Trump is the ultimate fulfillment of consumer capitalism

Trump embodies the triumph of spectacle over reality more than any previous president, but he’s no anomaly

As Donald Trump’s inability to govern has become increasingly evident over the past six months, the White House has essentially transitioned into a full-blown reality TV show, with enough melodrama and petty infighting to fill several seasons worth of primetime network television.

The president, it seems, has given up all pretense of sanity as his administration has spiraled out of control. He now appears to approach his current job of running the United States government in the same way that he approached his career as a reality TV star. Top officials in the Trump administration have become virtual contestants, vying for the affection of their capricious boss and hoping he won’t mention their names in his next unhinged Twitter rant.

This transition into an dysfunctional reality TV show came to a head two weeks ago, when the president hired Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci, the cartoonish and vainglorious Wall Street investor, as his communications director. Like a fame-hungry contestant on “The Apprentice,” the foul-mouthed financier wasted no time in marking his territory and attacking his fellow sycophants, calling then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus a “paranoid schizophrenic,” while threatening to fire his entire staff.

By the end of his first week, Priebus had been forced out, Scaramucci’s wife had filed for divorce, and then, on Monday, “The Mooch” himself was eliminated from the Trumpian Thunderdome also known as the White House.

As all this drama unfolded, Trump’s agenda took yet another blow with the implosion of the Republican health care bill in the Senate, leaving the president with no major policy achievement to speak of in his first six months in office. Though Trump has repeatedly claimed to have accomplished more than any of his predecessors in his first months in office, the truth is that he has overseen the most incompetent and amateurish administration in modern history. As Ryan Cooper recently put it in The Week, “the hapless incompetence of this administration is virtually impossible to exaggerate.”

The president’s first six months have confirmed what many people already knew: Trump’s image as a savvy and smart businessman with an extraordinary deal-making ability is a complete sham: the president didn’t know the first thing about running a government when he ran for office. The New York billionaire (if he is indeed a billionaire) has spent his entire adult life carefully cultivating his image as a masterful deal-maker and builder, plastering his name onto anything and everything (including many properties that he does not own) and greatly exaggerating his net worth. Trump has always been more spectacle than substance, and like a used car salesman rolling back the odometers, he made countless promises during his campaign (he would repeal and replace Obamacare “on day one,” for instance) without any real plan on how to fulfill these promises. Just like his career, Trump’s campaign was all spectacle, no substance.

Not surprisingly, then, as Trump’s true nature has become more apparent and his incompetence on full display, the spectacle surrounding his White House has only grown more outrageous. Like a Ponzi-scheme operator whose promised returns become more ridiculously bullish as investors flee and the coffers drain, the president’s rhetoric has become more grandiose and detached from reality as his presidency has gone off the rails. One can expect the circus to grow more preposterous still as the Trump administration continues to implode.

For many Americans, the spectacle will always be enough; whether or not Trump is ever successful in terms of policy, the image he projects on television screens will continue to convince millions. It is comforting to think of our reality TV president and his political rise as some kind of anomaly, but that’s not true. Donald Trump is a product of late capitalism, and the spectacle will continue to dominate in a world where all aspects of life have been commodified and each person has become just another customer.

In his classic work “The Society of the Spectacle,” published 50 years ago, French theorist Guy Debord expounded on what he called the “spectacular society,” in which the modern capitalist mode of production “presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.” The society of the spectacle, postulated the founder of the political-artistic collective known as the Situationist International, had developed over the 20th century with the rise of mass media and the commodity’s “colonization of social life.”

“Understood on its own terms,” wrote Debord in his aphoristic style, “the spectacle proclaims the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere appearance . . . In all its specific manifestations — news or propaganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment — the spectacle epitomizes the prevailing model of social life.”

Half a century after Debord published his influential treatise, the society of the spectacle has given rise to a president who epitomizes the prevailing model of social life, where appearances often predominate over reality.

“In a world that really has been turned on its head,” observed Debord, “truth is a moment of falsehood.” One could be forgiven for assuming that he was describing our world today.

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

Donald Trump in Wonderland

Literally everything our president says and does reflects the opposite of reality

Monday’s fawning Cabinet meeting was just the latest example of a doomed presidency driven by dangerous fictions

Early on Monday a colleague of mine messaged me with a link to a Politico article detailing how Russian intelligence has allegedly gathered “kompromat” on about 2,300 well-known American media personalities and politicians, apparently in conjunction with Vladimir Putin’s ongoing effort to subvert American democracy.

My political writer friend added, “This is scary. What do you think will happen?”

“Nothing,” I wrote back. “Not as long as Trump insists this is nothing more than a scam by the Democrats because Hillary lost.”

We can’t repeat this enough: The United States and our democratic institutions were attacked by a hostile foreign power, yet President Donald Trump refuses to do a damn thing about it. Not only is he still infuriatingly chummy with the Russians, gifting them (without reciprocation) classified intelligence inside the Oval Office and reopening housing compounds that serve as bases for Russian spies. He won’t even acknowledge as legitimate the very basic nut of the story, that Russia hacked the 2015-16 election cycle. Never mind the question of possible collusion for now. The Russians attacked us and there’s copious evidence to prove it.

Imagine if, in the wake of 9/11, the George W. Bush White House had refused to accept that the attack even occurred. The entire world would have thought Bush had lost his mind or that our entire nation was caught in the grip of mass delusion.

Either way, Trump is behaving as if a series of ongoing events that were palpably real weren’t so at all. Those of us who have followed Trump’s ridiculousness since the 1980s know that he’s perpetually full of crap. For example, you may recall his yarn: “Trump Steaks are the world’s greatest steaks and I mean that in every sense of the word.” But as a presidential candidate, and subsequently as the country’s chief executive, his world of make believe is unparalleled. Everything orbiting in Trump’s universe — a universe that includes his 62 million voters along with Fox News — is a fantasy.

Everything that’s real is fake and everything that’s fake is real.

Trump held a Cabinet meeting on Monday morning where he asked his department-level secretaries to offer allegedly unsolicited praise for him and to express effusive gratitude for the honor of serving Trump personally. The usually stoic CNBC reporter John Harwood described the meeting by saying, “Honestly this is like a scene from the Third World.” Indeed. Vice President Mike Pence said serving Trump was “the great honor of [his] life.” (Pence has three children, by the way, whose births must be way down on the list of honors.) Chief of staff Reince Priebus, who’s fighting for his job, said, “Thank you for the blessing you’ve given us.” Yes, I’m sure it’s quite a blessing to be in charge of scooping the rhetorical feces from the cage of a clownish supervillain who needed four tries to correctly spell “hereby.”

The Cabinet’s gooey, over-the-top praise was cloying and artificial, but in Trump’s world of make believe the president and his disciples were sufficiently fluffed, injecting every word of the Cabinet’s Eddie Haskell-ish ass kissing into the news cycle. Insofar as perception is reality, we can assume it worked on the faithful. If all these serious people think Trump is the greatest president God ever created, then it must be true!

Likewise, Trump expects everyone to believe there might be tapes of his one-on-one meetings with former FBI Director James Comey. Knowing Trump and the mendacity of his online blurtings, it’s safe to say there aren’t any tapes even though (to coin a phrase), “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.” If the tapes exist, he’d release them. But releasing the tapes is irrelevant because as long as his base believes Comey is what Trump claimed — a crazy, cowardly grandstander who’s obviously lying about the meetings — then pretending that such tapes might exist is enough for the voters who matter.

What else?

Contrary to Trump’s world of make believe, there weren’t 3 million illegal Hillary Clinton voters, nor did former President Barack Obama have Trump’s “wires tapped.” The tax reform bill Trump says is being negotiated doesn’t actually exist. The American Health Care Act (also known as “Trumpcare”) will not provide health insurance to more people and will ultimately leave tens of millions of people with no coverage, among other terrible things. His tweets about the “travel ban” won’t help his chances in court and only make matters worse for the future of his executive order.

Meanwhile, Trump praised his record on jobs so far: While 1.1 million new jobs have been created since Election Day, 1.3 million jobs were created during the previous seven months during former President Barack Obama’s administration. (Trump has also forgotten about the supposedly “real” unemployment rate he mentioned so often during the campaign.) Trump insists the Democrats are feckless, rudderless failures who can’t get anything done yet they’re also effectively obstructing his entire agenda despite the fact that the GOP controls everything. And sorry, James Comey is telling the truth.

I could do this all day. Nothing Trump says is real or accurate — nothing. Even discussing his statements as if they’re mere off-the-shelf political lies serves to only normalize him when, in fact, what he’s doing is galactically destructive. The world has lost faith in America’s leadership or is losing it fast. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans believe Trump has gone bye-bye. Why? Because his fictitiousness is so completely obvious that we have no choice but to wonder whether he’s mentally fit to lead. (He’s not.) He seems to sincerely believe that his kooky outbursts and cartoonish threats sound legitimate when anyone with a brain knows he’s tilting at windmills — even some of his core supporters.

Congressional Republicans are excusing Trump’s loony behavior, for the moment, as the consequences of his being “new to the job,” arguing that his rookie stature is the source of his nonstop flailing. I’m all in favor of any excuses that underscore the president’s massive incompetence, thanks. But the GOP seems to forget that Trump has acted like this for his entire career. He sculpts his own reality to compensate for his endless roster of inadequacies.

But before too long — and I hope this is true — the president and his supporters will be blindsided by reality. Sometime soon, Trump will be fully exposed for his part in the Trump-Russia attack whether as a willing participant or a conspirator after the fact, orchestrating the cover-up. No fairy tales from his Twitter feed will dig him out. The story has to end this way. Trump and all Trump’s men have to be held accountable, otherwise we might as well resign ourselves to believing our democracy is owned and operated by the Kremlin. We can’t allow Trump’s delusions to become American delusions. The bedtime story Trump is telling has to end and end the right way — or else.

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon.com. He’s also the host of “The Bob Cesca Show” podcast, and a weekly guest on both the “Stephanie Miller Show” and “Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang.” Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Trump’s assault on science ultimately rests on his hostility toward truth, an idea with a complicated history

Trump’s war on environment and science are rooted in his post-truth politics — and maybe in postmodern philosophy

Trump's war on environment and science are rooted in his post-truth politics — and maybe in postmodern philosophy
(Credit: AP/John Locher/Getty/David McNew)

The Trump administration’s war on the environment, which was accelerated this week with the president’s executive order to dismantle various environmental protections, is a product of the administration’s larger war on science, which is in turn a manifestation of President Trump’s unrelenting assault on the truth.

While “truth” and “objectivity” are endlessly debated in the field of journalism, no branch of human knowledge is more established on empirical evidence than the natural sciences, which seek to understand and describe the world through experimentation. One’s attitude toward the natural sciences and the scientists who dedicate their lives to research, therefore, can reveal a lot about one’s attitude toward truth in general.

By now it should be obvious that Trump, who once claimed that climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese, has very little respect for the natural sciences. This week we learned just how little the president cares about the expertise of scientists, with a New York Times article reporting that the staff of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has been completely decimated since Trump entered office. This elimination of STEM experts from advisory positions is consistent with President Trump’s other anti-science policies, including his call for cuts to the EPA, NASA and NOAA, as well as his sweeping deregulatory agenda on the environment.

Trump’s hostility towards science and scientific facts like climate change is characteristic of his “post-truth” outlook, and his administration’s anti-science agenda is just one part of his larger crusade against objective truth.

This crusade has involved the president relentlessly attacking the media as “fake news” while simultaneously peddling false stories and citing genuinely fake news publications himself. He has been so successful at this that Time magazine came right out and asked it on its latest cover: “Is Truth Dead?” With same font and format as the magazine’s famous “Is God Dead?” cover from 1966, it includes a remarkable interview with the president, who manages to make about a dozen false, unverifiable or misleading statements in one sitting.

Whether deliberate or not, the cover headline alludes to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who is best known for proclaiming the death of God, but also for rejecting the idea of objective truth (“there are no facts, only interpretations”). For the philosophically inclined, then, our “post-truth” era can be traced back to Nietzsche, as the lecturer in philosophy Alexis Papazoglou did last December in an article for the Conversation on the philosopher’s theory of “perspectivism.” According to Papazoglou, Nietzsche posits that, “once we realise that the idea of an absolute, objective truth is a philosophical hoax, the only alternative is a position called ‘perspectivism’ – the idea there is no one objective way the world is, only perspectives on what the world is like.” Papazoglou continues:

According to perspectivism, we agree on [basic facts, like that Paris is the capital of France] not because these propositions are ‘objectively true,’ but by virtue of sharing the same perspective. … but when it comes to issues such as morality, religion and politics, agreement is much harder to achieve.

While it is doubtful whether Trump has ever heard of Nietzsche — and even more doubtful whether he could get through one paragraph of the philosopher’s cryptic prose — the president is quite the perspectivist in his own crass and superficial way (much as he is a crude caricature of Nietzsche’s idealized Übermensch). In his Time interview, the president claimed to be a very “instinctual person,” which one can take to mean that he seldom questions his own perspective or feels the need to verify a claim that he feels in his gut before stating it as fact (even when, as president of the United States, he has access to top secret information).

If there are really no facts and only interpretations, and if millions of Americans are ready to unthinkingly embrace your perspective, then why bother adhering to a rigid line that separates fact from fiction? If you interpret a period of cold weather as evidence that climate change isn’t happening, and if millions of other people agree with your point of view, then climate change is a hoax. If your subjective experience perceives record attendance at the inauguration, then there was record attendance — aerial photographs that prove otherwise are simply illustrating another perspective.

Nietzsche was a major influence on the French postmodern philosophers of the late 20th century, who adopted a similar perspectivist view of objective truth and rejected the “grand narratives” of the Enlightenment and modernism. (Not surprisingly, these thinkers do not have a good reputation in the scientific community; see the notorious Sokal affair). As a philosophical movement, postmodernism is mostly known for the contention that all human knowledge is a product of social constructions and competing narratives — including scientific knowledge, which is no more or less true than, say, Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction.

While prominent postmodernist thinkers were almost all on the left, and used their theories to critique dominant ideologies and powerful interests, their work did not go unnoticed by those on the right. In an interview with the New Yorker last October, Mike Cernovich, one of the leading online personalities of the alt-right, discussed postmodernism and the importance of narratives: “Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Walter Cronkite lied about everything. Before Twitter, how would you have known? Look, I read postmodernist theory in college. If everything is a narrative, then we need alternatives to the dominant narrative.” Like many other alt-right figures Cernovich made his name on Twitter, which has become an invaluable tool for promoting different “narratives,” whether it be climate change denialism or voter fraud conspiracy theories or fables of the deep state.

So the right has managed to successfully adopt a postmodern style of politics, where alternative facts counter objective truth and alternative narratives create a new, paranoid picture of the world. It is far from certain, however, that this kind of postmodern (or post-truth) politics is sustainable in the long run — especially now that Trump and the Republican Party are in control of the government.

Two and a half months into his term, Trump’s presidency has been nothing short of a disaster, and this is largely because the president has shunned experts who operate in the real world (like, er, scientists), while surrounding himself with know-nothing sycophants who dare not contradict his fact-free worldview. If Trump continues to govern as a post-truth president disconnected from reality, all signs point to an eventual collapse. Then again, it’s all a matter of perspective.

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

Let’s consider the evidence that Trump is a traitor

trump-cia-speechedited

None dare call it treason:

Has Trump’s entire team been compromised by Putin? If so, everyone who continues to support him is complicit 

On Monday evening, national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign after supposedly losing the “trust” of President Donald Trump by failing to adequately and fully explain his phone conversations with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential election.

As The New York Times explained on Wednesday, FBI agents apparently concluded that Flynn had not been “entirely forthcoming” in describing a phone call he had with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States. That set in motion “a chain of events that cost Mr. Flynn his job and thrust Mr. Trump’s fledgling administration into a fresh crisis.”

As the Times report elaborated, Trump “took his time” deciding what to do about Flynn’s dishonesty and was none too eager to fire him.

But other aides [such as other than press secretary Sean Spicer] privately said that Mr. Trump, while annoyed at Mr. Flynn, might not have pushed him out had the situation not attracted such attention from the news media. Instead, according to three people close to Mr. Trump, the president made the decision to cast aside Mr. Flynn in a flash, the catalyst being a news alert of a coming article about the matter.

“Yeah, it’s time,” Mr. Trump told one of his advisers.

Flynn is not alone. Other Trump operatives are also under investigation by the FBI for potentially illegal contact with senior Russian intelligence operatives.

This information is not new. The New York Times and other American news media outlets were aware of reports about Russian tampering in the 2016 election as well as an ongoing federal investigation of Trump, his advisers and other representatives. Instead of sharing this information with the American people during the election campaign, the Times and other publications chose to exercise “restraint” and “caution.” Decades of bullying by the right-wing media and movement conservatives would pay great dividends.

Afraid of showing any so-called liberal bias, the corporate news media demonstrated little restraint in its obsessive reporting about the nonstory that was Hillary Clinton’s emails. This, in conjunction with other factors, almost certainly cost her the election.

In all, the Republican Party and its voters have abandoned their Cold War bona fides and their (somewhat exaggerated) reputation as die-hard enemies of Russia and the former Soviet Union. To borrow from the language of spy craft, it would seem that they have been “flipped” by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Despite mounting evidence suggesting that Trump’s administration has been compromised by Russia, his public continues to back him. The Republican Party and its leadership have largely chosen to support Trump in a type of political suicide mission because they see him as an opportunity to force their agenda on the American people and reverse or undo by the social progress made by the New Deal, the civil rights movement, feminism, the LGBT movement and other forces of progressive change.

In the midst of these not so new “revelations” about Michael Flynn and other members of Trump’s inner circle, the news media is now fixated on the Nixonian question: “What did the president know and when did he know it?” This question ought to not be treated like a mystery. The answer should be readily apparent because it is a direct reflection of Trump’s political and personal values.

Trump has repeatedly shown that he is a fascist authoritarian who admires political strongmen and autocrats such as Putin. In keeping with that leadership style, Trump has surrounded himself with family members and other advisers so as to insulate himself from criticism — and also to neuter any political rivals. In violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, Trump is also using the office of the presidency to personally enrich himself, his family members and other members of his inner circle, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Donald Trump also has a longtime pattern of open admiration for gangsters and organized crime.

In sum, Trump’s presidency has many of the traits of a criminal enterprise and a financial shakedown operation, masquerading as a democratically elected government.

Flynn resigned because he got caught, not because of what he did. White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed this with his statement during Tuesday’s press briefing that Flynn did “nothing wrong or inappropriate.” In response to this most recent scandal, Trump and his surrogates are now trying to focus on “the leaks,” rather than the potential crimes that may have been committed. Like most political strongmen, Trump values secrecy and loyalty above all else. Those things must be maintained at all costs, even if that means that a given member of the ruling cabal might occasionally have to fall on his or her own sword.

Based on the increasing evidence of communication between his inner circle and Russian operatives, it appears plausible that Trump either actively knew about Flynn’s actions (and perhaps even directed them) or chose to look away while actively benefiting from them. Either choice should disqualify him from the presidency.

In an earlier essay for Salon, I argued that for a variety of reasons that Trump can be considered a traitor to the United States. By that standard, his voters and other supporters who do not denounce him are also traitors, and any Republican officials who continue to back Trump are traitors as well. Recent revelations about Flynn and the still unknown extent of contact between other Trump advisers and Russian agents serve to only reinforce the truth of my earlier claim.

Republicans and other conservatives behave as though they have a monopoly on patriotism and exclusive claims to being “real Americans.” Now is the time for them to test that commitment. Do Republicans and other conservatives love power more than their country? I fear I know the answer. I ask the question in the hope that I am wrong.

None dare call it treason: As the Flynn scandal widens, let’s consider the evidence that Trump is a traitor

Chauncey DeVega

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