In a world where the assessments of intelligence agencies are fake and fake news is real, Donald Trump risks dragging America into the trap of gullible cynicism.
In my more solipsistic moments, I almost feel like I brought this all on myself. From the time I first stepped foot onto Kazakh soil in June 2004 until the moment I left Moscow for India in April 2015, my reality, with a few intermissions, was a post-Soviet one. The learning curve was so steep I have trouble remembering former iterations of myself left scattered up and down those those myriad peaks and valleys. I came to Kazakhstan a Peace Corps volunteer with cookie cutter leftist politics, a Christian’s metaphysical armor, American idealism and enough cognitive dissonance to have my brain dancing like a washing machine on its last legs.
Something had to break.
A few years later, Russia obliged.
All the courtyard’s drunks and mutts Humpty-Dumptied me back into something both better and worse.
I was forever given an outsider’s view on my own culture. I was never fully allowed back in. When the time came, I thought I could leave Russia. But follow rivers long enough and you learn that they’re all connected. The slippery waters of White Sea unreality are now lapping on Atlantic shores.
So here’s the thing that everyone who’s ‘seen behind the veil’ already knows: the intersubjective order governing all human interactions is based on myths. Once people stop believing in those myths, the order collapses.
This is no conspiracy, you’re not Tyler Durden and the wool has not been pulled over your eyes sheeple.
Without collective intentionality, money is nothing more than a Rorschach Test on colorful paper; dead Syrian children are decaying organic matter and not war crimes. When teenagers who have never thought about metacognition first stumble upon Sartre and realize that “objective reality” isn’t something that pours unadulterated into their looking glass eyes, a few fits of philosophy often follow. Most search and ultimately find their footing on firm-enough ontological grounds. But when entire societies chase the rabbit down the hole and never find their way back, cynicism triumphs— authoritarian drift begins.
It has always been discomfiting for humans to accept that law, human rights, culture, religion and economies are underpinned by nothing more than shared agreement. It is in our nature to want an arbitrator to stand above the fray and keep the goalposts in place. Thus the original power vertical was born: God, god(s), kings, courts and commoners.
Get past that regressive thinking and you realize we ourselves are endowed with the awesome responsibility to create the architecture of our systems. We fashion the imagined order that shapes the material world.
The Soviet Union, for example, was swept up into a dialectic of Hegelian exuberance with Eschatological Marxism promising heaven on earth for the faithful. Philosophy was elevated to science; the mechanics of history’s movements oiled by pioneering engineers.
And although heaven on earth was not found (in fact, at times it was closer to hell) belief did propel man into space.
When the cracks began to appear on the canvas of socialist realism, people themselves split. As Peter Pomerantsev has noted, homo sovieticus grew up lying in every public moment, for the cost of truth-telling was the loss of job, liberty (and possibly life.)
As I previously wrote, Russia, unlike the West, first came into contact with critical theory and post modernism not during the halcyon days of social revolution and economic boom, but during a time when everything was falling apart. In the absence of genuine civil society, a robust economy or any form of institutional mooring, rather than sail through the death of a godless god and the birth of another, Russia was left in a two-decade long holding pattern — existential purgatory.
Then, when Russians who came of age before 1991 came to power, “they created a society that was a feast of simulations, with fake elections, a fake free press, a fake free market and fake justice,” as Pomerantsev noted.
Thus was born triumphant cynicism, which can be summarized as a power-obsessed culture’s compromise with abject powerlessness. You can’t do anything, you don’t do anything, but that’s ok, because nothing can be done. At least you are in on the lack of need to do. It’s the idealists working against the grain who have lost their way.
Such cynicism, of course, is useful to those behind the levers of power.
“When people stopped trusting any institutions or having any values, they could easily be spun into a conspiratorial vision of the world,” he wrote. “Thus the paradox: the gullible cynic.”
Americans, at our worst, have long been the opposite of that: gullible optimists. But optimists are creatures of doing. Belief in the efficacy of acting creates action. That action shapes the material world. The idea of money will die with man, but styrofoam created on account of the profit motive will live forever. The belief in human rights created both Amnesty International and an ex-post facto pretext for invading Iraq.
Which is to say, optimism has its downsides.
The true danger of Donald Trump, beyond retrograde environmental, immigration and economic policies is that, as a sufferer of narcissistic personality disorder, he believes in nothing beyond the barriers of his own soma.
Trump, in so many ways, is a living, breathing manifestation of America’s Jungian shadow; an oversized beast with body dysmorphia unatttuned to ambient noise, smashing countless fragile things underfoot and unawares. He’s an entitled rich kid who envisions himself a self-made man, a gaudy vulgarian interested in gilded, and not ivory towers. He has no time for reading but knows it all; a true exemplar of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Trump is a white man born in a cradle shaped like a tanning bed who doesn’t know if he still exists when people stop looking at him. And in case you hadn’t guessed, he’s got a big dick.
He is the cacophonous swell of disintegrating Union when the better angels of our nature have been bludgeoned to death by tone-deaf demons singing the National Anthem as a form of onanism. But it was America that ultimately begot Trump, secreting him from its oversized bile duct onto the polity. And now it shall be Trump that fashions America in his own image.
Like most narcissists, Trump displaces any sense of shame through projection. There is no institution that he would not set on fire for the sake of his own ego. Today it’s the CIA, tomorrow it’s an independent judiciary.
Trump’s rage against Saturday Night Live’s portrayal of him is reminiscent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose notoriously thin skin is routinely ironed out with botox.
When a popular satirical program called Kukly (often translated as ‘Dolls’, perhaps better translated as ‘Puppets’), routinely depicted Putin as an impotent groom or a big baby, the Kremlin asked NTV, which broadcast the show, to stop portraying the not-yet omnipotent president.
The channel responded by showing Putin as biblical theophany the very next episode (ironic, as near deification would be his future failsafe against televised satire).
That, coupled with their critical coverage of the Second Chechen War, sealed the channel’s fate.
NTV’s owner was ultimately jailed, his media holdings were brought under state control and Kukly was taken off the air.
Be careful Alec Baldwin.
Trump is the kind of man who would build an arc out of an orphanage rather than drown for the sake of saving children. Just don’t remind him of it, or he might try and drown you too. And don’t use hyperbole to prove a point, for he just might beef up those liable laws and sue you. This is the first time I’ve ever second-guessed myself when writing about an American politician. That’s how this all starts…
A narcissist views self-worth as an all or nothing, zero-sum proposition. The national interest will be subsumed to the magical thinking needed to keep the myth alive.
As a result, Trump would rather undermine the “rigged election system” than lose an election. Even when he won the electoral vote tally, he couldn’t countenance having lost the popular vote. Instead, he claimed he had also won the popular vote, if one were to deduct the millions of people who “voted illegally”.
When the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that the Russian government had sought to secure a Trump victory, he retorted that their claim was “ridiculous”, adding that “these are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
Alex Jones, the Infowars founder who believes Obama turns frogs gay with chemicals and views Sandy Hook as a false flag, backed Trump in denying Russian involvement.
Calling Obama’s citizenship into question, declaring 9/11 an inside job and accusing FEMA of setting up concentration camps is one thing. Accusing a hostile foreign power of attempting to influence your election through hacking? Beyond the pale.
Trump also doesn’t receive daily intelligence briefings from “those people” because he views himself as a “smart person.”
By contrast, when Trump falsely accused a man who attempted to rush the stage during one of his campaign rallies in March of having ties to ISIS, he later said: “What do I know about it? All I know is what’s on the Internet.”
As for Putin, there’s a reason Trump saves his invective for his own intelligence community intended to safeguard his nation and not a hostile foreign leader who has been working tirelessly to send the City on a Hill into a ditch.
“If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.”
But the problem is not just Trump’s narcissism, opaque business practices, or questionable connections. It is the decay of American institutions that ultimately helped propel him to the White House in the first place — the same institutions that are the only thing standing between American democracy and Trump’s most despotic tendencies.
When Trump tweets of fake elections, his supporters salivate at the sound of the dog whistle. False stories about dead souls and illegal immigrants voting have long been meant to disenfranchise minorities. They’ve also undermined faith in the electoral process.
When he speaks of the lying mainstream media, his supporters are already primed for the message. For decades, it has long reverberated in the echo chamber that fake news is news one disagrees with while real news is actually fake news that reinforces one’s preexisting beliefs about the world. Hence Balkan-generated clickbait is fact and meticulously fact-checked exposes in Newsweek are “fiction”.
But it’s not all a ruse.
When he talks about the fake free market, he isn’t entirely off the mark. Throughout the rustbelt, the bailout of Wall Street and the sell out of Main Street is dolefully discussed under decaying monoliths to days of manufacture gone by.
Maybe they could never stay in a globalized world. But they had to be replaced with something.
The King and Queen of the party of labor did rack up $153 million in speaking fees from the captains of finance; neither Trump nor Macedonian teenagers made that up.
You don’t have to be a Trump supporter to know that no one from HSBC went to prison for helping Mexican drug cartels launder money, but Patricia Spottedcrow did get 12 years for selling $31 worth of weed.
You thought that only the sons of Russian politicians, Southeast Asian aristocrats and Indian actors were allowed to run people over with near impunity. Then affluenza spread stateside like SARS, Ethan Couch was deemed too rich to be a vehicular homicider, and banana trees began sprouting in Burleson, Texas.
Trump also wouldn’t be wrong to excoriate fake justice, although somehow, in some bizarre inversion of logic, those who long found themselves on top of America’s psychologically suppressed racial hierarchy realized that privilege had diminishing returns as the wealth gap widened under their own party’s policies. But rather than confront their own intersubjective myth — the self-made man unencumbered by social debt —they turned their ire on those who had long suffered from the sort of injustice they are just beginning to glimpse.
And now, self-made men are calling for protectionism. They want the free market to bring down the price of drugs that are more costly than anywhere else in the free world because of…the free market. The cognitive dissonance has turned large swaths of the republic into a pressure cooker. And then the other is hated beyond rhyme or reason.
America is already so, so close to the edge.
Another attack on the scale of 9/11 would do much to stoke Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. America’s institutions, while more robust than those of other states where authoritarian leaders have used crisis to consolidate power (Russia, Turkey, Weimar Germany), are diminished. The party of Reagan seems unwilling to take on Trump so long as they can gut the EPA, further wealth polarization for the sake of their own failed myth and bring a woman’s reproductive health more firmly under the state’s control.
They were never democrats to begin with. Voter suppression is part of the party platform.
But even their base is becoming disenfranchised. And what do you do when the party of bloodletting wins again while the party of penicillin has been accused of corrupting souls with their witches’ brew? You know who gets the blame when somebody dies.
So as reason continues to falter, as the Commander in Chief leads the charge against reality, conspiracy will take hold of the increasingly dispossessed.
Live with fear long enough and reality starts to become slippery. It’s hard to stay balanced when you stop believing in the certainty of tomorrow (or the certitude of yesterday).
And if all of that time in Russia taught me anything, it’s this: all is lost when the little man stops believing. It’s one thing when the president is a crook, quite another when it’s cops, tax agents and postal workers. The fish may rot from the head, but a building never collapsed due to a twisted spire.
The elite have had, since time immemorial, the luxury of disbelief. After all, it’s an entirely different matter to play a rigged game when the game is rigged for you.
Americans have long believed the game was relatively fair. The Union is imperfect, but we were always moving towards our greater ideals.
“The arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.” Or so we believe(d).
Russians, have, for most of their history, seen the arc of history bend towards iniquity. Then a wind of change seemingly came a quarter century back. It turned out to be a storm.
American idealists and vultures got behind that slipstream and set sail to former Soviet states for myriad reasons all born of the same mind.
They always thought we were naive; we thought they were pessimists. Who knew we were both making it all up as we went along?
Ultimately, the Harvard crooks, Christ-complexed, volunteers, civil servants and bored backpackers were all caught up in the same strange missionary effort to make them more like us.
Who would have imagined, 25 years later, that it was us who just might end up like them?