The Meaning of Donald Trump

Our crippled political system has produced a president who is clearly mentally ill and unfit for the office he holds. His narcissistic self-love only allows him to embrace people who are unstintingly loyal to him, indifferent to his cruelty and barbarity. His inner circle comprises family members and political cronies like Mike Pence willing to genuflect before him in exchange for a taste of power. The flip side of Trump’s neurosis is that “strangers” (especially foreigners of darker hue), and those who show disloyalty by questioning him, are enemies who must be ridiculed, bullied, excluded, and punished. His pathological behavior is daily offered up to the American public by a media establishment eager to capitalize on his calculated outrageousness. In this toxic mix of tyrannical behavior and gleeful exploitation not a shred of decency is to be found. Trump’s presidency makes Americans spectators at a Marx Brothers movie we watch in hypnotic fascination. Then we review it on Twitter.

Trump has put on display, for all whose eyes are open to see, the dark side of the American character: unchecked greed and dishonesty in business, racism in social relations, misogyny in gender relations, and contempt for the poor and unfortunate who have failed to realize the American dream because they are “losers.” What is most astonishing and disturbing is that 40% of the American people approve of this pariah. What does this mean?

Trump’s election as president of the American Republic signifies a civilization in crisis. Whether the crisis sends America into a long decline, or becomes a watershed moment in a transition to a healthier, saner society, history will tell if historians are still functioning post-Trump. Decline seems more likely now that climate change is tracking us while our leaders in Washington pretend it’s not happening. Our country’s hubris over its technological achievements (a man on the moon with an American flag!), its material abundance (just look at those bulging grocery shelves, never mind the people shopping with food stamps, or the homeless looking through the windows), its world “domination” (cf Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), has come up against a formidable, non-negotiable foe: the Earth’s biosphere, which is now saying to us, “Enough, already!”

What are the signs of decline, and how does Trump, our chosen one, embody them? Most serious is his rejection of science and the scientific method for understanding physical reality. Science, with its reliance on reason, analysis of evidence, and formulation of theories around which humans can plan, has laid the foundation for modern civilization. To dismiss its findings, as Trump has done with global warming, and replace it with wishful thinking, signals a return to primitive man’s attempts to understand and control the physical world through rituals, sacrifices, and other offerings to supernatural forces. But this fits Trump’s narcissistic pattern: not, “I think, therefore I am,” but rather, “If I think it, it must be so.” Science is rejected because it accords poorly with a preferred ideology, the preconceptions that are decreed and enforced through tyrannical means: disinformation, hysteria, and mindless repetition of falsehoods to a gullible and dissatisfied audience of loyal supporters.

Then there is Trump’s racism and xenophobia, as evidenced by his cruelty to asylum seekers from Central America and his recent characterization of the thousands of dark-skinned Bahamians displaced by Hurricane Dorian as “bad people.” What is remarkable about Trump’s racism is not that it exists, but that he is so cheerfully blatant about it. No familiar code words here, just “telling it like it is,” as his followers nod approvingly. This naked discrimination against other human beings because of their skin color, though widely practiced in the US, has been, up until the Trump era, officially taboo, because it contradicts one of the founding principles of our country, the promise of equal treatment under the law. Though never fully realized, this promise has been renewed through the generations of our history, and progress, though slow, has been made. Trump makes not the slightest pretense of pandering to this principle. He flaunts his contempt for it, while his political allies, for the most part, offer their silent assent.

Let’s not forget Trump’s treatment of women, as reflected in his multiple marriages and sordid affairs with porn stars, Playboy models, and other trophies of the chase. Not even his own daughter has evaded his leering gaze. This too passes inspection by his followers with nary a frown. Of course, Trump is not the only man in a position of power who keeps his hand near his fly when in the company of attractive women. The MeToo movement has exposed an epidemic of unrestrained lustfulness amongst men in high places. The exploitation of women for sexual favors has been going on for at least since the rape of Helen, but until now has been considered dishonorable, a fit subject for scandal and social ostracism, if not war. Trump has made the demeaning of women acceptable. “Lock her up!” chant his obedient followers.

The two most important functions of a president are to lead in the formation and execution of domestic and international policies. Here too, unsurprisingly, Trump has been a saboteur and disrupter of long-cherished norms and protocols. While the country faces a host of social problems caused by the enormous wealth gap that separates the vast majority of Americans from a tiny, privileged elite, Trump has exacerbated these problems by signing a federal tax cut that transfers more wealth from the middle and working classes to the obscenely rich oligarchy that includes himself. He has also relentlessly rolled back regulations designed to put a brake on capitalism’s assault on the natural resources air, water, public land, mineral deposits that are the birthright not only of living generations but of generations to come. If he has his way, we will see oil derricks in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and drilling platforms in the soon to be ice-free Arctic Ocean. Showing no interest in stewarding either the nation’s human or its physical capital, Trump instead plays the part of the plunderer whose only aim is to collect as much booty as possible while he has the power to do so.

On the international stage, Trump struts like a buffoon, shifting erratically from one policy position to another, committing gaffes in front of other statesmen, embarrassing his countrymen, but always managing to keep himself the center of the story, like a child who breaks things to get attention. Trump’s diplomatic forays in North Korea, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Central and South America appear to follow no set strategy other than grandstanding his own personality and gratifying his belligerent tendencies towards others. These tendencies make him good company for despots like Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabian monarchs, whomever they might be at the moment. Trump’s extension of the cult of his own personality through his nationalistic attitude towards other countries in the world comes at a bad time, because it works against the global economic forces that are creating a complex web of relationships now obliterating national borders through companies like Amazon. As with global warming, our policies should adapt to this reality, rather than resisting it, if our long-term vital interests are to be well-served.

What emerges from these patterns of Trump’s personality and policies is a portrait of a man who places considerations of his own individuality ahead of any concern for others who make up the widening circles of community around him, and on whom he (unconsciously) relies. It hardly comes as a surprise therefore that any hint of movement in the body politic towards a communitarian philosophy of government under which the nation’s wealth and social institutions are more equitably shared is given the odious label of “socialism.”

Democratic capitalism, our prevailing socio-economic system, rests on the twin pillars of private enterprise and private property. This system pursues innovation and growth through a free market that drives competition for economic dominance and rewards financial success. Donald Trump represents the endgame of this system. In him, the cult of the individual has exceeded its bounds and spilled over into a self-destructive narcissism. His insecurities have led him to replace competition with favoritism, and integrity, which he lacks, with corruption. Such a combination of elements as a way of running a country or a business is not sustainable, and cannot stand.

Trump’s ascendance signifies the bankruptcy of our current social system and points us in the direction of a transformation to a more communitarian model in which individual striving and achievement are directed towards the common good rather than mere self-aggrandizement. Trump, and his ilk in corporate America, have brought us to this crisis, but crisis is always opportunity. We must not shrink from this opportunity out of fear of the unknown and retreat back into what is familiar and certain. We must venture forth with hope and confidence that our strength is in our commonality, not our separateness, as Trump would have us believe. Forward!

Arthur Hoyle is the author of The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur.