A psychoanalysis of ‘place’
By Nate Hughes, MPH, MPP, M. Phil.
“What shall we use
To fill the empty spaces
Where we used to talk?
How shall I fill
The final places?
How should I complete the wall?”
― Roger Waters
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
― James Baldwin
“What I am proposing is that Nationalism has to be understood, by aligning it not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which — as well as against which — it came into being.”
“The Hottest Places in Hell Are Reserved for Those Who in a Period of Moral Crisis Maintain Their Neutrality”
– Dante Alighieri
“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
“Political violence from the side of government forces is wrong. Political violence from the side of the so-called liberation forces where innocent civilians have been killed is equally wrong. There should be even- handed treatment of this violence.”
― FW de Klerk, former President of South Africa, Personal Interview from 1995 in his Cape Town parliamentary offices
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides -“
― Donald J. Trump, 2017
“The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”
― George Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796
“Mister President, Mister Immigration Man, Let me in, sweetie, to your fair land.”
― Rip This Joint, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, 1972
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
― Edmund Burke
Donald J. Trump’s sensationalist views of Mexicans, Central Americans, and marginalized immigrants stem from his background in Queens, New York City, where I spent many youthful summers, visiting my grandparents, who then were living in a working-class industrial section of 76th and Jamaica Avenue. Quite Ironically, Woodhaven, Queens is where Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump, was raised. I believe an early psychoanalysis of “place” is needed to understand Donald Trump’s obsession with barrier walls, our evolving (and revolving) identity crisis, real estate borders, and his dance of disdaining elites while simultaneously selling his supporters entry into an empty, epithelial social epiphenomenon – promises of upward mobility, eerily familiar with the social contract behind Reaganomics of the 1980’s, where personal wealth was promised to “trickle down” if we protect our own kind.
When fundamentally disingenuous, defiant, ‘Lord of Misrule’, incorrigible, impervious to criticism, deleterious, calamitous, brash, parsimonious, polemical, abrasive, impetuous septuagenarian, acrimonious, obstreperous, ignominious, Damoclean Svengali, purveyor of self-injury, assault on our body politic, smarmy, cataclysmic blip of constitutional law, mass marketer, psychiatrist’s wet dream, maniacal, perseverating greasy grifter, disagreeable, kleptocratic, flammable, inflammable, irascible, bomb thrower, defiler of liberty, Hatch Act’s repeat offender, talismanic, Barnumesque fire breathing, centripetal diffusion of dissonance, destabilizing, farcical, petulant, Twitter-hand happy tantrum dissembler, drama queen, centrifuge, principal investigator of, and custodian behind, our discursive, historical hate (personifying the natural, axiomatic critical path backwards to the 1860’s), agent provocateur Trump speaks about those “shit hole countries,” “sending them back”, and a combative, bombastic, acerbic, voluble, sulfuric – and quotidian – belch of a Twitter fusillade, diatribe assault on inner-city Baltimore (“disgusting, rat-and rodent-infested mess…a dangerous and filthy mess”), he is largely using reaction formation because he – Donald J. Trump himself – is not comfortable with his very own sense of place, someone who had to flee his surroundings (like his own paternal grandfather did), to make it financially.
For example, he had to cross class borders, and leave his borough of Jamaica Estates to make it in Manhattan real estate because in some way he was not comfortable just being a big fish in a small pond. It is important to also note that his same grandfather, from Germany, was kicked out of his native country for failing to do his mandatory military service, despite pleading to stay. So, my point here is that Trump deflects about birthright as much as birthplace due to his own unmasked insecurities about growing up in Jamaica, Queens and why he chided, and even scolded, Barack for being born in Kenya or interrogates if Biden was even from Scranton – “you’re not even from Scranton!” he scoffed recently in typical cavalier bellicosity. In fact, in a tribal city full of different ethnicities, Trump never really fit in. He has no tribe, so he clearly had to look elsewhere for acceptance.
Being from somewhere – and birthplace to an extent – is often imagined. Where you are from, e.g., belonging, can be a choice. For example, I have spent a little over half of my life in California, and yet the experiences in Queens, New York at a young age shaped the way I see the world powerfully beyond measure. Why? Because my family never had a home, really, until 1989 when we purchased a house in South Berkeley on the North Oakland border. Up until that point, we spent public holidays, Fourth of July, Christmas, a lot of them, in Woodhaven at 86-19 76th Street and Jamaica Avenue. So, home up until 1989 was New York City. Trump has fostered and fomented an imaginary community for and by his base, which is part and parcel of his conspiracy theories. This is a form of denial since America is rapidly changing – the new generation will replace the baby boomers and a new voting bloc is clearly emerging in the Southwest (with the rise of Latino voting and organization, the South (in Georgia for example), and in the Midwest to an extent. The old America which died with O’Leary in the grave, is the pristine, idyllic suburban life far away from decay, urbanization, transgressions, and urban maladies.
Donald Trump was an Anglo Protestant in a largely Jewish social architecture – and network – of real estate developers. He was surrounded by ethnic enclaves in Queens, and never really felt accepted, which explains his sojourn to Florida (this is quite ironic because his brother, Fred Jr., sought Florida as an escape from his own tribe, a state where he could explore being a pilot away from the toxicity of his family). Trump’s fixation on connecting with the interior states, a Faustian bargain with the red states, emanates I think from him never feeling accepted or “fitting in” in New York social circles. This can explain, in part, his own anti-Semitism, and, therefore, the consanguinity behind his father’s anti-Semitism.
But Trump’s mercurial lack of social identity in the ethnic enclave of Queens is part and parcel of a larger problem: his lack of ideology, a fleeting, amorphous, solipsistic, brittle, pugilistic shapelessness to his policies that lead his closest advisors, who are still, however improbable, employed after reading The Lord of the Flies as their congratulatory employee manual. He does not believe in facts, norms, and the law when democracy’s survival depends on them. All this aside, the one aspect of the Trump presidency that I personally admire, however is his refusal to get the United States entangled in foreign wars that seemingly have no endgame.
The Trump familial story has become as Euripidean as Shakespearean in the sense that the victim becomes the victimizer – and Trump’s orbit has become existentially stranger as each day passes, the invocation of a failed man who is trying to please his dead father.
Recalcitrant, he reports to no one, lacks a common sense of accountability, harbors no allegiance nor responsibility to a civic “public.” Who is on the board of The Trump Organization? Who is the principal owner? That might indicate something about his approach to leadership, e.g., to his conception of fealty.
This is a New York story, but equally a perennially American one. This is a story about borders behind borders, behind stratification – like an old, rustic country song it is about coming and going, rattling, rumbling trains, loss, reckoning, redemption, hope, familial borders, class borders, racial borders, long walking sojourns past Neirs Tavern, language borders, psychological borders, and even human borders. Donald Trump splits norms and ethics into a bifurcation. That is, he sees transgressions as good – he is “the killer,” e.g., the winner, who must mark his name in the sand against the “loser” or “the sucker” who shows any signs of humanity, since the loser is weak. As opposed to a rising tide lifts all sails, Trump brings us all down – and this is as deeply pathological, as it is strategic – he does this to diminish his dirty hands, to create an existential, morally relativistic context where everyone looks bad, it is just the severity that is lost amid the background noise. He lowers the bar to make himself look better, and to diminish consciousness of guilt. He lowers the bar to normalize his insidious, ignominious nature, so we are all immune to it and to avoid punishment, without impunity. That is, all politicians are bad, it is just to the extent or degree they are bad.
Moreover, the killer is the one who wins. He learned this in NY real estate – he is the inhumane, desensitized killer, and he is the fictional alpha male. The world is a jungle, but he survives. Are you with me? Do you want to win at all costs? Because if you are, and if you do, we will survive together in this cold, cruel world where the killer must win against the loser. This is the geist of his support. He learned this from Father Fred Sr. – that deep, discursive pathologies of power come from humiliating others. Trump doesn’t just have thick skin. As we used to say when I interned at CBS News on West 57th back in 2000 – he has no skin. Intemperate, acrimonious, he casts the first stone and hides the hand.
According to his estranged niece, Mary Trump, “There is no code of conduct, no moral or ethical imperative that stands in the way of Donald’s craven willingness to achieve his ends no matter the means.”
In this widening gyre, I am reminded of a saying Mario Cuomo once uttered on national TV at Times Square: sometimes the messenger is more important than the message. Now is such a moment.
Ultimately, like the Baldwin quote in the beginning of this piece, the New York experience – at least partially – is predicated around a war fought on a battlefield, our pain and human loss; how we deal with it, how we dish it out to the closest ones around us, how we receive it, but perhaps most importantly, how we internalize and respond to it. How we use it for good. We are challenged with a life fraught with disappointments. Our collective scar tissues. Lastly, how we use pain, e.g., the experience of pain, is what interest me. For example, in the aftermath and fallout of 9/11, I have done my best through psychotherapy to use the pain I was going through – a looming, imminent engagement that blew up with my girlfriend’s (at the time) PTSD since she had once worked in the World Trade Center as a paralegal prior to joining a private Mineola, Long Island law firm – to help others in relationship troubles. Or to understand the frailty, and terseness, of life. DJT has not used his pain, his experience of suffering, well.
Instead, and alternatively, the internalization has taken a shape to externalize pain outwardly and punish others without processing those feelings internally, at least that is what it appears. Pain can be an effective experience in the necessary aspect, part and parcel, of empathy, and building empathy. This is why empathy is lacking profoundly in the U.S. right now under this administration. Trump has misused and mismanaged his pain to intimidate, harass, and humiliate the weakest and most vulnerable in our collective society with seismic vigor, and vertiginous heights.
Tristeza não tem fim Felicidade sim is an expression from Antonio Carlos Jobim. Sadness has no end, happiness does. Life is a swirling eddy of despair, punctuated by brief moments of false hope.
Whereas we can contextualize Trump in the worldview or global context of a specific zeitgeist where they have the most confidence in him – world leaders such as Erdogan, Duterte, Kenyatta, Netanyahu, Buhari, Bolsonaro, Duda, Modi, and an undercurrent of nationalism come to mind – in Outerboroughs: a Psychoanalysis of Place, I am attempting to understand Trump’s temperament within the confines of his upbringing in Jamaica, Queens, and even more so, within a specific socio-historical context of New York City.
If there was ever a world without empathy, without stewardship, without a sense of belonging or a sense of community, without comity, without compassion, without grace, without humility, without decency, without class, without gravitas, without self-reflection, a world where the moral compass always points South, and a world without principle holding humanity accountable for its sins – lastly a world without plurality in our nation’s collective soul E Pluribus Unum – Donald J. Trump would be its patron saint. Unlike past Presidents, Trump does not even have the empathy to own a dog in The White House. The American Psychiatric Association has coined this malignant normality, a kind of programmatic indoctrination, normalization, and ultimately, adaptation to evil, so that over time, its sting is dulled into a nonchalant submission, what German philosopher and historian Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil in her 1963 book titled Eichmann in Jerusalem.
The arc of justice bends backwards under Trump, towards an antiquated, antediluvian period of history, digressing into a moral compost of past unpalatable historical failures.
The world without plurality is the point. Insulated culture, where the individual does not have any existential responsibility to the other in society. In this cruel, dog eat dog world, if you get sick, it is your fault. You were too weak to live or to get better anyway. This is the story about the other New York. The nice neighborhood up the street from Jamaica Avenue called Jamaica Estates.
In fact, the point of life is to march toward individual victory where your DNA and RNA rules to roost. Your genes will determine your fate. If your fellow American is left in the dust, well, they were a sucker, weren’t they? They couldn’t keep up with you. Because you are from New York, and you can outcompete the competition, they know not the endless parade of ego, the endless energy, the endless ruthlessness that we possess. If they are from the interior states, far away from New York, and they stupidly help me get to where I want to go, then, well, fuck ’em. They were too stupid to figure out I was using them from the beginning and their minimum wage was the ephemeral feeling I threw out to them as bait, as scraps of my own ego, to feed and feel that narcissism, if even for a few moments at my rallies. And your fellow Americans? They are in the ring with you to compete. And the strong will survive. Do you have an obligation to your society, to your community, to your state? Only if it in any way, shape, or form, feeds my own apotheosis: self-preservation and moving the needle for my own fierce fight to outlast and outplay everyone else, the fools. The merciless fools.
That is the world of Donald J. Trump. Our fugleman. The world we live in. Everything is “perfect, beautiful,” until “it’s complicated” and “let’s see what happens.” He loves you before he hates you. Like ‘Pac, it’s me against the world.
And yet, to his craven, belligerent, often savage, supporters, e.g., his sacrificial lambs, his madness, like his personality disorder constitutive of iconoclastic, iconographic, idiosyncrasies, is endearing by lionizing him, a mass movement inviolate from criticism or critical thinking. His nomenklatura, GOP sycophantic enablers by way of ingratiation, only further abetting, bolstering, coddling – and emboldening – him. They are worse than Trump because they are further pacifying – even strengthening – a robust, code blue, narcissistic personality disorder with comorbidities. This is indiscriminate fealty. Still, a man hears what he wants to hear.
And disregards the rest.
In organizational theory, the Icarus syndrome characterizes risk-taking leaders who initiate overly ambitious projects that come to naught, causing harm to themselves and others in the process. Fueled by excitement, and a fantastical histrionic quest, these leaders are unable to reign in their misguided enthusiasm until it is too late. They let adulation go to their heads. They place excessive confidence in their own judgment, harboring feelings of omnipotence, restlessness, displaying contempt for the advice and criticism of others, ignoring the practicality, cost, or damaging consequences of their varying endeavors on themselves and others. Their ideas are fantastical, far-fetched, even imaginative, with a maniac cognition fueled by an empty mechanistic hubris. Flying too low is more dangerous than flying too high, because it feels deceptively safe to do so. America has been subjected to The Icarus syndrome in Donald J. Trump without the prednisone to treat it. The lesson is to prevent this from ever happening again. A lesson in leadership.
Simultaneously, the Donald Trump presidency is also representative of another lesson, a lesson which is as justifiable as was predictable: a heartland warning shot to the Democratic Party and to the American Left – hear our plea that plants have closed, bad trade deals have hurt us, we need better-paying stable jobs for our families and stop ignoring us!
The Democratic Party must come to terms with the fact that, at least in some respects, it has failed the American working-class – at least that is how so many of them feel. The orphaned electoral system, the rise of secular politically correct crisis caused by the condescension of self-important, self-entitled coastal elites, lack of precinct voting in the heartland with the snobbery of the coasts, the eclipsing of working-class electorate with the rise of corporatist lobbyist ties in DC, has led to a promulgation of a fierce voice both in rural and in urban areas – which is unified and vocal. Mothballing auto and manufacturing plants, the trade deals that benefit large multinational corporations and big pharma, like the TPP, or NAFTA for that matter, has structurally changed manufacturing jobs, diluting FTE’s to part-time employment, and more importantly, the concentration of massive wealth in Silicon Valley, NYC, DMV region, Cambridge, Seattle, Los Angeles, and other areas has created a largely working-class movement in and of opposition to them, which has torqued into a political sensibility, e.g. a derivative of American nationalism. This movement is so powerful because it is also cultural.
As The Washington Post reports, Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call these “deaths of despair” — the deaths from suicide, drug overdoses and alcoholic liver disease ravaging swaths of the country. The victims, overwhelmingly, are less-educated Americans whose loss of life was preceded by a loss of jobs, community and dignity, and whose deaths, the authors argue, are inextricable from the policies and politics transforming the U.S. economy into an engine of inequality and suffering.
This is where the profound sense of existential loss, anomie, and rage comes from – I believe – in the heartland among rural working-class (primarily white) Trump supporting Americans. Indeed, this is the etiology of this manifestation of rage. That is, this white working-class rage is both cumulative and does not coalesce – and metastasize – out of a civil vacuum. It comes from somewhere quite discursive – historically, socio-economically, racially, geographically, and of course culturally – that the GOP and Dems must take seriously.
Moreover, although white working-class voters were his electoral base in 2016, Trump has been gaining ground with Black and Latino voters while losing ground in college educated suburbs. The worst hit cities by deindustrialization are some of the largest black majority cities such as Baltimore, Detroit, and Cleveland. The working-class is slightly over half white and will be majority nonwhite in a few years’ time frame.
Society blind by color
Why hold down one to raise another?
Discrimination now on both sides
Seeds of hate blossom further
The world is heading for mutiny
When all we want is unity
We may rise and fall, but in the end
We’ll meet our fate together
One, oh one,
The only way is one
One, oh one,
The only way is one
I feel angry I feel helpless
Want to change the world
I feel violent I feel alone
To say that Trump was not effective in manifesting this would be a mistake. He is and was. Sometimes the messenger is more important the message. He could filter rage of the working-class effectively. The Democrats must come to terms with this reality and, in my opinion, really work to understand working-class issues – and connect with them – and break bread with them. I did over the past few years in rural Wisconsin and Minnesota, and I learned how frustrating it is to see jobs flee surrounding rural areas so rapidly. The fear of the coasts and elitists is real, but my engaging and spending quality time in the heartland displaced those rather precarious myths about New York and Los Angeles.
Cause Hank taught me just how to stay alive
You’ll never catch me out the house without my 9 or 45
I got a big orange tractor and a diesel truck
And my idea of heaven is chasing whitetail bucks
And as a country boy you know I can survive
Now two flags fly above my land that really sum up how I feel
One is the colors that fly high and proud
The red, the white, the blue
The other ones got a rattlesnake with a simple statement made
“Don’t tread on me” is what it says, and I’ll take that to my grave
Because this is me
I’m proud to be American and strong in my beliefs
And I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again
Cause I’ve never needed government to hold my hand
And I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again
Cause my family has always fought and died to save this land
And a country boy is all I’ll ever be
The cleavages we are facing are along racial and cultural lines not traditional Left-South polarization such as in LATAM and Europe.
According to my mentor and Teaching Assistant in the Berkeley (and now Harvard) political science department, Dr. Steve Levitsky, it is more polarizing now in the U.S. than any time since the 19th c. near the end of Reconstruction.
In 1960, 5% of Republicans said they would be displeased if their child married someone from the opposite political party; today that number is 50%. 49% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats from a Pew Survey say the other party makes them feel “afraid.” 50 years ago, Republican and Democratic parties were culturally very similar, and overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon and Christian. Four changes have occurred over the last half century – firstly, the Civil Rights movement led to the cultural migration of working-class southern whites from the Democratic to the Republican party, and African Americans in the south became disproportionally Democratic. Secondly, there has been a massive wave of immigration in the U.S. and those immigrants, and their children are primarily in the Democratic party, and thirdly, beginning in the 1980’s evangelical Christians diverged to the Republican party (whereas in the past they were spread out between both parties).
But the last change is perhaps the most significant: the widespread availability of social media which results in hundreds of millions of people receiving their news not from traditional news sources, such as CBS News with Walter Cronkite, but rather from right-wing or left-wing media.
So, what explains a working-class white person marching down the street yelling to repeal Obamacare – a government program which gives him or her free healthcare – and at the same time supports tax cuts for hedge fund managers and private equity – is in part the rise of right-wing social media.
White Christians sat at the top of the institutional system at the pillars of power – not as much now as before. And that feels threatening to Republican voters because they feel like their country is being taken away from them. 1 out of 4 Trump voters in 2016 believed Trump was not fit to be President and yet they preferred him to Hillary. Trump is a symptom of deep, discursive pathologies of power – and this along with heightened income inequalities and a previous dominant ethnic group losing political power, makes political scientists studying democracy worry intensely because democracies, while not self-executing, can die a thousand different deaths. This is why we face perhaps the most critical moment in saving American democracy in over 130 years. According to Dr. Barbara F. Walter at UCSD, we are in that precarious – and pivotal – interregnum of democracy, which is seemingly slipping into an anocracy – a form of government that is loosely defined as part democracy and part dictatorship.
Now back to Jamaica, Queens.
Thinking of a place. Saudades. In Portuguese, this is a word which reflects a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one cares for and/or loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return. It fits so perfectly, that there is not an English word to replace or augment it.
My memories of Woodhaven in the late 1970’s, and throughout the 1980’s, was of a decaying, grimey, yet dynamic, carnivalesque, Robert Moses-master planned infrastructure. I remember looking down from my grandparent’s window to the Key Foods on the corner and seeing kids bustling up and down Jamaica and 76th like little cells bouncing into conflict zones, family tribes, and often confrontation. One time I was startled – but riveted – when a mother took a baseball bat and ran after a kid, she claimed hurt her own, in an apparent retaliatory act, with a stream of screaming allies behind her, racing after their victim.
Manhattan was itself an outsideland, a spectacle to be admired – and more often feared – from afar. If we ever went into the city, it was to ice skate at Rockefeller Center at Christmas time, or to whisper – with my sisters and cousins – into the four walls in the Whispering Gallery at Grand Central and hear voices emanate, and vibrate, from the four corners. In Woodhaven, tough guys in white tees stood on top of rooftops in the summer clutching Budweiser’s; Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, even Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, blared through speakers of those long-bodied American cars wading down the streets, sometimes with fuzzy dice clinging to the rear-view mirror. On local T.V., I still remember Crazy Eddie commercials, which captured the frenetic rawness of city living – a certain urbanized energy and street gravitas – back then. But that rawness was also pure fun, pushing far past the unrelenting edges of urban impromptu street carnivalesque, that only albums like Exile on Main Street can capture. There was always a seething underbelly to Woodhaven, and dodgy, creepy, derelict con men with slicked-back hair in long overcoats were in abundant view. Luckily, my family largely shielded me from them. But I remember being warned of them.
My grandfather, George Louis Scheper, would take me, hand in hand, meandering through the streets of Jamaica Avenue – past our all-time favorite haunt, Lewis of Woodhaven – with his overcoat, often quipping “Look Alive, Kid!” to avoid scurrying pedestrians opening shops, and squirreling around, bundled up in humanity, bringing street life alive to the neighborhood. He was a proud alumnus of Bushwick High School, and often reminded me of its Saying, Nil Desperandum, “Never Despair!” He was also an amateur chess player, having sparred with Bobby Fischer in his prime, and would lament about how he saw Babe Ruth strike out for the first time.
An unapologetic, uncompromising, unflinching, organic intellectual, a lifelong employee at Brooklyn Union Gas Company, Grandpa Scheper was known to walk into a room unannounced – quite ebullient, buoyantly – and recite the Greeks or Shakespeare verses (King Lear was his favorite) extemporaneously, despite the fact that he dropped out of high school in his sophomore year to help his parents and enter the workforce. Due to his Germanic nature, Grandpa was a hard worker, and recalled sweeping up stock trading tickets with a long, sweeping broom on the Wall Street trading floor as a teenager. Grandpa had a wit like no other. He taught himself how to read. He was such a voracious reader, in fact, in the foyer of the Woodhaven house, you could see stacks and stacks of books of all kinds: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Shakespeare, historical texts, political texts, and philosophy texts, such as by Hegel. Old German steins racked the living room, an heirloom from my great grandfather. He would often make fun of his Brooklyn accent: “Hey kid,” he would say to me. “I live on thoitty thoid street on the thoid floor!” (Translation: I live on 33rd street on the 3rd floor). A head full of curls, all of his friends from Bushwick were all Jewish.
When we weren’t playing chess, or long games of Hit the Penny in a bleak, diminutive urban corridor that squeaked through the tight quarters of our neighbors, we spent time out in the street. When we spoke to each other down on Jamaica Ave., we did so mechanistically by virtue of timing – we would start a sentence and it would often finish with our deafening silence, resigning and delaying our points to the rattling subway tracks above us, reminding us who was the imminent boss of everyday working-class life. That goddamn train was (and could never be ignored)!
Often times, I melancholically think back to my sweet Grandmother, taking me out to get my favorite cherry Italian Icee or our favorite, the best cannoli on the block. She would also take me down that long corridor of Jamaica Avenue, and on early Saturday mornings, food vendors would line the streets, abundantly overflowing with fresh fruit and produce from upstate. Grandma Znojemske, her maiden’s name, was a switchboard operator in Manhattan in the 1920’s, and would moonlight as a flapper parading to local speakeasies in Brooklyn. She loved fashion and had a keen eye. She and I would often walk into garment shops, and she knew fabric better than anyone. When I saw pictures of her as a flapper, I thought she was a budding model.
My grandmother had visceral negotiation skills, and would communicate with Chinese and Italian immigrants, haggling over fruit prices, convincing me on those long schleps, that the farther we would walk, the better deal we would get. Although she spoke some Czech, I was always amazed that she knew how to speak some basic Yiddish, my guess is from spending so many years in Williamsburg. I often wonder if I entered the sales world because of her keen sense of negotiations, and her daily interaction with so many different cultures.
My Mom was raised in a tight-knit family, where when she saw my uncle go off to college at 16, she eyed a way out of her working-class Jamaica upbringing through education in Catholic schools by Irish and French nuns. She was expected to stay in Queens her entire adult life, but on a high school trip sponsored by the local convent to the USSR, with the purpose of humanizing capitalism, she, nonetheless, brought back to New York the cataclysms of nonracialism and the faces of Africans, Eastern Europeans, Muslims, all mixed during her visit. The nuns asked her, “Nancy, what do you want to be when you grow up?” She closed her eyes at one point, and extemporaneously pictured a room full of people from different cultures, with different hues, all speaking another language and not understanding each other, but everyone was smiling, beaming with humanity. Everybody’s here, from all across the earth. Tongues and tribes galore. The curious, prophetic nuns asked her, “Nance, you will be a missionary!” “No, sisters,” Mom replied. “I am not telling them what to do. They are telling me what to write about them.”
She tossed her idea to go into the convent, and be a pious cleric, instead abandoning that prospect by enrolling in Queens College to study under Dr. Hortense Powedermaker. At CUNY, she excelled academically, but was more interested in the civil rights movement down in Selma, which she learned about through her classmate at the time, Andy Goodman. She had an explorer’s heart and could not still so still with such hot feet. She would tell her parents she was going to study at the library, but instead, she put on black eyeliner, and would head off on the subway to Cafe Wha? on MacDougal Street and Minetta Lane where she would meet up with the Beats, see Dylan or, when performing, her good poet friend, Richie Havens. She often credits Havens as one of her personal inspirations to become a writer. She was an incessant, circumstantial dissident with bohemian blood. She was born to run.
Mom eventually went down to volunteer for SNCC, and spend years in the Peace Corps, as one of their first volunteers, in rural Brazil. She later became one of the world’s most famous anthropologists and ethnographers, and although she was a wonderful daughter, she often fought with her mother, resisting about that expectation to stay in Queens and settle down. One time in her house on 86-19 76th street, Mom and Grandma got into a heated argument, and to show her independence as a woman and feminist, she even punched the glass door in the foyer, leaving shattered glass at my sisters and my feet, only to teach us to fight for your dreams, no matter the cost. My Mom was always treated with respect on the street, as Nance Scheper, the local girl who stirred up good trouble in the world. New Yorkers rightfully recognized this. In fact, her favorite colloquialism was appropriately in Portuguese, a language she made my sisters and me study for several years, as her and my father, a clinical social worker, refused to raise us kids to be monolingual. “Você sabe com quem está falando?” Do you know who you are talking to?
Her lessons to my sisters and me were fierce – and effective. One of those was that, to paraphrase Woody Allen, 99% of life was showing up at the right place, and at the right time. The other lesson was that if there is a fork in the road of life, take it. With the many transitions in life, it is OK to veer in a different direction, so long as that movement is in alignment with your values. She encouraged us to live with a when in Rome temperament, and to the best of our ability, and when the time is right, smell the roses. But perhaps the most important lesson, was to never back down, to always defend the ethical, e.g., the primacy of the ethical. It’s worth the fight, a derivative value of growing up in an immigrant Brooklyn slum.
Travel forces one to problem-solve under time constrains and to ascertain unfamiliar topography unconsciously.
She taught us to be tough – when the circumstances demanded it. For example, she took my father, and two sisters, and me back to Pernambuco in Northeast Brazil (the same city she was a Peace Corps volunteer in) in summer 1982 where she was collecting ethnographic and Epi mortality data for Death Without Weeping. We lived in a modest mud hut, abundant with rats and nocturnal gecos pinned to our bedroom walls, headquarters for mosquitos; where the toilet would flush into the backyard, where chickens, pigs, and other scavengers would pillage our yard recklessly.
The water was so damn cold in that makeshift shower. Aside from rural Panama, where I lived without much water and with a machete glued to my hand at all times when I was in the Agroforestry Peace Corps program in 1997, the only other time I experience this type of hardship – the dearth of water – was in my hovel apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn where I had a small pipe with water that would come out in a bathtub, and I had to bathe creatively. Out of all of the challenging circumstances I have found myself in life, working hard menial labor in the equatorial sun, killing coral snakes, killing chicken and making Sanchocho for villagers, the hardest thing on the human body and mind is the lack of water, however clean or safe it is. In fact, thirst for the human body, is worse than sheer hunger.
When we took showers in Northeast Brazil, which was fiercely cold, Mom would drill down on me: “You are in the army now, son. Toughen up!” Those words of grit, sucking it up, helped tremendously. I was stronger than I thought I was. While some might think this is a form of child abuse, it made me stronger, psychologically, and it made me understand the world differently. Most people in the world do not live like Americans. Lastly, the challenges I faced in the U.S. paled in comparison with those in LATAM or South Africa for me – e.g., the hardship I experience or experienced in the US – was relatively easier than abroad. In general terms, I could and can get through it more aggressively than if I had not lived those real third-world experiences.
For example, one time, I was experiencing bullying in elementary school by two kids. I told her about it when I came home from school one day. “Mom the two bullies say they are going to kick my tail.” She looked at me and said let’s go outside. She was very adept at judo, and even competed in New York City, having been a student of a very talented instructor from Puerto Rico. In fact, one time while she was a civil rights volunteer working for SNCC in Selma, she avoided a potential rape by attacking her assailant in the street with Judo. She taught me how to fight and told me to go back to school and kick their ass. Sure enough, those two bullies appeared on the playground eventually, and I did indeed fight back, hitting one of them so hard that the other one ran away. They never touched me again, and they even admired me for that for the entire year – standing up for myself. A lesson I employ in my life to this day, albeit in a nonviolent way, whether in work or in my personal life. #nofear
Despite her teaching me how to be a shot blocker, unfortunately I was never a real fighter, and had to duck several times against larger, more agile contenders in the city streets of Oakland in my late youth, where avoiding daily brawls was like avoiding breathing and eating. One time, after warning a thug to stop beating a front door of a party down with his foot, I was approached outside the house by a gang called Waterfront. A fight of 7 against 1 ensued, and I am lucky I got out of there alive, after several punches thrown, and my torqued body in freefall like a pinball machine.
Interestingly enough, the YMCA in Queens where Mom practiced Judo was the very same YMCA that she took classes to “lose” her Brooklyn accent and appear more flattering to the norms of American society in order, therefore, to work her way up. It never worked. You can take the girl out of Brooklyn, but never Brooklyn out of the girl is the colloquialism.
Mom took risks – she worked in rural Wyoming when she was 19, picked up riding horse, practiced shooting at ranges with SNCC volunteers in rural Alabama, mythologized the theory of maternal selective neglect in Death Without Weeping, eventually helped integrate The University of Cape Town in an administrative role, attacked the unequal global trade of organ trafficking which creates an informal black market of commodified poor bodies, and fought tirelessly for health and human rights with Pope Francis. Mom is an American patriot and visionary, but not in the orthodox sense. She is a public intellectual in the same tradition of Michel Foucault, Angela Davis, Jerry Brown, Margaret Mead, Malinowski, Levi-Strauss, Pierre Bourdieu, and Dr. Paul Farmer.
One of Mom’s most creative ideas growing up was to write a book about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Elvis Presley; two men who were American royalty in their own disposition, both dying in Memphis, sons of the South, and both contributing to the American civil rights movement in their own ways. The Two Kings, it was to be called. That book is out there, but it is yet to be written.
Having a mother from a Brooklyn slum is powerful because it gives the child an indefatigable volition and inner grit that cannot be broken. It gives the child an indestructible sense of a world of endless possibility, a fathomless burning fire pit in the belly with unshackled ambition, an endless, boundless individual capacity, innovation, and most importantly – imagination. It gives you an unshakeable belief in yourself- a discursive capacity that feels infinite corresponding alongside a sobering belief that life is warfare.
Bruce Springsteen describes it this way in his 2016 autobiographical memoir, Born to Run: “I learned form the best, my mother. She willed we would be a family and we were. She willed we would not disintegrate, and we did not. She willed we would walk with respect through the streets of our town, and we did.”
In Jamaica, our street was mostly Italian. On one occasion growing up, when my mom told me that one of her cousins married Tony, an Italian who owned a video arcade, I told all of my friends about it, not knowing that later we would find out that Tony had mob ties, and to never ever ask questions if and when shiny objects showed up at his house. That was Woodhaven in Jamaica, Queens, always tinged with a little bit of fraud.
Since we had little money, our currency was in conversation, a deep passion for the frailty, fragility, reverence, celebration, terseness, gravitas, spectacle, yes, and even humility, of life. At family get togethers, we didn’t talk about things. We talked about people – their idiosyncrasies, their fears, their passions, their kids, their lovers. We often embellished stories to give life to them, even embellishing the human condition. The more embellished the stories, the better. Whereas we muttered under our breath that there were so many other places to live than New York, places that were so much more convenient and easier on the body and mind, we were nonetheless convinced that our world was squarely circumscribed in and around New York life. Some people think that they could only visit in New York and not live there, but that’s deeply ironic because that is how we felt about other places.
My great aunts spoke of another time when speakeasies were alive and told me how my grandfather was a piano player at one of those carnivalesque haunts where he met my grandmother. On their very first date, he walked her across the Brooklyn Bridge, and even wrote sheet music for her; “Honey Girl” played on New York radio. They honeymooned on Coney Island. During those speakeasy evenings, my grandfather used to tell me about gangsters who would enter into the establishment unannounced, suspiciously, without warning, and would slam a heap of cash on top of his piano and instruct him to “play on George” with a focused eye while they took care of business. As a kid, I loved prodding him about the Brooklyn gangsters, but he was too much of a gentleman to get into the weeds about those travails and transgressions.
Like Trump’s father side, my grandfather was German. My grandmother came from a Czech immigrant family, and before she moved to Queens to join my grandfather, the Znojemska’s took over South Third Street in Williamsburg as a lonely outpost of Czech’s, right next to the old Domino Sugar Factory, long before the Puerto Ricans or hipsters with beards and flannel shirts started moving in. Williamsburg did then, and does now, have the best views of the city. It is interesting to note that when visiting my family’s neighborhood in the 1980’s to see the old house, we would screech our car away rather quickly back to Jamaica, Queens because it still had remnants of slum life.
Growing up, my family’s currency was in cultural capital, long hours at The Met, or the Natural History Museum where we could dream up more imaginative worlds than the human mind could muster, a respite from the industrial confines of trains coughing, smoke from nearby factories, and the clinks, clanks, and clunks of the symphony everyday working-class life – in fact, my grandparents showed us another world through museums. My Uncle, a graduate of Stuyvesant High School, earning a full scholarship to Duke, and eventually completing a PhD at Princeton. He, my Aunt Dianne, Mom, and Dad would take my sisters and me for $1 fish soup at Coney Island in those sweltering hot 1980’s summers. We didn’t go out to eat much, if at all, but when we did, it was typically a large family outing and Uncle George always paid. A thalassophile, one of Uncle George’s favorite books was Moby Dick, which he quoted often, and would explain those sojourns into Coney Island.
My Mom would turn to us in those balmy, derelict evenings, rampant with sideway talkers and nocturnal characters right out of a T.J. English novel and instruct my sisters and me to “get lost. Come back to this restaurant an hour from now. Meet people, get to know them, and come back and tell me what you learned.” I was a keen informer, and indeed, although we were not afraid of kidnappings or child abductions, my two older sisters and, cousins, David and Jeanne, would indeed get lost, ensconced by the skee ball machines like sideshow gawkers peering in through the grimy humid night, wafting in the olfactory stench of hot beer mixed with pungent popcorn, listening to the travails of those characters, the greasers hitting on their vulnerable prey with whispering skirts, fulfilling a narrative of hardscrabble lives of hardships, tag-team drinkers, secret assignations, job losses, broken relationships, whispers in the darkness. We would come back and harvest our ethnographies to my family, sometimes laugh, but everything – everything – centered around the quality of the narrative.
Trump’s rise to prominence as a developer in the 1970s at a time when the city was engulfed in financial chaos, evident by graffiti-stained subway cars rattling above a decaying infrastructure. According to Robert Abrams, “It was a period of enormous tension, and the city was a caldron for those kind of emotions, and very strong passions and feelings, and they spilled over. And unfortunately, I think Donald Trump was helping to fan some of those flames.” Following the New York City blackout in 1977 and subsequent race riot conflagration and looting in Bushwick, Trump started to plunder the City of New York of roughly $4 MM per year over the course of Trump’s 40-year tax break for the renovation of the Commodore Hotel in Midtown. He discovered early on in his real estate career, that the best way to operate is with other people’s money, preferably the city’s money. He was developing his own brand of ethnic segregation and a brusque, pugnacious, bullying, cantankerous, obstreperous, pugilistic, loquacious, and petulant presentation of self against the backdrop of Queens, a borough that was at the time as a seen as not really part of New York City at all.
There was a diversity of older and new immigrants—Germans, Italians, Greeks, Eastern Europeans, some Catholic, some Jewish, and African-Americans who– in the eyes of many white residents had colonized parts of Jamaica, far too close for comfort to Trump’s childhood home in the affluent neighborhood of Jamaica Estates (and think about the tweets which are a dog whistle to his base, e.g. a stark juxtaposition or bipolarity between “border is clean, efficient and well run…vs. filth, infestation, an obsessiveness of clean vs. contamination”). These were the hands that built America. At the time, African Americans had infiltrated Queens to find construction jobs, many being locked out due to intense segregation. Donald J. Trump was a product of the promulgation (and recrudescence) of the 1924 federal immigration law which took effect to make America whiter and more Protestant again, by restricting all other immigration. According to my mom, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, “Trump’s behaviors testify to a deeply insecure man who may indeed be just another Archie Bunker: love him or hate him, he’ll put on a grotesque freak show as the carnival huckster raising his stature by debasing those who threaten his obsessive but fragile sense of self.” He is a brincadera, a jokester, circus showman, stuntman, a dolt, shmok, beheyme, putz, shlemiel, klotz, tipesh, shmo, nebesh. Hokum. A bum.
Trump’s leadership style is chaos, rule by entropy, governing and flying by the seat of his pants, which, I suspect, emanates from the NYC of the late 70’s and 80’s that I witnessed. In fact, I often thought to myself, when I looked down at those graffiti-stained subway cars in the late 1970’s, that we lived in a city ruled by what seemed like complete anarchy, at least in the outerboroughs. This is where the Guardian Angels was born. This was also one of the many reasons I was never allowed to go into Manhattan alone unchaperoned as a child, and I suspect one of the reasons my parents refused to send me to NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where I won a partial scholarship into the Dramatic Writing program in 1992. In “The 75” on Netflix about the 75th precinct hit by Michael Dowd-massive corruption, one of the former officers hit the nail on the head when he said that New York back then was the “land of fuck!” It was, indeed.
Oh, sweet city of my dreams
Of speed and skill and schemes
Like Atlantis you just disappeared from view
As I grew up, the Queens I knew as a child became more and more diverse, perhaps the most diverse cluster of neighborhoods in America, however, balkanized. Jamaica was Italian and African American, Forest Hills was Jewish, Elmhurst was Asian, Astoria was, and still is, Greek (although there is a newer interstitial borough enclave of Mexicans and Bangladeshis). Trump was witness to two forces growing up in Jamaica Estates in post-WWII –the loss of the manufacturing sector, and the influx of African Americans from the South. White flight and fear of miscegenation took effect, a long-term sequela of industrialization.
Trump can coalesce vocalized white middle-class fears of both the loss of manufacturing, white middle-class jobs with the fear of black influx into the relatively quiet suburbs of Queens. He can do this through doubling-down the presstitutes of his tweets and retweets, state-backed Fox News, OAN News, and the like. One can see his bellicosity’s infancy from his father’s own discriminatory actions against black housing applicants to son Trump taking out the full-page NYT ad proposing to bring back the death penalty for the Central Park Five (despite their DNA exoneration), to the rise of conspiratorial, baseless racist birtherism against Barack Obama back in 2011. While Trump never fit in with the East Coast elites, and was always a slick, sideways talker, he could sell the dream of embourgeoisement effectively, and that sales pitch worked, ebbing into a cultural ossification of tea party conservatism. Trump used to infamously live on Page Six of the New York Post, with a parodied life more like a cartoon than real-life persona, hardly a beacon of the de facto incestuous East Coast press.
Fred Trump Sr.’s deep pathologies of power inflicted son Trump, and the idea of existence as a moving facade so to speak, reminds me of what Joe Kennedy Sr. told his aspiring son Jack: “It’s not who you are, Jack. It’s who people think you are.”
If one takes a perspicacious, clairvoyant approach, during the 2016 Presidential election, and during his quixotic campaign, his anti-immigration and pro-border rhetoric of the minority’s urbanization of America’s suburbs, along with his coalescing visionary salesmanship, creeped into the American body politic metastasizing into an opiate crisis, lack of manufacturing jobs, influx of brown people from other countries, and bleak urban problems infiltrating our neighborhoods. When studying political science as an undergraduate in the U.S. and in South Africa, my professors often would note how we, as Americans, often vote against our own interests, without a clear class-consciousness which can root us down against the charlatan medicine men at the circus selling their snake oil.
Could this be what is happening here, and conversely, help explain Bernie Sanders’ populism, and rise of small-dollar donations? Did Bernie’s language of class and income inequalities, eerily similar to Trump’s (think anti-elitist, drain the swamp rhetoric) which is real, awaken something in us as a people? I think it did. I recall driving with a wonderful local farmer, an ardent, devout Trump supporter, in a small town called St. Croix Falls last year. He turned to me and said, “Nate, two towns over there used to be jobs and plants and now they are gone.” Democrats have to listen to what is going on in rural America or we all lose. We must hear their plight and understand their plight. We ignored it and lost in 2016. It’s as simple as that.
In fact, the deep and discursive, dichotomous schisms between the coasts and the heartland are so real that the heartland fears California and New York’s blight and urbanization and we fear the ignorance of the middle. We both create stereotypes in our heads, which hurts ourselves, to be honest. The coasts think they are so “open-minded” but when is the last time you spent a Christmas in Milwaukee or had a beer with rural folk in Kansas or Wisconsin? It is like telling a farmer they need to make sure exercise and good health is part of their lifestyle, and not realizing that their entire life, from 5 a.m. till dawn is hard labor. And the middle needs to open up their minds too and realize that California and New York are not their enemies and locations to fear, but instead California and New York’s tax structure is integral to the federal system and their contributions are boundless. The coasts contribute every bit as much to America as the heartland. Like an imminent divorce, we as the United States have lost respect for each other. That is painful because when we come together – moonshot, cancer, economy, depression, anything – of all countries, there is nothing we can’t accomplish. When I lived in Europe in the late 1990’s, with the emergence of the Euro, Europe really looked up to us – as a federal system – as a model for integration. I read several Op-Ed’s back then explaining that the US system could be emulated for the EU – an entity comprised of talented states, each contributing something important, to the greater societal civic whole.
But going back to Trump’s fait accompli premonition of success, there were a perfect storm of factors that preceded even his premonition of his own rise – and now – due to that precipitous perfect storm, we are seeing something quite unprecedented in modern American constitutional history and law. Over 62 Million of us got drunk on his egoism, his complete narcissism, and 327.2 of us are suffering from a 4-year hangover, hopefully less. Trump supporters blew up the system; this was an “F- you” vote to the electoral system, and many of us called this two days before the election. We were well aware of Trump’s populism taking shape in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin suburbs, an electoral revolution fulminating outside of the big cities. But a nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.
Perhaps more importantly, the most telling political theory of the 2016 election, in my mind, aside from cognitive dissonance in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), Leon Festinger, derives from Tedd Gurr, formerly of the University of Maryland. I studied his book, Why Men Rebel (1970), intently, as a sophomore in the political science department at The University of Cape Town in order to understand democratic transitions – namely elections – from authoritarianism (and at that time, the April 27, 1994, South African general election). In it, he discourses the term relative deprivation, which is the discrepancy between what people think they deserve, and what they actually think they can get. When value expectations are high – think “I lost my job at the manufacturing plant because jobs are going to Mexico and Canada. I work hard to raise my kids and wife and expect that I will make a decent living to make ends meet, and hopefully get ahead for retirement” – and value capabilities are low – the means to meet those expectations and actually get what you want or think you deserve – then this leads to frustration. We saw relative deprivation play out in 2016 all over the place, and mostly white working-class frustration, along with Russian electoral interference, in concert with social media, and the mass media frenzy that propped up his façade in the first place, dismantled the Clinton infrastructure.
I often speak with my European friends about that their perceptions are of what is happening in America right now. How could we pivot from Obama to Trump (e.g., Barack bet on the American people whereas Trump is betting against the American public by succumbing to our worst angels to win election), and why are his policies so polar opposite and in such stark contrast of his predecessor? My former Dublin flatmate, Stefan Hutzler, is horrified by Trump’s blatant negligence to protect his own citizens. He goes further. A native of Regensburg, Stefan believes, as I do, that Trump has fascist tendencies, something Europe and Germany know intimately well. So, when Europeans say this, we must listen. We have a moral obligation to listen. Another recent comment came up from a professor of IR at Cambridge, originally from Copenhagen. Why do progressive political fads pass so often and quickly in America, she asked. March for our Lives, women’s marches, protests. We are quick to mobilize, but she notices that those mobilizations become ephemeral, almost like a fad, and then sizzle out, leaving little constitutional effect, if any.
I think in some ways, more importantly, there is an ongoing cultural war – a cultural cold uncivil war, as Carl Bernstein has aptly described it, and I think effectively – between the middle of this country and the coasts. A “vanishing population,” a silent majority (hit by the brunt of NAFTA layoffs, factory closures, and the onslaught of the opiate epidemic) sick of East Coast press corps and Beverly Hills celebrity dinners eclipsing rural life, played some kind of role in 2016. I understood the cultural relevance of Trump, as I have spent so much time in Wisconsin breaking down empathy walls, over the last two years, and started to understand that Trump represents some kind of cultural movement of country life – a programmatic shift – away from the perceived filth, contamination, immigration, and Democratic cesspool of big cities.
It is not so much about him, and his foibles, his repeated transgressions – his base know that he has problems. But he makes rural, suburban demographic feel important again, after feeling left out for far too long. Therefore, it is not about how the base feel or think about Trump; it is, in fact, the other way around. The phenomenon is how Trump makes them feel about themselves: proud to be rural, proud to be a gun owner, proud to be white, Protestant, belonging to something, standing up against something, unified in purpose. Their tribe is not just long and forgotten when, in 2045, in 25 years, whites will be the minority. That is, the vanishing population, Trump’s base, now can identify and coalesce. Moreover, it is not just about the silent majority following Trump, it is about Trump following, mimicking, and trolling them.
In fact, on a recent trip to Mexico two years ago sitting side by side at dinner with ardent Trump supporters from rural Wisconsin and Minnesota, one of the men uttered: “Trump understands us. He is one of us.” Trump plays up identity politics in a big way, and this is largely effective with his base. But what seems so often obvious is how his base is the fodder of his ego and are his ego’s collateral. Sometimes I often refer to Bruce Springsteen (his song “Magic,” below, is helpful) to understand my own country, my own culture. Trump is playing his base like a fiddle, and he knows it, through a hegemonic symphony of fabricated, deleterious, largely botched white, nationalism. At times, it feels like they live in a different solar system, hijacked by a madman’s own normative assumptions. After this is all said and done, and the street hustle is finally so burning, and so overexposed, they will be kicking themselves that all they got out of 4 years with Trump was a lousy red hat or t-shirt.
Trust none of what you hear
And less of what you see
All I need’s a volunteer
I’ll cut you in half
While I’m smiling in your ear
Driftin’ like a ghost amongst the trees
This is what will be
This is what will be
According to Richard Hofstadter in Anti-Intellectualism in American life: ” …the danger that American society as a whole will over-esteem intellect or assign it such a transcendent value as to displace other legitimate values is one that hardly troubles us. As a consequence, the heartland of America, filled with people who are often fundamentalist in religion, nativist in prejudice, isolationist in foreign policy, and conservative in economics, has constantly rumbled with an underground revolt against all these tormenting manifestations of our modern predicament.”
My family were academics, leapfrogging from college city to college city in that elusive search so that Mom could get tenure. We moved so much growing up, and were so peripatetic, so nomadic, so itinerant, I even assumed our U-Haul was a natural extension of any car, and our inexorable mortgage was to the local KOA hugging the side of the highway. Those moves were such a transient detachment, Mom asked me one time as a 10-year-old what I thought of it all: “Well, I guess I am just an on-the-road-boy,” I muttered underneath my breath in her office. One time, I recall as a kid living for a few years in rural part of Chapel Hill, North Carolina where my mom, at the time was a Professor at UNC, and my Southern friend, Chris, would wear a Confederate flag on his cap at my house. I would often ask him about it. “Nate, the confederate flag means I’m proud to be from the South, not that I am a racist.” When I spent time with the very same Trump supporters in rural Wisconsin over the past two years, I learned that the Trump signs analogously represented the same thing that the Confederate flag represented for Chris: a reification of a very personal identity.
Trump signs represent the apotheosis of rural life, a certain pride against the Beltway, Manhattan, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and that Bay Area region swimming in computers, awash with utterly detached, pretentious, self-entitled rich people, spirulina shakes, matcha lattes, Tesla’s, and “libtard snowflakes” or “Dummycrats” carrying the spine of an amoeba. There was a certain jealousy here, perhaps, but you can’t overlook the pride factor, and Trump, as a documented, sexual predator, criminally minded, slumlord sociopath devoid of human empathy, sold them that. How does a man who uses a gold-plated toilet on 5th Avenue connect with the working-poor of this country, and the middle class? I still don’t know, but he did, and still seemingly does. Perhaps because his mannerisms and twitter jousts lack a certain sophisticated gravitas – are working-class uncouth – and are a big F you to those Harvard, Hopkins, Penn, Stanford elitists that run the big cities and DC. Just compare Trump’s mannerisms with the contemplative, problem-solving aspects of the Obama, Bush, or Clinton White House. He is in a league of his own. The tragedy of Trump is this: he has more in common with a hedge fund manager in Greenwich than he does a blue-collar factory worker in rural Ohio.
This poses an important problem to evaluate further. Feeling you have to support Trump and embrace the culture of rural America are not one and the same and can be mutually exclusive. Fox News and the compartmentalization of culture succumbs to a false narrative that urban dwellers can’t love country music and red states can’t embrace the Black Lives Matter movement or hip-hop music is absurd – and we should never buy into that limited, myopic false narrative. After living in five countries – Northeast Brazil, rural Panama, the United States, Ireland, and South Africa – and in California, New Mexico, Texas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New York, and Maryland – critical thinking and independent thought are integral to being an American.
The labels, conservative and liberal, are fraught with discursive ironies: conservative can just as easily conjure up conserving the earth, or to conserve the environment, and it sounds to me, on the issue of the Second Amendment, a liberal could just as easily be a gun rights advocate with a lenient fealty to semi-automatic weapons. These polarizing, self-defeating, and misplaced labels, are inherently self-destructive.
This might sound utterly Panglossian, especially considering the times, but what would America be, with our ongoing cultural war, without Axl’s high-pitched, screeching voice from Indiana and Slash’s rhythm guitar riffs from Los Angeles, or Bruce and “Big Man” Clarence Clemons, or Captain Sully from the Bay Area in California, landing safely Flight 1549 safely on the Hudson River, or Mark Bingham, a gay, former Cal Rugby player (part of Jack Clark’s national championship team) who was a passenger on board United Airlines Flight 93, leading the effort to storm the cockpit and take over the plan from the terrorists? Americans have done the greatest things in unison, together, from different states, different ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religious beliefs, and creeds. Having lived on four continents by the time I was 19, I understand – and believe in – American exceptionalism. Americans are the greatest when we come together to inspire, overcome the most difficult of deeds, create, and coalesce. Again, quoting Bruce Springsteen: “We were incongruent, missing pieces to an old and unresolved puzzle, two longing halves of an eccentric and potent whole.” Or to quote Martin Luther King, Jr. in A Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you a never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…. This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
The issue at hand that is metastasizing is that the heartland and coasts both think there is a cultural assault on each other’s way of life. The coasts are concerned there is an assault on gun safety, gay and transgender rights, environmental and social justice and the heartland is concerned that there is an assault on their largely Pelagian Christian nationalism, anti-pluralistic neo-medieval vision of gun rights, and they are less concerned with transgender rights in bathrooms, while they are simultaneously very concerned that their jobs are under attack by corporatist deals such as TPP and NAFTA because they see the effects daily.
Donald Trump’s political psychoanalysis is fear-based, a lentivirus that taps into a psyche on edge, a fearful American psyche build upon a perennial history of social maladies – so he (and his cult of personality) is like putting a match on gasoline. He upsets our nation’s circadian rhythm, our natural state of homeostasis. Donald Trump and his supporters can be susceptible to brainwashing, and gaslighting.
Some in the Trump cult, not all, don’t read much, and often do not think very critically. Just like my farming skills and vocational skills are extremely limited, and I mostly watch CNN and BBC, they watch OAN Network or Fox News. As I watch Trump rallies on the different networks (to mitigate bias), I witness a kind of stoic “mob mentality,” a “with us or against us” witch hunt mentality, which is very indicative of bureaucratic-authoritarian populist movements. More importantly, and perhaps most importantly, one observation I have is that right-wing conservatives more and more, perhaps due to the phenomenon of the vanishing population, for the most part, think and feel within the confines of their own families and self, with little attention to other community enclaves unless it is direct opposition and protest of their own mores, values as a “cultural threat” to their lives and family. Ironically, the same can be said of those on the far Left as well. Lamentably, self-selection isolation and living in bubbles is becoming more and more common across all of our communities.
However, despite this point, I want to say I am in awe of the blinding loyalty – indeed, the fealty – to this puissant President from his base – while that loyalty is certainly in no way reciprocal unless it serves or exceeds his sociopathic self-interests to protect his own political context and, in the end, self-preservation. And similarly, I am also in awe of how the GOP coalesces together under one roof on so many issues, whereas the Democrats can appear fragmented, Balkanized, and atomized into competing ideas. While disagreement is intellectually healthy – up until a point when it is time to coalesce and commit to unify – Democrats must do a better job at, at least appearing, unified, concordant, and fall in line at the end of the day.
Trump has used histrionic theatrics and high emotional intelligence to farm a very effective emotional response from his base. The base is fragile, as we all are, and the DNC should take note – the lack of precinct voting on behalf of the Hillary campaign in the swing states was alarming and wrong. You want to win in precinct voting, in electoral politics, then spend more time in Wisconsin, in Ohio, in western Pennsylvania, with bloody knuckles knocking on doors, and less time in Beverly Hills and Manhattan. Moreover, as David Axelrod points out, it is not just that Hillary refused to campaign in the rust belt states – effectively. She did not connect with the rust belt issues.
I think it is imperative to understand that in one segment of “The Apprentice,” Trump mentioned that had he not joined ranks with his father in the NYC real estate business, he would have attended USC Film School and gone into the movie industry: Hollywood. This is extremely telling and somewhat prescient of his leadership style. Trump loves theatrics, set-ups, staging controlled events to torque in his political and power favor, such as the mob Republicans that stormed closed-door impeachment hearings this week, as escalating Ukraine scandal heats up on Capitol Hill. Trump knew about this GOP “storming on Congress” beforehand, and subsequently, used it in his favor to congratulate them afterwards on Twitter. It was a set up.
Another example of theatrics and staged victory is Trump’s obsession with wrestling, having been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame and having entered into a wrestling match with Vince McMahon. In fact, The Economist has called him a pro wrestler masquerading as commander-in-chief.
You know, there was a street game I witnessed all of the time after work, back in Manhattan on 5th Ave, that was popular back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Street charlatans would set up a table, play a game with oncoming tourists and pedestrian traffic, gamble money, and when they were noticed by NYPD, they would disable the table quickly, and run off, and I would see them set up on a different corner, maybe on 6th or West 57th Street. This reminds me of the Trump Presidency to a tee – a cheap NY street scam and hustle. This was a shell game, just like sham companies set up false pretenses to scam, to con. Teflon Don The Con. To him, the law is “not as a system of rules to be obeyed … but as a potent weapon to be used against his adversaries,” something he learned from advisor Roy Cohn several years ago. I can easily envision this salesman on QVC saying “but wait…. there’s more” or selling fake Gucci handbags on Canal Street.
Donald Trump sold mostly White Americans the promise of entry into the dream of something like his pristine pre-1977 idyllic Jamaica Estates, where the suburbs were filled with a type of antediluvian philistinism away from urban blight and decay, and a sense of staying with your own kind. The historical evidence suggest that Trump is a type of eugenicist, putting people and ethnic groups into “boxes,” even going so far as proposing to pit his black and white contestants against each other in order to boost ratings on “The Apprentice” back in 2005. Still, as a child growing up, the only memory I have of Trump in New York in the mid-1980’s, was, quite ironically, a humanitarian gesture – giving money to the Wollman ice Skating Rink. Besides that, and the fact that my ailing grandfather spent weeks recovering at Trump Pavilion Hospital in in Queens, New York, the only other memory of Trump was, and still is, the architectural monstrosity on 5th Avenue; that tacky, gaudy gold-infused Trump Tower building near, what was, Ermenegildo Zegna.
At an Alliance for Regenerative Medicine (ARM) investor meeting in New York this past April, at the Met Club, I sleepily walked past that same Trump Tower along 5th Avenue with a work colleague. With no one on the street that early Spring morning, I grudgingly nodded my confirmation that we were, indeed, walking past Mr. Trump’s residence, seething of what in the law is referred to as retrospective “inevitable discovery” based upon preponderance of the evidence: Russian obfuscation, sex, lies, and videotape, and perennial bankruptcies, transplanting that very same fraud from his upbringing, all the way over to 5th Avenue. It was and always will be an eye sore since it looks like Louis XIV was the interior decorator on bad Dominican crystal meth. I keep on thinking about what Robert De Niro says about this guy. The only thing worse than a real gangster, is a wanna-be gangster. At least some gangsters, keep their word. But then again, Trump and his cronies could never be in the real mob because they leave more fingerprints than a raccoon on bath salts.
I recall fondly, once in American history, when proud Republicans, like Ronald Reagan, or my grandfather, Ed Hughes in the FBI, identified a real “Red Scare,” and did their own part to bring down communism. They didn’t suck up to Russia. In fact, it is interesting to compare the Trump GOP with that of the Reagan Presidency. Instead of holding up California as a beacon of American hope, which the great communicator did often as former Governor of the golden state, Trump’s GOP and Fox News depict California as urbanization gone amuck. Fox News, like Trump, conveniently like to avoid the simple fact that California (one in 8 Americans is from California) has the 5th largest economy in the world, for instance. Instead of toppling Gorbachev’s nomenklatura by negotiating from a position of relative strength, Trump kisses Putin’s proverbial ring.
It is also interesting to note how different the national mood was under President Reagan: warm and fuzzy for most (certainly not all), boundless, optimistic, pro-immigrant rhetoric, can-do attitude, and despite any polarization back then, there was a sense of unifying Americans, as opposed to Trump’s unilateral temerity, a with us or against us temperament, primarily white, MAGA nationalism, very much in line with his book, Crippled America, and in line with his American carnage speech at his inaugural address on January 20th, 2017: disconnected, dystopian, dark, divisive, dereliction, distant, domineering, distasteful, and destitute.
The Unite the Right rally incidents at Charlottesville in August 2017 drummed up memories of that racialized, intensely charged summer of Queens 1977 40 years earlier that I had heard so much about growing up, as it did my experiences as a sophomore student visiting the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, during the rather difficult, but in the end, peaceful, democratic transition on April 27, 1994. At that time, in Cape Town, there was intense violence on all political sides; the Pan-Africanist Student Organization (PASO) which claimed the life of Stanford student Amy Biehl, while the Afrikaans-backed Third Force surreptitiously infiltrated mixed neighborhoods and launched terrorist violence to upset the pending election, all inflicted upon a country preparing for civil war. In 1995, I interviewed FW de Klerk for my Honors Thesis at UC Berkeley, and asked him about the “moral equivalence” of this violence, and his words echoed in the speech Donald Trump delivered after right after Charlottesville, at his Bedminster, NJ golf club: there must be even-sidedness on the justice compass and there is a ‘moral equivalence’ of violence on both sides, the white supremacist, KKK side and the “alt-Left” side.
There is a theory of distributive justice by late Harvard political philosopher John Rawls (derived from Hegel and Aristotle), designed to aim at maximizing the prospects of the worst-off in society and the idea that we should imagine choosing principles of justice for our society as if behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, behind which we don’t know our race, class, gender, or even the kind of society we are choosing principles of justice for. The veil is meant to represent an idea of impartiality: what would you choose as the principles governing the society you will live in if you didn’t know who you were going to be in that society? John Rawls’ idea of impartiality, rooted in the liberal tradition (and showcased in his magnum opus entitled “A Theory of Justice” published in 1971), was that, given how bad it would be if you came out on the bottom, you should aim for a society that maximizes the position of the worst off, all while respecting basic liberties. The same concept of justice was true in South Africa, that the state had an obligation to not carry out the same terrorism against the ANC, because there is a difference between the state’s obligation to the social contract of distributive justice and the opposition whose liberty is infringed by the status quo majority.
The fact of the matter is that the state must protect the most vulnerable against the tyranny of the historically powerful in this country. There is no moral equivalence argument here at all. As opposed to a white President who was succeeded by an African President, Donald Trump has done the opposite as FW de Klerk, but he faces the same prisoner’s dilemma – how to attribute blame in a racialized, polarized society, albeit in the case of the U.S., with a white majority. Moving forward, I can only hope President Trump will find it in his heart to appeal to the best sensibilities of Queens, and represent the most diverse neighborhood in America, as opposed to taking us back to a post WWII Queens emboldened by ethnic tribalism, fear, xenophobia, and existential anxiety. But I also hope that he can find solace in this: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. This is the soul of our country. This is similar to the great Zulu saying I learned at The University of Cape Town, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. A person is a person through/because of (other) people; you are who you are because of how you relate to others around you.
Another example of this point of even-sided social justice is the American Civil War. Like Unite the Right rally, the North intended on protecting the Union, to stop the South from Articles of Nullification, and Lincoln spoke of this in deeply moral terms to succumb to “the better angels of our nature.” Both sides had egregious violence inflicted on them, and both were set out to win. However, unlike the South, the North had a moral imperative to save this country. The argument of even-handed justice does not work within this moral, discursive, normative framework of assumptions here.
As actions have showed, I believe that hope is dimmed day after day with every breaking tweet, every breaking illegality, every broken truth, lay scattered in a desperate, childish plea for self-preservation in an absurdist Ionesco-type play of bread and circuses. The word back in NYC is that Fred Trump did not even trust his own son – in fact, he thought he was spoiled – and part of me wonders if Trump’s father inflicted so much trauma on him, that he is playing out that same trauma for us to feel as a nation. It is a discursive, unrelenting anxiety that we are currently gripped with. I certainly feel this national anxiety. Do you feel it? Am I concerned that Congress would impose an Amendment 25 – Presidential Disability and Succession? I am.
Am I concerned that he will be led out with a strait jacket and a stretcher before January 2021 should he lose the electoral college, and become a squatter within real estate that belongs to the American people, but he thinks belongs to him? Based upon his tragic biography, yes, and by way of sycophant ingratiation. Perhaps he will even pull a Bob Irsay Baltimore Colts move circa March 28th, 1984, and bounce in the middle of the night somewhere, a safer exodus away from DC, without any public announcements. Just pack up in the middle of the night – and leave – unannounced.
Am I concerned that, during the interregnum, should he lose on November 3rd, 2020, Trump will turn the machinery of justice upon itself and use the 79 interim days to pose an extraconstitutional challenge to the national election? Absolutely, and expect it. I suspect that he will lie and cheat prodigiously to maintain power.
Am I concerned that Trump might resign before the November 3rd election, and in the interregnum, put Pence in charge, and then have Pence pardon him for all of his federal crimes? I am.
Voltaire once wrote, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
Trump might have a paranoia, a mental illness that has not been diagnosed, and I do not think that he is just the psycho girlfriend or boyfriend stalker-type. I fear it is much, much worse than this. He plays a zero-sum game: there must be winner and a loser in his theory of negotiations. This man has the potential to be on a war path, a “scorched earth” campaign. Personality narcissistic disorder with comorbidities. We are in DSM5 territory, folks. The clinical argument is that he is impossible to diagnose a patient without the proper screening, which I agree with. However, national security could be at risk, and so when do we make that call to, at a minimum, speak about what I believe is an elephant in the room: his own fragile state of mind, his mental health. Trump plays a zero-sum game in politics, predicated upon his very own fragile sense of self. And this fragility is represented all over the place when he speaks in public. You just have to listen. Most importantly, will this man avoid defeat, and get re-elected to a second term in November 2020? You have to wonder if one of Trump’s motivations for staying in power past 2020 is to run out the clock on the statute of limitations to protect himself and his cronies from so many potential lawsuits, loan deferrals, illicit deals, and criminalities. A concession speech, should he lose, would be out of the question. A concession speech and an abdication of power that comes with it, might be a formality under Trump’s pretense, not the rule of law. It is called constitutional loopholes. A control freak, Trump could very much try to adjudicate his own election.
Trump supporters, locked into the psychology of fear and intimidation, must find a reasonable off ramp to break out of this cult which threatens our democracy, our way of life.
In the past few months, I have been lucky enough to communicate on Linked in with Barbara Res, a former Trump Organization Executive (and “Trump Whisperer”) from Tenafly, NJ. Barbara is a straight shooter, and my feelings are that she wants to right some wrongs with Trump. “You know, I imagine Trump has done some bad things in his life, as have so many super rich people. I think he made a deal that he would run for President, never thinking he would get it, and now he is stuck. Also, Russians are known for atrocities, so maybe he is scared for his life. Or maybe he is not an asset at all, just a jerk. He is consumed by anger. That is not acting. His impulsive acts remind me of things he used to suggest and there was always or almost always someone to talk him down. Now the people around him stay silent, tell him everything he does is great. Trump will surely be impeached in the House. He does not want that. I think he will quit before he gets impeached. If he doesn’t, there will be a trial in the Senate. The spineless Republicans will not convict them unless the electorate signals, they should. Much is coming out. Those texts were damning. Trump stopped Sondland from testifying.” Barbara’s most recent prediction is that Trump will throw his old pal Giuliani under the bus to save himself. He will do anything that benefits himself.
I once worked with a CEO that was a lot like Trump (if you threw him in the dryer – like a Mini-Me) back from 2015-2016. This particular sleazy CEO and I, along with a few others, raised over $8 MM in private equity Series A “Friends & Family” round, and we later found out that the start-up company was a scam: he was embezzling some of the investments in his 8 vehicles, house construction additions, even in his USC MBA tuition.
That CEO had the same sociopathic, lack of empathy tendencies as Trump, moved money around quickly, sometimes, and often, unbeknownst to investors. I recognized these years ago and never forgot the algorithmic clinical traits (in part, because I was a little traumatized and unnerved by it). He also had a desperate, manic temperament like Trump, and used people around him as a means to both justify and even sustain his own financial viability. One time when we were traveling raising private equity in Baltimore, the CEO turned to me and instructed me not to pay my sales reps anything for their well-earned commissions. When I refused and said that was a breach of contract, he demeaned me and even took a shot at my masculinity.
He told me to grow a set of balls, and that what I had learned in Grad School was useless compared with the brass knuckles of raw business. He intimidated me, threatened my own livelihood, and lived in a totally different reality. I got sucked into his delusional psychosis for a few weeks, but when a dear friend of mine pulled me aside at a restaurant in Dupont Circle and directly asked me if this was a house of cards, I got out quickly. I was pissed. I had put all of my trust, my colleagues’ personal finances, and my own livelihood on the line for a sociopath. He was a good charmer, slick, but like Trump, his denouement was on the calendar, and his charades, like his character, had an expiration date. The truth eventually comes out at some point.
Subsequently, the shell company I am referring to folded like a taco. The CEO looted his own company to profit for himself, his family, and his cronies, and stiffed the investors, many of whom were not only personal friends of mine but were also trustworthy (and trusting) physicians. The product was an implantable naltrexone device with a steady state of 10-12 months, and this was effectively used for opiate addiction and alcohol addiction. Naltrexone is an opiate antagonist and shuts down dangerous “cravings” that hijack the normal peripheral neuropathy of the brain. The remission rates were outstanding. This goes to show you that even with an incredible product, if you have terrible, sleazy leadership the product can potentially fail miserably.
In fact, that very same CEO got into such much trouble, he was sacked with a “Wells Notice,” which is a letter from the SEC that it only sends to individuals they know are guilty – e.g., when they are planning to bring an enforcement action against them. In fact, the CEO was not only disbarred from his Series licenses in California, but I was also contacted by the FDA and interrogated for a few hours about his dealings. Sound familiar?
Barbara Res goes on to say about Trump and Giuliani: “Trump truly believes he can do anything, and he has convinced that buffoon he can too. I don’t know half the time if Trump is being clumsy and too sure of himself or if he is intentionally pushing the envelope. He is not losing his mind and anyone that thinks that is really off the mark. He knows what he is doing.”
Recently, on DC trip for the American Nephrology Meetings, I checked into the Marriott Metro Center Hotel, alongside former Congressman Sean Duffy from Wisconsin. The following morning, I was in line with him at Starbucks in the lobby and spoke with him about how the middle of this country feels about impeachment. Whereas he believes that Californians are all ready to impeach, the middle of the U.S. is more reticent. And he mentioned that Trump had the right to investigate Biden and his son, just like Biden and his son have the right to investigate Trump. Again, a notion of even-handed justice, of preventing corruption on both sides of the political aisle, despite the fact that there is a lack of any evidence Joe Biden, or his son did anything wrong.
Still, to several Americans, he said, Hunter Biden’s role on the Burisma, was speculatively suspicious. Sean Duffy does have one valid point: corruption should be evaluated and cast out on both sides of the political spectrum. But Trump could have vetted this intelligence differently, and through appropriate legal channels. The most poignant thing Duffy said was there was, indeed, a quid pro quo on the call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But, he quipped, “I would never admit that publicly.” This is not exactly an Agatha Christie novel. Trump has his sloppy fingerprints all over this cover up, and crime. It unnerves me to no end how the mob GOP is handling this inquiry, by trying to discredit witnesses, also a sloppy – and inexorably losing – strategy.
From a purely PR point of view, the Trump Presidency is like watching Mario Andretti drunk driving, in slow motion, down Lombard Street. And we handed him the keys on Tuesday, November 8th, 2016. He is an uninsured motorist, driving recklessly in a pool of insured motorists in a collective freeway who, for the large part, do play by the rules. His rules orbit around validating his existential context, often in conflict with American constitutional law, and moreover, often, in opposition to them. The geist is one of self-preservation. Indeed, the blood-dimmed tide really is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. We are now in that widening, furious gyre and just like a carousel wanders circularly in temporal loops, we as a body public politique seek to get off this ride but don’t know how – or when, even – this vicissitudnal ride will end. Topsy-turvy to the bitter end. To Trump, there really are no facts, only interpretations. But, to quote Aldous Huxley, facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.
In some ways, more importantly, as I step off my coastal elitist self-righteous soapbox, perhaps Trump can teach us something about our own existential humanity, our own raison d’etre. Perhaps, in a sense at least, we are all a little fraudulent, deleterious, and suffer from some forms of grandiosity, persevering presumptuousness, cronyism, nepotism, acerbic irascibility, vindictive malevolence, malice, intractability, paranoia, shameless self-promotion, hubris, ostentatiousness, incorrigibility, impetuousness, self-aggrandizement, contrivement, controversy, obstinacy, stoic intransigence, conspiratorial views, pomposity, disingenuity, prepubescence, hyperbole, unpredictability, and trivial irreverence. More importantly, perhaps we can keep the good, and remove the bad. We can remember to knock on more doors in the heartland in 2020, understand why some suburban women in the Midwest voted for Obama in ’08 and Trump in ’16, and we can perhaps even usurp Trump’s initial agenda and language specifically surrounding the rebuilding American infrastructure, military, roads, bridges, and schools.
Even if there might some substance of truth to this dialectical assertion, I still can’t think of anyone who sums up the Trumpian propagandistic world of power (aside from Rawls and Foucault), better than Hannah Arendt in her 1951 book “The Origins of Totalitarianism.”
In it, she discusses the infallible prediction. “The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error…. Mass leaders in power have one concern which overrules all utilitarian considerations: to make their predictions come true.” House of Cards burning down fast. Birds of a Feather Flock Together: The propinquity and the obeisance of the coterie consisting of Manafort, Stone, Cohen, …. who is going down next? Pompeo, Mulvaney, Perry, Sondland, Barr, and Giuliani? All the President’s Men. Everyone in his orbit eventually gets screwed, pissing away their career. He loves you until he hates you.
In the final analysis, perhaps the most tragic part of this seemingly never-ending narrative is that Donald Trump has lived an unexamined life.
His inner nomenkaltura robbed a bank in broad daylight, and want to walk away, cavalier. Sick, slick sycophants, acolytes, obsequious lackeys. Self-absorbed sophism. And make sure you out the Whistleblower, and then discredit the living hell out of him or her. That is all you got. Lastly, cover up, cover up, and cover up, like bad Maybelline. Drain the swamp? Swamp the drain.
The GOP uses interactional jujitsu to “throw” responsibility, accountability, and causality on the opponent – now Ukraine tampered with the 2016 election, a nice cover for Trump’s “perfect” phone call with President Zelensky to uncover so-called deep state corruption. Now, in the eyes of the GOP, Trump is the hero, wearing an anti-corruption cape and is the do-gooder smoking out statist corruption policies, especially standing up to Hunter Biden’s Board role on Burisma in Kyiv.
How will this denouement end, how will this bad C-level mafia movie circa 1972 end? Will it end with impeachment, November 2020 re-election, Trump’s refusal to accept the democratic electoral outcome as a rallying cry to his base, or neither scenario? Lastly, perhaps most salient, what happens if Trump loses November 3rd, and has a little over two months as a lame duck? Does he lead an armed anti-statist militia to defeat the deep state, or does he wreak havoc by poisoning the election through instigating some type of mail-in voter fraud himself, therefore purging himself and his lawyers of any legitimate free & fair election, and thereby postponing democracy through the courts as the beltway’s most infamous persona non grata?
What shenanigans will he pull? The president in many ways continues to behave as if he is a private citizen who happens to work in the White House. A campaign that began as a farce, as a comedy, has unravelled quickly into a fumigating, cumulative tragedy. Meanwhile, the GOP is hemorrhaging urban supporters, while GOP leadership continues to programmatically audition for Trump’s loyalty on Fox & Friends, as Trump shepherds in hate-induced conspiracy theories.
Crazy town is just a stone’s throw away from Jonestown.
“Play off everyone against each other so that you have more avenues of action open to you,” once said Howard Hughes.
We know there are obvious cracks in the edifice. Trump must have a sequoia tree sprinkled with Miracle-Gro on his back, he is so damn shady. This is the most unfit, dishonorable – and impeachable – President in modern American history. This was an unprecedented quixotic campaign in 2016, a perfect storm electorally, and it seems like it will end that way, ebbing into the tempestuous flow of uncharted waters. But a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The most important thing right now is to retain a certain sense of imperturbability. Grace under pressure. You can’t be a monster to defeat a monster. Moreover, we must somehow, as a collective nation, embrace the primacy of the ethical. We must start a new country up. We have done this before. The American experiment, like the constitution, is a living, breathing experience. That is, democracy is not a spectator sport.
In fact, I am surprised at how well most Americans have responded to this President’s mania. We have an indomitable spirit. We do have a spirit which is unbreakable. We have not only coalesced into the streets, locked arm and arm with each other, thousands of us, but we have also created an alternative vision of love, compassion, empathy, and resilience in the face of adversity. That is the American spirit. That is American exceptionalism. Let’s begin again.
Thanks to DJT because through who he is, I discover who I am not. Through he is not, I discover who I am and what truths I hold to be self-evident. Quite ironically, Trump more than anyone else, has taught me about the American and European values based upon a human rights protocol that I hold dear and protect fearlessly. He has also taught me how to manage my own feelings of hatred, and to seek more compassion for, and understanding of, the pain of others, no matter if I agree with their politics or not. Most importantly, perhaps, he has taught me about my own family’s history in the city. I have also learned, as I have through the works of Hannah Arendt, that evil – and the machinery and banality of evil – can happen anywhere and at any time, even in the United States of America. But so too can the response to that very same evil.
Like Springsteen, I wanted to share my story as a service to others, not just to myself and my family: “the whole story, my story, our story, and understand as much of it as I could. I wanted to understand in order to free myself of its most damaging influences, its malevolent forces, to celebrate and honor its beauty, its power, and to be able to tell it Well to my friends, my family and to you.” From Born to Run.
Our country needs a reckoning, a great awakening, to extricate ourselves out of this abyss. I have no doubt that this reckoning will come. But when it does, I hope that forgiveness for Trump’s base, is part and parcel of this reconciliation, no matter how difficult that might be, without resentment or retribution. Our retribution is our vote. Bringing Trump’s base into the fold is critical to build reckoning within a framework of reconciliation and is integral to starting anew. I learned this in another democracy, that of the new South Africa under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. E Pluribus Unum assumes the imbued, and informed, risk of diversity in all of its forms, including ideological or ideational, inoculated against hate and indifference. It is often appropriate to each think differently about the world, as everyone is entitled to see the world according to their own respective experiences. I learned early in life that when you point one finger at your opponent, three fingers are pointing backwards at yourself.
It would appear that the coasts and the heartland are operating from different solar systems. We all need an offramp, and to take that specific offramp to merge into the same lane. Not to stay in our own circuitous lanes like we are doing – because that doesn’t work – and isn’t working very well for us.
Abraham Lincoln once said: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
America…what happened to us? Let’s not be poisoned and lift up! We are stronger than this, and we know are better than this. We are stronger than we think we are.
From Chicago to New Orleans, from the muscle to the bone
From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home
There ain’t no one hearing the bugle blowin’
We take care of our own
We take care of our own
Wherever this flag’s flown
We take care of our own
Where’re the eyes, the eyes with the will to see
Where’re the hearts that run over with mercy
Where’s the love that has not forsaken me
Where’s the work that set my hands, my soul free
Where’s the spirit that’ll reign, reign over me
Where’s the promise from sea to the shining sea
Where’s the promise from sea to the shining sea
Wherever this flag is flown
Wherever this flag is flown
Wherever this flag is flown
Just like I believe to my core that there will never be socialism in this country, I also believe for the very same reason there will never be fascism or a dictatorship in this country. Why? Because our constitutional and electoral mechanisms in the USA are far too advanced and embedded in our legal traditions, as well as our civil institutions.
Being American is a catechism of sorts, but moreover, it is a benediction.
Such is the irresistible nature of truth, according to Thomas Paine. That all it wants, is the liberty of appearing. In the 19th c. another great political philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, once wrote, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”