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.
The ideas that gave the United States purpose in the postwar decades, from the spread of liberty to a rules-based international order, have been abandoned. American enlightened self-interest, beneficial both to the United States and its allies, has been replaced by a crude America-first self.
.. With the presidency of Donald Trump it has become impossible to recall Friday what seemed outrageous Monday. Even rot can be normalized. It is human nature to adapt. Global “culture” is increasingly defined by rich, valueless elites — as in Russia, Saudi Arabia, China and Trump’s United States — while those excluded from this wealth veer toward angry, xenophobic nationalism. It’s “Crazy Rich Asians” versus “Hillbilly Elegy.”
.. The word “values” seems quaint. China, an increasingly repressive nation in which information is controlled, leads the world in college graduates. The competition of ideas between authoritarianism and liberal democracy seems evenly balanced.
.. We begin to shrug at the once unthinkable —
- thousands of children separated from their parents at the Mexican border;
- false or misleading statements issued daily from the Oval Office;
- the press attacked by the president as the “enemy of the people” (a phrase of pure totalitarian pedigree);
- a video doctored by the White House in an attempt to discredit a CNN correspondent;
- United States intelligence services deemed less credible than President Vladimir Putin by President Trump;
- the European Union described as “brutal” by Trump while North Korean leader Kim Jong-un morphs from a threat to humanity into a “great personality.”
.. Oh, I almost forgot Trump’s recent cancellation, due to rain, of a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. We know Trump hates rain because it affects his hair. Never mind the more than 2,250 Americans in that cemetery who gave their lives far from home. We also know that in almost two years in office, Trump has never visited American troops in Afghanistan, or in any combat zone. The coward with the brittle hairdo turns his back on America’s dead and deployed.
.. Chinese President Xi Jinping opens the way to rule for life and Trump says, “maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.” It was a joke, sort of. It was also a window into the state of the world.
.. Trump is not to be discounted, however. His manipulation of American anger has legs. Underestimating him would be the surest way for Democrats to ensure a Trump presidency through 2024.
.. His attacks on immigrants and evident contempt for women have taken a toll in suburbs and exurbs across the country. Most decent Americans do not like demagoguery. Still, Trump’s road to re-election in 2020 remains open.
.. The mounting “yellow vests” protests in France reflect anger at societies distorted or corrupted in favor of the rich.
.. the West has, under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, become the place where family, church, nation and traditional notions of marriage and gender go to die. Orbán offers a new model of illiberalism for Europe. His fight with French President Emmanuel Macron for ideological sway will determine the direction of the European Union, whether or not Britain consummates its Brexit folly in 2019.
.. The Brexit decision has proved to be a form of madness that keeps on giving. Like Trump’s election, the vote to leave the European Union was a symptom of a thirst for disruption at any cost. Liberal democracy looks vulnerable a quarter century after its definitive ascendancy seemed assured.
.. The long-stagnant wages of blue-collar workers and much of the middle class, as well as a sense in the periphery of cultural alienation from the metropolis, contribute to fissured societies.
.. In the United States, even the word honesty no longer has an agreed-upon meaning. Democrats believe it means conformity to facts. In Trump country, it means telling it like it is. By that standard, for his supporters, Trump is the most honest president ever.
When there is no shared lexicon, and social media turbocharges confrontation, the capacity of Western democracies to reach the compromises on which progress is built is undermined. In life, if you get 70 percent of what you want, you probably feel you are doing all right. But these days no American politician would say, “I only got 70 percent of what I wanted, but I’m voting for the measure anyway in the interests of moving forward.”
.. China, veering in an ever more autocratic direction under Xi, has no such concerns. The nation sets plans; it executes; it fast-forwards. It has pulled 800 million people out of poverty in recent decades. Why should it doubt itself? Beijing now offers itself as an explicit alternative to the liberal democratic model.
.. Trump has been good for Beijing. Domestic American political paralysis, the dilution of American moral authority, Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord — all this has favored China, now the world leader in renewable energy. Its advance is steady and relentless. In Europe, from Greece to Serbia, China is pursuing its Africa model: buy up whatever it can to control resources and infrastructure.
.. Trump has picked a fight over trade, and he has some legitimate grievances, but his failure to develop a coherent geostrategic policy to confront China makes the tariff fight look like his usual petulance.
.. The president’s strange embrace of Kim Jong-un in North Korea also reinforces China’s position. The president shows weakness and makes concessions, while getting nothing tangible in return. Even a withdrawal of American troops from the Korean Peninsula is not unimaginable. That would be very much to China’s liking, as well as an act of dangerous folly.
.. Chinese expansionism under Xi and North Korea’s unpredictability imbue East Asia with some of the tensions of Europe during the Cold War. The clash between the United States and China over “unfair trade practices” at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit was so severe that no communiqué was issued, a first since the meetings began a quarter-century ago. Still, I believe that China’s quest for regional and global stability to complete its rise by 2050 will contain its confrontation with the United States short of any military clash.
.. Trump and other nationalists use many of the methods of fascism —
- nationalist mythologizing,
- mob mobilization —
but the forces favoring open societies are far stronger than they were a century ago. Walls are going up everywhere, and China has demonstrated that the internet can be controlled, but the spread of ideas and idealism is not easily held in check.
.. en a really terrible American president such as the incumbent cannot easily send the world over a cliff. This is where the hope of the 21st-century lies — not in nations, Trump’s obsession, but in people and networks.
.. The vitality of the American press demonstrates some of the limits on Trump’s power. His attacks on American institutions, including the Justice Department, and on the nation’s best media outlets has spurred a growing awareness of the need for tough investigative journalism — and that’s not free. Online subscriptions to newspapers, including The New York Times, have soared. That is the good news.
.. The bad news is that Trump’s phrase “fake news” has taken hold. You hear it all over the world. Journalists are attacked with greater impunity — that word again — because Trump has declared open season on them and their profession. The vile murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul is just the most egregious example of this.
.. The Republicans are no longer the free-trade, internationalist, anti-Russia party they once were. They are the America First party of Trump. The Democrats are also in transition. Should the party move left, where there is significant energy and progressives have won several victories? Or should it find some new expression of the center?
.. I don’t think a left-wing Democratic ticket can dislodge Trump. Nor do I believe a coastal candidate, out of touch with Trump country, can do that. Democratic candidates like Max Rose in Staten Island and Jason Crow in Colorado’s sixth congressional district have shown that a focus on health and education (two of the main concerns of Americans), combined with a strong patriotic message from two men who have known active duty combat, can win in Republican strongholds.
.. Kyrsten Sinema’s victory in the Arizona Senate race also illustrated the appeal of a centrist position. Delivering pragmatic results to Middle America with a passionate resolve, combined with a can-do patriotism, is the best way to beat Trump.
.. The president will do whatever he can to win in 2020. There is no limit to Trump’s immorality and ruthlessness. The shameless way he fomented fear in the run-up to the midterms over the so-called “caravan” of Central American migrants moving toward the United States border with Mexico was a sampler of the depths he will plumb to mobilize support.
.. The United States can bounce back from four years of Trump. Eight would be more difficult.
The purest expression of this shrug lies in the word “bof.” It conveys the contemptuous French dismissal of, say, a politician’s affair, and is the best retort I know to the hyperventilating, nasty outrage that has become the lingua franca of the social media age.
.. Kim also noted, “A frightened dog barks louder.” This was interesting. The question always arises with Trump whether he is more coward than bully. You don’t have to be called Sigmund to sense that Trump’s bullying and pouting braggadocio reflect some deep cowardice. Is the combination more likely to produce action or inaction?
.. Trump, of course, is not a normal president. He called Kim a “madman”; he should know. So I am happy that the European leader with whom Trump seems to have the strongest rapport is Macron, who can bring his country’s wisdom on “the human basics” to bear on Trump’s wild leanings.
In his total absence of dignity and decorum, his violence and his vulgarity, he was the emblem par excellence of the Trump White House. That reports of his wife filing for divorce surfaced during his brief apotheosis completed the picture. Fast-talking and fatuous, self-important and servile, he embodied the “commedia dell’arte” of Trump’s dysfunctional crew.
.. Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to Trump, who recently told the BBC that, “The military is not a microcosm of civilian society. They are not there to reflect America. They are there to kill people and blow stuff up.”
.. The Scaramouch was just a stand-in for the president he professed to love. The real “braggart and poltroon” sits in the Oval Office.
.. What but some profound sense of inadequacy could explain the neediness and the nastiness, the pout and the pettiness, the vanity and the vulgarity, the anger and the aggression? This president gets off on the humiliation of others. He is inhabited by some deep violence to which self-control is a stranger. It is almost painful to watch the degree to which he pursues self-aggrandizement. He confounds masculinity with machismo. As J.K. Rowling put it in a tweet: “You tiny, tiny, tiny little man.”
.. The transgender decision .. was, in the words of Stephen Burbank, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, “an engine of malice.” It illustrated how, “In the realm of moral leadership, President Trump is leading a race to the bottom.”
.. The police department in Suffolk County also pushed back; it would not tolerate brutality.
.. But this is the president we have: turbulent, chaotic, boastful, cowardly and violent.