The trick to making something like sense out of these first stages of Donald Trump’s presidency is distinguishing between conduct that merely is vulgar or idiosyncratic and those ideas, policies and appointments whose implications are genuinely sinister.
The difficulty, of course, is that the new chief executive’s bellicose, frenetic, self-aggrandizing and habitually mendacious persona throws up a kind of smoke screen that impedes such sober distinctions. His appallingly tasteless and offensively egomaniacal performance before the “Wall of Heroes” at CIA headquarters Saturday was a quintessential example of the boorish and dissembling Trump; his cabinet and White House staff appointments are chilling examples of the sinister, authoritarian politician with whom we’ll have to contend for the next four years.
This is the Trump who, as his designated defender of the indefensible—Kellyanne Conway—put it to an interviewer Sunday, deals in “alternative facts.” It’s the Trump who lays rhetorical claim to a Peronist-style populist and protectionist mantle and yet peoples his administration with an historically unprecedented cadre of billionaire plutocrats and wealthy cronies, along with a handful of the one-percenters’ useful idiots.
We know that he has nominated as his Attorney General a senator who is a life-long antagonist of voting rights guarantees and legal immigration, as Treasury Secretary a shameless profiteer on the mortgage crisis with hidden wealth in off-shore tax shelters, as Secretary of Education, an hereditary plutocrat hostile to public schools and, as Environmental Protection Agency chief, an oil company patsy who refuses even to support the federal waivers that allow states like California and Massachusetts to adopt strict clean air standards.
Trump’s nominee as Secretary of Health and Human Services not only wants to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, but also Medicare. His congressional allies want to privatize Social Security and Medicare, the two most successful federal social programs in American history. Two of his most senior White House advisors, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, are creatures of the murky alt-right, white nationalists, unapologetic misogynists and primitive economic protectionists.
(Apparently, somebody forgot to tell Trump that, apart from authoritarianism, Peronism had two legs—economic protectionism and extravagant social welfare spending. Oh well, one supposes two out three isn’t too bad, or at least one assumes that’s so in the world of “alternative facts.)
To justify all this, Trump proposes a dystopian interpretation of contemporary American life, one he outlined in the uniquely dark and hostile inaugural address that Bannon and Miller drafted for him to deliver. Grim though it may be, it’s also a stunning exemplar of Conway’s “alternative facts” in action.
Take, for example, Trump’s reference to “millions and millions of Americans left behind” without jobs. It’s one of the ironies of American economic policy that, while polls almost habitually give the GOP high marks for “managing the economy” recent history vindicates the Democrats’ status as the party of prosperity.
Trump inherits from Barack Obama one of the longest and most expansive bull equities markets in U.S. history; the other occurred during Bill Clinton’s eight-year administration. Democratic presidencies have been as good to workers as they have been to investors. When Obama took office in the depths of the great recession, unemployment was 7.8%. Trump inherits a jobless rate of just 4.7%, which modern economists consider just about full employment. Similarly, joblessness stood at 7.3% when Clinton took the oath of office, and it was just 4.2% when he handed the job off to George W. Bush.
Is the American landscape, as Trump alleged in his inaugural address, really pock-marked with “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape?” In fact, according to the Federal Reserve’s industrial production report, American factories today produce twice as much as they did in 1984. However, because of technological and organizational advances in productivity, they manufacture double the volume of goods with one-third fewer workers. Moreover, U.S. production of high value durable goods—electronics, aerospace equipment, motor vehicles and machinery—hit an all-time high in 2015, more than triple what it was in the imaginary golden age of 1980.
You’d never know it from listening to the oil industry shills in Trump’s circle, but America—with all its environmental safeguards—leads the world in oil refining and in the production of its byproducts, like petrochemicals, plastics and organic chemicals. In fact, refined petroleum in the form of gasoline, fuel oil, jet fuel and liquefied refinery gases is America’s leading manufactured product. In 2014, our refineries turned out $700 billion in product.
Does that sound like America is an industrial graveyard to you?
What is true is that U.S. industries that paid lower wages to modestly educated workers have lost out to places like China, Mexico, Vietnam and Bangladesh where pay is rock bottom and working conditions often are abysmal. American production of apparel is down more than 80% since the mid-1980’s and total textile output has fallen 50% since 2000. Those factories never are coming back to the United States, and it’s unlikely that the overwhelming majority of American consumers would be willing to forego the low price of clothing they now enjoy because their shirts and dresses are made abroad.
Trump offers nothing to the Americans who used to work at sewing machines or power looms into the new digitalized economy and perpetuates a hoax every bit as cruel as his phony university when he vows to bring large scale garment and textile manufacturing back to America. Once a huckster and con man, always a huckster and conman, one has to imagine.
What about his description of the inner cities has ridden with “crime, gangs and drugs,” prime contributors to the “American carnage” he alleges afflicts the country he now governs. It is true, of course, that some parts of some cities—notably South Chicago and parts of New Orleans and Detroit—are unacceptably, even scandalously unsafe. Those places, however, are exceptions in a country whose crime rates are at near historic lows, levels not seen since the 1930s. The FBI reports that property crimes continue to decline across the country, while violent crimes have begun to rise again, albeit slightly. Even so, they’re still 16.5% lower than they were just 10 years ago.
When it comes to the increase in violent crime, Trump, who has shamelessly pandered to the National Rifle Association and the rest of the gun lobby and says he favors adoption of a national “right to carry” statute, assiduously avoided mentioning firearms’ role in our violent crimes. According to the FBI, 71.5% of all the nation’s homicides last year involved a gun, as did 40.8% of all robberies and one in four aggravated assaults. The most recent figures available from the Centers for Disease Control, report that more than 21,000 Americans use a firearm to commit suicide each year.
I’m not sure what carnage looks like from atop Trump Tower, but from where I sit, that’s a blood bath.
Will Trump’s inability to do anything about any of these imagined ills matter to his enthusiastic base? Perhaps not. As the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib shrewdly puts it, “His backers support his attitude more than any agenda. . .and likely will accept a fair amount of inconsistency.” Perhaps more important, Trump, Bannon and their circle have enthusiastically embraced a sentiment put baldly to them by their Brexit/UKIP ally, Arron Banks: “Facts are white noise and emotions rule,” he says he told Trump’s advisors.
Bannon, a Banks admirer is very much a believer in the emotional alternative facts worldview. Like his boss, an unabashed admirer of his own work, the one-time Breitbart website chief described the tweet-like inaugural address he wrote for Trump thus: “I don’t think we’ve had a speech like that since Andrew Jackson came to the White House. It’s got a deep, deep root of patriotism. It was an unvarnished declaration of the basic principles of his populist and nationalist movement.”
When dealing with the Trump circle, of course, you never know, whether what you’re hearing is simple ignorance—or one of those sets of “alternative facts.” Just taking a look at Jackson’s inaugural address—which is widely available on line and in his various biographies (not to mention, the Library of Congress which preserves Jackson’s own hand-written draft)—would tell you it was nothing like the speech Trump was given to deliver. Jackson’s address was a model of humility and conciliation with his political foes and the other branches of government—attributes singularly lacking from Trump’s address.
All that leaves aside the point that Jackson is a dubious model as presidential precedent, since he was a particularly vocal white supremacist and a fervent advocate of what we now call ethnic cleansing with his “Indian removal.” He succeeded a man, John Quincey Adams, who was in every sense his experiential, intellectual and moral superior. Jackson, moreover pursued economic policies that produced the devastating financial panic of 1837.
Perhaps Bannon missed all that in history class—or, perhaps, he has an “alternative” set of facts that justifies the Trail of Tears upon which Jackson set the Cherokee.
Similarly, we have to wonder what he really understands about one of the signature phrases he wrote into Trump’s dark inaugural. “From this day forward,” Trump told his audience, “a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward it’s going to be only America first, America first.”
That’s a phrase with a deeply sinister past. It was the name of the racist, elitist and deeply anti-Semitic isolationism movement that rose in the 1930’s to oppose President Franklin Roosevelt’s anti-Hitlerian foreign policy. The movement’s chief spokesman, Charles Lindbergh, decried Jewish influence over American society. “Their greatest danger to this country,” he told one of his audiences, “lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”
It is in the nature of the sort of populism Trump and his Bannon-dominated circle now embrace that the nation’s “real people” are the source of their authority. “Populists speak in the name of the people,” writes the Central American specialist Timothy Garton Ash, “and claim that their direct legitimation from ‘the people’ trumps all other sources of legitimate political authority be it constitutional court, head of state, parliament or local and state government. Donald Trump’s ‘I am your voice’ is a classic populist statement. . .The other crucial populist move is to identify as ‘the people’ ( or volk) what t turns out to be only some of the people.”
As Ash points out, the Princeton scholar Jan-Werner Muller, an historian of populism, argues that the movement “is inimical to pluralism, Its target is pluralist, liberal democracy, with those vital constitutional checks and balances that prevent any ‘tyranny of the majority from prevailing over individual human rights, safeguards for minorities, independent courts, a strong civil society and independent diverse media.”
There’s something to look forward to—particularly when practiced by people who believe that the facts according to which the rest of us live have “alternatives.”
What Trump, Bannon et al seem to envision for this country is a protectionist economy, a house-broken press and every other branch of government or organ of civil society subservient to the whims of the president’s authoritarian and capricious personality. Personal government at the service of a pathological personality.
The foreign policy they hope to pursue is equally threatening and grim. Bannon has spoken openly about his belief that far right-wing governments are likely to come to power in the upcoming Dutch, French and German elections. With Brexit already a fact, Bannon and his ilk believe the EU will dissolve and the United States can negotiate “America First” trade agreements with the splintered community, which will dissolve into a welter of illiberal democracies along the lines of contemporary Hungary, Poland and Turkey.
In other words, the new American Administration would gleefully see this country forced back into something it might have been had Lindberg and his movement prevailed in 1938 and Europe degraded into some version of 1939. Like most of the populist demagogues who’ve come before—Mussolini, Huey Long, Peron—Trump is, as a man, personally ridiculous; his ideas, on the other hand, deeply sinister. Left unchecked, the world the new Trump Administration would make is the one Auden described back on the cusp of World War II:
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Intellectual disgrace S
tares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.