Yesterday’s insane, impromptu press conference by Donald Trump in the lobby of a gold, gaudy building he named for himself, was in TV trope terms “the reveal,” that moment when the Ku Klux Kardashian openly admitted his allegiance to hate groups. He’s never been shy about his bigotry, but this time he fully pulled the death from inside his belly and laid it in an open casket for the whole world to view. That is was all done within earshot of a crumpling John Kelly, a square-jawed man of Apollonian abilities who was somehow supposed to steady the chaos, makes clear that the new Chief of Staff is engaged in an unwinnable war, an Afghanistan of the mind.
The bizarre scene reminded of the many failings of American society that brought us to this point, in which Trump is merely the ugliest imaginable result of our decay but not its cause. It also brings to mind a passage from Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America:
Our age has produced a new kind of eminence. This is as characteristic of our culture and our century as was the divinity of Greek gods in the sixth century B.C. or the chivalry of knights and courtly lovers in the middle ages. It has not yet driven heroism, sainthood, or martyrdom completely out of our consciousness. But with every decade it overshadows them more. All older forms of greatness now survive only in the shadow of this new form. This new kind of eminence is “celebrity.”
The word “celebrity” (from the Latin cekbritas for “multitude” or “fame” and “celeber” meaning “frequented,” “populous,” or “famous”) originally meant not a person but a condition — as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “the condition of being much talked about; famousness, notoriety.” In this sense its use dates from at least the early seventeenth century. Even then it had a weaker meaning than “fame” or “renown.” Matthew Arnold, for example, remarked in the nineteenth century that while the philosopher Spinoza’s followers had “celebrity,” Spinoza himself had “fame.” …
His qualities — or rather his lack of qualities — illustrate our peculiar problems. He is neither good nor bad, great nor petty. He is the human pseudo-event.•
Trump certainly runs afoul of the “neither good or bad” rule, neutral he is not, but Boorstin wrote his book in 1961, long before the Murdoch family spent two decades screaming “fire!” in a crowded theater, not in any way representing a conservative political viewpoint but instead packaging and selling white resentment and fake news. James and Lachlan are supposedly different from their dad, but they’ve shown the willingness to peddle Seth Rich conspiracies and describe Joe Arpaio as “colorful” rather than criminal. There are many other causes of our cultural rot–ceaseless deification of celebrity, Reality TV, the decentralization of media–but without the Murdochs, there would be no Trumps–at least not in the White House.
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In the Financial Times, Edward Luce asserts that America isn’t likely done administering self-inflicted wounds. The columnist explains why he believes the GOP family has been slow to act on its Nazi-friendly father, and I will offer one more possibility: Trump’s inner circle may not be peculiar in the upper reaches of the party for being dirty with Kremlin money. His ouster may accelerate a broader fall.
With some honourable exceptions, such as John McCain, the Arizona senator, Republicans are not ready to stand up to the president. Even Mr Ryan, whose condemnation of white supremacism was unequivocal, refrained from criticising Mr Trump directly. Others rushed to his defence. “President Trump once again denounced hate today,” tweeted Kayleigh McEnany, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “The GOP stands behind his message of love and inclusiveness!” By even-handedly condemning the “alt-right” and the “alt-left”, Mr Trump was upholding American values, you see. In addition to bad apples, the far right included some “very fine people”, said the president.
Republicans are paralysed on two counts. First, the party cannot disown what Mr Trump is doing without repudiating themselves. His victory was the logical outcome of the party’s “southern strategy”, which dates from the late 1960s. The goal has been to siphon off southern whites from the Democratic party. Most Republicans have preferred to keep their tactics genteel. The signal of choice has been the dog whistle rather than the megaphone. Thus, in one form or another, most Republican states are reforming their voter registration systems. The fact that such laws disproportionately shrink the non-white electorate is an accidental byproduct of a colour-blind crackdown. Even without proof of widespread fraud, voter suppression has plausible deniability. Over the years, the same has applied to various wars on crime, drugs and welfare fraud, which were never discriminatory by design. Mr Trump has simply taken that approach into the open. He is the Republican party’s Frankenstein. The age of plausible deniability is over.
The second Republican problem is fear. Because of gerrymandering, most Republicans — and Democrats — are more vulnerable to a challenge from within their ranks than to defeat by the other party. As the saying goes, American politicians choose their voters, rather than the other way round. Unfortunately that gives the swing vote to the most committed elements of each party’s base. Though Mr Trump’s approval ratings are lower than for any president in history, he still has the backing of most Republican voters. Any elected Republican who opposes Mr Trump can be sure of merciless reprisal. It is a rare politician who would invite vilification from their own side.
Where will this end? The realistic answer is that Republicans will hide under a rock until they suffer a stinging defeat in next year’s midterm elections. But a defeat in 2018 is far from assured. Even then, it would have to be on a grand scale to reverse America’s deep forces of polarisation. Mr Trump will probably serve out his term.
The more worrying answer is that US democracy is heading towards a form of civil breakdown.•