Trump seems mad, insane. Many are still drinking the Kool Aid. Why?
He seems to repeat a lie three times and then believe it. He transforms from someone who appears to smirk with skepticism at his own statements, to someone who embraces them emotionally on the third repeat, then calls up righteous anger for subsequent repeats. This TV star can spin a new reality for viewers as they stare, agog.
Some have suggested he is trying to “gaslight” the public, a term that comes from the movie Gaslight (1944), in which a man leads his wife to think she’s losing her mind. Trump makes people believe ridiculous lies. Fans are so imprinted on this rooster that, as he said during his campaign, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
An example of Trump’s mind control: when he spent years denying that President Obama wasn’t born in the USA, surely he didn’t believe it, and surely his listeners didn’t either. My friends and I thought this was stupid theatre. But like many con men, the actor drew a crowd. Eventually the crowd became enraged about the “Kenyan” president. Pitchforks and torches all around.
We alert students to confirmation bias, but do we teach them to read pathological liars? What is the administration end-game?
People who feel angry all the time anyway enjoy hearing about some outrage that’s not their fault and can be changed by violent intervention. These are not just private, semi-conscious matters. They play out within social resentments that build until they’re released in rage.
Consider American ambivalence about intervening abroad. We want it, yet feel it’s wrong.
I recently listened to a Fresh Air podcast featuring author Stephen Kinzer discussing his new book The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire, published in January 2017. His main theme is our ambivalence about U.S. interventions. Since early “framing” debates in 1898-1902, such discussions have included the need for markets abroad to buy American goods. At that time farms were producing a surplus, and people were desperate to sell it.
Kinzer says that Americans have “a divided soul”: we’re driven to invade other lands to protect suffering people, eliminate dictators (or elected presidents), seize security outposts, resources, or markets. On the other hand, we believe such interventions are un-Constitutional, unwise, and unfair. The arguments between Roosevelt and Twain have played out again and again over the years. Often they are within ourselves. Shown pictures of a suffering child in Syria, or hearing Colin Powell tell us that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, we think, “Let’s go to war!” But reminded of Vietnam or of our interventions in Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador—of the suffering we caused and the bad outcomes that resulted—we think, “Let’s don’t go to war!”
Kinzer’s “divided soul” concept got me wondering what other unconscious pressures and motives might be driving us. Surely the underground feeling for our situation, whatever it is, makes Trump’s supporters susceptible to cons.
Globalism and Populism
Long ago Henry Ford said, “Pay a man a decent wage and he will buy a car.” He raised his workers’ salaries so that they could buy a Ford, and it worked.
This was corporate planning which sought to balance the needs of workers with those of shareholders. It made the community strong, provided a model for the nation, and made him rich. Such high-wage balances in the US economy continued for almost 40 years. Remember that in the sixties you could buy a new car for $3,000 and a decent house for $10,000.
But then corporations discovered offshoring jobs and free trade agreements, which compel dispute resolutions through arbitration, thus sidelining and gutting the unions.
“…in the late 1970s…GE’s then CEO, Jack Welch…argued that public corporations owe their primary allegiance to stockholders, not employees. …companies should seek to lower costs and maximize profits by moving operations wherever is cheapest.”
The public (including workers) bought stock in the same corporations, often through retirement plans, and became invested in maximizing market share and profit margin.
As the corporations rose in power, increasingly detached from national controls, they consolidated ultra-cheap labor in poor countries and tax havens abroad. Steve Coll’s Private Empire: Exxon Mobil and American Power tells the tale.
The US capitalist system, relentlessly seeking the lowest wages around the world and the best tax havens, intensifying fossil-fuel burning and dumping waste into oceans, land, and air is unsustainable. Yet left and right join in repeating the mantra of GROWTH. “That’s what we need,” say politicians and economists and talking heads. They drill this article of faith into everyone, every day.
How has the system kept going from 1975 to now? Borrowing, hateful rhetoric, false advertising, and cheap goods. Citizens became consumers. Thoughts of long-term stabilities were replaced by thoughts of shopping. TV made people passive. Eventually it made them stupid.
We imagine GROWTH as the solution to everything. We probably hear familiar voices in our dreams, whether from Fox or PBS, reporting the “growth statistics” and making that little TV-person frown if “the growth” is off a bit.
How does this differ from the unconscious mantra of Americans in 1898 who were desperate to export the farm surplus? Kinzer’s “divided soul” concept is apt. We are riding a train to hell, yet see no alternative to increasing the speed.
Are there no limits? Can we endure ever more people, energy use, pollution, wage reduction, and consolidation of wealth at the top? The elite 1% fight for more globalism, believing they can continue to bribe or suppress citizen-workers. Eventually, as Bob Dylan sings, “…power and greed and corruptible seed, seem to be all that there is.”
Against the elites comes the rising populism of Trump, Marine Le Pen in France, Franke Petry in Germany, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and Geert Wilders in Holland. They represent anger at the policies of globalist, “neoliberal” capitalist democracies. But they also lead parties that are anti-immigration and anti-EU.
They appeal to “past glories,” pseudo-pasts when nations could be prosperous because people cared about each other as fellow citizens and had the power to resist corporations and their greedy titans. But what do these so-called populist leaders really offer? Protectionism isn’t effective in globalized Late Capitalism, as Trump is about to discover.
A New American Identity, Underground
Let’s return to Ford’s, “Pay a decent wage and a man will buy a car.” Could this be a key, a touchstone, of what makes things work? Wages relative to the price of cars was a key input of the economic and social fabric. When that factor changed, decline ensued.
The puzzling thing is how ecosystems operate with various balances, sometimes for millions of years, with competing species that try to destroy each other, but instead help each other. Could ecological modeling inform economic planning? Could ecologists who model such balances become central to our national conversation?
To oversimplify, Republicans want border security which restricts immigration, but not planning for environment, wages, or health. Progressives want environmental and health-care planning, but expect security without population or immigration limits. Each group shakes its head at the other. Both dream of endless market expansion.
There are examples of successful planning, of course. Plans have saved industries like fisheries, zoning has saved towns. Iceland and Norway, with high taxes, universal health care, and free education seem to have social contracts that keep people healthy and cheerful.
We see a lot of overreach, too. Housing developments have their homeowner’s associations. The Obama government banned importing old ivory, so now my friend, a modest farmer who embodies sustainable ideals, can’t make piano keys, which was half his living.
Of course, there is a lot of planning by corporations and public officials, focused on the short-term goals of economic growth and reelection. With enough growth, elites think they can continue to rule, consumers can be dazed and bribed, and politicians can be reelected.
But the ambivalence of public policy, the dichotomy of economic priorities, makes things worse and the pressure builds in people.
When Britain voted for Brexit, and when the USA voted for Trump, it looks as though the populace may have made terrible mistakes. When they had a chance to strike a blow against the system, they took it. For once it wasn’t “shut up and shop.” Who can blame them? The pressure rises.
That pressure is part of our Underground American Identity, now.