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“An Idiot Surrounded by Clowns”: Why Trump (Still) Sits in the White House

Photo by Michael Vadon | CC BY 2.0

Most of the media’s attention on journalist Michael Wolff’s “explosive” new book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House has focused on the disclosure that Trump’s former political strategist Steve Bannon used the words “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” to describe Donald Trump, Jr. and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner’s infamous June 2016 meeting with Russians claiming to possess damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

Talking media heads are also agog over Bannon’s assertions that the Donald, Jr. certainly introduced his father to the Russians and that Trump is vulnerable on Russian money laundering through Deutsche Bank.

What really leaped out at me from The New York Times’ write-up on Wolff’s book, however, is the total contempt that Boss Tweet’s own associates and advisers have for him:

The book presents Mr. Trump as an ill-informed and thoroughly unserious candidate and president, engaged mainly in satisfying his own ego and presiding over a dysfunctional White House. It reports that early in the 2016 campaign, one aide, Sam Nunberg, was sent to explain the Constitution to the candidate. ‘I got as far as the Fourth Amendment,’ it quotes Mr. Nunberg as saying, ‘before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head.’

The book … quotes an email from an unnamed White House aide offering a harsh assessment of Mr. Trump’s operation: ‘It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns. Trump won’t read anything — not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.’

The book also asserts that Mr. Trump’s advisers and associates deride him in private, calling him an ‘idiot,’ a ‘dope’ or ‘dumb’ as dirt. Thomas J. Barrack, a friend and adviser to Mr. Trump, was quoted telling a friend that the president is ‘not only crazy, he’s stupid’. (emphasis added).

“Stupid” may be putting it mildly. Recall the description of Trump that his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson refused to disavow: “fucking moron.”

The disclosures come as the Insane Clown President has just taken his childish and reckless Twitter war with his opposite number Kim Jong-un to a new low by saying “my nuclear button is bigger than his – and it works.”

Nobody should be surprised by the “revelation” that Trump is a malignantly narcissistic “dotard” (Kim’s entertaining description) and dysfunctional “idiot.” That’s been clear to anyone who isn’t themselves a hopeless moron since the beginning of Trump’s political career, festooned with the ridiculous and racist charge that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States.

The real question is how an “idiot surrounded by clowns” got into the White House. The Democratic Party establishment wants people to think that Russia did it – a charge as moronic as Trump’s claim to have won the popular vote but for millions of illegal immigrant ballots.

The neo-McCarthyite Russiagate gambit is calculated to distract attention from the dismal, demobilizing, and dollar-drenched Democrats’ own responsibility for putting Trump in office by (a) making policy (under both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) in cringing accord with the regressive, state-capitalist and corporate-globalist commands of Wall Street; (b) crushing progressive, social-democratic forces in their own party; and (c) mounting a horrific presidential campaign (Hillary 2016) that made numerous unforced errors, like failing to visit Wisconsin after the Democratic National Convention and calling (however accurately) half of Trump’s backers “deplorables.”

This is not to say that Trump deserves no credit for his victory.  Even the “fucking moron” and his clown team had the basic smarts to keep the evangelical Ted Cruz wing of the Republican electorate on board by granting significant influence and position (including the Vice Presidency) to the theocratic right. The pussy-grabbing reality-television real estate magnate from godless New York City would not have prevailed in the general election without that deft move.

At the same time, Trump won because of underlying historical and structural factors that are part and parcel of the onset of the long neoliberal era. Even an “idiot” like Trump was able to exploit the onset of corporate globalization, automation, increased international competition, austerity, extreme (New Gilded Age) wealth concentration, and accelerated plutocracy to promise economically squeezed voters a restoration of the vanished middle-class American Dream. His call to “Make America Great Again” resonated with mass white nostalgia for the long lost Golden Age (1945-1973) of unmatched U.S. economic prosperity.

The “dope” Trump benefitted from the depth and degree of the 2008-2009 financial collapse and recession and the weak, low-wage recovery that followed while Wall Street and corporate profits soared to obscene new heights with help from the Bush-Obama bailouts. The severe economic hit helped de-legitimize establishment candidates like Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio last year.  It made the real presidential contest a race between a “populist” and “outsider” of “the left,” fueled by small donors– the progressive neo-New Dealer Bernie Sanders – and Trump, a self- and Mercer-financed billionaire “populist” and “outsider” of the right.

The corporate Democrats’ party structure held to prevent the nomination of Sanders, the left “populist,” who would likely have defeated Trump. By contrast, the corporate-Republicans’ party structured did not hold.  It crumbled before the Trump-Bannon challenge, which was unintentionally abetted by a corporate media that gave more attention to the Donald’s every insane Tweet and facial expression than it did to Sanders’ huge middle-class and anti-plutocratic rallies against “the billionaire class.”

The jackass president-to be was able to win white middle- and working-class votes by riding and playing/preying on the long-term scapegoating (nothing new, to say the least) of racial minorities and immigrants as the (false) cause of declining opportunity and income and growing inequality in the neoliberal era.

Agent Orange was further able to exploit the long-term neoliberal rise and spread of “small government” and “free market” ideology.  Trump mined the “anti-government” discourse to promote his “anti-establishment”/anti-Washington campaign even as he advanced a reactionary populist and white-nationalist critique of globalization and immigration.

The Dotard-in-Chief benefitted from the underlying, ever-sharpening partisan, racial, cultural, and ideological polarization between the Republican and Democratic parties, which guaranteed that Republicans voters would support Trump – not matter how offensive and idiotic he was – to block the presidential candidate (especially the widely loathed Hillary Clinton) of the hated Democrats.

Hair Furher also reaped a windfall from the spilling over of partisan polarization into crippling political and policy gridlock after the 2008 financial crisis, the election of the nation’s first Black president, the passage of Obama’s signature health insurance reform, and the rise of the Republican Tea Party.  Trump exploited public disgust with the resulting epic dysfunction of the paralyzed federal government by posing as a great outsider/savior who would “clean up the mess” and “drain the swamp.”

Along with all this, Trump benefitted from institutional factors that long predate the neoliberal era and trace to the U.S. Founders’ openly anti-democratic Constitution.  For the fifth time in United States history, the Founders’ Electoral College system allowed the installation of a president who didn’t win the majority vote in the quadrennial election.  Remarkably enough, the nation that proclaims itself the homeland and headquarters of global democracy does not elect its powerful chief executive on the elementary democratic principle of one person, one vote.  Like the Constitution’s scheme of Congressional representation in its upper chamber (the Senate), the charter’s Electoral College provision over-empowers the nation’s vast and disproportionately white, right-wing, and rural electorate relative to more liberal, progressive, multiracial, and urban voters

The Founders’ system of checks and balances between the legislature, executive, and judicial branches creates remarkable capacity for gridlock when the branches are held by different and intensely partisan political parties.  (The Founders’ it should be recalled, believed that they had created a political system that would prevent the rise of “factions” and parties and thus did not anticipate the kind of partisan checkmate that Trump was able to exploit last year.)

Along the way, the nation’s constitutional federalism gives its fifty states great leeway in crafting election laws as well as electoral districts.  Right-wing Republican state-level restrictions on Black, Latino, and “felon” voting rights played a key role in Trump’s victory.

And the Supreme Court’s repeated constitutionally super-empowered “wealth primary” rulings on behalf of abject campaign finance plutocracy (here progressives need to interrogate the 1976 Buckley-Valeo decision as well as the 2010 Citizens United judgment) have functioned to squash progressive alternatives to corporate control of U.S. politics in ways that Trump was able to exploit with his faux “populism” last year.

The dismal Dems want you to blame it all on Russia and James Comey when he was a bad guy (he became a good guy for the Democrats when he got fired by Trump for refusing to squash the FBI’s Russiagate investigation). The truth of the matter is that Russian “interference” was a very minor matter in relation to the forces and factor discussed above – forces and factors in which the Inauthentic Opposition Party (the late Sheldon Wolin’s incisive description of the Democrats) are deeply complicit and involved – in explaining the ascendancy of a dangerous “fucking moron” to the White House.

Now the U.S. and the world are saddled with a juvenile, stupid, pathologically narcissist POTUS who poses grave environmental and thermonuclear dangers to humanity. Thanks to the absurdly deified Constitution bequeathed to us by wealthy and anti-democratic aristo-republican slaveowners and merchant capitalists 228 years ago, it is hard to imagine him being removed from office except by death or (further) disability prior to January 20th, 2021.  We continue to be screwed by the Founding Fathers.  Hold on to your powdered wig.

Help Street keep writing here.

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Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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