–2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang exposes the primary debates as completely rigged, something we’ve been saying for a long time
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.
In the beginning, it could have been mistaken for a conventional fairy tale about a virtuous man battling the corruption in his kingdom — until Ned Stark (Sean Bean) lost his head.
.. Characters shifted from victims to protagonists to antiheroes in a way that gave some viewers whiplash, a dynamic that came to a head when Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and her dragon burned a city in the show’s penultimate episode. “Game of Thrones” was a show about trauma and the consequences of treating women as sexual objects — yet the series had a bad tendency to ogle bits and pieces of minor female characters rather than treat them as people.
..Whether you think “Game of Thrones” was a success or a failure largely depends on what you thought the show was trying to do... “Game of Thrones” debuted in 2011, at an inflection point for American television and American politics. Later-stage Golden Age antihero dramas such as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” were heading toward their conclusions and the idea of a Republican “war on women” was taking hold on the left. During the series’ run, Hillary Clinton suffered a shocking loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election; white nationalism surged back into public life; the #MeToo movement exposed the prevalence and impact of sexual violence; climate change took on a new and apocalyptic urgency; and a spike in television production splintered the water-cooler conversation possibly beyond repair.
As a result, “Game of Thrones” took on a prismatic quality. Turn it one way and the series was an argument that trauma gave its female characters moral authority; shift it just slightly, and the show suggested that they couldn’t transcend the damage that had been inflicted on them
.. The White Walkers, the show’s uber-supernatural villains, stood in for the perils of climate change — until they were vanquished with a single blow. The slaves Daenerys liberated in the early seasons of the show were props in a white-savior narrative until they were invoked as proof that she would never break bad. The show’s cultural footprint suggested that rolling out a television show week by week was still the best way to create community around art. Or its viewership numbers, modest by historical standards, could be evidence for an argument that our culture has fragmented beyond repair.
.. And our struggles to figure out whether men such as Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) deserve forgiveness for their past bad acts are a lower-stakes version of the questions raised by the early stages of our national reckoning with sexual assault.
.. Another version of “Game of Thrones” might have offered more decisive arguments about the subjects it raised, or avoided ogling and other artistic pitfalls. That show might have become a cult favorite, but without its intellectual ambiguities and spots of bad taste, it never would have become a phenomenon. “Game of Thrones” caught viewers by surprise when it eliminated its supernatural Big Bad so early in its final season and left the characters to work out their messy, entirely human differences. When the credits roll on Sunday, “Game of Thrones” will leave viewers with the same challenge: tackling some of the hardest problems before us without a unifying magical distraction.
As a leader, Trump may or may not be smart, but his temperament ranks low on the scales of emotional and contextual intelligence that made Franklin D. Roosevelt or George H.W. Bush successful presidents. Tony Schwartz, who co-wrote Trump’s book The Art of the Deal, notes that “Trump’s sense of self-worth is forever at risk. When he feels aggrieved, he reacts impulsively and defensively, constructing a self-justifying story that doesn’t depend on facts and always directs the blame to others.” Schwartz attributes this to Trump’s defense against domination by a father who was “relentlessly demanding, difficult, and driven…You either dominated or you submitted. You either created and exploited fear, or you succumbed to it – as he thought his elder brother had.” As a result, he “simply didn’t traffic in emotions or interest in others,” and “facts are whatever Trump deems them to be on any given day.”Whether Schwartz is correct or not about the causes, Trump’s ego and emotional needs often seem to color his relations with other leaders and his interpretation of world events. The image of toughness is more important than truth. Journalist Bob Woodward reports that Trump told a friend who acknowledged bad behavior toward women that “real power is fear…You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women. If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead.”Trump’s temperament limits his contextual intelligence. He lacked experience, and has done little to fill the gaps in his knowledge. He is described by close observers as reading little, insisting that briefing memos be very short, and relying heavily on television news. He is reported to have paid scant attention to staff preparations before summits with experienced autocrats like Russian President Vladimir Putin or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. If Trump’s iconoclastic style was merely a breach of traditional presidential etiquette, one might argue that his critics were being too fastidious, or were trapped in old-fashioned views of diplomacy.But crudeness can have consequences. While pressing for change, he has disrupted institutions and alliances, only grudgingly admitting their importance. Trump’s rhetoric has downplayed democracy and human rights, as his weak reaction to the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi demonstrated. Although Trump has echoed President Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about the US being a city on the hill whose beacon shines to others, his domestic behavior toward the press, the judiciary, and minorities has weakened the clarity of America’s democratic appeal. International polls show a decline in America’s soft power since he took office.While critics and defenders debate the attractiveness of the values embodied by Trump’s “America First” approach, an impartial analyst cannot excuse the ways in which his personal emotional needs have skewed the implementation of his goals – for example in his summit meetings with Putin and Kim. As for prudence, Trump’s non-interventionism protected him from some sins of commission, but one can question whether his mental maps and contextual intelligence are adequate to understand the risks posed to the US by the diffusion of power in this century. As tensions grow, reckoning with Trump may well become unavoidable in 2019.