Reckless, relentless lying has a quality of honesty about it. Any testament proffered by a perpetual liar is made to order for self-incrimination. With Donald Trump, the current president of the United States, every act of dissimulation is conjoined with a corresponding act of disclosure. Yet, there exists a section of the US populace, collectively known as the ‘base’, which treats his utterances as gospel truth. Propelled by the compulsion to incessantly manufacture falsehoods, Trump cannot but muck up even trivial things; at the same time, his fabrications are gleefully lapped up by a large number of people. How does one explain this near-inexplicable compulsive bonding between the mindless production and seamless consumption of self-revealing untruths?
One line of argument is that the ‘till-death-do-us-part’ supporters of Trump have chosen a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. Often, this wondrous ‘willingness’ on the part of the Trump crowd is explained by invoking ideological orientation. Seen in this light, his diehard followers deceive themselves by raucously reiterating this or that historically inherited ideology via a demagogue endowed with the rare genius of stringing together a jumble of entrenched dogmas.
Demonising ‘others’ but pain for the faithful too
Be it naked racism or sexism, the demonising of immigrants or Muslim bashing in the name of countering terrorism; unabashed white supremacism or the harassment of transgenders; the active promotion of evangelical fundamentalism or a vigorous denial of climate-change; the endorsing of war-crimes such as waterboarding, murdering terrorists’ families, taking over Iraq’s oilfields, granting presidential pardons to convicted war-criminals as well as encouraging the police to deliberately manhandle suspected lawbreakers at the moment of their arrest – Donald Trump has a lot to offer. Trump’s popularity rests on his virtuosity for indexing ‘others’ in such a manner that his devotees can pick and choose any target or combination of targets. Virtually all-inclusive in its exclusionary expansion, the list of Trump-targets embraces uppity women, out-of-the-closet gays, unyielding Blacks, Un-American socialists, “rapist” “drug-dealers” from Mexico, Africans from “shithole” countries, ‘terrible’ Muslims, environmental data scientists, liberal journalists, and so forth.
At the same time, it is irrefutable that many of Trump’s policies negatively affect even his admirers. Unsparing in cruelty, Trump and his minions go far beyond caging ‘alien’ children at the US-Mexico border, they also entrap the domestic segment partial to Donald.
Giving tax-relief to those who need no such relief, a ‘cut’ that at best trickles down sluggishly; downsizing public health care; forcing manufacturers, farmers and customers to bear the burden of import tariffs; benefitting Trump businesses at taxpayer expense; pampering the gun-lobby despite mass-shootings; bromancing with Kim Jong-un in North Korea; withholding security-assistance to Ukraine till it manufactures dirt on his opponents; risking national security by suddenly pulling out troops from the Syrian war-zone; lifting environmental regulations despite the clear evidence of climate change and increasing pollution – all these have direct consequences on the everyday kitchen-table concerns, lives and livelihoods of Trump supporters too.
It was just the other day. On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump – the periodically bankrupt real-estate tycoon and host of the reality TV programme, ‘The Apprentice’ – descended in a golden escalator to the basement of New York’s Trump Tower and declared his candidacy for the 2016 presidential election. Losing the popular mandate by 2.87 million votes – the largest margin in America’s presidential history – but winning a majority of electoral college votes, the civilian who had dodged the military draft during the Vietnam war on the spurious claim of being crippled by ‘heel spurs’, Trump rose to the rank of US commander-in-chief on January 20, 2017. Shortly after entering the election fray, Trump assumed the proportion of a cult-figure, the kind venerated with gaping amazement by adherents.
All said and done, it appears that rational analyses of the pact signed in blood with Trump by roughly 25% of the electorate is not adequate. How is it that what is palpably hurtful, besides being hateful, fails to turn off a huge minority of the population?
In 1929, at a time when Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler were waving their magic wands in all directions, the German author Thomas Mann wrote the novella Mario and the Magician. The narrator of the tale is holidaying with his family in “one of the most popular summer resorts” in Italy. The resort is by the seaside and is both “urban and elegant”. The surroundings promise relaxed rest for tired limbs. Yet, from the start “the air of the place” makes the narrator “uneasy, irritable, on the edge.” The unease increases when he witnesses the performance of “a travelling virtuoso, entertainer” named Cavaliere Cippola. “Grotesque” in shape, Cippola informs his audience, not bashfully but in a tone verging on pomposity, “I have a little physical defect which prevented me from doing my bit in the war for the greater glory of the Fatherland”. Observing closely the “blatantly, fantastically foppish” entertainer, the narrator feels the man is a “well-preserved specimen” of the “historic type” signifying the “charlatan and mountebank”.
Then, as the show proceeds, the visitor gets increasingly horrified. A master of manipulation, the clownish Cippola possesses an extraordinary skill in subjugating others to his will – he picks one member of the audience after another and compels them to cut laughable poses. The “loss of volition” on their part produces “comic, exciting, amazing” effects by turns and amused by “the gamut of … natural-unnatural” reactions, the spectators keep applauding. The narrator fears that although Cippola’s surefire “domination… drowns out every sensation save a dazed and outbraved submission to his power,” deep down there exists a “sympathy” for him in the gathered audience – they are goading on, even if “unconsciously”, “the peculiar ignominy which lies, for the individual and in general, in Cippola’s triumphs”. The narrator’s later reflections on the surreal incident may be summed up thus: the trance, the enchantment that Cippola engineered had made the participants instinctively think like children; they did not understand “where the comedy left off and the tragedy began.”
Thomas Mann’s ‘Mario and the Magician’ is a parable on the machinations of power wrought by the exploitation of the irrational. And, undoubtedly, even if Donald Trump does not exactly duplicate Cippola’s antics, the enthusiasm that attendees of Trump’s rallies exhibit bears elective affinities with persons enthralled by the Italian magician.
All critics of Trump invariably, almost inexorably, use the word narcissism to explicate his personality disorder. It seems logical to employ the term to speak of Trump’s insatiable hankering for attention and adulation. Despite his tough-talking, he has the paranoiac tendency to act the petulant victim, the lack of self-esteem reflected in the lack of empathy for others. But, can the narcissism of an individual subject, even if he best personifies the disorder as Trump does, wholly capture the essence of ‘Trumpism’?
The resurgence of narcissism and sadomasochism
In his 1914 essay ‘Narcissism: An Introduction’, Sigmund Freud had contended:
- Those who seek themselves as a love-object, display a type-object which is patently narcissistic.
- The narcissist in the grip of megalomania, reflexively, almost mechanically, over-estimates his power of wishes and mental acts.
- Nevertheless, the faith in the omnipotence of his own thoughts and grandiose premises the megalomaniac steadfastly holds on to is only an instance of secondary narcissism.
- In truth, it is inevitably superimposed upon a form of narcissism which is primary by the virtue of being universal.
It is therefore quite feasible to imagine that at certain historical conjunctures there may arise situations in which the vacuous ego of one megalomaniac succeeds in superimposing itself on many an ego by the conduit of primary narcissism. And indeed, the ‘art’ involved in the deal offered by Donald Trump is squarely predicated upon what may be termed transactional narcissism. In this scenario, to use the formula of Freud, people accept Trump as their “high ego-ideal” and “exchange [their] narcissism for homage to [it]”. In short, it is not a tale of isolated, solitary self-love but that of interdependence and reciprocity: rising to the level of being a fully-exposed syndrome, Trump’s Other-abjuring narcissistic persona both feeds on and flares up the mostly latent similar sort of narcissism of the mostly forgotten masses.
But, this is not all.
Whoever courts an ego-ideal, secretly pines for the tantalizing interplay of pleasure and pain. By transferring primary narcissism to the safe-keeping of some supposed strongman, more often than not, s/he automatically takes on the role of being passively active in some theatre of sadomasochism.
Freud’s initial hypothesis was that although masochism and sadism were by no means binary opposites, the former was “derived from a previous sadism.” However, Freud made a complete about-turn vis-à-vis the notion of the derivative nature of masochism in his momentous 1920 book Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Therein the concept of ‘primary masochism’, which he had been flirting with for years, became a settled fact; and, to make the matter more picturesque, that peculiar but shared-by-all erotic impulse was visualised as having a subterranean but intimate connection with ‘death-instinct’ or Thanatos. Then again, somehow it got stipulated in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that while masochism enjoyed a partial but absolute autonomy in relation to sadism, the reverse was unacceptable; meaning, during the enactment of sadomasochistic ‘games’, what one encountered was the ever-enduring craving for pleasurable pain to be delivered by some aggressive Ego-ideal, whose appearance however was purely contingent on circumstances.
The thesis that there is no such thing as ‘primary sadism’ shields the Freudian script of sadomasochism from the charge of being ahistorical. Actually, the problem is with ‘history’ itself. Just recall the quotable adage commonly attributed to Mark Twain, “history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes”; or, hark back to Karl Marx’s incalculably valuable observation in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “The tradition of all the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living…[men, while], present[ing] [a] new scene of world history, anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and…drape themselves in…borrowed costumes”.
The simultaneity of repetition-in-displacement and displacement-in-repetition being the stellar characteristic of history-making, it is pre-ordained that the same would hold for transactional narcissism. This ought to alert us that one brand of transactional narcissism can well be replaced by another without significantly damaging the structural makeup—the monotony of the immobilising ritual to which the masochist binds and condemns himself in a particular sadomasochistic setting may well get refreshed and become exciting again by switching partners who apparently resemble the earlier ones. Not even the withering of hypnotic spells cast by the likes of Hitler or Mussolini and breakup of their cultish following can block the possibility of the return of the repressive agency at a later date.
The current occupant of the White House best exemplifies the event of that resurgence in the present-day world—his scams and tantrums provide the blueprint for power-hungry men of all hues and colour. Hyper-nationalism is now the fashion of the Age across the globe; jingoism is rampant and anti-immigrant rhetoric standardised. As a result, there is no shortage of world leaders, democratically elected or otherwise, playing the part of cheerleaders to the man whose clarion-call happens to be ‘Make America Great Again’.
Incidentally, the credit for popularising the phrase ‘America First’ goes to Charles Lindbergh, the hero who in 1927 made the first non-stop solo flight from New York to Paris, thereby taking the longest transatlantic journey in air up till then. The same pioneer of global interconnectedness via aviation turned into a staunch promoter of American isolationism during the initial phase of the Second World War. Holding similar views on race, religion and eugenics as those of the Nazis, Lindbergh was suspected of being a Nazi sympathiser. This avid, rabid anti-communist took on the responsibility of being the spokesman of the ‘America First Committee’ founded by a bunch of Yale Law School students on September 4, 1940.
If there is adoration, there is equally open revulsion towards Trump’s brand of Americanism. In stark contrast to the land of Vladimir Putin or other authoritarian regimes, Trump’s administration has failed to stop popular outbursts against him. The democratic impulse to mock a person seen as moronic is evident not only in the US but also in England, Northern Ireland, Denmark and elsewhere—as a rule whenever he steps on to the soil of a foreign nation he is greeted with ridicule. One glaring exception to this is the show of veneration in the Namaste Trump show organized by the Government of India, under the astute stewardship of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 24, 2020.
On January 21, 2017, just a day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, a worldwide ‘Women’s March’ was organised in protest. In America alone, approximately 1.0 to 1.6 percent of the entire population participated in the march, making it the largest single-day protest in US history. Women continue to be outraged at Trump’s misogyny.
The first evidence of this came on October 7, 2016, a month before the election, when the Washington Post published a video from 2005 featuring Trump boasting about his prowess in sexual assault, “I don’t even wait. And, when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy.”
The same month, candidate Trump arranged to pay $130,000 to the porn-star Stormy Daniels to ensure that she signed a ‘nondisclosure agreement’ and kept quiet about the affair they had in 2006. The story was outed by the Washington Post on January 12, 2018. But, Trump went scot-free. Instead, in December 2018, Michael Cohen, the personal lawyer through whom Trump had made the deal was sentenced to three years in federal prison for several felonies including ‘campaign finance violation’. Cohen deposed in court that whatever was done to prevent Stormy Daniels from spilling the unsavoury beans was done “in coordination with and at the direction” of Trump. In February 2019, adding colour to the story, speaking under oath before the ‘House Oversight Committee’, a ten-hour ‘speech’ that was televised nationwide, Cohen dramatically flourished a cheque carrying Trump’s fantastic signature as part-payment for the expenses he had incurred in relation to the porn-actress.
In spite of the revelations the month before elections, Trump won; worse, the subsequent revelations of Trump’s sexual transgressions did not dent his prestige amongst his avowed devotees.
However, they did outrage his opponents. Now arrayed against Trump are women empowered by the ‘Me Too’ movement, teenage students demanding gun-control, mainstream liberal journalists, television comedians and many such vocal sources. And, despite the warm embrace and uninterrupted backing he receives from conservative outlets like ‘Fox News’, ‘Drudge Report’, the radio talk-show hosted by Rush Limbaugh, as well as from ultra-right fringe-groups peddling absurd conspiracy theories, Trump’s popularity rating hovers around a measly 40%.
The traditional rivalry between the Democrats and Republicans has sharpened since the rise of Trump. Strangely enough, even though Trump has virtually gobbled up the Republican Party, the elected Republicans in the House of Representatives and the Senate have fallen in line and become his docile foot soldiers. The net effect: Trump’s divisive policies have engendered wild partisanship.
‘A headpiece filled with straw’
As T. S. Eliot put it in 1925, the one striking feature of “hollow men” is that they have their “headpiece filled with straw”. By this token, Donald Trump is a shining example of a hollow man. His habitual declarations about his mental ability further bear this out: He has boasted about his “very, very large brain”; “I am a very stable genius”; “My great and unmatched wisdom.” In reaction to the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize 2019 he grumbled at a January 2020 rally that he had been deprived of what rightfully belonged to him. In January 2020, he paraded a poll with mock-humility, which showed that a majority of Republicans believe that Trump is a greater president than Abraham Lincoln. On October 27, 2019, a US military special operation cornered Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS), forcing Baghdadi to kill himself. At the press conference the same day Trump described it as a ‘movie’, borrowing the tag line of the reality show ‘Apprentice’, “You are fired”. Among other bizarre statements at the same briefing, he said, “ISIS use the internet better than almost anybody in the world, perhaps other than Donald Trump.”
The commander-in-chief’s command over English is so pathetic that he makes silly spelling mistakes, creates confusion by erratic punctuation, and breaks the simplest of grammatical rules. In addition, his spontaneous speeches are often so rambling and disjointed so as to be completely incomprehensible. Trump’s straw-filled headpiece is a potent symbol of the general dumbing down that has now gripped the world; his encyclopaedic ignorance speaks volumes for the paradox of having an increasing number of people with low-information at a time when, due to technological advances, the formation of an ‘Information Society’ has become a stark reality. Trumps’ banality is so cartoonish that even seasoned comedians find it tough to parody him.
Trump may be emptiness incarnate, nothing more than hot air in flesh, but his expertise in practicing deceit is indisputable—personal, professional and political.
Tangled webs of corruption
On May 17, 2017, US deputy attorney general appointed Robert Mueller as a special counsel to probe allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and potential conspiracy between Trump’s campaign team and Russia. Mueller’s report submitted on March 22, 2019 did not absolve Trump from the charge of “obstruction of justice” in the investigation, but the enquiry fizzled out.
However, the ‘Ukraine scandal’ is harder to shrug off in terms of evidence. In a summary transcript of Trump’s July 25, 2019 phone call to the president of Ukraine released by the White House on September 25, 2019, Trump was heard soliciting his help in supplying damaging information against Joe Biden, his rival in the 2020 presidential election; there was also the tacit threat that if Ukraine failed to meet his demand he would freeze the money appropriated by Congress for Ukraine’s safekeeping. Trump’s audacity is staggering, with this second conspiracy coming just a day after Mueller testified on his report to the House Intelligence Committee.
In the wake of the Ukraine mess, the House Democrats launched a formal impeachment inquiry on September 24, 2019. Despite the White House’s dogged refusal to release a single document as well as the invocation of presidential privilege, 17 witnesses, civil servants and diplomats, ignoring the ban and risking their career, testified before the House Intelligence Committee. The evidence they provided was more than sufficient to prove that Trump was indeed guilty of wrongdoing in matters relating to Ukraine. Moving rapidly, the House formally impeached Donald Trump, the third such happening in US history, on December 13, 2019. With Republications voting against the resolution en bloc, the decision was partisan by definition. The House passed just two ‘articles of impeachment’: “abuse of power” and “obstruction of Congress” but even these reveal an entire universe of wrongdoing,
The US constitution stipulates that House of Representatives has the sole authority to impeach a president and the Senate has the sole authority to institute a trial following the impeachment with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding over its proceedings. The implication is, while Congress can indict a president, the determination on whether to convict and remove him from office is the prerogative of the 100-member Senate. Moreover, this is possible only if at least two thirds of the Senate, i.e., 67 Senators agree to do so, and right now, the Democrats don’t have the numbers.
By holding back the articles of impeachment from reaching the Senate for more than a month, Nancy Pelosi, Democrat speaker in the House, enabled more information damaging to Trump to come into the public sphere. The Senate trial commenced on January 16, 2020, with the Chief Justice presiding and arguments being heard over six days between January 22-28 2020. On January 26, news emerged that a forthcoming memoir by John Bolton, The Room Where It Happened, had revealing first hand details of Trump’s involvement. Bolton had been national security advisor and was either fired by Trump or had resigned on his own on September 9, 2019. In the excitement that followed, around 75% of Americans, inclusive of 48% registered Republicans demanded that new witnesses and documents be introduced.
January 29 started with a ‘Question and Answer’ session. Alan Dershowitz, the jewel of the Trump legal team, a Harvard Law School professor emeritus reputed as an expert in the field of United States constitutional law and a regular host on Fox News, dropped a bombshell which would have both blind-sided and stone-deafened the founding fathers, the framers of the US constitution.
Dershowitz argued that if a president does whatever he does believing, “I want to be elected, I think I am a great president, I think I am the greatest president that ever was, if I am not elected national interest will suffer greatly, [then he commits no] impeachable offence”. On January 30, the Harvard professor further clarified his position by saying, “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”
The clear implication is that Trump has every right to renew the 17th century French monarch Louis XIV’s grandiloquent proclamation, L’etat, c’est moi, ‘The state is me’. The heliocentric model becoming acceptable in the 17th century, the view that the earth and other planets revolved around the sun stationed at the centre of the solar system garnering scientific approval, had earned Louis XIV the epithet le Roi Soleil, ‘the Sun King’. The 45th president of America is now laying claim to a similar sort of honorific title, the kind of mark of respect that connotes absolute power but no duties as such, particularly those outlined in Article 2 Section 3 Clause 5, which obliges a president to ‘take care’ of existing law.
As to be expected, except for Fox News, the Trump-propaganda network, and right-wing sites on the Internet, the US media made mincemeat of this logic. But, though completely outwitted, even flabbergasted by the House managers’ factually detailed and passionate orations, the Senate Republications clung onto Dershowitz’s specious reasoning. Some of them went so far as to say that while there was no doubt that Trump’s actions were clearly “inappropriate” and that the case for prosecution was “overwhelming”, still there was no cause to unseat him.
On January 31, 2020 the Senate voted 51-49 to put an end to further witnesses or documents. Finally, on February 5, 2020, even with a few Republican members using words like “proven”, “inappropriate”, “wrong”, “shameful” as regards Trump’s actions, the Senate acquitted the president from the charge of “Abuse of Power” by 52 to 48 and the charge of “Obstruction of Congress” by 53 to 47. Of the two Republican rebels who had crossed over party lines to ask for witnesses, one returned sheepishly to the flock, the other remained partially defiant. He became the first senator to favour the removal from office of his own party’s president. Falsely claiming that he had not only been acquitted but was also totally exonerated by the Senate, Trump will now continually take victory laps while campaigning for the forthcoming presidential election.
Among the Republicans, there is a solid unflappable core that will always side with Trump. For them, no matter how crazy the things he says or does, Trump remains beyond reproach, a ‘still centre’ that no impeachment can tarnish. Living and breathing within the comfort-zone of the Trump-bubble, they substantiate the criminal braggadocio Trump had aired on January 23, 2016 in the course of his hate-fuelled campaign—“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters”.
This brings us back to the issue of the ‘base’.
The group psychology of the ‘base’
The irrationalism intrinsic to the group psychology founded on post-modern hyper-nationalist authoritarianism – whether it be in the US, Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, United Kingdom or India – deserves special scrutiny.
The one factor that critically distinguishes the post-modern epoch from the modern period is nonstop technological breakthroughs leading to the continual development and improvement of weapons of mass-eradication. Hiroshima Day, i.e. August 6, 1945, inaugurated the Nuclear Age and since then mankind’s in-built urge to be “anxious to be afraid” has been getting stronger by the day. The idea of ‘annihilation-at-one-go’ is no longer a mythic construct but is potentially realizable. It is this which epistemologically separates Thomas Mann’s Cippola-type magician of yesteryear, e.g., Mussolini-Hitler, from the type’s contemporary incarnations like Trump.
In addition to the ceaseless innovation of ever-more alarming armaments, the daily devastation caused by man-made climate change seem to presage the End that ends all. The optics are so dark, so dismal nowadays, that even Freud’s conception of ‘individualistic Thanatos’ looks quaint. What supplements it today, and that too at the cost of incrementally diminishing the prominence of the personal aspect, is the feeling that everyone may vanish at any singular moment. The unstoppable introjection of the new sensibility, which may be called “Globalized Thanatos” cannot but alter the very dynamic of the Unconscious.
So, the question is, walled within as they are by Donald Trump – the commander-in-chief in absolute control of the nuclear-code containers known as ‘football’ and ‘biscuit’, a president crass enough to dismiss climate change – are the constituents of the ‘base’ mutely voicing a generalised death-wish by clinging to an Ego-ideal which is basically driven by the desire to dissolve all Ideals, American or otherwise?
Regardless of the ‘pessimism of intellect’ generated by Trump and his international associates, it may still be intellectually prudent to nurture the ‘optimism of will’ that the ‘bases’ from which they draw their sustenance will willingly in some future, even while the ‘future’ itself is at stake, bring about the collapse of the “Confederacy of Dunces”, to purloin Jonathan Swift’s acidic term.
Lying as sport
Unquestionably, not golfing but lying is the sport that Trump truly revels in. The Washington Post has been meticulously keeping track of Trump’s downright false or misleading statements since the beginning of his presidency. Between January 20, 2017 and December 31, 2017, the number stood at 1,999; in 2018 it rose to 5,689; in the span between January 1, 2019 and January 19, 2020 it climbed to the dizzying height of 8,553. In a matter of a mere 1,095 days, scoring a daily average of 14.8, the prototype of the 21st century “charlatan and mountebank” has added 16,241 bits of misinformation to what was the former real-estate mogul’s already bulging bag of double-dealings.
On February 6, 2020 Trump gave what may be termed a ‘celebration speech’ from the White House. Punctuated by profanities, it was mostly whining and the airing of petty grievances by a wounded ego; at the same time, the more than hour-long talk was nothing short of a full-throated attack on his opponents. The top-rung Republicans present at the venue loved it.
True to his vengeful promise, a triumphant Trump moved in swiftly. Of the 17 witnesses speaking to the House Intelligence Committee, Trump summarily dismissed two of them the next day —one was the ambassador to the European Union, a generous Trump-donor, and the other the director for European affairs for the US National Security Council, a lieutenant colonel in the army. To make the ‘Friday Night Massacre’ memorable, the decorated military veteran was unceremoniously escorted off the White House grounds by security along with his identical twin brother, the ethics lawyer at the National Security Council, who had not testified. The ambassador to Ukraine was ousted in May 2019 and the acting ambassador appointed in his place was asked to leave in January 2020. Correctly anticipating retribution, three of the four civil servants ‘guilty’ of sounding their concern on the Ukraine affair, quit their jobs before attending the hearing and the fourth resigned in the middle of the investigation. Now, with only nine ‘nonconforming’ officials left, it remains to be seen how ingloriously they will be purged by Trump.
Fierce proponents of ‘balanced budgets’, and in tandem with that staple principle, ceaselessly advocating for ‘small government’, ‘curtailment of state interventions in education, health-care, social security’, ‘lower taxes’, ‘increased military spending’, ‘restrictions on labour unions’, ‘free market capitalism’ etc. – the Republicans are now doing a poll-dance around the habitually bankrupt entrepreneur whose misguided economic experimentations are projected to increase the US federal budget deficit to the staggering figure of $1.0 trillion or 4.6% of Gross Domestic Product by the end of 2020.
However, the operative reason behind this egregious, appalling show of deference is simple enough. Republican lawmakers are mortally afraid of Trump’s vengeance, and his stranglehold over his hardcore ‘base’. What renders this already frightening prospect even more alarming is the Gallup poll showing that Trump’s approval rating all of a sudden shot up to an all-time high 49% on February 5, the final day of the impeachment saga. But, the sobering news is, subsequent polls reveal that Trump’s approval rating has quickly dwindled to around 42%, keeping him underwater as always.
‘Too dangerous to psychoanalyse’
Alan Dershowitz’s frank admission, “It is so dangerous to psychoanalyse the president”, is perhaps the most poignant of the defences put forward by the Trump team. For, it is irrefutable that any effort to “psychoanalyse” the president with the rigour it demands, would automatically extend the ambit of the investigation and engulf many other people. As in Mann’s Mario and the Magician, the focus then would shift from Cippola, the “historic type” signifying the “charlatan and mountebank”, to the collective which had failed to cognize “where the comedy left off and the tragedy began.” It would also throw into sharper relief the time-serving opportunistic politicians singing paeans to pleasure Trump as well as the world-leaders trying desperately to emulate him. And now…
COVID-19, the global pandemic, has hit the US the hardest. On January 20, 2020 came the first report of a person being infected there by coronavirus; in February 2020, the number of deaths was two. In a matter of four months, in sharp contrast to most other countries, the pandemic appears to have gone out of control in at least 40 of the 50 US states. On July 18, 2020, the number of confirmed cases stood at 3.8 million and the number of deaths climbed to the dizzying height of 142,672. The unbelievable devastation has had a terrible economic impact on the world’s largest economy—between April and May ’20, a mere seven weeks, 30.35 million Americans lost their jobs.
The ‘credit’ for this all-round ‘achievement’ belongs squarely to one man: President Trump. Initially he downplayed the crisis; then, giving into ‘magical’ thinking, he insisted the virus would soon “disappear” by itself; next, on April 23, 2020, he advised Americans to either ingest or inject domestic detergents like Lysol into their bodies and flood their lungs with ultra-violet rays in order to neutralize the “invisible enemy”. Quickly bored by the laborious task of supervising the containment and mitigation of the virus, Trump focused all his attention on to his ‘base’. Flouting the guidelines laid down by his own government, he refused to abide by ‘physical distancing’ or put on a mask; setting himself up as a role-model for his devotees, he encouraged them to not hunker down in homes like cowards and act as though things were as ‘normal’ as before and return to work in the fashion of unarmed warriors. Trump fans have harkened to their piper’s call; the premature ‘opening up’ led to the inordinate spike in cases in southern and north-western US in June ’20.
The politics of a sadist is by definition necropolitics, the exercise of power aimed at determining who may live and who may die. Himself a walking ‘hotspot’, Trump has almost succeeded in cutting into time a genocide out of the pandemic. Always itching for rallies in which densely seated attendees make themselves hoarse by cheering on their Great Leader – events that cannot but be super-spreaders in the present toxic environment – Trump has facilitated the proliferation of coronavirus in conjunction with what some commentators call ‘moronavirus’.
As elsewhere, in the US too, COVID-19 has exposed a range of inequities which constitute its social fabric. Coronavirus has made it impossible to wish them away or push them beneath the carpet; for, though in the minority, Blacks, Latinxs, the native Americans have been disproportionally affected by the disease. The flashpoint for this exposure came on May 25, ’20, the day a white police officer killed a black man named George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for eight long minutes and forty-six seconds in front of horrified bystanders. It was as though the last unsaid utterance of COVID victims found its voice in Floyd’s repeated cry in his death-throes, “I can’t breathe”. The reaction was prompt. A country-wide protest broke out demanding the dismantling of systemic racism, the ‘original sin’ that lay behind the ‘birth of a nation’ known as the US. In response, on June 1, Trump threatened to call out the American military to silence the citizens who dared to say “Black Lives Matter”.
Trump’s adoption of the mode of denial in relation to coronavirus, his attempts to present the double issue of public health and economic recovery as binary opposites, his white supremacist proclamations such as “We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters…’ delivered at the White House on July 4, 2020 with respect to the protests following the murder of George Floyd, have started to cost him heavily. Two years earlier, on July 24, 2018, Trump had spelled out the mantra for those who seek shelter in his alternative universe: “Just remember, what you’re seeing or what you’re reading isn’t what’s happening”. While many had taken to the chant, recent polls involving the coming presidential election onNovember 3, 2020 indicate that his appeal is fading, even the size of his base is shrinking. Well, just as inflicting wounds on one-self is a propensity natural to sadists, it also contributes to the dissolution of the previously firm transactional narcissism.
Whether ‘Trumpism’, with all its garden-varieties in several countries, is a passing aberration or not, it is undeniable that ‘Donald J. Trump’ has become the single-most potent nomenclature for post-modern narcissism. He is the prophet of the charming disorder that exploits to the hilt universal primary masochism and works hand in glove with venture capitalism and populism, thus egging on people to participate in the grand enterprise of the destruction of the planet, apparently on their own accord. It is indeed dangerous to psychoanalyze a sinister man who wields maximum power in today’s world. Yet, it is essential that we undertake this task.
Sibaji Bandyopadhyay was Professor of Cultural Studies, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC), Kolkata, India, and Professor of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India