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The Denier-in-Chief: Trump and the Legitimation of False Consciousness

“I wish people would read or listen to my words on the Border Wall.  This was in no way a concession,” Pres. Trump Tweeted on January 25th following his signing a bill ending the 35-day U.S. government shut-down. “It was taking care of millions of people who were getting badly hurt by the Shutdown with the understanding that in 21 days, if no deal is done, it’s off to the races!”

Trump then went on, warning the nation like a little kid stamping his feet: “If we don’t get a fair deal from Congress, the government will either shut down on February 15 again, or I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and the Constitution of the United States to address this emergency.” As if waking from a trance, he exclaimed, “We will have great security.”

Freud understood denial as a psychological process of rejection, a defense mechanism.  Denial is one of a number of defenses the “ego” uses against internal feelings perceived as unacceptable.  The primary unacceptable feelings involve sexual or aggressive desires, especially desires directed by a child toward its parents.  Self-consciousness employs denial to avoid recognizing its own truth and can function throughout a person’s entire life.

When a person is presented with an unacceptable fact, s/he will insist that it is not true despite the evidence.  Such a belief is as – in the postmodern world – a person still believing the world is flat. Or, as the popular expression goes, “Da-Nile is not only a river in Egypt.”

Everyone has their own Da-Nile. Trump is president and denier-in-chief.  He probably looks in a mirror and sees not an overweight, out-of-shape aging hustler but a fit, sexy, macho man embodying his full masculine potency.

More troubling, he likely refuses to accept the fact that Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and the House Democrats defeated his principle campaign promise, “The Wall.” Worse still, Pelosi not only stood-up to Mr. Macho, but – politically speaking – emasculated him.  The false bluster, false machismo, that characterized his career as a real-estate con man and host of a popular, if pathetic TV show,The Apprentice, was finally exposed for what it always was, a hollow posture.

PolitiFact awarded Trump the “Lie of the Year” trophy for 2015 and 2017.  Assessing 644 statements or assertions that he made, it found that 15 percent were true/mostly true, 35 percent were half true/mostly false and 49 percent were false or “pants on fire”.

The Washington Post reported that, based on data from The Fact Checker, Trump made 8,158 false or misleading claims in his first two years in office.  And the Canadian paper, The Star, reports that he made 78 false claims in the first week of 2019.

Among the innumerable denials that define Trump’s first two years in office, a few suggest just how deceitful he can be.  These denials range from the comical (e.g., denied paying Stormy Daniels $130,000), to the malevolent (e.g., denied Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi) and to the possibly criminal (e.g., denied of 3,000 people who died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria).

Trump has raised denial to an historical new level. It functions both as a psychopathological symptom of a serious troubled man (i.e., abusive stud) and an ideological means to deny reality (i.e., false news).  Combined, these two dimensions of denial foster arrogance and bluster.  With Trump, denial as a been raised from a psychological condition to a social category, false consciousness.

The concept of “false consciousness” was initially conceived by Marx but named by Engels.  It is central to Marxist and critical-theory thought that postulates its purpose is to obscure — and justify! — capitalist social relations of dominance and oppression. False consciousness is inculcated by religion, education, culture, the media, and political and economic institutions.   It falsely conflates the ruler’s interests as the self-interests of the ruled. For Marx, revolutionary social crisis can expose the tyranny of false consciousness.

Trump’s false statements are but one expression of good-old American Da-Nile.  Much of the popular media presents denial like a game of pick-your-poison; then drink the Cool-Aid.  More troubling, denial bespeaks the ongoing battle over popular consciousness.  It is a critical aspect of the struggle for political power, of who rules and who is ruled.

Denial defines much of American consciousness whether considering issues of racism or inequality, climate change, evolution or vaccines.  Last year Time magazine reported that 42 percent of Americans believed in ghosts, 41 percent in extrasensory perception, the moon landings were faked and 20 percent that there’s a link between vaccines and autism.

Gallup reports that in the three decades between 1982 and 2014, four in 10 Americans continue to believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago and, scarier still, half of Americans believe humans evolved but that God guided the evolutionary process.

Trump’s denials reflect his pathetic sense of self-hood and his shallow political understanding.  Sadly, they embody the false consciousness shared by too many Americans.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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