The extent and the depth of the anger that the Trump campaign harvested shocked many establishment figures because they weren’t paying attention: specifically, they weren’t paying attention to the people who were paying attention to Trump. The single talent Trump has exhibited so far is his ability to turn a crowd into a mob; he has an instinctive capacity to reach into the deepest corners of an audience’s psyche and drag out their darkest impulses. By doing just that, and while nobody was watching because his distractions mesmerised the media, he captured the free-floating anger of the crowd and shaped it into a quasi-political movement.
By choosing and vilifying scapegoats—in this case, Mexicans and Moslems—he gave a (brown) face to all the problems facing the US and mobilised a truly formidable and horrifying base. His approval ratings may be stalled at a historically low point, but below that point (somewhere around mid- to low-thirties according to polls) his ‘base’ is apparently steadfast.
That scares a lot of people, but none more so than the rest of the Republican party. They’re scared because his base is essentially their base. It’s perhaps a section of it they haven’t publicly owned up to until now, containing as it does the lowest common denominator of the Grand Ole Party—the ‘very fine people’ of the Nazi party and the history-loving white supremacists. While white nationalists and nazis marched through Charlottesville chanting anti-Semitic slogans and racist insults, a ‘fine’ person who happened to be in sympathy with those slogans and insults drove a car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters killing a woman, Heather Heyer. Trump refused to condemn either the driver of that car or the hate-driven marchers. And those fine history-loving people appreciate the support that Trump is offering. White supremacist figurehead Richard Spencer said Trump ‘cares about the truth’ and that Trump’s ‘statement was fair and down to earth’ (www.usatoday.com here)
David Duke (former leader of the KKK) praised Trump and thanked him for his comments: ‘Thank you, President Trump, for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about Charlottesville’. As he said,
We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promise of Donald Trump. That’s what we believe in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back. (www.usatoday.com here)
Republicans fear that they cannot get elected or re-elected without that base so that opposing Trump would be a little bit like kicking away the pedestal onto which they have raised themselves. This questionable wisdom has been challenged in recent special and gubernatorial election results—and, most worrying for Republicans, in Doug Jones’ defeat of Roy Moore in the special election for the Senate seat vacated by Geoff Sessions and Conor Lamb’s defeat of Rick Saccone in the race for a Congressional seat in Pennsylvania. Trump’s toxicity rating at the higher-level common denominators may have been underestimated—which leaves Republicans with an agonising choice approaching the upcoming mid-term elections. When Trump goes low will they go high? Or will they continue to wallow in the depths along with him and his base? Either way, they could face electoral wipe-out. Or not. Hard choices make scary elections as the middle ground disappears.
It’s only right that they should be scared of that base because they nurtured the extremes that fed it. And now they’ve lost control of it. To Trump. And because Trump’s connection to his base is at a visceral level, their loyalty doesn’t appear to be performance related. As he said during his campaign, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and he wouldn’t lose a vote.
For the true believers, the cognitive dissonance between Trump’s lies and empirical evidence, between facts and alternative facts, between his promises and his (in)actions, is resolved in the way that we all resolve conflicts to our gut-level beliefs: rather than adjusting our inner model to match the outer world, we attempt to adjust the reality outside to match the ‘reality’ inside. And Trump has the perfect placebo for all the discomfort that might arise from such a conflict—fake news or, as he spells it, FAKE NEWS.
All of his failures consequently serve only to reinforce his base: the fake news media making it all up, just like Sean Hannity says. When the National Park Service released dozens of photographs showing acres of empty space in the crowd at Trump’s inauguration, contradicting Trump’s claim that the crowd attending his inauguration was the biggest in the history of inaugural crowds, ‘fake news’ explained it all.
There’s a well-known psychological principle operating here: not only will people stand up for what they believe, but having stood, they will believe more strongly in what they stood up for, even if they hadn’t been particularly committed in the first place (David Myers, Exploring Psychology) and in the face of all evidence to the contrary. All salespeople know that principle whether they know they do or not: get a customer to commit to a small sale and then say that it comes in giant size/with more bells and whistles/in a deluxe version, and the customer is many times more likely to buy the more expensive product than they would have had it been offered before they committed to the less expensive model.
Buying loyalty operates on the same principle. ‘In dozens of experiments, researchers have coaxed people into . . . violating their moral standards, with the same result: Doing becomes believing’ (Myers). Once they have violated their own standards, they will solve the cognitive dissonance thus created by standing up for what they stood up for, by justifying it to themselves. Having once cheered for Trump’s personal attacks on ‘Crooked Hillary’, the crowd finds it that much easier to chant ‘Lock her up’, and easier after that to chant ‘Killary’ . . . and on and on down the rabbit hole until it’s acceptable for Trump to suggest a ‘second amendment’ solution. He smiled and the crowd cheered as he suggested that she be shot. Lol.
In this way, among the true believers, Trump has achieved the first two prerequisites of a dictatorship and is working on numbers three and four.
- He has discredited and delegitimated the media; the only sources of ‘truth’ in a post-truth world are Trump’s tweets and Sean Hannity.
Approaching the first anniversary of his inauguration, the Washington Post said that Trump was ‘on track to exceed 2,000 false or misleading claims, according to [their] database that analyzes, categorizes and tracks every suspect statement uttered by the president. As of Monday [January 1], the total stood at 1,950 [false] claims in 347 days, or an average of 5.6 [false] claims a day’ (www.washingtonpost.com here). Again, ‘FAKE NEWS’.
Trump’s fondness for terminalogical inexactitudes isn’t new or even original. In a 1990 interview, Trump admitted to owning Mein Kampf but said he had never read Hitler’s speeches (Ben Kentish, independent.co.uk here). Fittingly, that may be another lie; Ivana Trump, his first wife, said that he kept a copy of Adolf Hitler’s speeches in his bedside cabinet.
It’s not known, therefore, whether he ever read the following:
In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus, in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie. . . . Even though the facts which prove this to be [a lie] may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, vol. I.)
And Trump has the perfect ‘other explanation’ to cover all eventualities: fake news versus Sean Hannity. Hitler goes on to say:
For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.
Or, as Joseph Goebbels put it, ‘If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.’ That is, the more often Trump repeats that three million ‘illegal aliens’ voted for Hillary Clinton in the Presidential election, the more ‘true’ it sounds, even, or perhaps especially, in the absence of any evidence.
All presidents lie, as Maria Konnikova points out in Politico Magazine. Richard Nixon lied about Watergate; Ronald Reagan lied about Iran-Contra; Bill Clinton lied about having sex with Monica Lewinsky. But Donald Trump, as she says, is in a different category: ‘The sheer frequency, spontaneity and seeming irrelevance of his lies have no precedent. Nixon, Reagan and Clinton were protecting their reputations; Trump seems to lie for the pure joy of it’ (politico.com here).
Or, more sinisterly, he is normalising his dishonesty. To lie about everything, from the trivial to the earth-shattering, is to make all facts alternative facts. For the true believers, only The Donald speaks the truth. And his loyal surrogates, Conway, Spicer, and Huckabee-Sanders—either gullible fools or knowing panderers—have had no problem looking straight to camera and defending the most outrageous and otherwise unbelievable claims because repeating lies validates them.
- He has nominated a common enemy.
In order to identify ‘us’, we need to have a ‘them’—Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, African Americans— a generalised racial ‘other’. He feeds this beast regularly, with increasingly blatant dog-whistles, for which he receives praise and thanks from white supremacists. ‘They’, black- and brown-faced people, are rapists, thieves, and terrorists and ‘we’ are their (potential) victims; ‘their’ home countries are ‘shitholes’ and Puerto Ricans are lazy freeloaders who will do nothing for themselves.
Consequently, he can ignore the howls of horror from all directions in his differentiated treatment of (largely brown-faced) American citizens in Puerto Rico and other (largely white-faced) American citizens in Florida and Texas after their homes and lives were devastated by hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Months after the island was virtually flattened by the double punch of two hurricanes, nearly half of the population still has no electricity. Vast numbers still have no homes or potable water. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials warn of extreme food shortages. Trump’s response? It’s difficult to help Puerto Rico because it’s
an island surrounded by ‘big water’ . . . When criticized, he replied with victim-blaming, trashing the commonwealth for its debt and infrastructure problems (which have been exacerbated by greedy banks), and then attacking San Juan Mayor Carmen Cruz for correctly asking for help. He grabbed a racist bullhorn to tweet old stereotypes about Puerto Ricans, that ‘they want everything to be done for them’ and ‘refuse to help themselves’ (www.thenation.com here).
- He’s making a concerted Orwellian attempt to control language.
Like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, Trump believes that he is ‘master’ of language:
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’
In mid-December, the Trump administration prohibited officials at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) from using a list of seven words or phrases—’vulnerable’, ‘entitlement’, ‘diversity’, ‘transgender’, ‘fetus’, ‘evidence-based’, and ‘science-based’.
Matt Lloyd, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, pointed out that the Post report was a ‘mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process’—not that the discussion didn’t take place or that those words weren’t banned, but that it was ‘mischaracterized’—itself a fine Orwellian obfuscation.
The CDC disavowed the word ban after a brutal couple of days in which the response proved, to a science-based* certainty, that the Trump administration had made itself vulnerable* to a great diversity* of mockery. The prevailing view: What the fetus* is going on? (*=Forbidden words used without permission) (www.washingtonpost.com here).
- He’s in the process of swamping the Federal Courts with far-right judges
And, regardless of their lack of qualifications or experience, Congress is rubber-stamping them. If you’re not scared now, you should be.
Whether what appears to be Trump’s electoral and ruling strategies came about by chance or design, as usual with Trump, is difficult to say; the most likely scenario is that Trump, finding a group that cheered him, couldn’t help playing to it, and the crowd couldn’t help cheering even louder. Only after that did the strategists, the manipulators, and the chancers—the Steve Bannons and the Paul Manaforts—see their chance and step in. Whatever its genesis, it was a strategy that had worked for Hitler in the 1930s, and it has so far worked for Trump in the teens of the twenty-first century.
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