The Useful Idiocy of Donald Trump
This is a repost of a Jan. 28, 2018, column by Chris Hedges.
Trump, who has no inclination or ability to govern, has handed the machinery of government over to the bankers, corporate executives, right-wing think tanks, intelligence chiefs and generals. They are eradicating the few regulations and laws that inhibited a naked kleptocracy. They are dynamiting the institutions, including the State Department, that served interests other than corporate profit and are stacking the courts with right-wing, corporate-controlled ideologues. Trump provides the daily entertainment; the elites handle the business of looting, exploiting and destroying.
Once democratic institutions are hollowed out, a process begun before the election of Trump, despotism is inevitable. The press is shackled. Corruption and theft take place on a massive scale. The rights and needs of citizens are irrelevant. Dissent is criminalized. Militarized police monitor, seize and detain Americans without probable cause. The rituals of democracy become farce. This is the road we are traveling. It is a road that leads to internal collapse and tyranny, and we are very far down it.
The elites’ moral and intellectual vacuum produced Trump. They too are con artists. They are slicker than he at selling the lies and more adept at disguising their greed through absurd ideologies such as neoliberalism and globalization, but they belong to the same criminal class and share many of the pathologies that characterize Trump. The grotesque visage of Trump is the true face of politicians such as George W. Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The Clintons and Obama, unlike Bush and Trump, are self-aware and therefore cynical, but all lack a moral compass. As Michael Wolff writes in “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” the president has “no scruples.” He lives “outside the rules” and is “contemptuous of them.” And this makes him identical to those he has replaced, not different. “A close Trump friend who was also a good Bill Clinton friend found them eerily similar—except that Clinton had a respectable front and Trump did not,” Wolff writes.
Trump, backed by the most retrograde elements of corporate capitalism, including Robert and Rebekah Mercer, Sheldon Adelsonand Carl Icahn, is the fool who prances at the front of our death march. As natural resources become scarce and the wealth of the empire evaporates, a shackled population will be forced to work harder for less. State revenues will be squandered in grandiose projects and futile wars in an attempt to return the empire to a mythical golden age. The decision to slash corporate tax rates for the rich while increasing an already bloated military budget by $54 billion is typical of decayed civilizations. Empires expand beyond their capacity to sustain themselves and then go bankrupt. The Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Mayan, Khmer, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires all imploded in a similar fashion. The lessons of history are clear. But the illiterate charlatans who seize power in the dying days of empire know nothing of history. They are driven by a primal and inchoate lust for wealth, one that is never satisfied no matter how many billions they possess.
The elites in dying cultures turn everything into a commodity. Human beings are commodities. The natural world is a commodity. Government and democratic institutions are commodities. All are mined and wrecked for profit. Nothing has an intrinsic value. Nothing is sacred. The relentless and suicidal drive to accumulate greater and greater wealth by destroying the systems that sustain life is idolatry. It ignores the biblical injunction that idols always begin by demanding human sacrifice and end by demanding self-sacrifice. The elites are not only building our funeral pyre, they are building their own.
The elites, lacking a vision beyond satiating their own greed, revel in the intoxicating power to destroy. They confuse destruction with creation. They are agents of what Sigmund Freud calls the death instinct. They find in acts of national self-immolation a godlike power. They denigrate empathy, intellectual curiosity, artistic expression and the common good, virtues that sustain life. They celebrate a hyper-individualism embodied in celebrity, wealth, hedonism, manipulation and the ability to dominate others. They know nothing of the past. They do not think about the future. Those around them are temporarily useful to their aims and must be flattered and rewarded but in the end are ruthlessly cast aside. There is no human connection. This emotional numbness lies at the core of Trump’s personality.
“[Stephen] Bannon described Trump as a simple machine,” Wolff writes. “The On switch was full of flattery, the Off switch full of calumny. The flattery was dripping, slavish, cast in ultimate superlatives, and entirely disconnected from reality: so-and-so was the best, the most incredible, the ne plus ultra, the eternal. The calumny was angry, bitter, resentful, ever a casting out and closing of the iron door.”
The elites in a dying culture confuse what the economist Karl Polanyi calls “real” and “fictitious” commodities. A commodity is a product manufactured for sale. The ecosystem, labor and money, therefore, are not commodities. Once these fictitious commodities are treated as real ones for exploitation and manipulation, Polanyi writes, human society devours itself. Workers become dehumanized cogs. Currency and trade are manipulated by speculators, wreaking havoc with the economy and leading to financial collapse. The natural world is turned into a toxic wasteland. The elites, as the society breaks down, retreat into protected enclaves where they have access to security and services denied to the wider population. They last longer than those outside their gates, but the tsunami of destruction they orchestrate does not spare them.
As long as Trump serves the interests of the elites he will remain president. If, for some reason, he is unable to serve these interests he will disappear. Wolff notes in the book that after his election there was “a surprising and sudden business and Wall Street affinity for Trump.” He went on: “An antiregulatory White House and the promise of tax reform outweighed the prospect of disruptive tweeting and other forms of Trump chaos; besides, the market had not stopped climbing since November 9, the day after the election.”
The Russia investigation—launched when Robert Mueller became special counsel in May and which appears to be focused on money laundering, fraud and shady business practices, things that have always characterized Trump’s financial empire—is unlikely to unseat the president. He will not be impeached for mental incompetence, over the emoluments clause or for obstruction of justice, although he is guilty on all these counts. He is useful to those who hold real power in the corporate state, however much they would like to domesticate him.
Trump’s bizarre ramblings and behavior also serve a useful purpose. They are a colorful diversion from the razing of democratic institutions. As cable news networks feed us stories of his trysts with a porn actress and outlandish tweets, the real work of the elites is being carried out largely away from public view. The courts are stacked with Federalist Society judges, the fossil fuel industry is plundering public lands and the coastlines and ripping up regulations that protected us from its poisons, and the Pentagon, given carte blanche, is engaged in an orgy of militarism with a trillion-dollar-a-year budget and about 800 military bases in scores of countries around the world.
Trump, as Wolff describes him in the book, is clueless about what he has unleashed. He is uninterested in and bored by the complexities of governance and policy. The faster Trump finds a member of the oligarchy or the military to take a job off his hands the happier he becomes. This suits his desires. It suits the desires of those who manage the corporate state. For the president there is only one real concern, the tumultuous Trump White House reality show and how it plays out on television. He is a creature solely concerned with image, or more exactly his image. Nothing else matters.
“For each of his enemies—and, actually, for each of his friends—the issue for him came down, in many ways, to their personal press plan,” Wolff writes of the president. “Trump assumed everybody wanted his or her fifteen minutes and that everybody had a press strategy for when they got them. If you couldn’t get press directly for yourself, you became a leaker. There was no happenstance news, in Trump’s view. All news was manipulated and designed, planned and planted. All news was to some extent fake—he understood that very well, because he himself had faked it so many times in his career. This was why he had so naturally cottoned to the ‘fake news’ label. ‘I’ve made stuff up forever, and they always print it,’ he bragged.”
Yes, the elites wish Trump would act more presidential. It would help the brand. But all attempts by the elites to make Trump conform to the outward norms embraced by most public officials have failed. Trump will not be reformed by criticism from the establishment. Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, who denounced Trump, saw their approval ratings plummet and have decided not to run for re-election. Trump may have public approval of only 39 percent overall, but among Republicans the figure is 78 percent. And I don’t think those numbers will decrease.
The inability of the political establishment and the press to moderate or reform Trump’s egregious behavior is rooted in their loss of credibility. The press, along with political and intellectual elites, spent decades championing economic and political policies that solidified corporate power and betrayed and impoverished American workers. The hypocrisy and mendacity of the elites left them despised and distrusted by the victims of deindustrialization and austerity programs. The attempt to restore civility to public discourse and competency to political office is, therefore, fruitless. Liberal and establishment institutions, including the leadership of the two main political parties, academia and the press, squandered their moral authority. And the dogged refusal by the elites to address the engine of discontent—social inequality—ensures that they will remain ineffectual. They lay down the asphalt for the buffoonery of Trump and the coming tyranny.
Hedges filed this second dissection of Trump a year later. (Dec 17, 2018)
Trump, the Quintessential American
“Confidence men,” as Melville understood, are an inevitable product of the amorality of capitalism and the insatiable lust for wealth, power and empire that infects American society.
American culture is built on a willful duplicity, a vision we hold of ourselves that bears little resemblance to reality. Malcolm Bradburywrote “that in America imposture is identity; that values are not beliefs but the product of occasions; and that social identity is virtually an arbitrary matter, depending not on character nor an appearance but on the chance definition of one’s nature or colour.” We founded the nation on genocide and slavery, ravage the globe with endless wars and the theft of its resources, enrich an oligarchic elite at the expense of the citizenry, empower police to gun down unarmed citizens in the streets, and lock up a quarter of the world’s prison population while wallowing in the supposed moral superiority of American white supremacy. The more debased the nation becomes, the more it seeks the reassurance of oily con artists to mask truth with lies.
Trump, like most con artists, is skilled at manufacturing self-serving news and a fictional persona that feed the magical aura of his celebrity. The showman P.T. Barnum is the prototype of this strain of Americanism. In the 1830s, he exhibited Joice Heth, an elderly African-American slave who he claimed was the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. When Heth lost her novelty, Barnum announced that what he had been displaying was a robot. “The fact is, Joice Heth is not a human being,” he wrote to a Boston newspaper, “… simply a curiously constructed automation, made up of whalebone, india-rubber, and numerous springs ingeniously put together and made to move at the slightest touch, according to the will of the operator. The operator is a ventriloquist.” The crowds, which at their height had collectively paid $1,500 a week (then a huge sum) to see Heth, returned in droves to see the supposed machine. After Heth died in 1836 at age 79 or 80, Barnum sold tickets to her autopsy, which was viewed by 1,500 paying customers.
“[Barnum] began to demonstrate the countless variations he would master in his numerous publicity campaigns: the quick discovery, the barrage of rapid and unusual information, the maximum exploitation—all these he utilized almost immediately,” Neil Harris wrote in “Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum.” “It was during Joice Heth’s tour that Barnum first realized that an exhibitor did not have to guarantee truthfulness; all he had to do was possess probability and invite doubt. The public would be more excited by controversy than conclusiveness. The only requirement was to keep the issue alive and in print. Any statement was better than silence.”
Barnum, schooled in the wily deceits of Yankee peddlers and salesmen as a child in Connecticut, also built the first temples to celebrities, including, in 1841, the American Museum in New York City, which Twain called “one vast Peanut stand” and said he hoped “some philanthropist” would burn down. Barnum was the high priest of the polytheistic, secular religion of Americans and the creator of kitsch as an aesthetic, characteristics that define Trump. Trump built his own temples to celebrity and to himself, among them the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City and Trump Towers in various cities. Trump, like Barnum, understood that celebrities and their relics function in American culture as totems and magical talismans. He, as did Barnum, caters to the vulgarity of the mob, elevating the salacious and the sleazy and claiming it is culture and art.
Confidence men are adept at peddling fictions designed solely to attract publicity and belittle their opponents. Trump’s demand for Barack Obama’s birth certificate or Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test was not designed to uncover fact, but to belittle and entertain. The release of Obama’s birth certificate and Warren’s DNA finding did not puncture the lies. Old lies were replaced by new ones that again catered to the emotional yearnings of the mob. The tawdry rumor that Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former governor of New York, wore black dress socks when he was having sex with prostitutes was given currency by the political operative and Trump confidant Roger Stone, cut from the same lump of clay as Barnum and Trump. “What kind of guy does it with his socks on?” Stone said to the New York Post.
In a documentary film about Spitzer by Alex Gibney titled “Client 9” Gibney interviews a prostitute, whose identity remains secret and whose words are read by an actor, who said she had numerous liaisons with Spitzer and denied he wore socks while having sex. Because of Stone’s comments, however, Spitzer felt compelled to deny, in Gibney’s film and in public, that he wore socks while having sex with prostitutes. The press had a feeding frenzy. Stone’s lie won by being endlessly repeated.
Stone, in the midst of the self-generated furor, wrote an article on Tucker Carlson’s The Daily Caller website that attacked those who questioned his assertion:
In his largely fictionalized movie, Gibney utilizes an actress to assert that Spitzer never wore droopy black socks in his romps with prostitutes. Supposedly the actress is mouthing the denial of a call girl that Gibney declines to identify by her real name. That’s because Gibney has no source willing to put their name on this lie. Gibney is not a journalist or filmmaker; he’s a left-wing propagandist with the same disregard for facts as Oliver Stone. Spitzer’s black sock fetish was previously confirmed by The New York Post on April 24, 2008, when an FBI source confirmed the New York Democrat’s passion for knee-high hosiery, which he declined to remove while engaging in paid-for sex. Gibney ignored this fact in his well-made-but-false movie.
Stone, like Trump, understands how to evoke images and emotional responses to overwhelm reality and replace truth. Such lies and pseudo-events, because they are so entertaining, are largely immune to deflation. Madison Avenue advertisers and publicists use the same tactics to saturate the landscape with skillfully manufactured illusions and false promises. The unmasking of the deceptions only adds to their allure and power.
An autobiography by Barnum, “Struggles and Triumphs,” which was published in 1869, shamelessly details the sleights of hand and deceptions that made him very, very wealthy. He understood, as he wrote in the autobiography, that “the public appears disposed to be amused even while they are conscious of being deceived.” This understanding underlies the popularity of entertainments such as professional wrestling and reality television shows, along with Fox News, all of which are premised on cons.
Con artists like Barnum, Trump and Stone exploit everyone and everything around them. When Barnum’s prize elephant Jumbo was killed by a train, he fabricated a story about Jumbo sacrificing himself to save a baby elephant. He bought another elephant, who he named Alice, and had pictures taken of her standing next to the stuffed body of her martyred “husband.” The deception was so outrageous and shameless that the public of that day, like a public that now gorges itself on reports of Spitzer wearing black socks while having sex with prostitutes, longed to believe it.
In our Barnumesque culture, those who create the most convincing fantasies in the cycles of nonstop entertainment are lionized. Those who puncture the fantasies with the prosaic truth are condemned for spoiling the fun. These pseudo-events and fabrications lift people up out of their daily lives into an Oz-like world of fantasy. They destroy a civil discourse rooted in verifiable fact, obliterating any hope of holding back the magical thinking that lies at the core of all totalitarian societies.
Barnum once asked E.D. Gilman, who had recently returned from the gold fields in California, to give a talk on prospecting, the wages prospectors earned, the equipment that was required and the living conditions. “While doing this,” Harris wrote, “he was to pass his hand over a twenty-five pound lump of gold, implying it was from California. Gilman replied that this would be humbug, for seven ounces was the largest lump he had ever heard of. ‘My dear sir,” replied the impresario, ‘the bigger the humbug, the better the people will like it.’ ”
Thomas Low Nichols in a memoir described an incident when Barnum was in desperate need of a blackface entertainer after his white singer quit. All he could find to replace his white singer was a young, talented black boy who danced and sang. It was impossible for Barnum to present the genuine article, given the yearning for illusion and his shameless catering to racial prejudice. Barnum “blacked and wigged” the boy, Harris wrote, so he would pass for a make-believe African-American, “because the New Yorkers, who applauded what they supposed a white boy in a blackened face and wooly wig, would have driven the real negro from the stage and mobbed his exhibitor.”
Trump, in a 2005 promotional video for a scam that made him about $40 million, employs the familiar hyperbole of the con artist in declaring: “At Trump University, we teach success. That’s what it’s all about—success. It’s going to happen to you. We’re going to have professors and adjunct professors that are absolutely terrific—terrific people, terrific brains, successful. We are going to have the best of the best. These are people that are handpicked by me.”
Only there was no university.
“The faux university also did not have professors, not even part-time adjunct professors, and the ‘faculty’ (as they were called) were certainly not ‘the best of the best,’ ” David Cay Johnston writes in “The Making of Donald Trump.” “They were commissioned sales people, many with no experience in real estate. One managed a fast food joint … two other instructors were in personal bankruptcy while collecting fees from would-be Trump university graduates eager to learn how to get rich.”
“Among [an] investigator’s findings was that students who attended a ‘next level’ seminar ‘are taught to prey upon homeowners in financial turmoil and to target foreclosure properties,’ ” Johnston writes. “They were also instructed, on the first morning of the three-day course, ‘to call their credit card companies, banks, and mortgage companies and ask for an increase or extension of credit so that they may finance the ‘Gold Elite’ package purchase. Defendant Trump U will even ask attendees to call their bank during these one-on-one sessions while the [Trump] representative waits. The primary goal of the 3-day seminar appears to be more high-pressure sales tactics in an attempt to induce them into purchasing Defendant Trump U’s ‘Gold Elite’ package for $35,000.”
Trump’s get-rich-quick schemes and seminars, including his books, were a con. His casinos were a con. His paid speeches on behalf of self-help gurus such as Tony Robbins were a con. Tales of his sexual prowess, spread by himself masquerading over the phone as a Trump spokesperson, were a con. His building projects were a con. Trump even had, Johnston writes, “imaginary employees.” Trump and his kleptocrats and grifters are today triumphant, and neither democratic norms or simply human decency will inhibit their pathological lust for more.
Perhaps it was inevitable that this poison would come to dominate our culture and our politics. It is the triumph of artifice. We live in an age when the fake, the fraudulent, the fabricated and the theatrical supplant reality. Trump’s manufactured persona was advertised on a reality television show. He sold this manufactured persona, as his ratings declined and he was in danger of being taken off the air, to become president. There are legions of agents, publicists, consultants, scriptwriters, celebrities, television and movie producers, wardrobe consultants, pollsters and television personalities dedicated to creating the myriad illusions that saturate the airwaves with Barnum-like lies. We can no longer tell the difference between illusion and reality; indeed when a version of reality is not verified on our electronic screens and by our reality manipulators it does not exist. The skillful creation of illusion and the manipulation of our emotional response, actions that profit the elites to our financial and political detriment, have seeped into religion, education, journalism, politics and culture. They solidify mob rule and magical thinking. Trump’s crass vulgarity, greed, unchecked hedonism and amorality, along with his worship of himself, are intrinsic to America, but his ascendancy, and the ascendancy of the character traits he personifies, represents cultural death.
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