During the reoccupation of the Rhineland, Adolf Hitler said, “I follow my course with the precision of a sleepwalker.” The phrase describes Donald Trump’s rise to power. He broke all the established rules, advanced by insult not argument, wiped out all his primary rivals with catchy phrases, and won the electoral college with a vacuous slogan, “Make America Great Again.” He captured the highest office by evoking the primal emotions of disaffected whites and mobilizing their resentment toward established power. So what’s next?
I’m sitting in a café in Charlottesville, Virginia, aware of a change in the mental atmosphere around me. I first noticed it the morning I woke up and realized that Donald Trump was now the president-elect of the USA. On the Downtown Mall I observed what looked like groups of shell-shocked civilians, wandering about, pale and disoriented, colliding with each other, and without even saying “Sorry.”
For the first time in American history, we seem to have chosen a president who doesn’t really respect -- I hate to say it – truth, as well as related concepts like reason and evidence. Take one of many possible examples, his groundless claim that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. On the other hand, the president-elect excels in the realm of what Freud called “primary” thought processes. It’s clear that Trump is a votary of the pleasure-principle and self-gratification, and we know from his own voice how pleasant it was for him to be able to grab women by their private parts, it being easy to do, he said, when you’re super-rich.
The angst arises from Trump’s style of thinking. It has a very fluid relationship to truth. Truth is infinitely plastic in Donald’s world. Citizens there play down fact and evidence and glide over logical connection. The big MO is gut feeling, instinct, intuition. These have a place in our mental life, but a president with such unprecedented power must temper his dream life with waking reason.
The idea of an uninformed president dreaming his way toward the future is frightening. We know from his biographers that books are not part of Trump’s life tools, and some question whether the president-elect has ever read an entire book or whether he owns any books. His claim that his favorite book is the Bible is one of those statements very loosely connected with truth.
Trump relies heavily on his intuitions. It’s this sleep-walking factor that worries me. It wouldn’t be a problem if he was an artist, but he’s head of the most powerful nation on earth. In Mein Kampf, Hitler alluded to American advertising as a model for political propaganda: repeat a lie over and over again and it becomes true, or is believed to be true. And the bigger the lie, the better. The public, said Hitler, is like a woman and responds to emotion, not reason or argument -- or truth. Hitler’s derogatory view of women and the “public” is Trump’s implicit view.
One famous “big lie” involved the “Birther” attack on President Obama. We knew the claim was false from the start, but nevertheless this big lie helped galvanize Trump’s run for the White House, feeding off the residual racism of America. Trump’s method is to plant suggestions, images, slogans, chants (like “Lock her up!”) in his followers’ minds. Arguments, moral imperatives, statements of fact, inferences, authorities, history -- they’re all tainted with low-energy political correctness.
In the primaries, he talked and struck a pose of thugishness toward his critics and the press, which prompted a rash of bullying and hate crimes after the election (http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38561-hundreds-of-students-report-bullying-threats-and-attacks-in-weeks-after-the-election). Victims so far have been minorities and children.
So this is the calamity taking place, and causing that queasy sense of unreality. The idea of truth is losing even its relatively shaky foothold in the public consciousness. We should note, a NY Times best-selling book, by the philosopher, Harry G. Frankfurt, was published in 2005. On Bullshit should be read as background for the dawning age of Trumpism. The reign of Bullshit was of course in full sway long before Mr. Trump: it says that truth is a malleable commodity, a tool to exploit in the struggle for personal benefit. Our communication technologies make it easy to mess with truth, and the net affords opportunities to assume fictional identities, multiple narratives, and even serial professions.
There is, in fact, a specter haunting the internet called “fake news.” A favorite of mine was the “news” that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump! Speaking of fake-news, the president-elect’s wild exaggerations, malicious falsehoods (e.g., that Ted Cruz’s father was implicated in Kennedy’s assassination), inconsistencies (he’s democrat, conservative, alt right, plutocrat, populist), all tend to show the slippery, dreamlike character of the mentality of the man.
Whether we are heading for total disaster or surprising transformations is too chaotic to predict. Speaking of surprises, Trump the illiterate has already had an impact on lexicography. The leading “new word” in the Oxford English Dictionary for 2016 is post-truth – It is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals of emotion and personal belief.”
The president-elect has kindly provided a fresh example to illustrate my point in this post – as well as illustrate the meaning of a great new word – post-truth! All the news outlets have called Trump out on his totally unproven claims about voter fraud in Virginia and elsewhere committed by Democratic operatives – a testy response to Jill Stein’s call for a recount of votes in some key states. But the tweets of these wild outbursts of groundless accusation are already history. After all, and this is the point, untruthiness is just becoming part of the new normal.
The game that America is forcing the rest of the world to play: where is the unpredictable mind of Donald Trump taking us next? What heroes will be damned? What degenerates exalted? What walls are going up? What inhibitions are coming down? Who’s getting deported today? What country is up for some carpet-bombing tomorrow? What service will be ripped from the poor or the old? What treasure spooned to the filthy rich? Are those burning crosses being waved at me on the White House lawn? And so on.
Who can predict what next will emanate from the Russian roulette of Trump’s brain?
Mike, Rosemarie sent around the link to your blog and I was so busy with our course that I didn't read but I kept it in the in-box. This is a very well thought out blog; you are so right about Trump. So well-argued, so heartfelt. Thanks!
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