I have published the Ethical Spectacle every month since January 1995. I have contributed at least one new essay every one of those months, sometimes five or six. I have never written about anything as much as Donald Trump.
On a personal level, I am a small unimportant hobbit, and Trump is Sauron surging up on the horizon:
'I wish it need not have happened in our time,' said Frodo.
'So do I,' said Gandalf, 'and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time given us.'
(Ha, can't actually remember the last time I used html's "blockquote" command.)
Among the milder fever-nightmares I have is being subpoenaed to appear before a Loyalty Commission chaired by Eric Trump, in all the glory of his weak-authoritarian beauty, like a character who would be played by Oskar Werner in the movie version. But,as I said last month, I think far worse than that could happen.
On a more adult, philosophical level, Trump is fascinating because of all the themes, tropes, decision points, and critical issues which unite in him, like an empty monolith full of stars. The purpose of this rambling essay is to pull some of those strands together.
Trumpo (I keep doing that as a typo, so I'm just gonna give in) is your Uncle Fergie. Uncle Fergie is the iconic relative who endlessly blusters at the Thanksgiving table about things as to which he has no clue. I remember, as a thirty four year old expert in trademark law, being shouted down at the holiday table by two Uncle Fergies, advertising men persuasively declaiming gross and silly errors about how the law worked. Uncle Fergie tends to have thick lips, which he knows how to compose in an authoritative pout while furrowing his brows in a silly expression intended to communicate authority to the uninitiated, while also warning them not to fuck with him.
This year, we have endlessly watched Trumpo having Uncle Fergie moments. Asked whether women should be punished for abortions, he visibly guessed at what a real Republican would say, and answered yes, while actual members of that party hypocritically-piously claim to want to harm only the doctors. Trumpo didn't know what "Brexit" was, and then, on his golf course in Scotland, thought that the people of that kingdom were voting for it. Much of his rhetoric consists of Uncle Fergie-style shots and improvisations, like the claim the other day, which made even Mike Pence laugh, that 95% of African Americans would vote for him for a second term. This week, asked about "detention camps" for illegal immigrants, he recoiled and said, "no camps", clearly unaware that every American administration at least since Ronald Reagan's has interned potential deportees in sinister facilities such as Krome and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Most of us have probably had the misfortune once or twice to run into an Uncle Fergie in the work or campus or political world, the guy who says to you, with that same pout, "I'll take care of it" or "I'll fix it" when he has neither the ability nor the authority to do so. Trumpo promised this week to end gun violence in poor neighborhoods,a local law enforcement matter over which the President has no jurisdiction (unless he is planning to force a complacent Congress to pass gun control legislation? Nah). Worse, he keeps claiming he alone can fix things, a notorious fascist trope. Most of the promises he has made are unaccompanied by any actual proposals. Uncle Fergie is long on bragging, short on policy.
Of course, when Uncle Fergie has an actual idea, it tends to be hare-brained, really more a provocation to the other guests at table than a sane policy concept. When one of his ideas is criticized, Uncle Fergie hangs on desperately, turns purple, and shouts, until you are afraid he will stroke out. Trumpo's repeated "I will build a wall, and make the Mexicans pay for it!" is an example.
Uncle Fergie is annoying, mischievous, a trickster spirit (he is happiest when he causes a ruckus at the table and particularly if the guests start fighting each other). But he is also medium-harmless, because the family has learned to encase him like a pearl. The last thing anyone wants to do is promote Uncle Fergie into any kind of position of authority, hand him a gun or ask him to decide who should die, because Uncle Fergie, having no idea of his own limits, would certainly kill people. Fergie is so boundariless he probably thinks he could be President of the United States. But you never, ever, ever would want to put Uncle Fergie in possession of the nuclear codes.
More seriously, by his mere existence and nearness to those codes, Uncle Fergie--sorry, I meant Trumpo--raises the fateful Kantian question, are we ends or means, Players or Tools? The fact that there are millions of Americans, maybe 40% of us, who think that Uncle Fergie, sorry, Trumpo, is the Real Thing--intelligent, brave, authoritative, and cucumberesque--is more than disturbing--it is terrifying. And "Yuge".
I don't use Twitter. Never have. I had an Emperor's New clothes moment, that it was crippled email. When I could send this essay to anyone I cared to, my brother or an acquaintance or one of my casual-occasional readers, why exactly would I want to condense it into 140 characters? Twitter seemed like a retro, 1985 style idea, for people with computers with small primitive screens which can only display a line or two of text, like my NEC 8201 from that year (which I still use--as a paperweight).
In 1994, a very exciting book appeared, Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community (New York: Harper Perennial 1994) which opened with a quote from M. Scott Peck: “[W]e do not yet relate with the inclusivity, realism, self-awareness, vulnerability, commitment, openness, freedom, equality and love of genuine community”. “A full scale subculture was growing on the other side of my telephone jack, and they invited me to help create something new,” Rheingold says. Although Rheingold was gushingly optimistic about the future and democratic importance of the Net, he was also aware, already, of the troll problem: he tells two stories, of the Communitree BBS in Santa Cruz in 1979, yes 1979, which was overwhelmed by "barbarian hordes" of young users with potty mouths, and the PEN system in Santa Monica where “Women had trouble online with a small number of men who would badger all females as soon as they joined the system”. Rheingold regretfully concludes, "”[S]urveillance and control proved necessary adjuncts to maintaining order in the virtual community”. From 1984, I had been involved with Compuserve's Law Forum, which was heavily moderated and where everyone was professional and polite, and then in the 1990's with Declan McCullough's unmoderated "Fight Censorship" list. Declan's original membership included famous law professors, activists and journalists, who all dropped out in a matter of months rather than engage the trolls. I came away with a first hand understanding that there is a kind of Gresham's law of Internet speech, that bad speech (by which I mean bullying speech) drives out the good, and that human nature being what it is, unmoderated lists do not work, do not work, DO NOT WORK.
Twitter is a world wide unmoderated list on steroids. In the 1980's, systems like Compuserve and AOL first understood that their business model was "selling the users to one another", which back then had a completely benign interpretation of providing the users a place to meet and engage in conversation. Today, those same words have a very sinister connotation: a significant part of Twitter's business model is selling women, black and Jewish people and other minorities and vulnerable individuals and groups to trolls who want to torment them, and threaten them with murder and rape. Horrifying recent stories include a woman with a Jewish name whose offense appeared to be merely tweeting a photograph of a cat outside 10 Downing Street, and whose immediately ensuing harassment included an image of “a trail of dollar bills leading to an open oven door”, and another young Jewish woman who defended her and received a tweet, "“Is your perky butt ready 4 cock as its time to shove your head into the oven”. African American actress Leslie Jones was recently bullied off Twitter by a campaign led by Trump enthusiast and Breitbart staffer Milo Yiannapoulis.
Charlie Warzel gives many other examples and a detailed analysis of Twitter's utter failure as a safe space for its users in A Honeypot For Assholes: Inside Twitter’s 10-Year Failure To Stop Harassment, Buzzfeed, August 11, 2016. "Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda was forced to quit Twitter after trolls flooded her mentions with photoshopped images of her recently deceased father”. Warzel says that top management, aware they had a serious problem, did not want to tamper with the business model in advance of an IPO--selling vulnerable users to trolls was potentially too profitable, it seems. One former Twitter engineer commented: “[I]f there’s a trash fire burning in your front yard, saying you don’t want to call the fire department because you don’t want to get the house wet is not really a sensical thing.”
This has everything to do with Trumpo, because he uses Twitter as his main communication platform, and most of the time communicates as a troll; because he subscribes to white supremacist troll Twitter feeds and often re-tweets them; and because Twitter-trolls thrive in Trumpo's aura, attacking anyone who criticizes him. When a Jewish employee of Trumpo's Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, published an open letter to her employer, about Trumpo's anti-semitism, she received a stream of responses which included a graphic of her own face inside an oven with Trump pushing the “on” button, and an “Easybake” oven with a picture of Anne Frank. Another reporter with a Jewish sounding name published a profile of Melania Trump earlier this spring, and, in addition to threatening phone calls, trolls tweeted photos of her face superimposed on a mug shot from Auschwitz. Trumpo, confronted with his supporters' behavior, replied “I don’t have a message to the fans. A woman wrote an article that’s inaccurate.” In other words, the hate, deployed against a journalist he didn't like, was All Right with him.
Trumpo has now hired Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News to be his "campaign CEO" (not sure what a "campaign CEO" is, that's not a thing). Bannon runs the unabashed alt-right platform, a home for racist, supremacist and anti-semitic speech. Yiannopoulis, whom I mentioned above for his role in bullying Leslie Jones, is the "Tech Editor" of Breitbart and a uniquely strange character, gay, part Jewish, all troll and all Trumpo supporter (he calls the candidate "Daddy"). Yiannopoulis was recently banned from Twitter for the Leslie Jones campaign (which has since continued with a hack of her web site). Here he is defending anti-semitism as a tactic in today's discourse:
Generation Trump, the alt right people, the people who like me, they’re not anti-Semites. They don’t care about Jews. I mean, they may have some assumptions about things, how the Jews run everything; well, we do. How the Jews run the banks; well, we do. How the Jews run the media; well, we do.... The anti-Semitism on the internet, which is really important, I want people to understand this because nobody seems to, when Jonah Goldberg of National Review is bombarded with these memes, and anti-Semitic 'take a hike, kike' stuff, it’s not because there’s a spontaneous outpouring of anti-Semitism from 22-year-olds in this country. What it is is it’s a mischievous, dissident, trolly generation who do it because it gets a reaction.
Fox and many other publications reported yesterday that in 2007, Bannon's first ex-wife, who also accused him of domestic violence, filed papers in their divorce proceeding describing a visit they made while looking for a private school for their daughters. Bannon opposed a particular Los Angeles school because he "didn't want the girls going to school with Jews.....he doesn't like Jews and that he doesn't like the way they raise their kids to be `whiney brats'".
I keep wondering if Jared Kushner is in this all the way, resolutely shutting his eyes to the ovens and Auschwitz images and cracks about lampshades and soap, or if there will come a moment when its too much for him. Last night we were talking about this and someone said, doesn't Kushner need the paycheck? I said no, he's a fabulously wealthy real estate developer all on his own, so if he sells the rest of us to the Trumpo-trolls, it will be from blind ambition.
I am thinking about Trumpo and responsibility. In so many ways, the history of our politics since 1945 has been a flight from responsibility. A symptom of this is the obsessive habit of describing bloody human messes as if they were weather, just strange atmospheric conditions that burst upon us unexpectedly: the Vietnam war, poverty, the 2008 mortgage crisis, and ironically, the weather itself, which is increasingly human-influenced. A denial of responsibility is a flight from Enlightenment values--a topic so "yuge" I hope to write a series of lead Spectacle articles about it if the Trumpo creek don't rise.
When did it become the norm that a candidate could associate with hateful people like Bannon and Yiannopoulis without being responsible for them?
How can anyone cut Trumpo slack for retweeting, not just the Star of David meme, which he certainly didn't notice, but the false statistics about
black murderers, and tweets from users with names like whitegenocideTM? The likelihood that Uncle Fergie himself may not personally hate
black people or Jews becomes almost irrelevant; insecure, lonely Uncle Fergie loves the love he is getting from these people, who have become
indispensable to him. Whether he shares their hatred, or is flattered by them, or, a third possibility, is simply amoral enough to hope to
ride them to power,
doesn't matter. He is mainstreaming them, making them important, putting them in charge of the campaign and the Republican party, magnifying