A person of outright and obviously immoral character has been elected president. This has been done legitimately, according to the rules and without tampering. Furthermore, this person is simply not fit to conduct an effective presidency. He does not have the experience, temperament or wisdom.
These defects of Mr. Trump were obvious, nobody can claim to be surprised by them, unlike was the case with, say Nixon. But Donald Trump is not a normal politician: rather he is the leader of something which resembles a political cult. And as is always the case when we are dealing with cults, it is necessary to build ‘off ramps’ so that his supporters can make an exit. At what time should we do this? Immediately.
When people are entranced by a person or thing which is actually quite bad they often are immune to reality for a time, but eventually the shine wears off. They then go through a period of internal and external defensiveness. Eventually, they will deescalate their emotional investment until they leave the fold.
If you will excuse a facile, even cheeky example this pattern has recently been observed with products made by a certain fruit company.
But back to seriousness. It is imperative to accelerate the de-escalation of emotional investment because primaries are coming up: all the House and 1/3rd of the Senate in two years. If people bristle in anger and blame and use destructive negative rhetoric (such as the obsession with trying to get the newspapers to use the word ‘lie’ and smearing all people who voted for Trump as bigots, etc) then the de-escalation will not take place.
Applying deviance-labels to people who have erred does nothing to improve or even meaningfully explain their behavior. It’s important to remember that nobody ever considers themselves to be in a cult. Experts who study cults say that one of the main reasons why people remain in cults, even after extreme behavior such as violence occurs, is that the cost of exiting is rejection and not just by coreligionists.
Cult members fear being scorned, called stupid or deemed mentally ill by the ‘outside world.’ However, how do I justify my terming of Trumpism as cult-like?
- Cults target alienated people who have suffered some sense of loss or dislocation. * The cult then provides simple, albeit false, answers to complex (or imaginary) problems.
- Cults subtly discourage critical thought.
- Cults are hugely oriented towards a single person, only he knows the secrets of the world.
- Cults seek to distort the victims’ understanding of reality with alternative facts.
- Cults are isolating, they keep their victims’ in filter-bubbles.
- Cults avoid individualistic expression. They speak of ‘we.’ This is because…
- Cults are very often marked by a distinct “us” and “them” mentality. Cults tend to have an enemy.
- Cults devalue the intellect of others without rational basis. Foes are ‘failing piles of garbage.’ A cult usually does not attempt to disprove evidence but to reject it out of hand.
- Cults are obsessed with symbolism and pageantry.
- Cults exhibit outwardly-directed negative emotions such as fear, hate and anger.
It should be apparent how these features apply to Trumpism.
As for the broader question of how our political system became amenable to cultish behavior, let us realize that our world has changed very rapidly.
If we look back to the world at the end of the 19th century, we see massive political, cultural and economic change due to the transition from a largely agrarian and rural to largely industrialized and urban lifestyle. This came to be known as the fin de siècle and it was marked by uncertainty, fear, malaise and pessimism as well as a rejection of rationalism and Enlightenment thinking. This perfectly set the stage for fascism. It’s also eerily familiar, no? Perhaps future historians will speak of “début de siècle.”
Now, Donald Trump is not a fascist. I know that this phrase has been bandied about and I am guilty of having carelessly used it myself. Defining “fascist” is notoriously slippery, but to my mind the core distinction between fascism and authoritarianism is the emotional investiture in the state as the embodiment of national glory and the agent of her millennial destiny. So far, this is not present. The bad news is that these elements are pretty easy to get to from where Mr. Trump is standing. The even worse news is that this is not important. It’s not actionable.
The real problem is not just that Mr. Trump is evil, but that he is IRRATIONALLY evil. It is not possible to accurately predict how he will behave.
As you may know, a huge scandal has erupted in South Korea. It has been revealed that the President, Park Geun Hye was under the thrall of a shaman-like figure who has apparently influenced government policy and has allegedly used her closeness to the President to shake down companies for “donations.” There are also other, wilder allegations.
I read an article which asserted that what truly galled Koreans was not the corruption, it is endemic and something to which they are to a degree inured but the irrationality of the corruption. Koreans realized that they could no longer dismiss allegations and rumors as “too absurd” because nothing now is too absurd. Likely, many of the hurricane of innuendos to consume the Blue House are exaggerated or false, but the comforting basis of “no rational person would…” has been swept away. There is no suggestion that Mr. Trump has fallen in with anything quite like this. (Though, upon even brief examination the religious ideology of Betsy De Vos is… terrifying.) But there is no questioning that we cannot ever dismiss anything Donald Trump threatens to do, tweets about or is rumored to be going to do with a sentence which begins “no rational person would…”
Consider just one small part this. Can we say “no rational person would ignore an order of the Supreme Court.” Can this sentence apply to Mr. Trump? If not, and if eventually we come to this point what happens? A Constitutional Crisis is more at this point a question of ‘what will trigger it and when and how bad?’ and not ‘will it take place?’
The Republic is at risk. This is why it is so important that we off-ramp Trumpists because we will need their help in two years. It is likely that many congressional Republicans are going along with Trumpism because they saw which way their district went and are afraid of losing their seats. Until that changes, Mr. Trump bears no credible threat of impeachment, defunding* or blocking. He knows this.
We do not need a blue-wave to put a firewall on Trump, we just need off-ramping. We just need to shift the political calculus so that Republicans find it politically advantageous to stand up to Trump.
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* Congress’ supremacy in taxation, borrowing and spending is the key. Not only can Congress refuse to authorize borrowing or taxing to fund projects, it can frustrate the president from rearranging the existing budget by passing a law prohibiting the expenditure of “appropriated funds” on anything it doesn’t want the Executive branch to do.