Barry Goldwater's campaign slogan from 1964, for those of you who don't remember (snot nosed punks!). Goldwater was reaching out to supporters, claiming he was one of them. Trump represents the reverse of that. We are all Trump, he declares. And if you aren't, get lost.
In more concrete terms, think of it this way:
“The way to create more power is by giving it away and empowering staff to achieve your goals,” [Scaramucci] maintained. “But Trump is incapable of this. He has hobbled the executive branch and made it extremely difficult for the Cabinet departments and agencies to coordinate. He has left most of these agencies understaffed, and the heads of the agencies are afraid to do things because of the president’s fickleness. Nobody feels empowered and they worry if they make a mistake, the president will come hunting for their heads.”
This is, at this extreme, entirely Trump's doing. But Trump did not spring sui generis
from the American electorate. The ground for him was prepared carefully, and for a long time; and arguably, the preparation began in 1964, when the very conservative Goldwater was bested by the most liberal U.S. President in American history.
The result of that loss was a relentless effort to recapture and control the U.S. government by forces and ideologies embodied by Mitch McConnell, who cares only about power and wielding it, and doesn't give a wet snap for the republic or the people who live in it. McConnell is really the more cunning, more accomplished, political face of Trumpism. But Trumpism is just the clearest, purest, and most extreme expression of American conservatism since Nixon was forced to retire and never got to put forward his idea for a basic income (something still chatted about almost 50 years later, but still considered too extreme to ever implement. Nixon was considered wise for considering it; even Bernie Sanders wouldn't go so far today).
After Nixon, conservatives recovered their authority through Ronald Reagan, who told us government should run like a business, if in fact it should exist at all. During Reagan's tenure a plane ran off the runway in D.C. and wound up in the Potomac. Reagan, following the press's lead, praised a lone individual who jumped into the river and pulled a few passengers to safety. As others pointed out, it was government: police, firefighters, ambulance drivers, paramedics, who saved the rest of the passengers. But Reagan pointed to the brave individual who volunteered by jumping in the river on his own. That was an example of America. That what what Americans do, and they don't need government to tell them to do it. No; we just need government to rescue everyone else.
But the image became the ideal, and once again we were off on the American mythos of how John Wayne won World War II singlehandedly (well, he did in the movies) and how the west was "won" by strong silent men who imposed their will on it, and went west to escape the stifling hand of government (never mind the reality, that without government urging people to go west, and giving them land when they got there, and clearing the way for the railroad to connect the two coasts, many of those western states would still be unpopulated wilderness). And government, we were told, should be run like a business.
So now, finally, we have a businessman in office. It's telling that Reagan was never a business man. He was an employee of movie studios, and then a shill for detergent makers, and finally a politician as governor of California. Jimmy Carter had actually run a business, but it was myth that mattered, not reality. George W. Bush ran several businesses into the ground, and his father spent more time working for the federal government than actually working to create jobs, but the idea clung to Republican presidential candidates that they knew how things go done, and bidness was what got things done. Small wonder Poppy cratered when he marveled at the scanner in a grocery store. He didn't really know how business got done at all, was the message.
Newt Gingrich never did anything but work for government entities either, but like Rick Perry in Texas (who was in the same employment boat) it didn't matter. What was good for American business was good for Republican office holders, and the culmination of this determination that the business of American government is business, we got Donald Trump. A man with no business experience who hadn't quite managed to squander all the money his father left him (it's harder to do than you think to go through $400 million; Donald Trump is a testament to that, because Lord knows, he tried), Trump was elected because he sounded like a blue-collar worker (he's never done a days manual labor in his life) and he was accepted as a successful maker of businesses which in turn made jobs (even though almost every business he's ever put his name to has gone bankrupt, and his near-every business transaction has been a money-losing one). Mostly, it turned out, what Trump was good at was marketing his name, and not investing the money Daddy left him so he never lost it all in his bad ventures; the investors did.
To this day, in his heart he knows he's right. He's not right about anything, but it doesn't matter. Purity of heart is not, in Kierkegaard's formulation, to will one thing. Now, in Donald Trump World, purity of heart is to believe you are right despite all evidence and reality to the contrary. Trump even managed to hire a lawyer who would go to the well of the Senate and declare that, so long as Trump thought he was right to do what he wants, he can't even be accused of doing wrong. And thus Trump makes it all about himself; and thus do we go along with him.
Let's take another stab at explaining how Trump functions as the head of government:
“The U.S. government has the tools, talent, and team to help fight the coronavirus abroad and minimize its impact at home,” Klain writes. “But the combination of Trump’s paranoia toward experienced government officials (who lack ‘loyalty’ to him), inattention to detail, opinionated rejection of science and evidence, and isolationist instincts may prove toxic when it comes to managing a global-health security challenge.”
If Trump wants to protect Americans from what looks to be an impending global outbreak, he’ll have to turn to the government experts he’s disparaged in the past and set aside “his own terrible instincts, lead from the White House, and work closely with foreign leaders and global institutions—all things he has failed to do in his first 1,200 days in office.”
Failed to do them, we can comfortably say, because he is incapable of doing them. And the problem is not just that he's a lousy businessman. The problem is that government is not a business. Rex Tillerson was a very successful businessman, the former head of one of the richest corporations in the world. And yet he was a failure as Secretary of State not just because he answered to Donald Trump, but because he oversaw a hollowing out of expertise at the State Department that can't be blamed solely on Donald Trump, but has to be laid at the feet of Tillerson himself. The problem is not just understanding how large organizations work (Trump has no clue. He can't "work closely with foreign leaders and global institutions." It's like expecting a dog to recite Shakespeare); the problem is understanding how government works. American conservatives have disparaged government for so many decades now that it seems the only function of government is to employ dupes (i.e., Democrats) or to aggrandize power to Mitch McConnell and the most extreme of right-wing judges (what else is government for, after all, except to boss around other people?). No wonder so many "evangelical leaders" (I handle even the terms with gloves on) love Trump.
The roots of this problem don't even lie there, though, but in the Enlightenment, and in the Romantic revolution that rejected the most radical change in human culture in history: the Industrial Revolution. This is not an argument for a neo-Ludditie movement, which after all was not a rejection of "progress" but an assertion of humanity over the machine (the machine won). The ideal of the Romantic revolution was, perversely, the Byronic hero. Perversely because Byron was hardly a commoner, and his accomplishments were those of a highly privileged person who was also, as it turned out, highly gifted. In an odd way Trump is that antithesis of the Byronic hero: born equally wealthy (albeit in a purportedly classless society), he is as ungifted in every way was George Gordon, Lord Byron, was. And yet Trump and the Byronic hero, exemplified by its namesake, both stand for the individual over the system, the idealized person over the common mass. Both are, ultimately, completely undemocratic models, as opposite to Whitman's individual who is "vast" and "contains multitudes" as can be imagined. But Whitman's democratic person embodied in the poet who embraced all levels of life (especially the marginalized ones of homosexuals and women and common laborers; try to imagine Byron, or Trump, as an advocate for the common person) is not as appealing as the Byronic hero who is raised above all other persons, who is almost god-like in his individuality and particularity. It is no accident some "evangelical leaders" have tried to equate Trump with God ("the Chosen One"). They do so not because Trump is as inspiring as Byron, but because Trump is the apotheosis of American power in the individual. He appears beholden to no one, speaks for the causes they embrace (the aggrandizement of their power over women for abortion, over "non-believers" for control of the public sphere, over regaining "their own" from the "secular humanists" who deny the full authority of their god), and defies all convention and social mores. Trump speaks for no one but himself, but in our post-Romantic vainglory his supporters imagine he speaks for them. Just as the Byronic hero for a time presented a model one could live through vicariously, so too does Trump present a model every person can identify with: a fat, loud, old white man who does and says whatever he wants and "owns the libs" because that is what is best in life.
That it's a sad, pathetic spectacle which is not only dangerous to but absolutely destructive of the course and purpose of governance is besides the point. Self-governance is a concept Trump's supporters cannot grasp and resent having to yield to. They consider themselves the "victims" and want only to victimize others, the better to think better of themselves. They are both superior and suppressed, in equal measure, and pointing out the illogic of that only proves how afflicted they are, and how belittled. Trump doesn't speak for them, as Goldwater professed to do; Trump speaks of them, and cares only for himself. Which is precisely what they do; they care only for themselves. If self-fulfillment and self-actualization are the goals of the Romantic movement, they care only for self-satisfaction and self-aggrandizement. The former, in some ways more legitimate (and in other ways more troublesome) goals require too much introspection and too much regard for the other, for all who are not you or just like you. This they reject, as Trump does; this they disdain, because it puts some measure of responsibility on them. Trump rejects all responsibility and accepts only authority. Fault always lies with someone else; it is people he discards who are the failures, never him. He is a monster of selfishness and self-concern, but that is a monstrousness that always appeals to a certain portion of the populace. In his heart, he knows he's right. In the hearts of each one of his followers, they know they are right, too. And like Trump, they resent anyone who stands as obstacle to their full enjoyment of that truth. Describe it as narcissism, as psychopathy, as the will to power and the power of willful ignorance; it doesn't matter. The end result is that a culture steeped in the importance of the individual, of you as an important individual, has produced this pathology, this illness, this very social disease.
And the system is not going to save us from it: not the law, not the Constitution, not the houses of the Legislative branch who have authority over the Executive in these matters. In his heart Trump knows he's right, and he doesn't care what anyone says about him. His critics are enemies; his supporters are of value only so long as they sing his praises, and they must sing them loud and long and louder and louder. In his heart he knows he's right, and not even punishment would stop him, nor change him. He will not be removed from power except by rejection at the ballot; he will not be reined in because he recognizes no constraint except the criminal laws and so long as he is POTUS he is free from them. This is not the product of the sleep of reason because reason put the system in place that led to him being in office. This is the result of a change in culture the "Founding Fathers" could not have foreseen (by the time the Romantic revolution had reached these shores they were all moldering in the grave, despite the fact it originated almost as the Constitution itself was being ratified), but it is also just as much a result of their confidence in the power of reason to rule the affairs of humans. It doesn't matter, really, what they knew or thought or expected. What matters now is what we do. In our hearts, we know he's wrong; that Mitch McConnell is wrong, and Ted Cruz, and John Barasso, and all the Senators who will, for one reason or another, shirk their responsibilities to the nation and let this man run amok and tell the voters "You broke it, you bought it!" We have a man in the highest office in the land who thinks that whatever he does is right, because he does it. And when he does nothing, he's still right, because he convinces himself he's done so many things he hasn't done. When he does wrong, now he knows he can hide it, he can say what he wants about it, and what he says is true, because the Senate of the United States of America has said they won't contradict him, not even one word he speaks.
In his heart he knows he's right. Trump wants you to believe that he's right, and that you should think so, too. He doesn't want you on his side; he wants you cheering only for him. Because if you are not with him, you are against him. And he is, in the end, the only one who matters. Which is not undemocratic; it is anti-democratic. He is not a challenge to the government; he is the rejection of governance. In truth, he is a monster we have created. If we are like biblical Israel at all, it is in this: that we were told to do better, and we were told how to do better, and we refused to listen. In our hearts, we knew we were right, too. Except for us it won't be the Exile; but it won't be the Peaceable Kingdom, either.