Reeking city on a dung heap: Donald Trump’s cynical worldview and its threat to democracy
You can tell a lot about a person by the way they see the world and others in it.
Those who view the world and its inhabitants as basically good, and who remain relatively hopeful about the better angels of our nature, though occasionally caught off guard by the less salutary aspects of the human condition, tend to believe in the capacity of everyday folks to solve problems and make the world a better place, given the right incentives and resources. Not to mention, their ability to smile, to laugh, and to find light-heartedness even amidst great pain makes them considerably more pleasant to be around. Although given to bouts of deep melancholy — after all, the optimist is perhaps more dismayed than others by evidence of their miscalculations, when they are occasionally and quite rudely disabused of their buoyancy — these are the kinds of individuals who nonetheless typically inspire us to be better than we are and who have little doubt that we can be.
Alternately, those whose disposition is gloomy, and who see the world as a mean and nasty place filled with equally mean and nasty people, though occasionally proved right — there are, after all, such people and life can be tragic — tend to inculcate a defeatist cynicism and a harshness of affect counterproductive to the building of compassion, empathy or community. Their utter inability to smile, laugh, or reassure others marks them as not merely hard-headed rationalists reluctant to dwell in the occasionally unrealistic optimism of the perpetually cheerful; rather, it suggests a dystopian mindset fundamentally at odds with a functioning belief in democracy, however messy, and freedom, however chaotic. It is not merely a Debby Downer-ism into which we all fall from time to time, but a seriously maladjusted persona, almost constitutionally incapable of joy.
In short, if you believe, as Dr. King did, that “the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice,” you will have a different disposition and manner of engaging that universe and its problems than one who believes the same moral arc to be, as with most of those who live beneath it, brutish and unforgiving. The former encourages one to meet people with a certain equanimity and good faith, while the latter inspires a view of others as adversaries who are, all of them, out to get you: as writer and eco-philosopher Derrick Jensen says, the “fuckers and the fucked.” And if one views the world that way, one aspires to be the one doing the fucking—to get others before they get you.
When such personality types are found in one’s family or among one’s group of associates, they can be, by turns, annoying on the one hand (in the case of the “don’t worry be happy” bunch), or depressing on the other. But one learns to navigate and deal with both in time, to take them in whatever small doses one needs to retain a sense of balance. In fact, one could say that the ideal for oneself might be a healthy blend of the two types: the careful optimist and hopeful pessimist, believing in the good but prepared for the bad and thus, rarely knocked off stride by it on those occasions when it emerges, full-blown. But when one or another of these personality types reside in the President of the United States — someone with immense power and the ability to do great good or incalculable harm — the stakes are different then when the same manifest in your second cousin, or close friend, or the person who sits in the cubicle next to you at work.
Whatever one can say about Barack Obama in terms of his accomplishments, his political philosophy or his policy decisions, only the most viciously partisan could deny that his disposition, even in the face of significant political and personal attacks, was almost unceasingly positive. Indeed for some of us on the left it was often aggravating to bear witness to the ecumenism that was his hallmark. It sometimes drove us to distraction, this ability he had to smile, remaining cool and calm even as people questioned his place of birth, and thus his legitimacy to serve as president: a racist and ignorant calumny furthered more by his replacement than anyone else in America. So often we wished for him to take the gloves off, to call bullshit, and to do more than the subtle, though effective, mocking he often delivered to others (including Trump) at the White House Correspondent’s dinner. Knowing the contempt in which he was held by the right — folks who came together immediately after his election to plot how they would destroy him and block his agenda — many of us longed for Obama to match fire with fire, to put down the knife he had brought to a gunfight and to, as Boots Riley might put it (if not on behalf of Obama per se), pick a bigger weapon. But it was not to be. Partly, perhaps, this was because as a black man in America, Barack Obama knew his anger would be read differently than that of his 43 predecessors. And if there is one thing he has learned in the course of his remarkable and unique life, it is how not to scare white folks too much. But even more to the point, we were longing for something impossible, not because of Barack Obama’s racial identity but because of Barack Obama. It simply isn’t who he is, and it could never have been the way he would govern.
As for Donald Trump, and again whatever one thinks of his political philosophy, only the most willfully inattentive could deny that his disposition is almost the exact opposite of the man he has replaced in the Oval Office. There is nothing sunny or optimistic about him. Even when he bellows that he will “make America great again,” he does so with a perpetual scowl on his face. It is the same scowl one sees on the cover of his book, released during the campaign, or on his official presidential Twitter avatar; the same frozen frown one could behold every week on Celebrity Apprentice, whether he was firing someone or pledging to give their “great, fantastic” charity $50,000. The scowl never changed. It is a look that says everything is awful, that he peers out at his nation and is disgusted by what he sees. It is the kind of look one makes upon smelling something unpleasant — a skunk in the road or a dirty diaper — but in Trump’s case, the affect never fades. He can smell the shit, always and forever. And even as he disses the nation in ways no leftist or even liberal could without being called a traitor and told to “pick another country” if we don’t like it, his fans eat it up like manna from some heavenly host. To borrow a phrase from the manosphere and “pick-up artist” community that so flocked to his cause (because sexual predators stick together), Trump is literally “negging” America — saying dismissive, snarky and pejorative things about the country — just like misogynistic PUAs do with women, so as to signal the kind of disinterest guaranteed (in their minds at least) to make those women swoon. Whether the practice actually works on women, or at least those with even a basic modicum of self-esteem, is surely arguable. But that it has worked with tens of millions of Americans and much of Congress is not.
Far from a mere critique of Donald Trump’s personalty, I would suggest that the difference between his eternal negativity and Obama’s sometimes maddening optimism is more than an interesting biographical footnote. Because while President Obama’s penchant for deliberative action fed by a faith in the nation and its people may have led him to be too forgiving of his enemies, too willing to compromise with people unfamiliar with the term and unlikely to return the favor, President Trump’s penchant for pettiness and revenge, fed by the fundamental lack of faith in America — a place to which he referred as a “disaster” while seeking to govern it — presents an altogether different challenge and danger for us all.
If the president perceives of the nation he has been called to lead as a place of “carnage” as he put it in his inaugural speech, or a place perpetually losing, governed until now by manipulative leaders who have deliberately turned their backs on the people, then that president establishes not only a deep and abiding hostility towards elected officials other than himself — which is calculated to produce uncritical loyalty to him and him alone — but paints a picture of a hellscape beset with constant dangers from which only he can deliver us. It’s why he said as much during the campaign, bellowing that he “alone” could fix the economy or defend the nation from ISIS. This, even more than racism or xenophobia is the heart of Trump’s neo-fascist politics. If the nation is failing and the current leaders elected through democratic processes cannot be trusted, then not only they but democracy itself has failed. As such, what good is it anyhow? This is a mentality further nurtured when the new leader loses the popular vote, as Trump did, by nearly 3 million votes, yet still insists that he has captured a mandate anyway, irrespective of the majority will. That most of his fellow Americans rejected him matters not. The will of his people is the will of the people, and his will is theirs.
This was the oft-overlooked problem with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Aside from the relatively obvious shortcoming of the mantra — America has never really been great for some, whether people of color, LGBTQ folks or the poor, not to mention millions of women as women — the phrase suggested a lost glory, a fetishistic nostalgia which is always found in the seedbed of fascist political movements: the idea that things in the nation were once idyllic, until those people, whomever they may be — blacks, immigrants, Jews, globalists, the gays — usurped the people’s will for their own pernicious purposes, and squandered the former glories of said nation.
Nothing good has ever come from a political leader beholden to such a fatalistic mindset as this. A man such as Trump who comes to power on the back of that kind of narrative is almost intrinsically a danger to every democratic impulse, inherently hostile to the deliberative and dispassionate balancing of national moods, desires and interests so critical to a republic. A man such as that is almost a perfect cardboard cut-out of a dictator, however much he rules over a Constitutional system of government ostensibly marked by appropriate checks and balances.
And a man such as that cannot help but unleash the destructive forces of both state and individual violence. In his inauguration speech he clearly signaled his intentions to do just that, all (of course) in the name of protecting the people laid low by the failures and betrayals of all the others who ever led them. With his dark and foreboding portrayal of America, not as a “shining city on a hill” as Reagan would have it (however naively) or as a place in need of serious efforts to create a “more perfect union,” as Obama put it many a time, Trump painted a picture of a nation on veritable life support. Forget the record string of job growth over the last 6-plus years of the Obama Administration, or the massive cut in the numbers of people lacking health care, or the substantial closing of the gap between whites and blacks in terms of health care access thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Not that these accomplishments are sufficient to rescue the Obama legacy from much deserved progressive criticism — the ACA has inadequately protected the public from rate hikes by a still empowered insurance industry and the new jobs pay less on average than the ones lost in the Bush recession — but still. To Trump, it is as if these things and others I could list are entirely inconsequential. To Trump, America is merely a place of hopelessness, violence and decay, where all the jobs are gone, where Muslim terrorists lurk around every corner and where gangs and drugs ravage the cities. It is Mad Max in real time, or perhaps Escape From New York, with Trump reprising the role of Snake Plissken called to save the rest of us from savagery.
Imbued with such a mentality, and committed — as his website and inaugural address make clear — to the restoration of “law and order,” we must expect this president to cease the Obama administration’s investigations of abusive police departments, turn a blind eye while law enforcement attacks those protesting for greater police accountability, and seek to make good on his campaign pledge to encourage stop-and-frisk policies in the nation’s cities like those made famous in his own New York, which he praised during the campaign as having worked “wonderfully.” This, despite the fact that such policies are blatantly unconstitutional, not to mention almost laughably ineffective at ferreting out criminal conduct. Of persons stopped in New York City under the practice, only 6 percent received even a minor citation and half of these were thrown out of court for lack of evidence, meaning at least 97 percent of persons stopped were ultimately innocent of any real wrongdoing. Fewer than 2 percent were found with drugs on their person, and out of 4.5 million stops over a nine year stretch, only 4500 guns were confiscated: a miserable one-tenth of one percent of all stops. Even after controlling for crime rates in particular neighborhoods, black New Yorkers were far more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped, even though whites, when stopped, were actually more likely to be found with contraband. Indeed, one of the architects of the policy has admitted that its purpose was less to fight crime than to instill fear in the hearts and minds of young black men in the city by convincing them that they could be stopped any time they walked out their front door.
But to the man who sees little more than carnage and chaos in urban America — this, even as violent crime rates in general (and among black Americans in particular) remain about half the level they were in the late 1980s and early ’90s, despite upturns in some (though not most) cities over the past two years — none of this matters. Just like it didn’t matter than his widely-condemned attack of John Lewis for daring to criticize him was premised on the easily falsifiable idea that crime in Atlanta (Lewis’s Congressional district) is out of control and the city is falling apart. As Trump put it in one of his daily eruptions of petulant twitter-vomit, Lewis should spend less time criticizing the great leader and more time fixing his district, where presumably people have no jobs or education and are dodging bullets every time they venture away from their homes. Facts need not intrude upon the lenses worn by this president. He sees what he sees and truth is entirely fungible. So it matters not to him that far from a place that is falling apart, 5 of 6 residents in Lewis’s district are not poor, 90 percent have at least a high school diploma, and 40 percent have a college degree (which is well beyond the national average). And it doesn’t matter that crime is down 30 percent in Atlanta just since 2009, and since Lewis first entered office in 1987, violent crime has dropped in that city by nearly two-thirds.
His unfamiliarity with truth and his complete disinterest in it, goes hand in hand with his despairing cosmology. If you see the world, or in this case the nation as a reeking city on a dung heap, it becomes impossible to believe anyone who suggests otherwise. It is the mentality of the conspiracist, which no doubt explains Trump’s fondness for people like Alex Jones and the paragons of paranoia at Infowars. Anyone who presents evidence that the sky is not falling, that crime is generally dropping, as with unemployment, and that wages are beginning to rise, as with health care access, can be written off as merely part of the plot to fool the masses. To present evidence rather than to merely accept the rhetoric of the leader is to be in league with the evil overlords who are seeking to deceive the nation for some pernicious end.
Meanwhile, the man who insists that those people are the ones doing the manipulating, or seeking to exercise authoritarian control over the “sheeple” motors ahead, manifesting the very behavior about which he is warning. That none of this bodes well for the nation is an understatement of somewhat Biblical proportions. When an autocrat decides on a path he will lie and manipulate and distort for his purposes, or tell his press secretary to lie, even about crowd numbers at an inauguration. Or have an adviser invent a phrase like “alternative facts” to describe what in the past we would simply call lies. It’s enough to make Goebells blush, or the Kremlin, or Kim Jong-un. And once we re-name words and concepts, and tens of millions of people accede to the duplicity in the name of the great man and his promises of safety and security and giving their lives meaning again, the distance between that place and whatever Orwell was writing about grows shorter by the minute. War becomes peace not because it is but because the leader says it is.
If we are to effectively resist this autocrat, to marginalize him, to destroy his movement and relegate him to the ashbin of history as just another bad idea — like asbestos, truck nuts or Trump steaks — it will be necessary for all those invested in liberty (even when we disagree over the particulars of policy and on many issues) to join forces in the effort.
And even more, it will be necessary for those of us on the left to point out the delicious irony of Trumpism in relation to our own politic. For generations it was we, from liberals to radicals, who were called America-hating, unpatriotic, and hostile to the nation and its institutions. Even as we demanded that America live up to its self-professed principles — which by definition suggested a fundamental belief that we were capable of the task — it was we who were instructed to love it (as it was) or leave it. Those who preferred the status quo, of segregation, blatant and legally inscribed inequality, of women and LGBTQ folk as secondary or tertiary citizens, were the ones deemed lovers of all things American. It was the people who stood for the pledge and crossed their hearts and mumbled words they had learned in pre-school but about whose meaning they had never been encouraged to spend much time thinking, who were hailed as full-throated, red-blooded members of the community. But now we see things for what they are. It is the right that is invested in cynicism, and what they themselves used to call “America hating.” What is more hateful after all: believing that we can do better and insisting that we not rest on our laurels (let alone go backwards to a fictive past), or declaring that the nation is a train wreck, where we’ll simply have to accept millions of people without affordable health care, 15 to 1 wealth ratios between whites and blacks, and an economy in which the top one-tenth of one percent of the population control as much as the bottom 90 percent combined?
It seems self-evident that to whatever extent patriotism has any positive meaning at all — or at least to whatever extent loving the nation does — it is we on the left who manifest it far more concretely than the right and infinitely more so than Donald Trump. It is one thing to see the nation in its complexity, the pain amid promise, and to demand that something be done to bring the reality in line with the rhetoric. It is quite another to see the nation as a one-dimensional shit-show from which only a solitary personality and his bombast can rescue us. The first runs the risk of being naive, while the latter runs the risk of complete civic death and the dissolution of any and everything that ever made one’s society worth having or saving in the first place.
So if you love your country and the people in it, this is your time to prove it. And it may well be the last one you get.
Tim Wise is an antiracism educator and essayist and the author of seven books. He tweets @timjacobwise and his website his www.timwise.org