Donald Trump’s Cruelest Trick Yet
Last week Donald Trump announced on Twitter that he will be holding a news conference next month in which he’ll explain his plan to leave his business operations to his children, resolving in theory, at least, the enormous set of conflicts of interests that have already plagued his administration before it even began. Under normal circumstance you might read such an announcement and think, Ok, good, finally, that’s at least a positive sign. These are not, you probably do not need to be reminded, normal circumstance. Instead, my initial reaction was one of paranoid suspicion. What’s the con here? How does he plan to pull this one off?
Granted, that is in part just the inherent skepticism of a journalist, but with Trump I’d have that same reaction to literally anything he says or does. You could tell me Donald Trump bent down to tie his shoelaces and I’d need four sources for confirmation before I was convinced.
I’m not alone in this, as many of my friends and colleagues have begun to exhibit similar symptoms when it comes to anything regarding our new president elect. You needn’t look further than the replies to any single tweet of Trump’s for the instantaneous, hectoring opprobrium from the left and center, where hundreds of previously even keeled journalists, to use a technical term, are in the process of completely losing their fucking minds trying to contend with the prospects of a Trump administration. This weekend we saw 48 hours of argument parsing the relative implications of either an outbound or inbound phone call with Taiwan. Like everything else when it comes to Trump now, the assumption is that this, this here, is surely the thing that will send us careening off into an inevitable nuclear armageddon.
It’s an uncomfortable feeling, this sudden onset Trump derangement syndrome. The cruelest trick Donald Trump ever pulled off was turning us all into him. He must be delighted.
That’s not just in the sense that we typically talk about when it comes to Trump’s ambitions. His penchant for affixing his name to the towering buildings of his real estate empire, and his countless licensing arrangements on everything from steaks to vodka to board games are well documented. But something strange happened as the prospect of his election grew more and more certain. It’s not unheard of for voters to feel a connection to their candidate of choice — certainly we’ve seen this play out in a similar fashion with Barack Obama, and this time out with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton — but in the case of Trump supporters, the top-down cult of personality seems to have effected a sort of grand scale sublimation of the individual ego into the omnivorous Trumpian maw. Never mind the hats and the MAGA tchotchkes still today being sold by the campaign, the real upheaval here came in the form of Trump not only branding himself as the one true leader, but also in pulling off a rebranding of all of his followers into a piece of that whole. One common explanation for why lower and middle class Republicans seem to so often vote against their best interests, economically speaking, is because in America we all consider ourselves millionaires who just haven’t made it there yet. Trump is the embodiment of that aspiration. He is us now, and we are him.
It’s an ugly feeling.
This here, from Trump’s recent victory tour stop — which is a thing the president elect is doing — is not normal. None of this is normal.
Political scientists have been busy looking for historical and contemporary analogues for Trump’s ascendancy, and parsing whether or not a more applicable model might be of totalitarian or authoritarian rulers. At the moment, there’s a little to pick from both. On the one hand, the authoritarian tends to use power for his own personal enrichment, and rule through a mixture of fear and appeals toward fealty. But thematically speaking, the totalitarian works through the annihilation of the individual ego into the overarching teleological concept of the ruler. Salvation not only comes through the formidable power of the head of state, but also requires that each citizen is absorbed into that framework. This is a line of reasoning that comes regularly from Trump’s supporters, surrogates, and regular voters alike. We’ll all fall in line. To be against Trump is to be unpatriotic. The mere act of dissent is akin to treason. To being outcast from membership in the very United States.
You might expect this from his supporters, but the gravitational heft of Trump’s ego has become so powerful, that it’s managed to pull many of us, even his most ardent opponents and detractors, into its field, like a black hole devouring light.
In the few years prior to his campaign, Trump’s chief role in the public consciousness was that of the conspiratorial minded antithesis to Obama, a shrieking Twitter egg in the flesh, or, as many have called him, a blog post comment section come to life. There was no bottom to the depths he would sink in his efforts to delegitimize the president. In fact, his wholehearted embrace of the birther movement was the stepping stone to the national political scene. Since that time, he’s served as a constant niggling thorn in the president’s side, slinging all manner of accusations that had little basis in reality. There was no conspiracy too far fetched for Trump to buy into. This was not unique to Trump, as the rise of simpatico publications like Breitbart and InfoWars served as a constant source of fodder for haranguing paranoiacs on the right. But in a clever sleight of hand, with Trump’s election, an existentially unmooring role reversal has taken place. Scarcely a few hours go by now where myself and people like me aren’t now engaged in the exact same behavior that Trump became famous for, reading the tea leaves of every cabinet appointment rumor for signs of the apocalypse, or concocting elaborate speculative fantasies by which Trump and his four horseman of graft will undo the Constitution and the Republic itself in short order. We grasp at futile conspiracies, or convince ourselves that highly unlikely outcomes will save the day — Jill Stein’s recount, a petition to encourage faithless electors to cast their vote for someone else, calculating each day Hillary’s increasing lead in the popular vote. More than a few people rightfully aghast when such things were said about Obama have taken on a staunch “not my president” attitude when it comes to Trump.
I now spend the bulk of my days on Twitter screaming into the void about his every utterance, assuring anyone who’ll listen of our certain doom. And what’s worse, I actually believe it. Never mind that, unlike in the case of Obama, most of the accusations against Trump seem to at least be born out of fact-based reality that we used to call home, the effect on the individual psyche is no less damaging. It doesn’t feel good to be like this. I’m not alone either. You may have seen this syndrome take hold of many of your friends. You’re probably suffering from it yourself.
Instead of political history, there might be a more appropriate analogy to be made about what’s going on here. In cases of domestic or emotional abuse, victims may often find themselves taking on the traits of their abuser. The distrustful or jealous husband passes his behavior onto his spouse, the abusive parent poisons his children with an inexplicable anger. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Trump — himself alleged to be an actual abuser — has performed a similar transmission of dysfunction. It was always clear Trump was going to attempt to rebrand the country in his image. I just didn’t think he was going to easily vacuum the rest of us into the maelstrom.