Saturday, February 10, 2018

Will Trump’s Presidency be more Traumatic than 9/11?

Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks were bad, but President Trump might be worse. Not worse for the families or friends of the victims of 9/11, of course, and not deadlier since President Trump hasn’t (yet) been responsible for killing thousands of Americans. But the abomination of Trump’s presidency is potentially more traumatic for Americans generally and for the people around the world who depend economically, militarily, or culturally on the United States. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were traumatic, but not for long, because Americans easily incorporated the motives behind the Islamist terrorism into the myth of American supremacy. As George W. Bush said, the enemies hate Americans because they’re jealous of their freedoms. That line of defense isn’t crazy, since Americans should know from their familiarity with cults and from strains of Christian fundamentalism that those who resent their own inferiority might indeed make the best of their failures by committing themselves to some irrational fantasy or scheme of renouncing popular pleasures. This is to say that the right-wing slogan about foreigners’ jealousy of American riches and freedoms is theoretically plausible.

As it happens, though, the slogan is dubious. Islamist contempt for American culture began perhaps with Sayyid Qutb, who was an Egyptian author and Muslim Brotherhood member in the first half of the last century who spent two years in the United States and was disgusted by, rather than jealous of, American liberties. American freedom is wholly humanistic and godless, the late-Christian rationalizations of hedonism and financial wealth not even nearly withstanding. Therefore, the American Dream will disgust anyone who tries to love a transcendent God more than the material world. If you want to say that everyone who claims to be revolted by American culture is unconsciously jealous of it, you can just as easily declare that everyone who claims to love America secretly despises the American way of life. Pop psychological speculation is cheap, after all. Islamists claim to hate America not just because their religion is severely conservative, since Islam mandates that they submit to an otherworldly God at every moment of the day (only in heaven will martyrs supposedly be awarded with the earthly pleasures that Americans create for themselves on humanist grounds); the Islamist hatred is evidently also political, since the grievances against the West in the Middle East go back decades to the creation of artificial national borders after WWII in that part of the world, and to American and European support for secular dictators who pacified Muslim populations to squander the wealth from their natural resources in business with infidel nations.

In any case, Americans ignored all of that and weren’t overcome by the palpable waves of hatred emanating from the Muslim world. No American self-reflection was forthcoming except from some anxious progressives and socialists. Most Americans shrugged off the attacks as aberrations arising from insanity, evil, or jealousy, and so the trauma was mainly material, not psychological. American pride was temporarily wounded, Americans realized their homeland wasn’t impregnable, and New Yorkers had to live with an altered Lower Manhattan skyline, but American values after 2001 were intact. Indeed, Bush doubled down on Western adventurism in the Middle East, with his bungled neoconservative wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After 9/11, Americans didn’t have to question Americanism, because their Islamist enemies were so easily demonized.

President Trump represents the enemy within, however, and so to demonize Trump is to discover that Americanism itself is a fraud. Thus, the social impact of Trump might be more longstanding and devastating than that of 9/11. Indeed, Trump is the philosopher’s stone, the proverbial gift that keeps on giving—and not just for comedians who have in Trump’s madness and wickedness an endless source of comedy, but for thinkers of all stripes. The obviousness and extremity of Trump make him an object lesson that can’t be missed by any halfway rational and sane person who’s paying attention. Trump teaches us inadvertently what it means to be living in a ghastly, unjust world; to be driven to mistake a hideous idol for a divine saviour, because there’s no such thing as real divinity; to see Evangelical Christianity, the mass media, and the government crack and crumble from their hypocrisy; to realize, in short, that Donald Trump’s America is a sham, that all Americans and their allies are complicit in the emptiness of our freedom-loving way of life, and that Trump’s political victory might as well have been the dawning of the reign of Cthulhu. 

The dreadful lessons to be drawn from Trump’s presidency are multitudinous. Trump is a walking object lesson about the emptiness of our way of life, because he’s mentally hollow, afflicted as he is by a host of personality disorders. But our reaction to Trump is also informative. This isn’t a teachable moment as much as it’s a duplicitous civilization’s time for self-transparency. Our delusions are stripped away to reveal our collective monstrosity which Trump symbolizes. Trump is a monster and his family and fans are likewise freaks, trolls, and devils, but the anti-Trump Democrats aren’t covered in glory. Those who voted for Trump and who still approve of his presidency after his first year in office are ogres, because their failure in the globalized economy has rendered them resentful, poor, and barbaric. But the liberals and moderates who thrived under Clinton and Obama while American-style capitalism and its military-industrial-entertainment complex wreaked all kinds of calamities, from the American opioid epidemic, to the anti-Americanism of much of the Middle East, to global warming and the threat of ecological collapse are villains of a different order: not savages, but self-absorbed sheeple.

The ogre hasn’t the discipline to introspect to discover the cause of its truculence, nor the capacity to articulate that cause even should the ogre come to some self-understanding. Thus, the ogre resorts to trolling with no plan for being vindicated in the end. The only goal is to drag society down to its level, to burn it all down, making the outer world resemble its bestial inner one. Liberals have the luxury and the intellectual sophistication to ponder their state of affairs and to communicate the truth, but have instead opted to attempt to be happy. Unfortunately, you can’t love both knowledge, as a philosopher, and life as a carefree hedonist—not if the world is abysmal, which it evidently is if it awarded Americans and the liberal world President Donald Trump. This point about the conflict between knowledge and happiness runs counter to most ancient Greeks—the Cynics and the Stoics excepted—who invented Western wisdom but were anthropocentric and so shortsighted in their conviction that our existential purpose is to maintain a cosmic balance between order and chaos (as explained in Luc Ferry’s The Wisdom of the Myths). The ancient Greeks can be forgiven for their naivety, but liberals in the Age of Reason have no excuse. They contributed to the society that brought Trump to power even if they didn’t vote for him and want him disgraced by impeachment.

The question, then, is whether we can escape the reckoning with our personal share of responsibility for the subhumanity of Trump’s presidency. Perhaps you’re thinking, though, that Trump is solely to blame for himself. To believe this, you have to subscribe either to theistic myths or to liberal humanistic ones. We’re hardly ever responsible for anything any of us do, because most of human life plays out as a waking dream. We live mostly on autopilot, our thoughts and feelings competing with each other and flashing briefly in the spotlight of conscious awareness. Our mind consists of programs and habits that protect us from debilitating knowledge or from undertaking actions that are counterproductive from evolutionary or societal standpoints. If the best of us are rarely self-aware enough to have created autonomous selves in the first place, what chance has a troglodyte like Donald Trump have to be psychologically and spiritually human? Trump’s persona, the role his disorders perform for his aggrandizement, is an inhuman blight on the Western world, more like an earthquake or a hurricane than the face of a heroic or an evil person. Trump’s sociopathy was inculcated by a domineering father, by the New York Military Academy and the cruel business of New York real estate, and possibly by genes that predispose him to what psychiatrists call “shallow affect.” We miss the point of Trump, then, if our demonization of his menace lapses into personification of the man. Trump is only biologically human, not personally so. The obscenity of Donald Trump is impersonal, like the remorselessness of chance or time. But even that isn’t what’s so exceptional about him, since again few of us who laugh at Trump and consider ourselves elites are often personal beings! Only at our best, most transcendent moments of clarity, when we stop to deliberate in a disciplined exercise of higher-order thought, do we approach what philosophers call personhood or moral agency.

What President Trump signifies is the surrender to malignancy, an unwillingness to even keep up the pretense of caring about truth, dignity, or decency. This is why Trump works as an instrument of white conservative loathing. Trump’s cultists have no illusions that Trump will fix the United States. For them, making America “great” means destroying the nation since according to their Christian fiction, the world is “fallen” and can be redeemed only when a supernatural power appears in the world's apocalyptic finale. Trump's base of support remains strong, despite his manifest unfitness for high office and his failure to keep many of his campaign promises, because the cultists perceive Trump as sharing their values, which values are the stuff of their common monstrosity. In any case, the overall point of Trumpism is only to troll the power elites, to make them look foolish for having respected themselves. The point is to burden the victors of globalization with their albatross, to scapegoat and to take petty vengeance, to harass liberals for daring to speak of progress while even a single white American languishes under the heartless capitalism that’s been the cornerstone of both the Republican and the Democratic parties since Ronald Reagan.

Incidentally, the fact that most Trump supporters are effectively suicidal anarchists and nihilists is why there’s no need to prove that Trump is as bad as I’m assuming. If Trump were a decent man or a competent leader, he could hardly serve in an apocalyptic fantasy of revenge against the neoliberal establishment, the deep state, and all foreigners (nonwhite Americans). Trump’s monstrosity is taken for granted by his cult of personality, which is why I won’t spare even a sentence here to demonstrate that Donald Trump is a gruesome human being. The Republicans in office are likewise disgusted by Trump, but they’re using him much like they used George W. Bush, not to end the world but as a figurehead to implement their foreign or tax policies. So the question here isn’t whether Trump is bad, but how disastrous will be the fallout from his badness.

Trump has forever tainted the White House. Anytime you care to think of great presidents of the past, such as Washington, Lincoln, or FDR, you now have to remind yourself that a cretin held the very same office. Trump thus diminishes the role of the American presidency, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Trump has demonstrated that American presidential elections are game shows, that Americans are consumed by infotainment and that the facts don’t matter, that the masses can be easily distracted and that the bad guy can win it all. Donald Trump is living proof that the world doesn’t care about you, that justice is a farcical illusion. He’s the unlikely bully who doesn’t back down, crying when punched in the nose, but who cunningly uses his decades worth of ill-gotten gains from his bankrupt businesses and from his more recent gambit of laundering millions of dollars from Russian oligarchs, as well as his shameless showmanship and celebrity built on lies, to win the American presidency to lord it over the world that laughed at him. Trump is the bully that means to have your respect, not by learning the error of his ways as in a child’s fairy tale, but by forcing you to believe that two and two make five, as in an Orwellian nightmare. But Trump is also the bully we deserve, the absurdity we’ve brought on ourselves for having associated too long with pitiful fantasies and excuses about our alleged progress in the free world. Trump is the edifying demon or shadow figure that reveals that our treasured personal liberties are so many curses, since they mean that we’re not part of anything greater than our paltry animal selves, that we’ve only been in free fall and have finally hit rock bottom under the eternal embarrassment of President Trump.    

We don’t deserve a tragic outcome, however, not because we merit better but because our souls aren’t great enough to end with a bang rather than a whimper. For that reason, we shouldn’t expect that Trump will bring us to a point of horrific self-knowledge. Trump won’t doom us, nor will he likely receive any comeuppance. Instead, we should anticipate that the faceless American bureaucracy—including the Democrats—will regain control after Trump and will do so partly by protecting him, to spare us from having to live outside the matrix of our collective fictions. The populism of Trump’s trolls will fade as the culprits die off from opioid addiction, gluttony, and neglect. Americans will someday put the humiliation and the horror of President Trump behind them as they did 9/11.

We’ve seen this all before, when the fake progressive Obama took over from the travesty of George W. Bush. Instead of investigating the Bush administration for its 9/11 incompetence or its Iraq War lies, Obama shored up American pride with his bromides and his greater competence in managing the social systems that train Americans to be deserving of Trump. Americans evidently deserve even less than the fake messiah of President Obama who turned out to be as neoliberal (finance capitalist and market fundamentalist) as Hillary Clinton would have been had she defeated Trump in the 2016 election. Obama had his comeuppance for his failure to rise to greatness in dealing with the economic collapse of 2008, for allying himself with the Wall Street predators instead of driving his lance through the dragon that demanded human sacrifices (the poor), like Saint George. Obama’s comeuppance is his erasure from history at the hands of President Trump. For not rising to the occasion, Obama might as well never have been president, and so it will be in the history books. But just as a glad-hander took over from Bush the nincompoop, a fake progressive will stoop to pick up the pieces after the Trump fiasco, and Republicans will rush ever further rightward and will howl their indignation at every turn.

America’s anticlimactic political theater will continue. It’s the best show in town. Mind you, the point of theater, as of any art, is to learn from the simulated experience. Americans and their allies didn’t learn much of anything from 9/11 or from the ignominy of the second Bush’s time in office. The debacle of Trump’s presidency and the evident barrenness of the Republican Party will also be wasted, despite their transparency. Still, Trump will be harder to forget than 9/11, because Trump is the quintessential late-modern American, and Americans now are self-absorbed even while much of the rest of the world is preoccupied with American stories. Americans will no longer be able to maintain their sanctimonious xenophobia without recalling that Trump was the god of that attitude. The trick of avoiding the horror of the Trump within ourselves, whether we’re the hypocritical Christian savages or the hedonistic and materialistic liberals, will be to explain him away as a paranormal phenomenon, as a meaningless anomaly. And we’ll succeed because we’ll have to; no one wants to learn the truth if doing so is debilitating. We’ll need to carry on with our animal life cycle, at a minimum. To fully recognize the meaning of President Trump is to look too long at the sun; it’s to sacrifice yourself for the love of knowledge. This may be Trump’s only redeeming quality, that his grotesqueness will make that sacrifice harder to avoid.



    1. Interesting blog. Thanks for the link. Maybe I'll try to submit something there.

  2. The person who wrote this has some real issues. His militant atheistic leftist antiamerican and antirational rant is fun to read

    1. This comment isn't so informative, since almost all of humanity has "issues" with a psycho clown being in charge of the world's most powerful military, and with the country that stitched together that Frankenstein monster.

      Also, you've misused the word "militant" in the mimetic fashion, which indicates your mental states are on autopilot. (See George Orwell on his advice against resorting to prepackaged phrases.)

      Finally, as you can tell from my writings in the section Liberalism and Conservatism (link below), I reject most of what's called the political left and the right. Both of those ideologies become obsolete or mythical in light of the oligarchic default sustained by our tendency to revert to our animal nature.