A few friends have asked: “How much power does Trump have now?”
It’s a good question, bearing fruit even through an informal, pundit-like discussion. The reason why it produces is that Trump tests our assumptions about what governs us. Those assumptions are heavily colored by American exceptionalism. Even as Congress fails spectacularly at performing its basic Constitutional functions—can anything that isn’t budget-related pass into law? Like, ever?—a number of Americans trust that the system works and refuse to hear otherwise. They take the political shows seriously and trust that “both sides” can find a way.
I myself am not immune to this lazy optimism. So I have to sum up the situation for myself, see the evidence. The former President, in my estimation, nearly overthrew the government on January 6th. If the mob he incited had done what happened with the Michigan state legislature—if an armed, pro-Trump crowd dedicated to the proposition “Hang Mike Pence” had watched in the chambers of Congress as the votes were certified—that is very clearly not constitutional government. There cannot be special privileges accorded to the President’s party which are effectually intimidation of lawmakers. If a Member of Congress had been killed on January 6th, what then of checks and balances? In that case, if Trump weren’t quickly removed, tried, convicted, and sentenced, the government would be finished. It isn’t clear that Congress would have done all the things I have mentioned on January 7th.
So thinking about January 6th helps disabuse me of the notion that everything is OK now that Biden is in charge. Nothing is OK. Deportations are continuing in direct defiance of President Biden’s orders; Congress can barely pass a relief bill with its legitimacy on the line; a $15 minimum wage was struck down at the federal level at a time when corporations are growing richer than ever during the pandemic; we’re approaching 500,000 dead of COVID-19 as I write this. This is still a country toying with authoritarianism and reeling from the effects of authoritarian incompetence.
It’s a country which is in deep denial about a lot of things. It can’t admit that the pandemic is bad because that would be admitting our healthcare system is terrible. It can’t admit that a federal response is necessary because that would be admitting private enterprise nowadays is simply oligarchic rule. It can’t admit there is massive inequality because that would be admitting that we have real obligations to other human beings.
And, to that end, I’ll sum a lot of this up: Trump still has a lot of power because the country really hasn’t processed what happened on January 6th. We’re still dancing around with words like “rioters.” Conservative media is making fun of AOC’s trauma from nearly being killed. A lot of people think politics is a game, something one follows for fun on television, radio, or social media. They think the violent rhetoric which increasingly has inspired violent acts is just talk.
Let’s talk about Trump’s power. He’s got a cult following, with some adherents holding high positions in business and government. The cult has a paramilitary wing, composed of militias and militant white supremacists. He’s also got a large network of propagandists and grifters who depend on his brand for their brand. A majority of Republicans support him over and against their own party, as Trump can bring out voters who would not bother with elections if he’s not on the ticket.
But his real power isn’t tied to the party. It’s not even directly related to his wealth, or that he is a unique media figure, one who has been in the headlines for over 40 years. His media persona, though, points to his specific power. He started as a real estate tycoon known for tabloid affairs who tried to start a luxury airline and a football league. Then he became known as a legendary businessman with the highest rated show in prime time. Finally, America’s most noxious racist, one able to spread lies about President Obama because he’s viewed as an entertainment figure. One not even expected to govern by tens of millions because he’s an entertainer.
Trump is a con artist. The casinos are a failure; his various ventures, from the airline to selling steaks to “Trump University,” are failures. But people want to believe in him. They want to be grifted by him. If you explain how they’re being taken advantage of, they resent you.
You could watch Trump on television, say, talking about how hard it was to flush the toilet at one of his rallies while holding the title “President of the United States.” You’d probably find the experience hilarious and repellent at the same time. It might be reflected that he has a goofy charm, that he appeals to the nostalgia of those who remember him, that his practiced stupidity communicates to people who cannot muster the energy to think about economic stimulus or equality before the law. All these things are true, but they don’t get at what’s fundamental to the con: He’s on television. You’re watching. He’s already won.
Trump himself partially understands his power. He sees it in terms of “kayfabe,” the rules of professional wrestling. There’s a drama, and some of the characters are “faces,” babyfaces who can do no wrong, and others are “heels.” The faces and heels fight, they switch places, the audience loves the show itself and cheers everyone involved. Trump’s Twitter (RIP) could be viewed as a wrestling promo—the taunts one wrestler shouts at another to hype a match.
But Trump doesn’t really understand what he commands. I don’t think anyone in America does, either. This country nearly died on January 6th, after all, and we only understand that in a limited way. We’re still charging people who might have killed Congress with misdemeanors instead of taking militant white nationalism and its various organs seriously.
Even “white supremacy” somewhat misses what’s happening here. People have believed in fascists who would murder their political enemies with impunity before. They’re drawn to crude tyrants who can barely count using their fingers. And America has elevated racial terrorists to Senate seats and worse.
What strikes me: how, when the mob gathered to hear Trump speak on January 6th, a number of them were angry at him. How they thought he had a plan to overturn the election, found out he didn’t, and stormed the Capitol and tried to kill the Vice President and Speaker of the House anyway. You could say the mob was using Trump for their accelerationist agenda, as they always planned to overthrow the government anyway. That’s true, but they still believed him and believed in him. Almost like he was “face” to them one moment, a “heel” another, but no matter what indispensable.
What makes Trump so terrible, so uniquely and destructively American, is that he is how we conceive of belief. He’s not simply beloved by white evangelicals. He’s foundational to how religion is approached in America.
Denial, in America, is not just a reaction to difficult events. It’s a right.
Free speech and the free exercise of religion lead to this: any time I’m angry about something and I want to take my toys and go home, I can. If Europe had religious schisms every 10 years or so, then America has churches splitting apart every 6 months or so.
I never, in this country, have to consider that I might be wrong. The television, by catering to this tendency, proves to be an exceedingly dangerous medium. You can watch what you like, and it satisfies you in ways you don’t even realize.
The TV does not want to upset you. It wants to excite emotions that resemble being shocked and provoked, but it needs you watching above all. It needs to be a virtual amusement park. Some shows that are like a carousel, others like a roller coaster.
Take crime programming, for instance. Heroic cops doing their duty against wave after wave of lawlessness. The cop dramas show us law enforcement which is relentless in the pursuit of justice, always making grim, tough choices. Reality, to say the least, is very different. Local news hypes crime reports, creates a feeling the police are the most necessary institution we have, but never allows a feeling of complete powerlessness. It sells fear, but not too much fear.
When the talking heads on the news shows say “both sides have problems,” it’s meant to be reassuring. There can’t be terrorists who want to destroy the republic, because the one side has to stand in proportion to the other. So if one side wants health care and better environmental regulations, then the other must want to save a little bit more money or generate some more cash. That companies would just dump toxic waste everywhere while giving their workers no benefits, and politicians would find it reasonable to provide cover for this, is not reassuring and not presentable.
The way the television caters to us affects how we believe. Specifically, it lets us indulge denial without our even realizing we’re in denial. We’ll watch a news segment on rural or urban poverty and not even realize those are our fellow citizens. That what makes us rich might be making them poor. It’s not just that there’s an excuse in our minds—”they don’t work hard enough.” We’ll actually believe job opportunities can solve everything, that if given a chance, everything will go well. This will never be challenged. It’ll be quietly affirmed in sticking to the details of what a poor community lacks, in ignoring the injustices suffered (sometimes) for decades.
Trump is the positive version of the denial silently sold to us. We’re told we need a militarized police force and laws that throw everyone into jail at the drop of a hat or else civilization will fall apart. It’s ultimately framed less as a fear and more of a choice. We choose not to be “those people.” In making that choice, we choose Trump.
We choose someone unremarkable except for being outrageously himself. Telling it like it is, failing at business, being seen as a good provider for his family despite his cruelty as a father and husband. The failures are the appeal. He is everyman; he must love the Constitution and the flag, because the political order has empowered him so much. It’s allowed him to fail upward into the Presidency. In classical parlance: many believe the tyrannical life, where one could have everything, would be the best life if it were possible. Morality, then, depends on the impossibility of the tyrannical life. Trump is the truth about morality, and thus for his cult, moral truth itself.
It’s exceedingly comfortable, and the reason why Trump’s cult gets ever more angry and violent is that a world that doesn’t romanticize a figure like Trump is inconceivable to them. Trump’s election was a promise and a peril for these people. It was a promise in that it might mean his ascendancy would erase all doubts about the legitimacy of being told what you like to hear all the time. But since those doubts did not go away—since 80 million people voted for Biden in order to throw out Trump—a larger peril now looms. The reality is that you can’t believe what you like, that failures which result in upward movement reveal a broken society. That those devoted to him are, in the end, a force together but also alienated from each other. If there wasn’t so much they wanted to hate, they’d never acknowledge each other’s existence. One wonders if they know their own existence, apart from their privilege.