In his review of Bertrand Russell’s Power: A New Social Analysis, George Orwell wrote the following: “Bully-worship, under various disguises, has become a universal religion… ”
Orwell may have exaggerated, but there is some truth in what he said. These days, in Washington as in Hollywood, the hordes of journalists, pundits, press agents, pollsters, consultants and similar glitterati appear to attach a normative value to notoriety, power and influence, thereby investing the person thus described with even more notoriety, power and influence. Like medieval saints, the exalted ones possess mysterious powers and receive dispensation thanks to behavior that would be expected from the rest of us as the norm, like ordinary civility.
Which brings us to a series of mini essays by 13 political savants, courtesy of Politico, Washington’s answer to Hollywood’s TMZ. The principal argument of these members of the chattering classes is that the rest of the chattering classes somehow don’t “get” Trump, and consequently underestimate him. (The notable exception is Jill Abramson, former editor of The New York Times, who offers a constructive recommendation that media should pool their resources in a consortium to improve investigative reporting on Trump.)
According to most of these pieces, the press arrogantly dismisses his 4 a.m. tweets as incoherent outbursts, rather than as an ingenious device for hijacking the news cycle (although AP has reported that social media users are now engaging with his tweets less often).
Run-of-the-mill journalists also fail to understand his salt-of-the-earth followers, who really don’t care about his lies (as Orwell would have said, power-worshippers see successful lying to people as a feature, not a flaw) and wouldn’t desert him even if Trump roasted their firstborn and ate it in their presence. The media are biased against Trump and have their priorities all wrong. And so forth.
But does this tell us about Trump and the actual correlation of political forces for and against him, or does it tell us more about the authors’ own psychological orientation? There seems an almost masochistic impulse among the majority of Politico’s talking heads to inflate Trump into an angry and omnipotent god whom we mock at our peril. One gets the feeling that that these people believe that since Trump is the most powerful person they can imagine, we must submit to his inscrutable will, because obedience is the only course when we cannot know the mind of God.
To take the analogy down a few notches, they act like The Simpsons’ Kent Brockman, the toadying anchor man who, believing alien invaders were taking over the earth, announced how happy he was to bow and scrape to them.
This view seems to derive partly from the cultural insecurity of our contemporary American professional classes. Ever since Spiro Agnew condemned them as an effete corps of impudent snobs, they have been nagged by the feeling that they are not quite authentic Americans.
For almost five decades, the right-wing propaganda machine has bombarded America with the message that the “elites” (defined as the press, university professors, lawyers and other upper-middle professionals, but not as corporate CEOs, fossil fuel billionaires or the upper-middle professionals who happen to toil at right-wing foundation jobs) are sniffish, reflexively anti-American and constitutionally opposed to middle-American values.
Many of these professionals seem to have internalized the propaganda. Consequently, they think they are out of touch with the Real Americans who believe in God, guns and guts. (This accounts for the media’s periodic guilt-ridden elegies to the white working class; as someone who grew up in the Rust Belt, I find no cultural need to discern a deeper wisdom in their voting for a transparent charlatan like Trump).
There also is an unpleasant whiff of Orwell’s bully-worship. But it’s not a realistic picture of where we are.
Trump’s party controls the presidency, both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court. Yet to date, his so-called accomplishments are laughably meager compared to previous incoming presidents. His signature campaign pledge was the border wall. The Democrats had little leverage against it. Yet he folded like a cheap lawn chair, and early, in the negotiations over the measure that would have funded it. Obamacare repeal was a cosmic disaster for him. The courts have stayed his incredibly poorly drafted executive orders on immigration and refugees, as they have with his sanctuary cities order.
The authors of the Politico piece insist other journalists don’t “get” Trump, but he’s pretty easy to figure out. He’s an authoritarian bully. Yes, most of us have seen his campaign rallies and cotton to the fact his devoted followers think a bully is admirable and that nothing on earth will shake their religious faith in him. But in addition to being a bully, he’s also ignorant, doesn’t do his homework and is incurably lazy. That means resolute opposition can stop him, and so far, it mostly has. The media have devoted far less attention to why Trump has failed in office than why he succeed in obtaining that office in the first place, but it is worth examining.
By the time they reach high school, most American males assimilate the truth that while occasional adolescent high spirits are natural and inevitable, being a consistently obnoxious jerk will eventually get them a stiff right-cross to the jaw. If that lesson didn’t take, they will soon enter the workforce, and their need to pay their bills and keep the repo man from taking their car will be a solid reminder to behave. Trump did not benefit from those lessons. Cossetted by wealth since birth, immune from the real-world consequences of failure that most of us internalize, and surrounded only by sycophants, Trump, the wily con man, is also surprisingly naïve.
Independent courts have defied his will with a toughness he never experienced before. Kim Jong-un has not been as easily intimidated as the vendors and contractors Trump has cheated and then threatened with expensive litigation. Democrats and Republicans alike have blocked him on Obamacare repeal and the border wall because their own re-election is more important to them than Trump’s threats and blandishments. His determination to declare China a currency manipulator and slap a tariff on its exports crumbled when he came face-to-face with Xi Jinping, who has seen his share of homegrown plutocrats and has brought them to heel.
Trump’s reaction is to say things like “nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” in the manner of a backward child announcing with an air of discovery that fire is hot. His comments on China and North Korea were similar in tone.
We are 100 days plus into the Trump presidency. His inability to enact his agenda so far is a promising sign, but that doesn’t mean our luck will hold. Already, he has done significant reputational damage to the United States abroad. His flattery toward repellant creatures like Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte would be shameful if he himself were capable of the emotion. His administration’s toying with abridging the First Amendment is a dagger pointed at us all, but the media first and foremost.
That a portion of these same talking heads broadcast the notion that Trump is some unstoppable force of nature with whom we must make our peace is a disgrace. Once Americans of good will adopt such a message, we are doomed.