How our president and our mass shooters are connected to the same dark psychic forces.
What links Donald Trump to the men who massacred innocents in El Paso and Dayton this past weekend? Note that I said both men: the one with the white-nationalist manifesto and the one with some kind of atheist-socialist politics; the one whose ranting about a “Hispanic invasion” echoed Trump’s own rhetoric and the one who was anti-Trump and also apparently the lead singer in a “pornogrind” band.
Bringing up their differing worldviews can be a way for Trump-supporting or anti-anti-Trump conservatives to diminish or dismiss the president’s connection to these shootings. That’s not what I’m doing. I think Trump is deeply connected to what happened last weekend, deeply connected to both massacres. Not because his immigration rhetoric drove the El Paso shooter to mass murder in some direct and simple way; life and radicalism and violence are all more complicated than that. But because Trump participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters, and having a participant as president makes the problem worse.
The president’s bigoted rhetoric is obviously part of this. Marianne Williamson put it best, in the last Democratic debate: There really is a dark psychic force generated by Trump’s political approach, which from its birther beginnings has consistently encouraged and fed on a fevered and paranoid form of right-wing politics, and dissolved quarantines around toxic and dehumanizing ideas. And the possibility that Trump’s zest for demonization can feed a demonic element in the wider culture is something the many religious people who voted for the president should be especially willing to consider.
But the connection between the president and the young men with guns extends beyond Trump’s race-baiting to encompass a more essential feature of his public self — which is not the rhetoric or ideology that he deploys, but the obvious moral vacuum, the profound spiritual black hole, that lies beneath his persona and career.
Here I would dissent, mildly, from the desire to tell a mostly ideological story in the aftermath of El Paso, and declare war on “white nationalism” — a war the left wants because it has decided that all conservatism can be reduced to white supremacy, and the right wants as a way of rebutting and rejecting that reductionism.
By all means disable 8Chan and give the F.B.I. new marching orders; by all means condemn racism more vigorously than this compromised president can do. But recognize we’re dealing with a pattern of mass shootings, encompassing both the weekend’s horrors, where the personal commonalities between the shooters are clearly more important than the political ones. Which suggests that the white nationalism of internet failsons is like the allegiance to an imaginary caliphate that motivated the terrorists whose depredations helped get Trump elected in the first place. It’s often just a carapace, a flag of convenience, a performance for the vast TV-and-online audience that now attends these grisly spectacles, with a malignant narcissism and nihilism underneath.
And this is what really links Trump to all these empty male killers, white nationalists and pornogrind singers alike. Like them he is a creature of our late-modern anti-culture, our internet-accelerated dissolution of normal human bonds. Like them he plainly believes in nothing but his ego, his vanity, his sense of spite and grievance, and the self he sees reflected in the mirror of television, mass media, online.
Because he is rich and famous and powerful, he can get that attention with a tweet about his enemies, and then experience the rush of a cable-news segment about him. He doesn’t need to plot some great crime to lead the news; he just has to run for president. But having him as president — having him as a political exemplar for his party, and a cultural exemplar of manhood for his supporters and opponents both — is a constant ratification of the idea that we exist as celebrities or influencers or we don’t exist at all, and that our common life is essentially a form of reality television where it doesn’t matter if you’re the heel or hero so long as you’re the star.
One recurring question taken up in this column is whether something good might come out of the Trump era. I keep returning to this issue because unlike many conservatives who opposed him in 2016, I actually agree with, or am sympathetic toward, versions of ideas that Trump has championed — the idea of a
- more populist and worker-friendly conservative economics, the idea of a
- foreign policy with a more realpolitik and anti-interventionist spirit, the idea that
- decelerating low-skilled immigration would benefit the common good, the idea that
- our meritocratic, faux-cosmopolitan elite has badly misgoverned the republic.
But to take this view, and to reject the liberal claim that any adaptation to populism only does the devil’s work, imposes a special obligation to recognize the profound emptiness at the heart of Trump himself. It’s not as if you could carve away his race-baiting and discover a healthier populism instead, or analyze him the way you might analyze his more complex antecedents, a Richard Nixon or a Ross Perot. To analyze Trump is to discover only bottomless appetite and need, and to carve at him is like carving at an online troll: The only thing to discover is the void.
So in trying to construct a new conservatism on the ideological outline of Trumpism, you have to be aware that you’re building around a sinkhole and that your building might fall in.
The same goes for any conservative response to the specific riddle of mass shootings. Cultural conservatives get a lot of grief when they respond to these massacres by citing moral and spiritual issues, rather than leaping straight to gun policy (or in this case, racist ideology). But to look at the trend in these massacres, the spikes of narcissistic acting-out in a time of generally-declining violence, the shared bravado and nihilism driving shooters of many different ideological persuasions, is to necessarily encounter a moral and spiritual problem, not just a technocratic one.
But the dilemma that conservatives have to confront is that you can chase this cultural problem all the way down to its source in lonely egomania and alienated narcissism, and you’ll still find Donald Trump’s face staring back to you.
A consequence of the increased power of campaign consultants was a blurring of the line between campaigning and governing, creating the titular “permanent campaign” dynamic. The decline of industrial-era bosses and rise of poll-driven consultants, Blumenthal argued, mirrored the broader transition in the economy from manufacturing to computing and information technology, “where white-collar workers outnumber blue-collar, computers are the archetypal machines, knowledge is a vital form of capital, much heavy industry is exported to the more dynamic Third World countries, and America becomes the home office of the world.”
.. The basic argument of Rise of the Counter-Establishment is that the conservative movement emulated what it perceived as a loose but effective conspiracy of elite institutions — the Brookings Institution, the Ford Foundation, the New York Times editorial page — and so created a much more cohesive and effective counter-establishment — the American Enterprise Institute, the Olin Foundation, the Wall Street Journal editorial page — to combat it. “They imitated something they had imagined,” Blumenthal wrote, “but what they created was not imaginary.”
.. The book, the conservative writer Tevi Troy notes, “provided a blueprint for what would be called the vast right-wing conspiracy”
.. It laid out who, exactly, the enemy was that a new generation of Democratic politicians had to defeat.
.. Clinton, Blumenthal writes, was part of a group of Democrats interested in “rethinking … the future of liberalism and the Democratic Party”
.. [President Clinton] said, “Monica Lewinsky came at me and made a sexual demand on me.” He rebuffed her. He said, “I’ve gone down that road before. I’ve caused pain for a lot of people and I’m not going to do that again.” She threatened him. She said that she would tell people they’d had an affair, that she was known as the stalker among her peers, and that she hated it and if she had an affair or said she had an affair then she wouldn’t be the stalker any more.
.. the crux came when Blumenthal was questioned about whether he had been tasked by the White House with spreading rumors about Lewinsky being a “stalker.” He had already told the grand jury that Clinton told him Lewinsky was known as a stalker among her peers and resented the label. The question was whether Blumenthal spread this further in the press... Christopher Hitchens, signed a sworn affidavit saying that Blumenthal had called Lewinsky a stalker repeatedly in a March 19, 1998, lunch with Hitchens and his wife, seemingly contradicting the claim that he’d never called her a stalker in conversations with reporters... a motion from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), who would vote against Clinton’s conviction, to have the Senate investigate “possible fraud on the Senate by alleged perjury in the deposition testimony of Mr. Sidney Blumenthal.” Nothing came of the matter, and Hitchens eventually promised to withdraw his affidavit if Blumenthal were ever put on trial. The two remained distant for years, but reportedly reestablished contact shortly before Hitchens’s death from cancer in 2011... Blumenthal was also a central figure in recruiting the unlikeliest Clinton loyalist to date: David Brock, the former American Spectator reporter and anti-Clinton muckraker who has since become a liberal stalwart, founding the media watchdog group Media Matters and the Democratic Super PAC American Bridge... learned how Drudge had been prompted by a small group of right-wingers to post the libel about me on his website.” They became friends, and Blumenthal became a counselor to Brock as he broke from the right, a move announced in a 1997 Esquire article titled “Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man.”Politico’s Thrush calls Brock’s conversion “Blumenthal’s greatest coup — and the one that cemented his standing as a Clinton loyalist.” Blumenthal.. Blumenthal had helped flip a key member of the counter-establishment he had chronicled a decade prior. He was putting his analysis of the right into practice, and getting major results... he was caught driving 70 miles an hour, drunk, in a 30 mph zone in Nashua, New Hampshire. The serious charge — “aggravated drunken driving” — was pleaded down after the arresting officer was called up for service in Iraq, rendering a trial impossible... he was involved in spreading some of the most vicious, race-baiting attacks of the primaries... a hoax originated by ex-CIA officer and ardent Hillary supporter Larry Johnson claiming there was a videotape of Michelle Obama railing against “whitey”.. Blumenthal and Hillary alike were convinced the tape was real... reports surfaced that she was planning to bring him on as a counselor, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, “Hell no. If she hires him, I’m out of here.” Senior adviser David Axelrod added, “Me too.” Emanuel was left to deliver the bad news to Clinton, who accepted the verdict.
In retrospect, the civil war in the Balkans was the most important event of that period. It prefigured what has come since: the return of ethnic separatism, the rise of authoritarian populism, the retreat of liberal democracy, the elevation of a warrior ethos that reduces politics to friend/enemy, zero-sum conflicts.
.. Back in the 1990s, there was an unconscious abundance mind-set.
.. Today, after the financial crisis, the shrinking of the middle class, the partisan warfare, a scarcity mind-set is dominant: Resources are limited. The world is dangerous. Group conflict is inevitable. It’s us versus them. If they win, we’re ruined, therefore, let’s stick with our tribe. The ends justify the means.
.. The scarcity mind-set is an acid that destroys every belief system it touches.
.. Now, Donald Trump leads the Republican Party, the personification of the scarcity mind-set. Fox News, with its daily gospel of resentments, is the most important organ of conservative opinion.
.. Republicans are happy to trade away their fiscal principles if they can get their way on immigration, which is what they did in last week’s budget deal.
The sad truth is that many Republican leaders remain in a massive state of denial about the party’s four-decade-long addiction to race-baiting. They won’t make any headway with blacks by bashing Lott if they persist in giving Ronald Reagan a pass for his racial policies.
The same could be said, of course, about such Republican heroes as, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon or George Bush the elder, all of whom used coded racial messages to lure disaffected blue collar and Southern white voters away from the Democrats.
Yet it’s with Reagan, who set a standard for exploiting white anger and resentment rarely seen since George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, that the Republican’s selective memory about its race-baiting habit really stands out.
.. As a young congressman, Lott was among those who urged Reagan to deliver his first major campaign speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in one of the 1960s’ ugliest cases of racist violence. It was a ringing declaration of his support for “states’ rights” — a code word for resistance to black advances clearly understood by white Southern voters.
.. Then there was Reagan’s attempt, once he reached the White House in 1981, to reverse a long-standing policy of denying tax-exempt status to private schools that practice racial discrimination and grant an exemption to Bob Jones University. Lott’s conservative critics, quite rightly, made a big fuss about his filing of a brief arguing that BJU should get the exemption despite its racist ban on interracial dating.