January 18, 2018

The Trump Spectacle

Albert Scharenberg

Robert Zaretsky recently commented in The New York Times that Donald Trump’s presidency marks the coming of age of The Society of the Spectacle—a society in which truth is essentially reduced to a mere hypothesis and consistently subordinated to orchestration.

Indeed, lies and deception reign in the White House. During his first year in office alone, The Washington Post counted more than 2,000 cases in which Trump lied or made misleading statements—equating to roughly five times per day.

The 45th President of the United States, sworn into office one year ago today, may be a notorious denier of truth and understand next to nothing about politics—as a reality TV star and celebrity, however, he definitely commands the media. Under his presidency, politics has been replaced by a frantic scramble for media coverage. This Twitter-President has made it his habit to hurl out daily insults against his domestic and foreign adversaries. Here, even scandals serve a purpose by drawing in the public as a consumer (i.e. audience), thus including them as part of the spectacle.

Scandals Without End

With scandals following the President’s every move, there is little time to analyze one incident before the next one makes the headlines.

The events occurring over the last few days impressively highlight this fact. The US President decried African nations as “shitholes” and called for more Norwegian immigrants. His Republican henchmen immediately jumped to his aid, simply disavowing his remarks. Then, as The Wall Street Journal reported, a Trump lawyer allegedly paid an adult-film star hush money shortly before the 2016 election to keep quiet about her sexual affair with Trump. Anticipating anti-Trump protests, the President cancelled his trip to London, the capital city of the US’s closest ally. Notwithstanding the resistance of even Republican governors, Trump intends to open the nation’s coastlines to offshore drilling—with the exception of the Mar-a-Lago-state of Florida. Steve Bannon, formerly one of Trump’s closest allies, has been driven from his position, and the noose around Trump’s neck in the Russia affair is getting tighter every day. To make things worse, Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury reveals the grotesque and dilettantish nature of the new administration’s operations.

Few if any Presidents have polarized the United States as much as Donald Trump has. The right-wing populist President’s ceaseless attacks on not only his political adversaries, but also the very democratic institutions of the nation—the rule of law, independent media, science—are shaking the country to its core.

Getting Things Done

While the liberal public does not tire of being incessantly appalled by the President’s erratic behavior, incompetency, and permanent string of lies, this administration has pushed its agenda forward in certain policy areas. Undoubtedly, numerous White House projects have fallen victim to this narcissistic President’s chaos and incompetency; the repeated attempts to reverse the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) are the most infamous example. Following a long warm-up phase, however, this right-wing government—stacked with representatives of Big Oil, Wall Street, and the military, and with its majorities in both houses of Congress—has nonetheless managed to implement cornerstones of its program.

The administration’s greatest success came only a few weeks ago. In adopting the tax reform, the Trump administration has fulfilled the most important demand of Trump’s sponsors, namely to further cater to the rich and to corporations through massive tax reductions. Interestingly, the Republicans—who had previously insisted on a balanced budget as the holy grail of budget policy under President Obama—were not adverse to financing the reform with debt, similar to their mode of operation regarding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over the coming decade this reform will lead to an increase of the public deficit of up to 1.5 trillion dollars, unless further cuts are made in other areas. Republicans in Congress are therefore already discussing the alleged necessity of further cutbacks on (already meager) social welfare payments.

But also below the legislative level, the Trump administration has used its executive powers to change the country’s course in important policy areas. Headed by a Verizon lobbyist, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to repeal net neutrality regulations last December, a decision which is set to have far-reaching consequences. Moreover, by appointing the dyed-in-the-wool conservative Neil Gorsuch as Supreme Court Justice, Trump has consolidated the Court’s conservative right-wing majority.

Some changes have also taken place below the public radar. In August 2017, for instance, the Department of Labor eliminated all data on workplace fatalities and stipulated that companies with more than ten employees no longer need to maintain records of occupational accidents and illnesses.

Regarding climate change, the course has changed as well. Against this backdrop, and by no means accidentally, Noam Chomsky dubbed the Republicans the “most dangerous organization in human history.” After announcing his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, Trump proceeded to channel his full support into the oil industry, the economic base of many of his most important supporters. Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has largely replaced the scientists working for the Agency with energy sector lobbyists, lifted environmental regulations on water and air pollution, and removed all references to climate change from the government website.

Racist Normalities

Trump’s first year in office has conclusively disproved the notion that he is a non-ideological deal-maker and prime business partner. In reality, the exact opposite is the case. Thanks to Trump, the open racism that was quieted by the civil rights movement has found its way back into public discourse.

Indeed, Trump’s biography is pervaded by a continuity of racist thought and action. Incidents include his rallying against the (innocent) Central Park Five, his support of the racist Birther movement against Obama, his repeated slander of Mexicans and Muslims, the defamation of the protests by African American athletes and, most recently, his description of African countries as “shitholes.”

For many observers, the moment of truth came with Trump’s remarks concerning the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. Armed with torches, white supremacists and neo-Nazis had marched through the town chanting “Jews will not replace us!” One marcher even raced his car into a group of counter-demonstrators, killing anti-fascist activist Heather Heyer. Instead of decidedly denouncing the fascist mob, Trump stated that there were “some very fine people on both sides”—a statement that even made many Republicans feel uneasy. His media patron Rupert Murdoch, of all people, was publicly looking for the emergency brake.

Of Shitholes and Little Rocket Men

According to his biographer David Cay Johnston, Trump would love to be a dictator. After all, as one is inclined to add, President Trump would like to govern the nation like his corporation—in absolutist style, without opposition. His domestic and foreign policy, however, bears both the proof and burden of this fact.

At the international level, Trump has publicly insulted and degraded Washington’s allies, among them Australia, France, and Germany. At the same time, he openly embraces authoritarian leaders, from Riyadh to Moscow to Manila. He finds his friends and peers in the likes of European right-wing nationalists such as Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, or Jarosław Kaczyński.

Trump’s ignorance of the workings of international politics makes him a seemingly unwitting target for continuous hoodwinking by his “bromances”—and threatens to isolate the United States internationally. Disparaging countries as “shitholes,” foolhardily siding with one party in highly complex conflicts (as with the Jerusalem issue), or insulting nuclear-armed dictators such as Kim Jong-un is not a way to make friends. By now, foreign leaders have long understood that in order to get what they want, they only need to flatter Trump and receive him in pompous style. After all, Trump’s wishes—and the way he “ticks”—can easily be gleaned from the President’s Tweets.

Trump’s total incapability is particularly highlighted by his foreign policy actions. After all, Trump’s political decisions are, besides his narcissism, motivated by only one major aim: pleasing his supporters back home. This holds true for his withdrawal from the Climate Agreement, the decision concerning Jerusalem, as well as his political saber-rattling toward Iran. Ultimately, this also applies to his “shithole” comment and his instrumental criticism of German refugee policy. Neither does he understand the effects his words have in other countries, nor does it interest him in the slightest. America First.

After Trump

Trump has never attempted to be the President of all Americans. He always was, and continues to be, exclusively the President of his Republican base. In this group, his popularity remains high: around 80 per cent of Republicans agree with his administration. These four-fifths of Republicans, however, translate only into a 35 per cent approval rate in overall society—too little to consolidate Trump’s rule.

Resistance against Trump is therefore as old as his presidency. The Women’s March, held on the day after his inauguration, constituted the largest demonstration the country has ever seen. At the ballot box, Republicans have recently suffered a series of painful defeats. Much will undoubtedly depend on the results of the mid-term congressional elections in November.

Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the real problem is not Trump but his supporters—the Republican constituency and their mind-set. Even if Trump were to be removed from office or simply not re-elected, his followers—along with their deep-seated hatred of Latinos and Black people, of those who think differently, of science—will not simply vanish. In fact, such a development would conceivably lead to an even more emphatic insistence on the fulfillment of the right-wing populist promises. This bodes a lot of trouble and adversity for the post-Trump era.

First published by the German daily Neues Deutschland, www.neues-deutschland.de.