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Dark gifts of the Trumpus: Hey, who needs the Enlightenment anyway?

Don't shun the goblin who vows to make Christmas great again — if we refuse his presents he'll eat democracy


Andrew O'Hehir
December 23, 2017 5:00PM (UTC)

Gather around the fire, everyone, and I’ll tell you a Christmas story. OK, yes, the “fire” is a digital artifact, and “around” is a metaphor. Did you think I meant we should actually be together, in the physical world? That’s gross.

Like any good story, this one has heroes and monsters, deeds of valor and heinous betrayals. It has adventures whose meaning is not clear, and subplots that may have been inadequately translated from an unknown original. It will make you laugh and then make you cry, or maybe the other way around. (If you are Steve Bannon.) Its overall tone, however, is pretty clear. As somebody once observed, a sad tale’s best for winter. Well, I have one, of sprites and goblins.

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Years ago in the realms of light — or so they look to us now — children awaited the coming of a jolly old elf in a red suit, who delivered consumer goods all around the world on Christmas Eve. It was a peculiar and incoherent tradition, to be sure: A pagan god plus a Christian saint plus a quantum-physics early version of Amazon. (More than likely he represented stories of early human contact with the Time Lords, passed down through the generations.) Maybe we can say it was a benevolent form of hypocrisy, an attempt to dress up the global triumph of capitalism in pseudo-ancient legend. Anyway, kids liked it.

Opinions vary on whether or not this entity actually existed. Given this week’s UFO news, and the way that whole business with dragons worked out in “Game of Thrones,” it’s best not to be categorical about such things. In any case, he is gone from our world. Where we live now, in the realms of night — and who among us can clearly remember a time before that? — children know the truth behind the old stories.

There is indeed a creature who brings Christmas surprises for all of us in his bulging sack, well known long ago in the Germanic and Nordic traditions. (Quiet down, Bannon — we know how much you like this part!) He is a ghoulish and unpredictable trickster, something like Loki’s less intelligent apprentice. His gifts are never quite as they appear to be.

He is the Trumpus. When the flowers have fallen and the cold winds blow, it’s his time of year.

Well, it is always the Trumpus’ time of year. Although he is an insignificant demon (in his home universe) he has the power to convince all of us, those who worship him and those who would cast him out, of his immense importance. Early each morning he sends messages that reach us all simultaneously — by what dark art, I know not — and distort the very fabric of reality. They impart no meaning save to exalt the greatness of the Trumpus. Yet in their sheer nullity, their howling emptiness, they paralyze us and compel our obedience.

Now is the season to celebrate the Gifts of the Trumpus. As I have said, they contain hidden meanings. It might almost be fair to say that many of them appear dreadful at first but will do us good in the long term, like orthodontia. Except that some appear harmless at first and will only reveal their gruesomeness with time, like the career of Rod Stewart.

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Do I mean the Republican tax bill, just signed into law by the physical avatar of the Trumpus? Hardly. For one thing, what the Trumpus tells us is a gift is not a gift at all. For another, the tax bill is only a symptom, the result of chemical interaction between the mind-altering, reality-shaping works of the Trumpus.

Tax laws that have been rewritten — in pencil, by illiterates, in the middle of the night — can be rewritten again, and God willing these will be. But the Trumpus has held up his magic looking-glass so we can see ourselves as we “really” are, or at any rate as he has remade us. That is not so easy to undo.

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The Trumpus has shown us the true nature of the Republican Party

One shouldn’t weep overmuch for the plight of NeverTrumpers like Charlie Sykes (whom I interviewed for Salon TV a few weeks ago) and Bill Kristol and so on, who spent decades cultivating a voter base with racism and ignorance and culture-war trollery, and are now sad that those things turned out to be the cake rather than the frosting. But at least they recognize that riding along with a neo-fascist demagogue in order to get tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks and fanatical right-wing judges marks the living death of the conservative movement.

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Pretty much everyone else in and around the Republican Party has been like, oh hell yes living death! Approximately three minutes after describing Donald Trump as a “sniveling coward” and the textbook definition of a racist, they swooned before him like a white-throated maiden in Dracula’s castle. As I have previously argued, the secret meaning of Trump’s supposedly scandalous “Access Hollywood” tape was that Republicans were thrilled by it. Did they identify with his manly desires? Well, maybe — but I’m inclined to think it was the other way around: He grabbed the entire Republican Party by the you-know-what, and consent was no longer an issue.

There is no path back from here to the old Republican Party, which was a pack of awful liars and hypocrites anyway, although certainly not like this. But there’s no clear path forward either, other than a bunch of extra-constitutional measures to hang onto power as long as possible, followed by demographic extinction. So the Trumpus has given us a great gift by showing us the impending doom of one of America’s two major political parties. Whether the other party can take advantage of that in any productive fashion is quite another matter.

The Trumpus has given the Democratic Party the perfect villain, and an opportunity to dodge its own day of reckoning

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I’ve spent more than enough time on this topic, honestly. But the core principle applies: The meaning of this Trumpian boon may be quite different than it first appears. Folks have already argued that Doug Jones’ surprise victory in the Alabama Senate race means that Democrats can surf the “blue wave” of 2018 back to power with no positive identity at all, other than being normal, decent people who don’t embrace conspiracy theories or make apologies for white supremacy or sexual abuse.

That may well be true! Government run by the competent managerial class sounds pretty good right about now, even if it rests on a large set of unproven assumptions. But another round of Beltway teeter-totter on those terms — in which the parties trade majorities, without much of anything getting done — only forestalls the resolution of the Democratic Party’s internal conflict, which isn’t so much about Bernie-style progressives versus Hillary-style centrists (or whatever) as about whether to have any visible ideology at all.

It’s a puzzling question that has other unanswered questions about race and power and economics embedded within it; I'm not being facetious when I say I don’t know the answer. Democrats are now inclined to believe they can pick up 40 or so House seats and a slim but workable majority while evading the issue entirely. It’s a reasonable belief, and also a perfect example of the short-term, instrumental logic that has led to the party’s current paradox: While Democratic policy positions command large public majorities, the party itself is consumed by chaos and infighting and has been virtually wiped off the map in large swaths of the American heartland.

The Trumpus has revealed the diseased and distorted character of American democracy

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One aspect of the aforementioned intra-Democratic conflict is the question of how much the Democratic Party is to blame for its own predicament. There is a sizable contingent of “mainstream” Democrats who would argue that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the party’s 2016 nominee or its cautious, coalition-building approach to politics. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote conclusively, and got jobbed out of the presidency by (take your pick) James Comey, Jill Stein, voter suppression, an upsurge of white racism and misogyny, a tide of false propaganda and Russian interference.

Those people have a point, clearly: Trump’s election wasn’t just an improbable fluke but a nearly impossible cascade of flukes. But they’re still not looking at the ugly reflection in the Trumpus’ dark mirror. None of that could have happened in a healthy and functioning democracy, whose people felt a modicum of faith in the system. Any version of hey, things were going great, we were about to have the first woman president and then oh no Trump is a massive, epic, unacceptable level of denial.

I’m not going to dwell on the Russian question here. I still think it's a distraction from the real problems, and the dream world in which Robert Mueller is going to save America is going to have a painful encounter with the alarm clock one of these days. We still don’t know whether the Trump campaign actively or consciously colluded with Russian agents (my guess is they just wanted to), and may never know how much difference it made. But here’s what we do know: One party descended into profound psychosis, while the other pretended not to notice that anything was wrong. Both are viewed with immense distrust by the public, and they finished in roughly a tie. Tens of millions of people voted for a spectacularly unqualified and ignorant demagogue, who overtly scorns the so-called norms of democracy and clearly wishes he could do away with it altogether.

Is America now a functional oligarchy, or more precisely a socioeconomic oligarchy operating within the shell of electoral democracy, as Bernie Sanders has suggested? We don’t have time or space to settle that one, but those who indulge in Stephen Colbert-style “undo” fantasies — the day after tomorrow, Trump will be led out of the White House in chains, Republicans will resign en masse and the “white working class” will hang its shaggy collective head in shame — are every bit as delusional as Alex Jones’ listeners.

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The Trumpus has exposed (or enabled) the implosion of the classic American dream

We were a nation of immigrants, a nation where anyone could rise to the middle class or even to untold wealth, a nation where each generation was stronger, healthier, better educated and more affluent than its parents. How’s all that feeling right now? The hateful libel Trump poured forth against immigrants — now, as always, a peaceable and hard-working subset of the population — was nothing new in American politics. But that “economic anxiety” we’ve heard so much about meant that it resonated more strongly than usual, with millions of people who have felt their position in society stagnate or decay, and are eager to find somebody to blame.

I’m aware that Trump’s supporters were not necessarily poor or economically stricken, viewed in the aggregate. But they perceive correctly that in 21st-century America economic mobility is much more likely to be downward than upward; they are precisely the demographic — middle-aged, middle-income and white — most affected by the opioid epidemic and the uptick in suicide and other “deaths of despair.” Trump will almost certainly be the first modern president to oversee a decline in American life expectancy, at a time when that’s trending sharply upward elsewhere, including in many developing countries.

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Trump himself doesn’t understand or care about any of that (or necessarily believe it). His relationship to reality is transactional, as we say these days. His Republican allies have an answer, sort of: They just voted to give even more money to rich people at the top of the vast pyramid scheme that is American society, either in the vague, credulous hope of jump-starting the economy or just because rich people are awesome and host great parties.

There was a lot of wishful thinking and duplicity baked into the American dream all along, to be sure. But a lot of us had reason to believe it: My grandfather was born in the west of Ireland and became a mailman in Manhattan; his son owned a house with a swimming pool, high in the California hills. If I feel some compassion for Trump voters, it’s because they too grew up on stories like that and now feel, with some justification, that they wound up holding the empty bag at the end of a long con. Their reaction leaves a lot to be desired, but that too is a bigger story than we can tell here.

The Trumpus has laid bare the incoherence of the postwar ideological order

This also is way too big a topic for Christmas weekend: While the semi-hilarious conservative reversal on Russia — once the Red Menace, now zone of massive Mike Flynn man-crush — is the most obvious example, it’s not necessarily the most important. Trump ran as an isolationist, proposing (perhaps by accident) the largely sensible notion that the United States should refrain from vainglorious exercises in nation-building and resign its self-appointed role as constable of world capitalism. He is governing (or “governing”) as a classic Republican neocon, threatening a thoroughly unnecessary war with North Korea and unleashing a pointless swarm of hornets into the already unresolvable Israel-Palestine morass.

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But as Salon columnist Patrick Lawrence has suggested, to a considerable degree the Trumpus is just reflecting reality in his magic mirror. Our international standing was irreparably damaged by the unmitigated disaster of the Iraq war and the Bush-era torture policies; its improvement under Obama was largely a matter of semiotics. Withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, although disgraceful, did not actually damage the Paris accords. Coming out of the closet as a bewildered, blundering superpower, pursuing only a shortsighted conception of its own interests, might actually empower the rest of the world to treat us with less respect and shift for itself. (Unless Trump actually pushes the nuclear button before John Kelly can stop him.)

Is there any upside to the actual somewhat-elected president of the United States acting as if a Nazi march in an American city were not that big a deal, and pronouncing that there were “fine people” among those who celebrated 19th-century genocidal treason and 20th-century genocidal fascism? Not really — except that the profound shock felt by most Americans was not cynical, and I suspect that episode was the beginning of the end for President Donald Trump. (Not for the Trumpus, who is immortal and everywhere.)

The Trumpus embodies the rejection of any shared conception of reality

Like everybody else who has column inches to fill, I’ve been marveling at this since at least the middle of the 2016 campaign. On an intuitive or instinctual level, Donald Trump grasped hold of a phenomenon that has been part of the Western philosophical tradition since Plato, and became especially hot in the 20th century: There is no universally agreed-upon definition of reality. With the decline of absolute morality and unquestioned authority — in other words, with the advent of the modern age — some degree of relativism and uncertainty crept into every perception. How can I be sure that you see what I see, or that the pronouncements of experts and scientists are any more reliable than the fables spun by kings and popes of old?

The answer isn’t that hard: I can never be entirely sure of that, but through universal education and a general understanding of how science operates (including the fact that it is made by humans, who are inherently limited and often get things wrong), we arrive at a shared social consensus about things that are almost certainly true, probably true and extremely unlikely. You see where I’m going here.

Given, shall we say, the uneven spread of education and scientific understanding and social consensus, we arrive at 2016, when the opposing forces of American politics bizarrely mirrored each other. While the armies of the Trumpus embraced an entirely imaginary universe -- an endless barrage of conspiracy theories, alternative facts and fake news -- Clintonite Democrats refused to acknowledge that the underlying problem even existed. In their imaginary universe, America was a nation of reasonable, sensible people, rooted in the core values of the Enlightenment. Oh, we might have our disagreements about politics, but surely we all agreed — or most of us agreed, or at least the non-deplorables agreed — that facts were facts and reality was real and certain things were true or not true. That was fake news, I’m afraid.

The Trumpus has unveiled the truth about America’s uneasy relationship to the Enlightenment

This is the biggest and most troublesome package left under our tree by the Trumpus. It's visibly wiggling, with the rhythms of an octopus eating a kitten, and within its wrappings we find pretty much all the other gifts mentioned above. America has been divided between its highfalutin Enlightenment ideals and its superstitious sense of divine mission since well before the founding of the republic. Usually we try to fake some kind of truce, but sometimes the conflict becomes overt, which is pretty much what happened between Roy Moore and Doug Jones in Alabama.

If Thomas Jefferson believed in those self-evident truths about inalienable rights and universal equality in the Declaration of Independence, he certainly didn’t lead his life that way. Maybe he understood that American society wasn’t prepared to live up to those ideals (and maybe he was a big old racist hypocrite). Our 21st-century problem may be that we treat Enlightenment values the way earlier generations treated religious dogma, as if they had been carved in stone and brought down from the mountain. They require no social justification because they are sanctified and true.

But the Enlightenment was made by humans, not by God. It emerged from the specific conditions of Western Europe in the late 18th century, a society that viewed itself with boundless optimism. As the great historian E.J. Hobsbawm puts it, the “secular, rationalist and progressive individualism” of Enlightenment thought was seen as leading inevitably toward “the most beneficent consequences.”

The most extraordinary results could be looked for — could indeed already be observed to follow from — the unfettered exercise of individual talent in a world of reason. The passionate belief in progress of the typical “enlightened” thinker reflected the visible increases in knowledge and technique, in wealth, welfare and civilization which he could see all round him, and which he ascribed with some justice to the growing advance of his ideas.

In other words, the Enlightenment was not an artifact of abstract philosophical wisdom but an economic phenomenon, closely tied to the explosive growth of the middle class, the general spread of prosperity, and the final collapse of the feudal, oligarchic order of the Middle Ages. That has certainly been the guiding vision of American society for most of its history, and was true to experience for at least some of its citizens at least some of the time. The promise to “make America great again,” insofar as it means anything, is about somehow magically leaping backward to that era of economic expansion, while skipping over the optimism, the faith in reason and the belief in universal human rights.

What the Trumpus shows us in his magic Christmas mirror is a society where Enlightenment values are withering away because economic reality no longer supports them — where the “passionate belief in progress” has soured into endless, spiritless consumption, where the middle class believes itself stuck or sinking, and where massive wealth inequality has produced a new oligarchic order that would put the feudal lords to shame.

Is that the whole truth of our society? Not at all. Does the Trumpus understand the vision he is showing us, or possess a remedy for it? Of course not. But he is a clever goblin; there is always truth beneath his lies, if you can stand to dig for it. Can we save democracy if we are unwilling to accept his gifts, and try to learn from them? Not a chance.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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