First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

Trump inauguration schedule. Washington DC, January 2017.

The dawn of the Trump Era was met with the sort of damp squib that might have suggested to a more thoughtful individual the brute realities of his situation. Habituated as he is to basking in the glow of the approbation outsized personal deference, the underwhelming crowd at his inauguration had the potential to act as a corrective to Trump’s belief that, if he is not universally adored, he is at least a beacon of light attracting all right thinking people.

Sadly, comparative photographic evidence of the size of his crowd and that drawn four years ago by Barack Obama (which the National Parks Service was so impolitic as to release to public view) was an indication of exactly how narrow a base of support on which the current administration is grounded.

It was not the only one. Perhaps the most pathetic moment in the entire affair was the footage of Vice President Pence and his entourage wandering along lines of empty bleachers and being importuned from the sidelines with offers of candy by (of all people) Al Roker. Putting aside for a moment the matter of the supreme comic genius of whoever at NBC concocted this encounter, it was a perfect illustration of the fact that the number of people who actually wanted to bestir themselves to watch the tragicomic farce that the American presidency has become was relatively (perhaps mercifully) small.

A rather more salutary sight was on offer the next day, when the National Mall was packed with a crowd numbering perhaps half a million, part of a larger international series of resistance marches taking place on all seven continents and comprising between three and four million people. Reports suggest that the march in Los Angeles drew 750,000. In Portland, the estimate was 100,000, which, if true, would mean that 4% of the entire population of the metropolitan area came out to express their opposition to the president and his cabal.

Of course, Donald Trump did not get where he is today by taking such things lying down. He duly dispatched his newly minted press secretary Sean Spicer to shout some demonstrable falsehoods about the size of the inauguration crowd at the national press corps and then to depart promptly without taking any questions. In the wake of this bizarre display, the redoubtable Kellyanne Conway appeared on Meet the Press to aver that Spicer’s comments were not easily debunkable lies but, rather, alternative facts. Conway’s heroic attempts to recoup some degree of credibility for the regime seems to have had little effect, other than cause a spike in sales of George Orwell’s 1984. Apparently, newspeak is back in fashion.

It occurs to me, however, that 1984 is not the most apposite point of reference. This is not, or not simply, because Orwell’s novel was part of his sustained attack on mid-century totalitarian communism. The economic premises of the current order are rather different, although depending on what one thinks of the theory of state capitalism (espoused by Orwell among others), perhaps not as different as its partisans might assume. The more compelling issue is the matter of tone. The Trump regime really lacks the kind of seriousness of the rulers of Airstrip One, Winston Smith’s dystopian homeland. One sees in its leading figure more affinities with Snowball, the porcine dictator of the Manor Farm, rather than the sinister and all-powerful Big Brother.

The defining quality of Donald Trump (at least if the copious leaks from White House staffers are to be believed) is not the expansive reach of his power but rather his fecklessness. Pace the jaundiced views of the mugwumps who make up his support base, being president is difficult and time-consuming, even when done poorly. So it is disconcerting to read, as one does in a number of sources, that it is Trump’s wont to spend the hours between 6:00 and 9:00 in the morning watching television. It is hardly comforting that this time is mostly spent watching news programs. Most of these are, by necessity, currently devoting large blocks of time to debunking the mendacious public utterances of Mr. Trump and his representatives. Given the thinness of the presidential hide, this can hardly be conducive to a balanced approach to government.

This, it seems, goes a long way to explain the bitter and whining speech that Trump delivered to the CIA the day after his inauguration, in the course of which he devoted the bulk of his remarks not to matters of security and intelligence gathering but to complaints about the press coverage of the audience at his swearing in. It is further worth noting that Trump managed to achieve a standing ovation for this speech simply by not allowing his audience to sit down while he delivered it. His is a politics and a government of spectacle, committed to avoiding (and wholly unprepared for) those jarring moments when the leader’s wishful visions of the situation comes forcibly into contact how matters actually stand.

This should come as no surprise to anyone. Trump’s experience and expertise (such as it is) come from the world of real estate speculation and luxury construction. This is a world of shallow surfaces, where fronting is the lingua franca, and where the shame of revelations of the emptiness of one’s assertions can be expunged by means of the bankruptcy court. To call someone out as a liar in this environment is simply bad form. Better to go elsewhere in search of a better deal than to burn bridges to potential future profit by too loudly adverting to the emperor’s state of undress.

Such is not the lot of politicians, and certainly not of the president. Given the current state of polarization of the American electorate and the media environment that surrounds it, it is a practical certainty that the occupant of the office will be the subject of utter and vociferous loathing by between one and two-thirds of the adult population. Mr. Trump shows absolutely no signs of having the intellectual and emotional resources with which to cope with this situation. When his glad-handing approach fails he moves on quickly to ill-tempered griping and threats (altogether real and frightening when coming from the head of state) of retaliation. To expect of Trump that he can play the role of uniter of the nation is to hope that, with proper grooming, a common ass will someday become a thoroughbred.

In a time rife with ironies, perhaps the greatest is that the election of Donald Trump, accomplished on the basis of shameless race-baiting and xenophobia, would have the effect of revivifying the spirit of unity (in this case in the cause of resistance) in American politics. But evidence of this spirit is easy to find. The marches, great and small, allowed those opposed to Trumpian hegemony to recognize that they are not alone. Isolation is one of the great tools of authoritarianism, and masses of people together in the streets its antidote. There was the predictable carping from those on the left eager to confirm their radical bona fides by pointing out that these marches we conducted on the basis of essentially liberal premises. But the process of radicalization has to start somewhere. If we are only allowed to celebrate actions conducted on the basis of fully formed proletarian consciousness then we might as well concede the field to the barbarians now.

The evidence of potential for radicalization is all around. Already government scientists who have been officially gagged on the orders of the Trump cabal have created ex-cathedra Twitter accounts to spread the information that their political masters would have suppressed. The media, recovering from the initial shock of the symbolic beat down administered to journalists from Buzzfeed and CNN at Trump’s earlier press conference, have now begun to re-embrace the authentic, critical role of the Fourth Estate abjured since beginning of the era of the Gulf Wars. Mr. Trump was explicitly accused of lying on the front page of the New York Times, and the writers of the Washington Post have done yeomen’s work in cataloging the dishonesties and diversions of the regime.

Not even the most optimistic would mistake this for the sort of highly organized mass movement that would be necessary to forge real change in the United States. But it is a start, and a promising one. Many liberals are now being challenged to pick a side, convinced by the over-weening actions of Trump and his abettors that the quiet dogmas of the past are no longer an option.

It is clear that this is a beginning, not an end and that a great deal of work remains to be done to convert this general disaffection into a systematically critical consciousness. But that is the lot of the radical. Those who would build a movement must take this opportunity to build it before the Trump regime finds its footing and pushes the forces of civilization back into the darkness of isolation.

Photograph courtesy of Karl-Ludwig Poggemann. Published under a Creative Commons license.