The American Mind: Once Upon a Presidency

 

Once Upon a Presidency is written by Joshua Hochschild, Professor of Philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University, for The American Mind.

From populist to dissident

Let’s say you’ve long been disaffected with political parties. You don’t trust them. You care about politics, but you don’t see much promise in the standard candidates.

Let’s even say you have suspicions the two parties are more interested in their own power than in helping the country.

Occasionally you see promising people come forward, challenging the conventions. Maybe your interest is piqued by an Andrew Yang or Tulsi Gabbard, a Marianne Williamson or Bernie Sanders. Or perhaps by a Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Ron Paul, or Herman Cain.

Whoever they are, interesting people with interesting ideas show up, and somehow they speak to you. They seem to share some of your interests. But they never get a foothold in the game of national politics.

Maybe you don’t understand politics, and these candidates always lose fairly on the merits. But you suspect the deck is stacked against them. They criticize Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, corruption in politics. You’ve heard them called “populists,” but they always end up getting labeled something like “fascist” or “socialist,” and cast aside.

Or maybe you do understand politics. You long for an outsider, populist candidate, not because you are naïve, but because you are well-read. You’ve studied history and political theory. You don’t care much for pundits or journalists; you read thoughtful, literate writers who provide historical and philosophical perspective—thinkers most pundits and journalists have never heard of and wouldn’t understand.

Or maybe you are a sincerely religious person and you know your beliefs are not, will never be, embodied in a political party. You know all politics is compromise. But you also feel an obligation to help improve the world through politics, and this only makes you all the more frustrated at the narrow range of options presented by the two parties.

For whatever reason—naïve disaffection, intellectual aloofness, religious detachment—you don’t feel at home in mainstream partisan politics, and you suspect that the system, the two parties themselves, are stacked against you.

There are economic and political explanations of why they might be stacked against you. Whether you are aware of these explanations or not, the evidence is clear: candidates who challenge them, candidates who are too “populist,” are always marginalized, ridiculed, suppressed.

Then along comes Trump.

The Renegade

Is his candidacy a joke? Is he worth paying attention to? Is this a publicity stunt?

He says things that seem to make sense to you, and moreover he says them effectively. He inspires followers. He beats opponents. He doesn’t put up with establishment bullshit. You don’t like him—almost everybody says this—but he shows an attractive charisma, a fighting spirit. Even his imperfections—“incivility,” strange mannerisms, shamelessness, a less than respectable past—seem to be part of his energy, his dynamism.

And his actual policies? The things he says he wants to do? Well, maybe you don’t agree with every single one, but there is actually a coherence to them, a sense of priority and pragmatism. Energy independence. Non-interventionism. Revitalizing manufacturing. In substance, as well as style, he seems, well, populist.

Sure he’s rich (maybe) and a celebrity (certainly), and so not what you expect as a populist. But unlike a lot of rich people, he’s not owned. He doesn’t seem to defer to anybody or anything. He doesn’t owe anything to anyone, least of all to the party whose nomination he seeks or the powerful interests that seem to pull the strings in Washington.

So you find yourself one of tens of millions willing to give him a chance. What’s the worst that can happen?

You notice he’s usually attacked not for his policies, but for his style. They say he is “dark.” They say he is “scary.” They say he’s a racist and misogynist. They even say he doesn’t have a sense of humor, or that he’s psychologically ill. You don’t see any of this—but you do see who is saying these things: his enemies in the two parties who would be threatened by his success. You don’t think the charges are fair—but even if they are, it’s what he’d do in office, not his style or his tweets, that matters.

Maybe you see a rally on TV, or maybe you attend one yourself. It doesn’t seem “dark.” The tone is cheerful, patriotic. He’s funny, and also substantive. And the crowd—it’s diverse and friendly. Normal people. Truckers and plumbers and builders. Lawyers and dentists and accountants. Teachers and engineers, restaurant owners and waitresses, moms and grandmothers, people who haven’t been inspired by politics before, all sorts.

The Unthinkable

And then: Trump wins.

Everybody is surprised. Some people even seem genuinely scared. You wonder if the media emphasis on how “scary” he is might be harming people’s mental health.

The opponents obviously overplay their hands. They are hearing “dog whistles” that aren’t there (and they would only signal “dogs” if they were there, anyway). Maybe some of your friends call you a racist for supporting Trump, but you know you aren’t a racist, and you don’t think he is either.

The racism charge is so common and people are so scared that a few smart liberals who opposed Trump beg for people not to lose perspective, to give him a chance, and to stop “crying wolf” about his racism.

You wonder, “Why aren’t people more interested in understanding why Trump won?” They assume that since Trump is “dark,” his widespread support must be “dark.” Trump is a racist, they say, so his supporters must be racist. Or his supporters are brainwashed, the victims of manipulation. Or maybe there was foreign interference. Maybe the election was rigged.

If you haven’t given up on the biggest media outlets by now, perhaps you find some traditional journalists that avoid this cheap, simplistic narrative—journalists doing serious work to explain the political landscape. Perhaps you find one of the honest, anti-Trump journalists, like Tim Carney or John Miller or Chris Arnade, covering Trump’s actual populist appeal, seeking to understand the kinds of people who voted for him, the real civic and economic conditions that Trump appealed to.

But these hardworking, gumshoe journalists seem the exception, not the rule. And their stories, the ones that have a ring of truth to you, are subtle, complicated, and under-the-radar. They don’t play well on social media. They don’t make good memes. It’s outrage that sells. People who are afraid don’t want to be told not to be afraid. They want to be told they have good reasons for their fear.

So cooler heads do not prevail. Trump is never given a chance. Though he evidently wants to work with Democrats—on major issues, like immigration, health care, and tax reform—the Democrats refuse to work with him.

Then, at one point, there is supposedly proof that Trump is a racist. In the wake of tragedy in Charlottesville, he said that white nationalists, white supremacists, Neo-Nazis were “fine people.” Shocking. Smoking gun.

But it’s not. You see it’s a lie, a lie started and propagated by journalists. Clever editing, willful misreadings, bad faith, outright dishonesty. You read the transcript, you watch the video, and it’s obvious: Trump said there were “fine people” on both sides of the debate about statues, but he clearly, unequivocally, and multiple times condemned white supremacists and neo-Nazis. The “smoking gun”…isn’t.

The Lies

Half the country never heard about this though. They fell for a hoax. They believed they really had “evidence” that Trump was an unashamed racist. Crazy, huh? Why? Why would this hoax be perpetuated? Political gain? Outrage clicks? Have the journalists convinced themselves? Who knows the motive: in any case, it proved a useful myth for politicians, an easy talking point. Joe Biden believed the “fine people” lie (or claimed to). Eventually, he identifies it as the basis of his campaign against Trump.

Meanwhile, Trump’s very legitimacy as president has been challenged from the beginning. His opponents accused him of stealing the election. Foreign interference. “Russian collusion.”

These charges are leveled for years. No evidence. Just allegation. Conspiracy mongering. No proof. For years, they say the election was rigged, illegitimate. But no evidence.

Eventually the evidence that does come out is that the whole thing was made up. It’s not just a false allegation, but a contrived hoax, a political con-job. People high up in the FBI lied about it, fabricated evidence, entrapped people on false charges, testified falsely in Congress, hid evidence, and coordinated with the press to leak false information. It was an egregious abuse of surveillance powers. Maybe you see a popular documentary about it, or maybe you were able to put enough pieces together after seeing it argued about and dissected all over social media.

You’ve long known that the media manipulates and lies, and you’ve seen it exacerbated on social media. The media has become masterful at manipulating narrative, framing things, hiding things. Maybe you also watched a documentary about that too (one of the top documentaries of the year, even after being suppressed by Amazon).

You know your disaffection with “the establishment” isn’t partisan: Democrats and Republicans seem corrupt, liberals and conservatives are fed up with “the system.” The media seems systematically dishonest. These are basic civic and human rights you care about: the right to the rule of law, the right to a free press, the right to free and fair elections, the right not to be manipulated.

Big journalism itself seems to be part of the problem, coordinating with the established interests in the two parties to push their narrative. Did they help dispel the “Fine People” hoax? No, they magnified it. Did they properly cover the collusion allegation? No. Did any evidence ever emerge that Trump stole the election? No. But it made for clickable headlines for four years.

“Trump stole the election”: it was literally a conspiracy theory, but it had traction because, of course, we all know about corruption and fraud in politics. We expect it. Heck, Kennedy’s theft of the election from Nixon was a plot-point in Mad Men.

Perhaps you’ve also done a little digging and you know that there are questions about voting machines and how trustworthy they are. This was even a major Democratic complaint following the 2004 election. You’ve always wondered how those machines worked, how they could be secure. Potential for fraud has been widely recognized. Maybe you saw one of numerous stories, or even caught the HBO documentary, about how these machines are not only vulnerable, but suspiciously, intentionally vulnerable.

You’ve also noticed that social media plays a role in manipulating people—not only bad actors on social media, but the social media companies themselves: they tweak their algorithms to manipulate your behavior. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature—it’s the business model…(continues)