We’re just a month or so into the Trump presidency, and my head is still reeling. Every day, there’s something new. What I personally find most astounding are the lies. Yes, I know, politicians all shade the truth, from “I am not a crook” to “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” We’re used to the careful parsing of sentences, the spin, the pivots and obfuscations. That’s normal; that’s what we’re used to.
What we’re not used to is a President who lies like a five-year-old. “I didn’t break that lamp, Mommy,” says the weepy child, standing in the lamp’s wreckage. With Trump, it feels pathological. Anyone can look at the photos of the Obama and Trump inaugurations and see which crowd was bigger. It’s easy enough to look up electoral vote totals. But only Trump can insist that he had the biggest crowds ever, that his win was the biggest landslide ever, even when those assertions are clearly, obviously not true.
What’s interesting about Trump isn’t that he lies, it’s why his lies are so ridiculous. And what I find even more interesting are those brief moments when he tells the truth. Those are the moments that reveal the depths of incredible cynicism that underlie the con man’s performance. Trump’s a television star, a performer, and although the performance is offputting and scary, underneath it is something way way darker than slogans like Make America Great Again would suggest.
Here’s Trump on making campaign donations, for example. January, 2015, he said “As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.” He repeated the same basic idea many times; it was a huge part of his appeal. Yes, the game was rigged, and rigged in favor of the wealthy. He knew, because he was a wealthy guy who gave money to political campaigns and expected a lot in return.
Isn’t that why a lot of people liked him? Because he told the truth? Of course, in fact, he rarely told the truth. But when he said he would “drain the swamp” in Washington, that line brought some of the biggest cheers from the crowds at his rallies. He admitted that the response surprised him, but if it was so popular, he’d keep saying it. Still, we all know how hopelessly corrupted American politics is by the need for politicians to raise huge amounts of money for their campaigns. We know that Congresspeople spend 6-8 hours a day on phones, raising money. That’s why both parties own sophisticated call centers a short distance from Congressional offices for the use of Congress. We all know that; we know how much time politicians spend raising money, and how little time they spend legislating. And of course, if businesspeople give money to a politicians, it stands to reason that they would expect something in return. Trump plugged into American cynicism about our elected officials; it was an effective strategy. Of course, he’s not actually draining any swamps. He played us for suckers, obviously. (Unlike, say, Bernie Sanders, who genuinely wants to change the way Americans finance elections). But at least Trump was appropriately cynical about the system.
Trump also seems to reject the mainstream narrative of American exceptionalism. In an interview with Bill O’Reilly, he was asked about his support for Vladimir Putin. “He’s a killer,” said O’Reilly. “There are a lot of killers,” responded Trump. “Do you think our country’s so innocent?”
Well, of course we’re not. Innocent? America? After Vietnam and Iraq, after CIA assassination attempts and drone strikes, after unprovoked wars and native American genocide? After slavery? The exceptionalist narrative promoted by civic clubs and civics teachers requires, at best, that we overlook an awful lot of history, and a whole raftful of policies over the years. I admired President Obama, am glad I voted for him, and consider him to have been a fine President, but there’s certainly a lot of blood on his hands, as is true of every American President in history. Except maybe for William Henry Harrison, who didn’t have time to do many bad things. (But who did kill lots of Indians before becoming President).
Trump famously proclaimed that his motto would be America First. Setting aside the horrific historical origins of that phrase, I think it’s a bit refreshing, honestly. American foreign policy has always combined realism and idealism. We’re supposed to stand for something–the old ‘shining city on a hill’ rhetoric–while also straightforwardly pursuing our national interests. Well, it rather seems as though Trump’s willing to toss idealism overboard. We’re as bad as everyone else. We’re morally equivalent to Vladimir Putin. (That’s nonsense, but it’s a kind of nonsense I never thought I’d hear from any POTUS). Again, it’s cynical. But at least he’s not trying to pretend his policies will be anything but American-directed.
Should that be our foreign policy? Of course not. I want to retain at least some measure of idealism, some sense that America can mean some kind of moral order. I think, for example, of Obama and Clinton’s response to the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. As nation after nation jettisoned their brutal dictators–Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad–as oppressed peoples began to assert their independence, the US was forced to respond, and for the most part, we did, by supporting the independence movements. And yes, at times, an excess of idealism led to the most brutal catastrophes. Libya remains a failed state without Gaddafi. Egypt is back in the hands of the military. Syria’s situation remains in a state of international humanitarian crisis. Tunisia, though, seems to be transitioning towards a pro-Western constitutional republic. Failures abound, and successes remain few. But, really, what choice did we have. The Obama/Clinton foreign policy, in the wake of Arab Spring, seems to have been to try to manage massive changes, which eventually became, for the most part, unmanageable. If anyone has a better idea, though, I’d like to hear it. I’m not making an argument for Trumpian cynicism. I’m also saying there’s something to it, both in historical and contemporaneous terms.
So that’s Trump. He lies, a lot, in bizarrely obvious ways. But every once in a while, he tells the truth. And that’s when we see just how cynical he is, and how ruthlessly amoral. We elected a businessman, which did not necessarily suggest a moral compass. It’s shocking, really, to see how real realpolitikk can become.