Trumpism – A Long-term Problem Versus An Interlude
Populism is not simply the Nietzschean politics of resentment. It is not simply discontent with leaders who only work for their own self interest. Otherwise, why would 70 million, and perhaps 75 million Americans when all votes are counted, offer their support for a blatant narcissist? Why would they resent the nanny state that tries to correct the maldistribution of not only goods and services, but opportunities as well? They are not motivated by a distrust of the extreme disparities in the distribution of wealth, but the chattering classes who they view as looking at them with condescension. They hate the enlightenment. They hate the intellectual and policy elites. They abhor their disdain. They are willing to go to war on behalf of traditional values for they see no sign of a common good, only of their own virtue. They are MAGA believers. They have faith in someone who professes that he will make America great again.
Donald Trump may have lost the presidential election in the United States. He may go down in history as the tenth president to be thrown out of office after one term. He may have won the largest number of votes – over 70 million – for a loser in the history of American politics. But did Trumpism lose? Was it just, in the end, a blip on the television screen of the long history of American democracy as Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker believes? Another McCarthy and Wallace moment? Was the historian of American presidents, the author of the tome on Alexander Hamilton that became the basis for the musical that you have to mortgage your house to see, was Ron Chernow correct that the turbulence of the Trump regime was “a surreal interlude in American life,” “a topsy-turvy moment”?
Do “blip,” “topsy-turvy” and “brief interlude” misrepresent Chernow’s views? At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2019, which POTUS once again boycotted, Chernow opined, “The thing that worries me most is the sustained assault on truth, the “relentless campaign against the very credibility of the news media.” Nevertheless, while he acknowledged the appearance of fragility of both the republic and civil society, he was convinced that Americans would pass the test, that decency would prevail, that Isaac would not have to be sacrificed on an improvised altar at the top of a mountain. Joe Biden embodied that decency. “Democracy endures.” The audience applauded. Chernow applauded “any president who aspires to the Nobel Prize for peace. But we don’t want one to be running for the Nobel prize for fiction.”
Donald Trump lost. However, Trumpism won, and won big, and in spite of Trump, in spite of his gross incompetence in managing the COVID-i9 crisis, in spite of his pettiness, in spite of his misogyny, in spite of his narcissism, in spite of his racism, in spite of his being a bully and a serial liar, in spite of his denigrating dedicated, professional and long-serving civil servants like Anthony Fauci, like Fiona Hill, like Alexander Vindman.
Jeff Flake, the former Republican senator of Arizona, was wrong. “There are no illusions about where the party is going under Trumpism. This is a dead end. This is a demographic cul-de-sac.” Wrong! The king is dead, but long live the king. Instead of the Republican Party ending up in a dead end, it has discovered its means of revival. It has discovered its identity and raison d’être, one which was unanticipated. No outreach to the Latino community was needed as George Bush had advised. An outreach to machismo males, including Latino and Black ones, sufficed. As one scribbler wrote, “The malignant presidency of Donald Trump is moribund.” However, Trumpism is vigorously alive.
Trumpism is heir to Donald Trump’s individual pathology. Trumpism is not only a narrative of necrophilia, a pathological fascination with dead corpses – the coal industry, the prison industrial complex – but Trump tries to murder other institutions, especially international ones, to add to the pile of bodies. He tried to kill the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Agreement.
Which are the most important targets – trade deals, a nuclear cessation agreement with Iran, virtually any agreement that Barack Obama entered into? For Obama practiced, “be real and deal,” while Trump celebrated “deal and steal.” Trump thrived on what the famous psychoanalyst Robert Jay Lifton called, “malignant normalcy,” the death of norms that encourage civility and life to thrive in a civilized society.
The problem with such a cult of death is that it believes that it is infallible and that it offers permission to its cultic followers to set aside the demands of a conscience. Not only did Donald Trump offer a blown-up case of narcissism to the prairie of paranoia that stretched across the heartland of America, but also a personality disorder syndrome that gave the Tea Party and the troglodytes of the Republican Party a social and psychological foundation for their previously ungrounded convictions.
The chants – “build the wall,” lock her up” – can only be understood as an xenophobic effort to restore America to its mythical role as a great economic and military power, but one girded in myopia, racism and nationalist fundamentalism that has always been part of the cult of the flag and the message of evangelical Christian schools. It is this cult which metamorphosed into Trumpism as a religion that superseded Christianity, a faith that must trump science, and hagiography that could not tolerate critical history, that will persist long after Donald Trump.
The narrative offered demanded submission not critique, obeisance rather than dialogue and disputation, conformity rather than exhibitions of intellectual daring. Why? Because the cult’s accounts of the natural geography or the world, its history, its economy, its politics, are based on eternal truths. In that light, Trump’s lies are no worse than anything that comes out of the eminent universities, first class scientific journals and the pens of eminent journalists.
The cult of death is a cult of the lie, the cult of recapture and resurrection all in the name of the gospel of wealth. What better man to lead such a movement than a businessman who built a reputation for wealth on a fraudulent foundation. It is a cult that is rooted in nostalgia for a mythical heroic past of the frontiersman in opposition to restrictive government practices. After all, in the end was not the War of Independence fought against Britain that wanted its treaties with the indigenous tribes respected that prevented the invasion of tribal lands?
What a powerful founding myth – bring civilization to the wilderness, law to the life of savages and freedom to those who were slaves of nature rather than a divine force. Such leadership was beyond reproach. Disease that devastated whole populations were but manifestations of divine will. Should there be any surprise that no real organized effort was made to combat the COVID-19 pandemic? Any alternative universe to this fabulism had to be a “web of lies” that undermined traditional virtues.
And then there was the cultivation of violence that is such an integral part of this cult. The belief that there are good people on both sides, good people among those who chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” This belief came from the same roots that insisted that the Ku Klux Klan resort to terror was rare and only undertaken in defence of Whites – and White supremacy. For the cult is racist at its core.
It is also anti-urban. Cities are inherently just newer versions of Sodom and Gomorrah made much worse because they are overpopulated with Blacks. And now that Blacks have moved into the suburbs, these areas too have also become contaminated. Power is a product of lack of motivation complemented by encouragement from the nanny state. This twisted take on the past and the present serves a future that elevates nostalgia to idolatrous practices.
Trump was the prophet of self-pity, of teaching his followers that there were plots that surrounded and undermined them to threaten everything they held dear. The system was rigged against them. That is why Donald Trump lost the election – not because he drove away any who questioned sycophantic respect for the ruler, not because he alienated women, not because he boasted he was the least racist person in the TV studio even as his comments dripped with racist contempt. And not because he adopted a self-inflicted tactical error in attacking unsolicited mailed-in ballots.
Voter fraud! Eight million of them! The attack was against the post office. The attack was against the security of the voting system managed by Democrats and Republicans alike. There was absolutely no evidence that mail ballots were unfair, “unbelievably unfair,” compared to in-person voting. Except in-person voting was like stepping into a confessional cabinet where you owned up to your sins and pledged fealty to your Lord. Mailed ballots are deposited in mail and drop-in voting boxes anonymously. The action lacks any ritual accompaniment. Therefore, it cannot and should not be part of a cultic practice unless a matter of necessity and request.
Carnage becomes The Art of the Comeback. Resurrection and a renaissance are the results of bankruptcy. Trumpism, after all, is a narrative of death and rebirth. Through irresponsible behaviour, Trump caught the coronavirus but was miraculously saved. However, according to the official narrative, his was an act of self-sacrifice, an act he asked to be followed in his multiple rallies across the land. Life after death is the governing trope of this cult.
Joe Biden empathized with those who suffered – and those who died – from COVID-19. Trump defied the virus and insisted, “You can’t catch me.” Defying and denying death was his ministry. Biden teared-up at the memory of his wife and infant child who died in a car crash when he first became a senator, cried openly over the death of his son, Beau. In showing that he did not and could not defy death, he was ineligible to become an acolyte of Trumpism which demanded that empathy be purged from your soul.
The two wore different symbols. Trump wore red peaked caps with his name on or the MAGA (Make America Great Again) slogan he had popularized. Biden wore a mask to protect himself and others. Biden was vulnerable whereas Trump was invulnerable. Democracy is fragile. Autocracy and absolute authority are viewed as the voice of the Eternal.
Trump entered the political commonweal riding on a mule – an ass that carried the message of “birtherism”. Barack Obama could not have been born in the United States. After all, he was so smart. He was suave. He was smooth. He was also Black. There was a general conspiracy that united all the institutions of government from the FBI to the courts that tried to hide the fact that Obama was born abroad, was an alien who misrepresented himself as a native-born American. One-third of Americans believed Donald Trump. For Donald Trump rode on an ass to claim the legitimacy that he was the promised messiah.
Donald Trump’s campaign for four more years was pronounced dead on arrival on shabat. How telling. How appropriate. He had been drowned out in a tsunami of even more votes than his own. However, it was a fraud. It was not real. It was part of the fake news that always threatened to drown him. Thus, even before Donald Trump is politically buried, he plots his resurrection, he plots his Second Coming. And he bravely refuses to concede. If democracy had to buried in the grave in the same coffin, so be it. For he would rise again even if democracy stayed buried.
 Cf Robert Jay Lifton (2019) Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry.