Many books have been published lately shining light on the Trumpf darkness, and bringing rational analysis to seeming confusion. Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, or Luke Harding’s Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, are two such books. Brooke Gladstone, co-host of NPR’s On The Media, gives us The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time. This is a very short book on a large question, built from her interviews. She ties Mr. T’s political strategy to how we perceive and understand the world, and shows us that to meet the threat of his administration, we, citizens of a democracy, will not only have to grow in our understanding, but in our emotional awareness and capacities.
It is too easy to get lost in Mr. T’s manipulations. His attacks on the media, truth, women, etc. are not simply the ravings of a deluded narcissist. His lies serve a purpose. They make it more difficult for many people to see the truth. Gladstone quotes philosopher Hannah Arendt, speaking in a 1974 interview about her own time and the rise of totalitarians: ”…[A] people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. With such a people, you [the demagogue] can do what you please.”
Truth, in a sense, is what we all share. If we lose a sense of what we share, we don’t know how to act. Just think how confusing it can be when everyone around us disagrees with us. Even if we are, or were, sure about something we saw, if everyone around us says they saw something different, we would most likely begin to doubt our perception. So Mr. T aims to undermine our sense of commonality, not only with other humans but with our understanding of what democracy is. A democracy does not require agreement over policies but of how to decide on policies. It requires at least some basic agreement over rights, responsibilities, and laws. Mr. T undermines all such agreements.
The existential threat to democracy “is not just the lies but the lying.” In a Gladstone interview with journalist Masha Gessen, Gessen says Putin and Trump might be very different, but “they are kin in the use of the lie:…they lie in the same way and for the same purpose—blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.” Mr. T and Putin want their reality to be THE reality. A demagogue does not just impose laws but dictates reality. In a way, he makes himself his own religion.
Many laugh at Mr. T’s tweets, calling them delusional or mad. But linguist George Lakoff says the tweets are often more complex and layered, more manipulative than we might think. According to Lakoff, T uses tweets to:
- Frame an issue: dominate discussion by getting his viewpoint out first. For example, “Only reason the hacking of the poorly defended DNC is discussed is that the loss by the Dems was so big…” First, he implies hacking the DNC by Russia, a foreign government, was no big deal. Secondly, his win was “So Big,” Dems loss so huge. Thirdly, the RNC was just better defended, “even though the RNC was also hacked by the Russians (only, they didn’t leak any of that stuff).”
- Divert attention: provoke the media’s attention from a more important story, usually by using a cultural issue, e.g. the tweets about the musical Hamilton and the cast’s comments to Mike Pence, appeared on the day it was revealed Mr. T paid out $25 million to settle lawsuits for fraud by Trump University.
- Send up a trial balloon: mention a possible policy to test how people would react, e.g. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability…”
- Deflect: He tweets “Lock her up” when he is acting in ways that should get him locked up. He blames the messenger instead of taking responsibility. “The real scandal here [media revelations about Russia] is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy…”
And then there are tweets that might frame an issue, but I think mostly frame how vicious or vindictive he can be or how totally lacking he is in understanding an issue. (As in his recent tweet: “In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming….’”) The tweets are ways of shouting at the world and attracting those whose anger echoes his own.*
Gladstone says it is important to understand the purpose of his tweets so we can undermine their usefulness to him. If we repost, or allow ourselves to get too upset by them, it only supports his goals and upsets our mind. We need to take meaningful action, make calls, get facts out there, and never give up on the values, the faith in the possibility of public reason that makes democracy possible.
The fact that Mr. T largely isolates himself in his own Breitbart or Fox news reality, and uses other news media mostly to fuel his anger, might be what eventually undermines his administration. According to Arendt, what makes a demagogue vulnerable is his own self-deception. “The self-deceived deceiver loses all contact with not only his audience, but the real world, which will catch up with him…”
“Not knowing,” says Gladstone, “is much scarier than knowing.” We might not be able to know the world fully, but “we have to live somewhere.” We often think our own facts are true and other people’s “facts” are wrong or incomplete. We need to learn to be more humble with our understanding of reality and what we think is “the” solution. There are always many actions we can take, “but all such efforts are hobbled, inexorably, by rage, bafflement, and despair.” We need to lower our blood pressure (and fear) so we can work and think more clearly. Rage might fuel our willingness to act, but should not decide what we do.
We need to understand, even to feel, that we share a great deal with other people, yet the reality reflected in another person’s eyes can be very different from our own. And this is an advantage, not a threat. It is what makes democracy not only possible but desirable. Only by perceiving the value of this difference can we learn from each other. Only by expanding our own capacities can we, those of us who understand the threat, truly work together to oppose Mr. T and create a better, more equitable and just, society.
*On January 5th, Politico had an article by Mathew Gertz, from Media Matters, saying that Mr. T is live-tweeting Fox, particularly Fox and Friends. He is not trying to distract us as much as himself. Despite having at his disposal the largest intelligence gathering machine on the earth, he relies on a conservative news organization to shape his views on current events.