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Idiocy and autocracy

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The always interesting Fintan O’Toole has an article on what Donald Trump was and will continue to be all about:

It is hard, after such a relentless barrage of outrage and weirdness over the last four years, to remember what the broad consensus about Trump was at the beginning of 2016. [Ed: I think this is supposed to be 2017, i.e., immediately after Trump was elected]

It was that he wouldn’t be nearly as bad as he looked. To adapt the old saw about campaigning in poetry but governing in prose, he had campaigned in Gothic horror but he would surely govern in the realistic novel.

The sheer weight of the office would alter him. The “adults in the room” would keep him under control. He might be let out now and then to howl at the moon, but inside the White House he would be broken in as a house-trained conservative. The institutional superego would cage his rampant Id.

At worst, Trump would do nothing. He’d sit around eating cheeseburgers and making calls to Fox News, while the serious people got on with serious things.

All of this was to grossly underestimate Trump. He may have done plenty of the cheeseburgers and Fox News stuff. But he also kept his eye on the great strategic prize: the creation in the US of a vast and impassioned base for anti-democratic politics. . .

It is not just that Trump really was not interested in governing. It is that he was deeply interested in misgovernment.

He left important leadership positions in government departments unfilled on a permanent basis, or filled them with scandalously unqualified cronies. He appointed people to head agencies to which they had been publicly hostile.

Beneath the psychodrama of Trump’s hourly outbursts, there was a duller but often more meaningful agenda: taking a blowtorch to regulation, especially, but by no means exclusively, in relation to the environment.

This right-wing anarchism extended, of course, to global governance: the trashing of international agreements, withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, sucking up to the leaders of mafia states, and open contempt for female leaders like Angela Merkel and Theresa May. 

With this discrediting of democratic governance, it is not just that we cannot disentangle the personal motives from the political ones. It is that the replacement of political institutions by personal rule was precisely the point.

Trump’s aim, in the presidency as in his previous life, was always simple: to be able to do whatever the hell he wanted. That required the transformation of elective office into the relationship of a capricious ruler to his sycophantic courtiers.

In this nexus, the madder the better. Power is proven, not when the sycophants have to obey reasonable commands, but when they have to follow and justify the craziest orders.

There is no fun in getting your minions to agree that black is black. The sadist’s pleasure lies in getting them to attest that black is white. The “alternative facts” that Trump’s enabler Kellyanne Conway laid down at the very beginning of his administration are not just about permission to lie. They’re about the erotic gratification of making other people lie absurdly, foolishly, repeatedly.

Trump’s wild swings of position were all about this delight in the command performance of utter obedience.

To take just the most outlandish example, Kim Jong-un could be transformed from the Little Rocket Man on whom Trump would unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” to “Chairman Kim” with whom, in his own words, he “fell in love”.

His followers, like old Stalinists desperately tacking to the shifting winds of the Moscow line, agreed that Trump’s opposites were equally brilliant.

The price of this form of power is the undermining of any form of democratic deliberation. Democracy is not just about voting – it is a system for the rational articulation of ideas about the public good. Trump set out to lay waste to that whole system, from the bottom up, poisoning the groundwaters of respect for evidence, argument and rationality that keeps it alive.

The power of his instinct was that he knew how to tap into a hatred of government that has been barely below the surface of American culture since before the foundation of the US.

That instinct proved sufficiently well attuned that he got nearly 75 million votes in November, even while his own malign incompetence was killing his own people. He got those votes, moreover, having made it abundantly clear that he would never accept the result of the election unless he won. They were votes for open autocracy.

This is his legacy: he has successfully led a vast number of voters along the path from hatred of government to contempt for rational deliberation to the inevitable endpoint: disdain for the electoral process itself.

In this end is his new beginning: Stripped of direct power, he will face enormous legal and financial jeopardy. He will have every reason to keep drawing on his greatest asset: his ability to unleash the demons that have always haunted the American experiment — racism, nativism, fear of “the government.”

Trump has unfinished business. A republic he wants to destroy still stands. It is, for him, not goodbye but hasta la vista. Instead of waving him off, those who want to rebuild American democracy will have to put a stake through his heart.

This does a good job of capturing how the ideological core of Trumpism, to the extent that phrase isn’t an oxymoron, is simply an extension of the ideological core of Reaganism. What Trump adds to the mix is an open embrace and celebration of autocracy, which is a significant step beyond what movement conservatism was forty or even twenty years ago.

But the hatred of government, presented as the embrace of “freedom” — that’s just movement conservatism in its purest form.

There’s a certain sort of American who thinks of “freedom” in the way a poorly socialized dull-normal 15-year-old boy does: Freedom means I have the freedom to choose not to wear a mask during a global pandemic, but it most certainly does not mean that a private business can choose to refuse me entrance if I won’t wear a mask. Because that would interfere with my freedom, which is what America, unlike other countries, is all about (If you think this is a caricature of the way these people think you need to get out more).

Trump’s nearly sole talent is that he has a feral instinct for tapping into the endlessly rich vein of intellectual and emotional stuntedness that is the American worship of “freedom” in this sense. That 74 million plus people would vote to retain an openly autocratic crook as president in large part because they believed he was going to protect this kind of freedom is an indictment of an entire culture, if not a whole species.

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