an anomaly in our history, and neither does he. Of course, he’s Donald J. Trump in all his… well, not glory, but [you fill in the word here]. However, he’s also a symptom. He didn’t create this particular media moment or this American world of ours either. He just grasped how it worked at some intuitive level and rode it (or perhaps it rode him) all the way to the White House.
He’s gotten so much attention in part because he rose in (or, in his case, descended into) a changed media landscape that most of us hadn’t even begun to grasp. He didn’t, however, create that landscape either. If anything, it created him. What he did was make himself the essence of it. He was what a news media in crisis needed, as staffs were being decimated, finances challenged by the online world, reporters disappearing. He came on the scene, politically speaking, just when a once-upon-a-time sense of the “news” was morphing into so many focus groups on what would glue eyeballs, while coverage was increasingly being recalibrated for a series of designated 24/7 events, each generally filled with horror, fear, and plenty of weeping people. Think: terror attacks, mass killings, and anything involving “extreme weather” with all its photogenic damage.
By the time The Donald set foot on that escalator, our world of news was already devolving into a set of 24/7 zombie apocalypse events. Otherwise, he and his rants, his red face and strange orange comb-over wouldn’t have made much sense at all. He would have been an unimaginable candidate before the media went into crisis, experienced what might be thought of as its own news inequality gap, and began refocusing on a few singular events of particularly resonant horror. These, in turn, regularly wiped away most of the rest of what was actually happening on this planet, while giving media units with smaller staffs and fewer resources the opportunity to put all their attention and energy into a set of eye-gluing, funds- and staff-preserving spectacles. As CBS Chairman Les Moonves put it bluntly during the 2016 presidential campaign, speaking of the focus on Trump’s candidacy and antics, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS… I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
In the end, it wasn’t Trump who brought it on; it was the media. And all of this took place in the midst of the rise of a social media scene in which “fake news” was becoming the order of the day and millions of eyeballs could be reached directly by any conspiracy nut or, for that matter, presidential candidate with the moxie to do it.
It was, in other words, the perfect moment for a billionaire salesman-cum-conman-cum-reality-TV-sensation to descend that escalator. Donald Trump was neither a media mistake, nor an out-of-space-and-time experience. He was a man made for our unfounding media moment.
The President as Chameleon
And this same way of thinking about him is applicable to so much else. As our UnFounding Father, he’s inconceivable without an American world that was already experiencing various kinds of incipient unfounding.
Whatever he might now be fathering, he himself was the child, for instance, of a distinctly plutocratic moment. If we have our first billionaire in the White House, it’s only because by 2015 this country’s democratic politics had devolved (with a little helping hand from the Supreme Court) into a set of 1%, or perhaps even .01%, elections.
An American inequality gap that first began to almost imperceptibly widen in the 1970s has, by now, reached Grand Canyon proportions. Before it hits its ultimate moment, it may make the nineteenth-century version of a Gilded Age look like an era of moderation. Since 1980, stunningly enough, the share of national income of the richest 1% has doubled. If all that American wealth hadn’t gushed upward, if it hadn’t produced a raft of billionaires, as well as hordes of multi-millionaires and millionaires, with so many interests to protect, we would never have experienced such prodigious top-down funding of elections; the building of a 1% democracy, that is, would have been inconceivable. If the Republican Party hadn’t been sold to the Koch Brothers and the Democratic Party hadn’t gone all neoliberal on us, can you really imagine working class voters putting their faith in a billionaire to make America great again for them? I doubt it.
Similarly, if this country hadn’t been pursuing its never-ending war on terror so assiduously and unsuccessfully these last 16 years, while Washington was being transformed into a war capital, the national security state was rising to prominence as a kind of shadow government, and the funding of the U.S. military hadn’t become the only truly bipartisan issue in Congress, Trumpism would never have been conceivable. In our American world, The Donald’s tendency toward authoritarianism is often treated as if it were a unique attribute of his. To believe that, however, you would have to overlook the growth in this century of a distinctly authoritarian spirit in Washington. You would have to ignore what it meant for the national security state to be ever more embedded in our ruling city. You would have to forget about the American intelligence community’s development of an historically unprecedented surveillance machinery aimed not just at the world but at American citizens as well.
The Donald’s surprising decision to surround himself with “my generals” in a fashion never before seen in Washington, even in wartime, was treated in a similarly anomalous fashion. And yet, given the Washington he entered, it was anything but. During the election campaign, candidate Trump referred to those same generals as “rubble,” while deriding the losing wars they had been fighting for so long. He seemed in some way to grasp that this was a country and a citizenry increasingly being unmade by war.
Still, it took him next to no time as president to tack to where Washington had been heading since 9/11. As I’ve argued elsewhere, he might better be thought of as our chameleon president: a Democrat who became a fervent Republican, a billionaire businessman who somehow convinced rural white working class voters that he was their man, a former globalizer who’s taken off like a bat out of hell after globalizing trade pacts of every sort. He’s a man ready to alter his positions to fit the moment when it comes to everything except himself.
The Dumbfounding Father of Twenty-First-Century America
Let me mention just one more aspect of this Trumpian moment: climate-change denial. At a time of such planetary stress, in his fervent promotion of a fossil-fuelized America — of coal mining, pipelines, and fracking, among other things — in his essential rejection of the very idea of climate change, in his appointment of one climate-change denier after another to key positions in his administration, in his decision to make the United States the only country on the planet not to take part in the Paris climate agreement, he seems like an almost inexplicable manifestation of anti-scientific frenzy. And yet think back. He’s now the head of the party that, in recent years, sold itself to Big Energy, lock, stock, and barrel. This, at the very moment when the oil giants were suppressing their own research on climate change and pouring money into organizations that would promote climate-change-denial disinformation campaigns. By default, he has now become the head of what can only be called the party of climate-change denial. In that sense, he couldn’t be more in the spirit of his times.
Okay, it’s true. He’s presidentially bizarre in ways no one expects a leader to be (other than, perhaps, some strange autocratic ruler in Central Asia). And he’s certainly potentially dangerous. But he’s something else, too: just what late twentieth and twenty-first century America prepared us for (even though we didn’t know it). He’s the essence of where this country now is and seems to be headed.
So don’t imagine that he’s getting too much attention in the land of the rich and home of the craven. Instead, look at him carefully. Now, stare at him again. And keep looking. If you don’t take him in, you won’t understand what this moment actually is. Yes, he’s the Dumbfounding Father of twenty-first-century America and that’s distracting, but he’s also the ultimate symptom of the unfounding of this nation, of the moment when — to slightly adapt a Cole Porter line — Plymouth Rock finally landed on us.
Truly, don’t look away from the unbelievable figure now in the White House because how else will you know where we are? And until we grasp that, until we understand that he isn’t an aberration but the zeitgeist and that simply removing him from the Oval Office won’t solve our problems, we aren’t anywhere at all.
This essay originally appeared in TomDispatch.