Donald Trump's empire of disorientation: Where the future is the past, made worse

Trump wants to turn back the clock — but how far? To the 1950s or the Gilded Age? To before the Civil War?

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 8, 2018 7:00AM (EDT)

A 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator, defying an anti-parade ordinance of Birmingham, Ala., is attacked by a police dog on May 3, 1963. (AP/Bill Hudson)
A 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator, defying an anti-parade ordinance of Birmingham, Ala., is attacked by a police dog on May 3, 1963. (AP/Bill Hudson)

Inspired by the recent Supreme Court decision ruling that a Colorado baker could legally discriminate against a gay couple by refusing to provide them with a wedding cake, a South Dakota state representative named Michael Clark said on Facebook that a business owner is free to discriminate against black people: “He should have the opportunity to run his business the way he wants. ... If he wants to turn away people of color, then that [sic] his choice.”

Clark appears to be an ignorant bigot, but he also represents a much larger societal dynamic.

What year is it? On the Gregorian calendar it is 2018. In the Age of Trump it feels like some other time where one hand on the clock is moving forward while the other one spins backwards.

This is a version of what philosopher Hans Sluga has described as Donald Trump's "empire of disorientation." It is one of the most powerful outputs of the malignant reality that Donald Trump and other authoritarians have cast upon the land like dark mages.

Many people have been left exhausted and sickened by Trump's lies and chaos, and by the anti-democratic agenda that has been so quickly normalized. But for his supporters this conjuring is a type of glamour where the gullible and desperate, the self-interested and mercenary, are made to believe that there will be a restoration of a mythic, glorious American past in the present which will somehow last for all time. This offers Trump and his followers a type of immortality by proxy. But despite the promises these grand designs are usually not very durable; they crumble; Adolf Hitler's "thousand-year Reich" only lasted 12 years.

There are many examples of the tumult, unease, and confusion caused by Trump's "empire of disorientation."

There is talk among the chattering class of an America so broken and torn asunder by Donald Trump and his movement that the country is on the verge of a second Civil War.

Fascism, a violent and murderous movement that was defeated by the allies during World War II, is resurgent in America and across Europe. One in 10 Americans is sympathetic to Nazism. Neo-Nazis and other white supremacists have been emboldened by Donald Trump's presidency, and a Republican Party where conservatism and racism are now fully one and the same thing.

Trump's judicial nominees have in several cases refused to state whether they support landmark Supreme Court decisions such as Brown vs. Board of Education, which helped to strike down formal school segregation more than 50 years ago.

More generally, Trump's administration is also doing almost everything possible to roll back the victories of the civil rights movement and the black freedom struggle.

Trump seeks to ensure a permanent white Christian majority by ruthlessly deporting and otherwise harassing nonwhite immigrants -- legal and otherwise -- as well as banning all travel or immigration from several Muslim countries. A cornerstone of this racist and nativist agenda is implementing policies of the 1920s, when nonwhites were prohibited from immigrating to the United States.

Republicans and other conservatives are fighting to protect Confederate monuments to racial tyranny and white supremacist violence. Women's reproductive freedoms are under assault throughout the United States. The 1973 Roe v. Wade case that helped to establish women's rights to control their own bodies is being eviscerated by right-wing Christian nationalists and their allies.

The hard-won rights of gays and lesbians, the disabled, and other vulnerable and marginalized groups are also being dismantled by Trump's administration and his allies.

Unions and protections for the rights and safety of American workers are being gutted. The environment is being despoiled; public lands and resources are being sold to the highest corporate bidder. Those lands originally protected by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 may not survive Trump and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt's rapine behavior.

Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and other elements of the social safety net programs established during the New Deal and the Great Society are under assault as well. The progressive tax system which was implemented in 1862 is also being radically subverted under the auspices of "tax reform."

Of course Trump's "empire of disorientation" does not do its work in isolation. It's a conduit through which the Republican Party and the conservative movement can fulfill their long-term vision of destroying the commons and gutting democratic government.

Historian Nancy MacLean explained this in a conversation with me for Salon last year:

In this Koch-donor dream, we are all responsible for ourselves from the cradle to the grave, unless there is a charity that happens to take an interest in us. We do not have federal laws to outlaw pollution or to prevent discrimination. Instead we trust everything to the free market and private property. This cause has pitted itself against the whole American model of 20th-century government. Regulation of food and drugs, the New Deal's federal support for workers to organize and hold corporations accountable, the civil rights movement, the women’s and the environmental movements, all of these things are illegitimate in the eyes of these people on the right.

This assault is also part of a broader neoliberal revolution where time itself is bent by gangster capitalists and other capitalist oligarchs to serve their interests, with the ultimate goal of making every aspect of life subjected to the dictates of the market. Here the fundamental value and meaning of human life is debased and warped; Homo sapiens becomes Homo economicus. This is a state of being where human community and goodness are not nurtured but where selfishness, destruction and greed are worshiped.

Philosopher Henry Giroux explains the role of time in this moment of global economic, social and political crisis this way:

Maybe this is all understandable in a corporate-controlled neoliberal society that uses new communication technologies that erase history by producing a notion of time wedded to a culture of immediacy, speed, simultaneity and endless flows of fragmented knowledge. As Manuel Castells writes in "Communication Power," this is a form of “digital time” in which everything that happens only takes place in the present, a time that “has no past and no future.” Time is accelerated in this new information-saturated culture, and it also flattens out “experience, competence and knowledge,” and the capacity for informed judgment. Time has thus been transformed to provide the ideological support that neoliberal values and a fast-food, temp-worker economy require to survive.

What then is the ideal year and final destination for Donald Trump and the right wing's time machine?

In an interview during the 2016 presidential campaign Donald Trump said that his effort to "Make America Great Again" would return the country to the 1940s and 1950s. This is a "Leave it to Beaver" American Whiteopia, which was also a nightmare for anyone who was not a straight white man. In reality, this was an era of Jim Crow white supremacy when women were treated as second-class citizens and gays, lesbians and transgender people were stigmatized as being "mentally ill," "deviants" or "predators."

But Trump's "empire of disorientation" and its co-conspirators in the American right would be happy to bring America back much farther than to a mythic version of the 1950s or 1940s. They yearn to re-create the 19th-century Gilded Age, when there were few if any limits on the ruinous behavior of big business and the rich.

If Trump and his allies were to fully get their way, America could perhaps even be returned to the 19th century. A second Confederate States of America would be inaugurated where in its updated 21st-century version nonwhites -- especially blacks -- would "know their place," women would be "properly submissive," there would be no unions or labor laws, gays and lesbians would disappear back into the closet, right-wing Christianity would supersede secular laws and white men would rule for all time because that was and is "the natural order of things."

In a healthy democracy, there is a tension and balance between those individuals and groups who are progressive and want change and those who are more conservative, risk-averse, and "traditional." For the United States this takes the form of what has been described as "consensus liberalism." In that model there are rules to the game and a broad set of shared values which create a type of political community -- even while there are often heated struggles about how much social and political change is too much or not enough.

Since the 1960s, and especially the George W. Bush presidency, that type of consensus liberalism has been ruthlessly and repeatedly challenged. With the election of would-be king Donald Trump, that consensus politics is gone, perhaps forever.

This is a dangerous time and what feels like the nadir of American democracy and greatness. What comes next?

On this point, Henry Giroux warns us: "In the age of Trump, anticipation no longer imagines a better world but seems mired in a dystopian dread, mimicking the restlessness, chaos and uncertainty that precedes a historical moment no longer able to deal with its horrors and on the verge of a terrible catastrophe."

Is resistance futile? That is a question which the American people must answer. To this point in Trump's presidency the Democratic Party and other members of the "resistance" have been largely ineffective. Trump's "empire of disorientation" has left his enemies confused and uncoordinated. They are wandering blindly through a dark landscape without a map, unable to see the hazards ahead.

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By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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American History Civil Rights Civil War Conservatives History Racism Republicans U.s. History White Supremacy