Trump Part I – Fever Dreams

trump_angryI haven’t slept well since the Presidential election.

The Trump presidency – an unlikely nightmare until the night of November 8th – suddenly became reality.

Taking Trump Seriously

A week before the election, Trump’s biggest Silicon Valley supporter (PayPal founder, early Facebook investor, and Gawker Destroyer) Peter Thiel offered us all some insight.[1]

“…[T]he media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously but it always takes him literally. I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally.”

He was right about the media – and probably many Clinton supporters – that Trump as a candidate often seemed fundamentally un-serious. We are now beyond the realm of what voters thought, and into the new world of Trump as President. We have to take him both seriously, and literally.

And that’s what keeps me up at night. His literal words are a nightmare.

Fever-dream of the future

What follows here are not predictions – as people who predict the future generally don’t know what they’re talking about (or they have something to sell.) I have nothing to sell. So these are not predictions, but rather fever-dreams of a possible future.

I need to write this down because I want – if any of the worst comes true – to be able to record that we knew this was possible, even from the beginning.

If Trump turns out to be the authoritarian that I fear he is, I at least want the (sad, pitiful) solace of being able to say “we saw the signs from the very start. We knew what could happen.” I think it’s safe to say his supporters and voters do not fear an authoritarian Trump regime in the same way I do. I hope for all our sakes, I am wrong and they are right.

It’s also safe to say many of Trump’s opponents do not fear Trump in quite the same way I do. By that I mean as a middle-class straight white male I don’t have precisely the same personal fears of Trump’s Presidency as do others. Although I’d like to think I’m “woke” enough to heed Neimoller’s warning about what will happen when they finally do come for me.[2]

My own fears about Trump tend to focus on an institutional crisis – his clear threats to constitutional democracy.

I find myself looking back at the rise of earlier demagogues and authoritarians, looking for lessons and signposts.

The authoritarian’s rise

The rise of demagogues and authoritarians does not pertain specifically to a story of the Left or Right. We need to study and understand the Hitler narrative, but also Hugo Chavez, and Vladimir Putin. These stories can teach us the patterns, and we need to study and watch these patterns closely.

First, dictatorship often comes through the ballot box. It did for Hitler, who led a minority Nazi party invited into power and legitimacy by arch-conservative plutocrats who decided it was better to have him inside the tent[3], where they could better control and benefit from his worst impulses.[4]

It did for Chavez, who legitimately won the Presidency of Venezuela in 1998 via an election.

A few people since the election have linked to a passage from philosopher Richard Riorty’s 1998 Achieving Our Country with a vision of a strongman coming to power in the United States. I’m afraid it’s too scarily accurate. It captures what’s happened, so far.

From Riorty’s book:

“…Members of labor unions and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking, to prevent jobs from being exported…that suburban white collar workers are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else. At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and post-modernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.

A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly over-optimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly-educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet. But such a renewal of sadism will not alter the effects of selfishness. For after my imagined strongman takes charge, he will quickly make his peace with the international super-rich, just as Hitler made his with the German industrialists.

… He will be a disaster for the country and the world. People will wonder why there was so little resistance to his evitable rise. Where, they will ask, was the American Left? Why was it only rightists like Buchanan who spoke to the workers about the consequences of globalization? Why could not the Left channel the mounting rage of the newly dispossessed?”

 

All I can say is: Riorty, in 1998, was accurate!

 

Please see further Trump posts:

 

Trump Part II – The Rise of Elected Authoritarians

Trump Part III – The Use of a Security Crises

Trump Part IV –  The Use of an Economic Crisis

Trump Part IV – The Constitutional Crisis

Trump Part VI – Principled Republican Leadership

And related Posts:

Trump as Candidate – Sovereign Debt Genius

Candidates Trump and Clinton – Economic Policy

 

[1] It appears that Thiel probably lifted and amplified the phrase from a headline and article by Selena Zito in the Atlantic that appeared in September 2016.

[2] The German Protestant pastor Martin Niemoller’s warning of course reminds us that although I will not be picked up first, I and everyone else has a duty to speak out about authoritarian round-ups:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

 

[3] Pissing outward, etc etc

[4] Trump was not particularly embraced by his country’s plutocrats before the election. Technology and finance titans from Soros to Silicon Valley executives on the (presumed) left opposed his campaign, while many of the plutocrats on the right (including the politically-active Koch brothers) similarly declined to support him prior to the election. Famously, no CEOs of Fortune 100 companies backed Trump publicly, while 11 CEOs backed Clinton. Some of that lack of CEO support may be explained by the fact that Clinton was ahead in the polls, and therefore a safer bet, all the way until election day. But still, Trump certainly wasn’t “handed the throne” by a group of high-profile business elites.

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