The cartoonish absurdity of an unhinged megalomaniac like Donald Trump as president-elect will soon be succeeded by the hard reality which is likely to be far more terrifying, writes Sean Hosking.
DONALD TRUMP's transformation from reality TV star property developer to president-elect of the United States has impacted on the global political establishment with all the intensity of an epoch ending meteor.
While the right wing establishment has displayed its long term penchant for trading moral integrity and ideological coherence for power, and quickly adapted to the idea of an unhinged megalomaniac as commander-in-chief, elements of the progressive left have reacted by turning the whole of social media into a mass critical incident debriefing room and notice board for “how stupid Trump and his supporters are”. They scan every Trump tweet for indictable offences, grasp for non-existent legal or constitutional barriers to his presidency, and rail against “normalisation” as if Trumpism is a virus that can be quarantined and contained before it has spread.
But the power and influence conferred through an office as culturally mythologised as the president of the United States is profound and defies containment. It insidiously disarms and co-opts people and institutions, legitimises the most brutal and corrupt activities of state, and generates narratives that quickly morph into popular conceptions of “common sense”, even when under the control of the most incompetent and morally reprehensible administrations. The recent record of the U.S. news media in acting as a corrective does not inspire confidence. The United States will change profoundly after Trump becomes president.
Already the shift in the political status quo has been extreme. That angry marginalised cohort formally known variously as right wing “nut jobs”, “fascists”, “neo-Nazis”, “white supremacists” and “angry antisocial white men who can’t get laid” are suddenly finding themselves invited to all the best parties in town. Grungy rust belt racist chic is now all the political rage, anger and ignorance the gold standard political currency, and to rant about how elites and minorities are destroying the country is to stake one’s claim to that exclusive and highly sought after prime piece of political real estate — the “real world”.
It could have been different. Mainstream Americans had a choice between venting their frustrations by kicking upwards (Bernie Sanders), kicking down (Trump) or voting for more of the same (Clinton). In the end they (or 24 per cent of them) chose to kick down. In the time honoured fashion of the right wing populist, Trump won by offering up a gallery of sacrificial victims, most of them of the weak and disadvantaged kind, with the obligatory cultural and political elites thrown in over the top. Standard Republican fare.
The economic elites, for whom the whole rapacious capitalist grinding machine was created and to whom was siphoned every dollar gouged from the American worker over the last four decades, were of course exempt. It is they who will be forming government, along with a rag tag band of militant ex-generals and assorted right wing ideologues. This is an irony lost on nearly everyone — except sections of the non-preferred “elites”, whose opinion, in any case, is now irrelevant.
With the public square reduced to the fast food section of a Wal-Mart and the political sphere effectively overrun by corporate sponsored political apparatchiks with holiday houses in the Hamptons, large sections of the American public had either completely disengaged from politics or sought solace and meaning in the clannish political ghettos, venting houses and spite dens of the internet.
Trump won the endorsement of many of these people — not necessarily because they believed that he would save them, but because his sheer oafishness carried the imprimatur of authenticity. Stupidity is a great leveller, particularly to people who have been confronted for the last three decades by silver-tongued technocrats, spouting incomprehensible guff about economic competitiveness and trade agreements. If Trump is a rich and successful oaf – a malevolent Forest Gump type figure – then so much the better. What better way to get even than to unleash an uncouth, pretentious, thug into the august halls of power.
For a Republican Party that has long been drifting toward the lunatic fringe, Trump’s descent to a more pure and visceral form of post-truth irrationalism was a necessary next step. If key planks of your party platform involve the total repudiation of mainstream science, and a pathological support for the big end of town combined with a denial of basic welfare protections and entitlements for working Americans, there comes a point where your capacity to argue your case rationally and truthfully to a disintegrating middle America becomes untenable.
And, really, fact-free irrationalism makes sense for the party of freedom and liberty. The freedom to say and claim anything that suites your political purposes totally unbounded by the constraints of reality, truth, and reason is the ultimate form of political liberation, the final act in escaping the shackles of democratic accountability and state obstructionism. Trump’s lasting legacy, if he doesn’t blow up the world, is likely to be that he demonstrated to future generations of political charlatan’s, carpetbaggers and fraudsters the viability of this kind of politics and the complete inability of democratic institutions to stop it.
But reality will bite at some stage. It’s not hard to imagine how things might unravel. Trump has bluffed his way into office on a raft of lies and wild promises that he cannot keep. No matter how successful his repertoire of bluster and bullshit, or convincing his repudiation of observable facts has been to date, he has presumably not yet fully transcended the constraints of the real world. At some stage, the gap between his rhetoric and policy achievements will produce tensions that he will struggle to contain, no matter how many distractions, stunts, scapegoats and idiotic tweets he offers up. How he responds to these tensions is where things are likely to get ugly.
For a self-styled tough guy president and media floozy, famed for having an attention span estimated to be about half as long as it takes to read the heading on a briefing paper, the complexity and slow grind of domestic policy reform is, in all likelihood, not going to cut it. His company tax cuts and massive increases in military spending will blow out the budget and limit any capacity to engage in job creating public works. Mooted increases in infrastructure spending will take years to fully roll out and there are indications that what he has in mind is little more than a tepid public-private partnership corporate subsidy scheme.
Rounding up and deporting illegal immigrants may provide Trump with the hard leadership visuals that he craves, particularly if he opts to don flak jacket and paramilitary fatigues and command an operation himself. Frog marching illegals out of car washes and bundling families sleeping ten to a room into lock up vans in an Independence Day “President as warrior hero saving the nation” style media event would, no doubt, appeal to the reality TV star in Trump (this isn’t a joke because it’s highly plausible). It might, however, alienate as many people as it would win over — if not for humanitarian reasons, then for economic.
Already the list of promises Trump has broken is growing. With a support base baying for a “big”, “great” and “wonderful” America that no longer exists, the pressure for Trump to produce some substantial and compelling act of “strong” leadership is likely to become overwhelming.
This might manifest in any number of alarming ways, but with the most powerful military arsenal in world history at his finger-tips, unprecedented security state powers and a defence and national security executive dominated by hard line former generals and right wing hawks, the writing is firmly on the wall. It is hard to see an individual as unstable, aggressive and ego-driven as Trump not going the way of every other tin pot dictator on the make and resorting to major military conflict to shore up his political stocks.
Whatever way it goes, the cartoonish absurdity that currently prevails will soon be succeeded by a hard reality that’s likely to be far more terrifying than many people imagine.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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