The Reichstag fire was at least a fire. Here, there is smoke and mirrors.
When Trump was in business, his shtick was stiffing contractors. If confronted, he would try some bombast and storm out of meetings, as he did the other day with congressional leaders, ending talks on the partial government shutdown caused by a crisis he has manufactured. His shtick now is stiffing all Americans. The technique is the same: Keep reality at a distance through hyperactive fakery.
.. A manufactured crisis, I said. It’s worth recalling the 5,200 troops ordered to the southern border before the midterm elections to confront the “caravan of migrants.” This was an exercise in manipulative illusion.
Monthly crossings over the southern border have declined in recent years. The number of migrants apprehended has also fallen over the past decade, with a recent tick upward. There is no humanitarian crisis, just as not a single mile of additional wall has been built since Trump took office.
But absent this noise, what does reality offer the president? Robert Mueller, Nancy Pelosi and Michael Cohen, the specters of his insomnia.
.. The essential distinction that Frankfurt, a professor of philosophy emeritus at Princeton University, makes is between lies and bull. As he writes, “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.”
.. It is a habit “unconstrained by a concern with truth” whose essence is “not of falsity but of fakery.” The addict of bull “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” He is “trying to get away with something.” His “focus is panoramic rather than particular,” and he shuns “the more austere and rigorous demands of lying.”
Frankfurt’s conclusion may be read as an ominous verdict on this president. The bull merchant “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
It has been said that Trump’s extraordinary election victory owed much to his intuitions about the anger in the heartland. There is some truth in this. But his essential intuition was into the readiness of Americans, suspended between the real and the virtual, for a post-truth presidency.
Quinta Jurecic, in an important essay for the Lawfare Blog, set out the dangers inherent in this shift before Trump took office. In the essay, “On Bullshit and the Oath of Office: The ‘LOL Nothing Matters’ Presidency,” she cited Frankfurt and argued that Trump’s “foundational disrespect for meaning and consequence” — that is to say, for reality and the very concept of law — would make it “impossible for Donald Trump to faithfully execute the laws of this nation and the duties of the oath of office and to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.”
The president’s apparent readiness to “do national emergency,” as he put it, over a manufactured border crisis amounts to a perfect illustration of this danger. The Reichstag fire was at least a fire. Here there is only smoke and mirrors.
I would add one element to the reflections of Frankfurt and Jurecic on bull. There may be something amusing, or at least innocuous, about the bullshit artists encountered in a lifetime. They may be waved away. But in Trump the element of sadistic cruelty in his personality (mocking the disabled, for example), and the sheer gall of his fakery, make of him a malignant, rather than a benign, bullshit artist. He happens to occupy the world’s most powerful office.
Trump cannot help himself, I said. He can’t and won’t. But as citizens, “we have a duty to insist that words have meaning,” as Jurecic writes. If they don’t, neither does the Republic. That’s what the ants told me as I gazed at them, troubled and fixated.
All around the world, strongmen are seizing power and subverting liberal norms.
fascism came out of particular historical circumstances that do not obtain today—
- a devastating world war,
- drastic economic upheaval, the
- fear of Bolshevism.
.. When Naomi Wolf and others insisted that George W. Bush was taking us down the path of 1930s Germany, I thought they were being histrionic. The essence of fascism after all was the obliteration of democracy. Did anyone seriously believe that Bush would cancel elections and refuse to exit the White House?
.. So maybe fascism isn’t the right term for where we are heading. Fascism, after all, was all about big government—grandiose public works, jobs jobs jobs, state benefits of all kinds, government control of every area of life. It wasn’t just about looting the state on behalf of yourself and your cronies, although there was plenty of that too. Seeing Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the press conference following their private meeting in Helsinki, though, I think maybe I’ve been a bit pedantic. Watching those two thuggish, immensely wealthy, corrupt bullies, I felt as if I was glimpsing a new world order—not even at its birth but already in its toddler phase. The two men are different versions of an increasingly common type of leader:
- elected strongmen ‘who exploit weak spots in procedural democracy to come to power, and
- once ensconced do everything they can to weaken democracy further,
- while inflaming powerful popular currents of
- reactionary religion,
- homophobia, and
- resentments of all kinds.
.. At the press conference Putin said that associates of the billionaire businessman Bill Browder gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign $400 million, a claim Politifact rates “pants on fire” and about which The New York Times’ Kenneth Vogel tweeted, “it was so completely without evidence that there were no pants to light on fire, so I hereby deem it ‘WITHOUT PANTS.’”
.. A Freudian might say that his obsession with the imaginary sins of Clinton suggests he’s hiding something. Why else, almost two years later, is he still trying to prove he deserved to win? At no point in the press conference did he say or do anything incompatible with the popular theory that he is Putin’s tool and fool.
.. These pantsless overlords are not alone. All over the world, antidemocratic forces are winning elections—sometimes fairly, sometimes not—and then using their power to subvert democratic procedures.
There’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—remember how when he first took office, back in 2014, he was seen as a harmless moderate, his Justice and Development Party the Muslim equivalent of Germany’s Christian Democrats? Now he’s shackling the press, imprisoning his opponents, trashing the universities, and trying to take away women’s rights and push them into having at least three, and possibly even five, kids because there just aren’t enough Turks.
.. Then there’s Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe these elected authoritarian regimes, now busily shaping the government to his own xenophobic ends, and
.. Poland’s Andrzej Duda, doing much the same—packing the courts, banning abortion, promoting the interests of the Catholic church.
Before World War II Poland was a multiethnic country, with large minorities of Jews, Roma, Ukrainians, and other peoples. Now it boasts of its (fictional) ethnic purity and, like Hungary and the Czech Republic, bars the door to Muslim refugees in the name of Christian nationalism.
One could mention
- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte,
- Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,
- Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and
- India’s Narendra Modi as well.
Pushed by anti-immigrant feeling, which is promoted by
- unemployment and
right-wing “populist” parties are surging in
- the Netherlands,
- Austria, and even
- Sweden and
And don’t forget Brexit—boosted by pie-in-the-sky lies about the bounty that would flow from leaving the European Union but emotionally fueled by racism, nativism, and sheer stupidity.
.. At home, Donald Trump energizes similarly antidemocratic and nativist forces. Last year, outright neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, and Trump called them “very fine people.” This year, Nazis and Holocaust deniers are running in elections as Republicans, and far-right misogynist hate groups like the Proud Boys are meeting in ordinary bars and cafés.
.. The worst of it is that once the leaders get into power, they create their own reality, just as Karl Rove said they would:
- They control the media,
- pack the courts
- .. lay waste to regulatory agencies,
- “reform” education,
- abolish long-standing precedents, and
- use outright cruelty—of which the family separations on the border are just one example—to create fear.
While everybody was fixated on the spectacle in Helsinki, Trump’s IRS announced new rules that let dark-money groups like the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity keep their donors secret.
.. American democracy might not be in its death throes yet, but every week brings a thousand paper cuts.
.. There’s nothing inevitable about liberal democracy, religious pluralism, acceptance of ethnic diversity, gender and racial equality, and the other elements of what we think of as contemporary progress.
.. He has consolidated a bloc of voters united in their grievances and their fantasies of redress. The
- fundamentalist stay-home moms, the
- MAGA-hat wearing toughs, the
- Fox-addicted retirees, the
- hedge-fund multimillionaires and the
- gun nuts have found one another.
.. Why would they retreat and go their separate ways just because they lost an election or even two? Around the world it may be the same story: Democracy is easy to destroy and hard to repair, even if people want to do so, and it’s not so clear that enough of them do.
First of all, 15-by-15 size cells with 30 to 50 adults, sometimes children in them as well, with one toilet usually for those people to share. Usually, there’s some privacy. However, it’s still in the same room. And children and adults sharing that space. They’re called iceboxes.
Many, many people of these refer them as so cold that they had to huddle together on cement floors. We also have some very gripping and frankly difficult-to-read personal testimonies. I want to point to one of them.
This is from a mother whose 14-month-old child was separated from her and from the father. They were reunited after 85 days. She wrote- “The child continued to cry when we got home and would hold on to my leg and would not let me go. When I took off his clothes, he was full of dirt and lice. It seemed like they had not bathed him the 85 days he was away from us.”
She went on to say that she had thought, her child being so young, he wouldn’t have really significant effects from the separation. But when she was reunited with him, she’s worried that now actually he is really feeling and has changed because of the separation.
.. Throughout this, we see allegations of racial slurs, guards calling some of these immigrants stupid, and some very particularly troubling accusations, like this one from this mother.She wrote- “One of the officers asked me in Guatemala,” her home country, “‘Do they celebrate Mother’s Day?’ When I answered yes, he said, ‘Then Happy Mother’s day,’ because the next Sunday was Mother’s Day. I lowered my head,” she wrote, “so that my daughter wouldn’t see the tears forming in my eyes. That particular act of cruelty astonished me.”
the New Cruelty is the Trumpian successor to the New Deal and Great Society... And, indeed, Lewandowski seems especially vile in an era in which vileness increasingly appears to be a career path. But was his insensitive gibe off-message? Or was it simply a cruder version of the New Cruelty that has displaced whatever was left of “compassionate conservativism”?.. Trump rode to the presidency by embracing broad, crudely designed policies—from the proposed ban on all Muslims to mass deportations of all illegals—that ineluctably lead to a zero-tolerance policy that demands the arrest of all illegal border-crossers, even those with infants or children... his supporters enthusiastically cheered polices that treat large populations as an undifferentiated mass, regardless of individual circumstances. These policies do not treat individuals based on the “content of their character,” or their merit, or the exigencies of their circumstances, but on their religion, nationality, and immigration status... the president has cultivated a studied insensitivity, treating empathy as a sign of weakness or fecklessness... The distinctive rhetoric of Trumpism isn’t merely the use of insult and invective against political opponents; it is also the brutal willingness to degrade and demonize others as “animals” and “rapists” while unsubtly comparing them to the sort of vermin who will “infest” the country... swaggering callousness became a hallmark of Trumpism, with harshness masquerading as toughness and cruelty as a sign of strength... Ironically, conservatives used to lead the charge against zero-tolerance policies, because they produce foolish, knee-jerk, bureaucratic responses that lack common sense and result in absurd outcomes... It was in the name of zero tolerance that a kindergartner was once suspended for bringing a dinosaur-shaped squirt gun to school and it was zero tolerance that led school boards to such excesses as expelling a high school student for having a single tablet of Advil in her purse... What’s important to recognize is that the children were not collateral damage of Trump’s policy: They were the entire point... Removing them from their parents was designed to be shocking because their trauma was intended as a deterrent... the pitiless separation of young children from their mothers was supposed to send a chilling message to anyone foolish enough to seek asylum here... More important, it was supposed to project strength, or at least the bully’s imitation of strength... Perhaps more than any other trait, it is this that motivates Trump: his need to appear strong and his fear of looking weak... He is just another of the menagerie of misfit toys, in the likeness of Steve Bannon, who feed off Trump’s sundry insecurities. They do not shape or influence those anxieties, they simply minister to them, encouraging the president in his use of spite to substitute for real strength... Fred Hiatt described the New Cruelty as the ultimate victory of Bannonism:
Truculent, anti-immigrant nationalism; disdain for the “deep state”; disparaging democratic allies while celebrating dictators: These are now the pillars of President Trump’s rule. In his administration’s policy, foreign and domestic, and in the compliant Republican Party, Bannonism is ascendant.
.. Bannonism is now indistinguishable from Trumpism.
while it’s tempting to see Bannon’s fall as an inflection point, the reality is that his departure does nothing to change the fundamental nature of this presidency, which continues to be shaped by Donald Trump’s hollow core, erratic character and impulsivity….
As malign an influence as Bannon was, it seems naïve to now expect a more modulated or moderate Trump. Instead, we can expect Trump to attempt to insulate himself against Bannonite attacks by throwing out even more red meat for his base, and escalating the culture wars that Bannon has done so much to foment.
.. Bannon may have helped write the ill-fated travel ban, but it was Trump who denounced “Mexican rapists,” and Trump who called for a Muslim ban. It was Trump, not Bannon, who rose from reality TV stardom to political prominence and power by spreading birther conspiracy theories.
.. It was Trump, not Bannon, who retweeted white supremacists and refused to distance himself from white nationalists during the campaign; Trump, not Bannon, who attacked a Mexican-American judge, demeaned women and mocked a disabled reporter... Divorcing Bannon doesn’t fix what is wrong with this presidency. The cancer at the heart of this White House isn’t the staff. It’s the man in the Oval Office and he is not changing.