Our new president, a 70-year-old with orange-tinted skin and hair that Penn Jillette has likened to “cotton candy made of piss,” is, as Trump often reminds us, “very good looking.” He has almost no intellectual accomplishments—he knows little of history, politics, law, philosophy, art or governance—but insists “my IQ is one of the highest—and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.” And the mediocrities and half-wits he has installed in his Cabinet have “by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled.”
It is an avalanche of absurdities.
This mendacity would be easier to repulse if the problem was solely embodied in Trump. But even in the face of a rising despotism, the Democratic Party refuses to denounce the corporate forces that eviscerated our democracy and impoverished the country. The neoliberal Trump demonizes Muslims, undocumented workers and the media. The neoliberal Democratic Party demonizes Vladimir Putin and FBI Director James Comey. No one speaks about the destructive force of corporate power. The warring elites pit alternative facts against alternative facts. All engage in demagoguery. We will, I expect, be condemned to despotism by the venality of Trump and the cowardice and dishonesty of the liberal class.
Trump and those around him have a deep hatred for what they cannot understand. They silence anyone who thinks independently. They elevate pseudo-intellectuals who adhere to their bizarre script. They cannot cope with complexity, nuance or the unpredictable. Individual initiative is a mortal threat. The order for some employees of several federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research service, the National Park Service and the Department of Health and Human Services, to restrict or cease communication with the press or members of Congress, along with the attempt to impose 10-year felony convictions on six reporters who covered the inauguration protests, signals the beginning of a campaign to marginalize reality and promote fantasy. Facts depend solely on those who have the power to create them. The goal of the Trump administration is to create an artificial consistency that conforms to its warped perception of the world.
“Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations,” Hannah Arendt wrote in “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” “The force possessed by totalitarian propaganda—before the movements have the power to drop iron curtains to prevent anyone’s disturbing, by the slightest reality, the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary world—lies in its ability to shut the masses off from the real world.”
Trump’s theatricality works. He forces the press and the public to repeat his lies, inadvertently giving them credibility. He is always moving. He is always on display. He has no fixed belief system. Trump, as he consolidates power, will adopt the ideology of the Christian right to fill his own ideological vacuum. The Christian right’s magical thinking will merge seamlessly with Trump’s magical thinking. Idiocy, self-delusion, megalomania, fantasy and government repression will come wrapped in images of the Christian cross and the American flag.
The lies create a climate in which everyone is assumed to be lying. The truth becomes suspect and obscured. Narratives begin to be believed not because they are true, or even sound true, but because they are emotionally appealing. The aim of systematic lying, as Arendt wrote, is the “transformation of human nature itself.” The lies eventually foster somnambulism among a population that surrenders to the magical thinking and ceases to care. It checks out. It becomes cynical. It only asks to be entertained and given a vent for its frustration and rage. Demagogues produce enemies the way a magician pulls rabbits out of a hat. They wage constant battles against nonexistent dangers, rapidly replacing one after the other to keep the rhetoric at a fever pitch.
To recover our mental balance we must respond to Trump the way victims of trauma respond to abuse. We must build communities where we can find understanding and solidarity. We must allow ourselves to mourn. We must name the psychosis that afflicts us. We must carry out acts of civil disobedience and steadfast defiance to re-empower others and ourselves. We must fend off the madness and engage in dialogues based on truth, literacy, empathy and reality. We must invest more time in activities such as finding solace in nature, or focusing on music, theater, literature, art and even worship—activities that hold the capacity for renewal and transcendence. This is the only way we will remain psychologically whole. Building an outer shell or attempting to hide will exacerbate our psychological distress and depression. We may not win, but we will have, if we create small, like-minded cells of defiance, the capacity not to go insane.