Hollow man

>> Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Donald Trump says a lot of things that aren’t true, often shamelessly so, and it’s tempting to call him a liar

But that’s not quite right. As the Princeton University philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt put it in a famous essay, to lie presumes a kind of awareness of and interest in the truth — and the goal is to convince the audience that the false thing you are saying is in fact true. Trump, more often than not, isn’t interested in convincing anyone of anything. He’s a bullshitter who simply doesn’t care. 
- Matthew Yglesias, "The Bullshitter-in-Chief,"
Vox, May 30th, 2017.

It is hard to tell what is going on in Trumpland.  Who knows?  I don't think there's a lot of evidence to support the theory that even those in his innermost circle know what's going on in there.

But I think there's some evidence that Trump isn't a bullshitter, though he may be full of shit.  My suspicion at this point is that grand unifying theories of Trump's behavior, motivations, and strategies overlook the unpleasant and distressing possibility that what we are seeing in the man is exactly what's there: a profoundly stupid, ignorant, amoral, and delusional creature who believes everything (or nearly everything) he says even when it's obviously wrong and contradicts something else he says and believes just as much.  That isn't to say that Trump isn't a confidence man or huckster; only that he has been so long surrounded by sycophants and hustlers that the grifting has bled indistinguishably into Trump's perceptual reality and created a mud-colored mess, like an untreated oil painting left out in the rain.

Rebecca Solnit wrote what I find to be a far more persuasive Theory of Trump for Lithub, "The Loneliness of Donald Trump," arguing that Trump is a crude creature of appetites who has lived for so long without any kind of honesty from himself or others, utterly weightless and free of consequence, that he has wished himself into the peculiar position of winning everything and thereby gaining nothing.  She writes:

The child who became the most powerful man in the world, or at least occupied the real estate occupied by a series of those men, had run a family business and then starred in an unreality show based on the fiction that he was a stately emperor of enterprise, rather than a buffoon barging along anyhow, and each was a hall of mirrors made to flatter his sense of self, the self that was his one edifice he kept raising higher and higher and never abandoned.


Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society. Inequality creates liars and delusion. The powerless need to dissemble—that’s how slaves, servants, and women got the reputation of being liars—and the powerful grow stupid on the lies they require from their subordinates and on the lack of need to know about others who are nobody, who don’t count, who’ve been silenced or trained to please. This is why I always pair privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters. This is about a need for which we hardly have language or at least not a familiar conversation.

These are truths.  And every new story out of the White House (or Mar-a-Lago), every leak seems to suggest that Trump's world is really a vast, empty, mirror-filled palace much like Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu, through which Trump, like Kane late in the film, wanders dazed and angry at being unloved, incapable of getting his head around how all his worldly success has nevertheless left him brutally alone and unable to receive what he is incapable of giving or returning.  Solnit observes that Trump has, by being elected President of the United States, managed to become "the most mocked man in the world."  Indeed.  It seems apropos to observe that Charles Foster Kane's model, William Randolph Hearst, was allegedly, per some sources, infuriated by more than anything else in Citizen Kane by the movie's use of "Rosebud" as a McGuffin: these sources say that screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, once a frequent houseguest of Hearst and the love of his life, Marion Davies, chose the word because it was Hearst's pet name for Davies' genitals, targeted mockery that went like a bullet right into Hearst's heart (whatever was left of it) (not to mention the added insult to poor Davies).

I also can't help suspecting that Solnit is onto something when she writes, "He got a boost at the beginning from the wealth handed him and then moved among grifters and mobsters who cut him slack as long as he was useful, or maybe there’s slack in arenas where people live by personal loyalty until they betray, and not by rules, and certainly not by the law or the book."  My mind was already going there before Solnit's piece came out.  I cannot help thinking that Trump got as far as he did to some great degree because what he did didn't actually matter very much or to very many people; if he lied about writing a book, or about what graduating from "Trump University" could get you, or about the height of one of his buildings, or about how much money he had, or about how successful he was--well... I don't want to say these lies didn't matter.  He shafted employees and ripped off investors and cheated the public, but it's not like he was cheating the nation.  Did it matter all that much if the southern view from a Trump Parc apartment was of an ugly wall?  A few people might sue him for this or that, regulators might write a nasty letter, he might even end up settling a discrimination suit with the Justice Department or a fraud suit with a state attorney general.  There might be awkward conversations with financial backers... here or, shall we vaguely say, abroad.  Maybe "conversations" should be in scare quotes.  "Conversations."

There's a point to bringing this up in the context of what may or may not be Trump bullshitting.  How far can a human being go in becoming a completely hollowed out shell standing for nothing, being nothing, representing nothing, before the mind rebels and tries to reconcile a gnawing, raging, instinctual sense of failure with the desire to be real?  If you were such a person, wouldn't it be reassuring, then, to surround yourself with people who would tell you that the lies your mind told you were true--yes, you are successful, yes you are respected, yes you are feared, yes you are attractive, yes you are brilliant, yes, you are the titan standing over all you surveyed, the ground does tremble beneath your feet and all look up in awe at your might and works?

And then what would you do if, suddenly, everyone actually started caring about and scrutinizing what you did?  What if the people who told you such reassuring lies about yourself, who allowed you to reconcile your self with your perception of self, were now surrounded by people loyal to other things--to ideology, institutions, country, faith, honor, virtue, principles, philosophy?  Would you face yourself in the infinite mirrors and take a good long look at yourself, or would you scream at the television that CNN was getting it wrong, that people were lying behind your back, would you tweet the same damned things into the internet aether night after night as if truth came out of repetition, as if you could browbeat everyone else in the universe into agreeing with you the same way you used to be able to when all the people you browbeat needed to say "yes" to you to get something from you?

Why doesn't everyone love you?

There was a peculiar bit of news this morning.  Nearly half of Donald Trump's followers are bots--fake, nonexistent "people"--and the number of bots following Trump spiked this weekend after the news came back from abroad that the leaders of free Europe didn't love him nearly as much as oil  despots of the Middle East.  I doubt, though it's not impossible, that Trump himself paid the few hundred dollars that is all it takes to buy a horde of fantasy Twitter followers; no, more likely, seems to me, that some sycophantic staffer did this, perhaps even a family member, and didn't tell Trump what he was getting for early Christmas: no, the news isn't true, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.  Here it is in hard numbers: you are loved.

None of this is terribly reassuring.  This isn't--probably--the collapse into a propaganda-driven Orwellian soft fascism that Matt Yglesias seems to fear.  But it's hardly better that what is probably the most powerful office in the world is held by a sad, delusional, empty sack, sorry excuse for a man.  That Donald Trump may well be insane; Philip K. Dick liked to say that reality was that which didn't go away when you denied its existence, well, what does it say about Donald Trump, then, that he goes along with the denial?  It might well be worse that Trump isn't bullshitting, that he's insistent that reality will be whatever he's holding in his head and not whatever is for the rest of the species.  Mercy upon us if he takes to stronger measures than 3 a.m. tweets to reconcile reality and his fantasies.


Fire away

>> Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Barack Obama should have fired James Comey, but it's pretty obvious why he didn't.  Whatever anyone wants to say about President Obama, he is not stupid, and he understands American politics; firing Comey would have looked like an act of political retribution and would have given the Republicans one more thing to beat him over the head with in a final two months better spent doing what he could to tie down his legacy against the barbarians soon to be coming through the gates.  Better to let it ride.

Donald Trump isn't not stupid and he doesn't understand American politics (regardless of his surprising success in getting to the top of the system; he obviously understands how to rouse a mob, but now that he's in office, he's proven himself the very Platonic ideal of the proverbial post turtle).  Trump decided yesterday evening to stick his arm into the wood chipper, and (being not smart and not understanding how things work) is apparently surprised that things look a lot like the ending of Fargo this morning.

There's plenty of good and not-good commentary out there today.  The thing I wanted to shine a light on as briefly as I can is simply that this isn't the end of the world; indeed, Trump, being the least capable man to ever clumsily stumble into the nation's highest office, has done pretty much the worst thing he could possibly do to kill the ongoing investigation into his administration's Russia connections.  It creates the obvious impression of a cover-up, but even if it's not a cover-up, the best take you could get out of it is that the Administration is completely incapable of minimally functioning, much less keeping a clean shop, and that the need for a special prosecutor has only increased.

We might remind ourselves that there are a number of theories for what's going on with Trump, his Administration, and the Russians; recently the Lawfare blog set out a continuum of seven not-necessarily-exclusive theories ranging from "it's all a lot of embarrassing coincidences" to "the President's a mole" (the quotes are my paraphrases, not necessarily the authors' exact wording).  Almost all of these involve some question of what the President knew and when he knew it--the old Watergate question that bedevils historians to this day.  (It might be worth noting, since we mention it, that there are plausible-if-unlikely theories to the effect that Nixon may have been brought down by rogues within his White House who were acting outside his awareness and without his authority--an irony, if true, since Nixon was up to his ears in impeachable offenses that didn't bring down his Administration.)  All Trump has done in firing Comey is to draw attention to that question.

It's also worth pointing out that while Comey received the Steele Dossier directly from John McCain (Vox has a pretty good timeline, here) Comey's "leading" of the Russia investigation almost certainly didn't involve the Director of the FBI hunting down leads and devoting a wall of his office to mugshots and surveillance photos connected by color-coded pieces of string.  (Do real law enforcement officers even do that, or is this just something they do in movies and television?)  I'm sure the agents Comey assigned to the investigation--apparently including a special Washington unit created to focus on the investigation--reported directly to Comey; but it seems unlikely he played that much of a direct role in the direction of their investigation, and their work is presumably going to continue.

And say it doesn't: after all, Trump could appoint a Director to kill the investigation, right?  Except this, again, is where we have to remind ourselves of the copious evidence that's already been amassed that Trump has no idea how Washington works.  Among other things, Washington D.C. leaks like a sieve and has for more than two hundred years now.  Do you know what happens if the Administration tries to lock down the FBI?  Let's ask Mark Felt.  At this point, if Trump tries to shut the investigation down, D.C. garages are going to be so full of journalists and disgruntled agents, commuters will be looking for parking in Baltimore.  (There's a better joke somewhere in there.  But it eluded me.)

This is already longer than I intended.  I think I have two main ideas here that I'll try to sum up.  First, that James Comey was a shit FBI director and the only things saving his job were the horrible political repercussions firing him would bring.  And, second, that Donald Trump just fired him.  I think that actually sums it up so well, I wish I'd started with that.  I may be a poor prophet here, we'll see, but I think there's a very good chance that Trump didn't kill the FBI investigation into his Administration's Russia connections; I think he just gave it a shot of adrenaline and a big old jolt from the paddles.  I think the dumb bastard just gave it new life.


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