Don’t Be Lulled Into A False Sense Of Security By Donald Trump’s Toned-Down Media Image
A Plea Against Complacency by Raine Laurent
“As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air — however slight — lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”
— William O. Douglas
Donald Trump, who steamed and stomped his way through three presidential debates, is clumsily attempting to rehabilitate his image in the media. His victory speech on election night was surreal. Trump invoked sentimental metaphors, binding wounds and healing division, after running a campaign based entirely on blame and scapegoating. He talked about being a president for all Americans, and he asked us to thank Secretary Clinton for her service.
You could be forgiven for suspecting a religious conversion, or a head injury. Maybe body snatchers! The Donald Trump we saw on election night, on the surface, has little in common with the Donald Trump who fumed about immigrants stealing jobs (that were also, somehow, lost to NAFTA), who repeated fictitious stories about New Jersey Muslims celebrating the 9/11 attacks, who warned against Mexico exporting rapists, while defending his own history of sexual assault.
The Donald Trump we’re seeing shakes President Obama’s hand, President Obama whose American citizenship Trump has challenged for nearly a decade. The Kenyan Muslim who ruined America is now a “very good man”. What’s happening?
Was Trump only frothing his way through the primaries and the general? Was he strategically playing to the lowest common denominator? Was he channeling white, working class anger in a Machiavellian play for the greater good? Was he always a liberal stooge who is now free to disappoint the racist elements in his base and serve as a dependable moderate? No.
Political lying is easy. In a culture of media inundation, lying is less of a matter of outright falsification as it is one of flooding the public consciousness with extraneous and contradictory information. The quantity of data is so immense that actual truth becomes not buried, but marginalized. Trump can pick a virulent homophobe for VP, then hold a gay pride flag and sheepishly grin. He can participate vocally in birtherism and then proclaim President Obama a “very good man”. He can inform Hillary Clinton, during the third presidential debate, that under his administration, she would be in prison. He can then turn around and enjoin the country to thank her for her “great service”. And how can the public at large be expected to pull apart all this conflicting data, flickering through their own biases, or hopes, or limited information? You don’t have to falsify the truth to avoid its consequences. You only have to surround it with enough white noise to limit its impact.
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Trump’s conciliatory poses could be interpreted as a stall tactic to minimize dissent before he takes office. He assures us that he wants to be “everyone’s” president, while his VP promises us that rolling back legal protections for the LGBT community is part of a Day One agenda. Trump has floated Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose career is mostly distinguished by workplace raids, traffic stops, and general immigrant witch-hunts, for the Department of Homeland Security. Trump has brought on board Chris Kobach, author of Arizona’s controversial SB 1070, which mandates immigration status checks based on racial profiling. Along with Trump’s zeal for a nationwide implementation of Stop and Frisk, already ruled unconstitutional, it’s hard to doubt that contempt for the fourth amendment is still part of Trump’s ideology.
These racially obsessed appointments point us back to what has been one of Trump’s core promises all along: mass deportation. Trump has not reneged on his insistence on a national registry of Muslims, either. This cluster of policy makes the comparison to Germany in the 1930s more intuitive than it ever should be in American politics.
VP Mike Pence has proposed draining funds for HIV research into a nationally implemented program of gay conversion therapy—the quaint practice of electrocuting homosexuals for the apparent good of the state. Exactly why Pence seems to think that only homosexuals can contract HIV is a mystery, and exactly what he thinks of Trump literally waving a rainbow flag is equally befuddling.
Trump has also walked back his stance on repealing the affordable care act, vaguely stating that he intends to “amend” it. Dismantling an entire series of mandates generally does involve amending it out of existence, piece by piece, but this implication flies under the radar.
So here we are in a mess of contradictions; Trump talks unity and deportation, he holds an LGBT flag while his Vice President decries them as deviants and disease vectors. He pushes FADA, a legal protection for anti-LGBT bigotry under the guise of defending “religious freedom”, but also wants to keep a database to monitor and contain Muslim citizens.
So what is Trump’s game here? He’s already the president-elect. Does he have anything to gain from disingenuous pandering, from statements that are sharply contradicted by his cabinet picks and policy?
Well, active gain, maybe not. Donald Trump is not courting votes anymore. Reactionaries, angry with the establishment and voting for him in hopes of blowing it all up, and white supremacists, who supported him slavishly, have already given him that. But Donald Trump is very possibly engaging in risk aversion here. So what risk would Trump like to avert? Why is he playing nice?
Well, there’s two angles here. The more flamboyant one is the eruption of mass demonstration in opposition to Trump’s election. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in major cities around the US, all to voice dissent against Donald Trump’s vision for America. The hostility is palpable. Trump has built an entire campaign around threats—threats to deport Latin-Americans, threats to invalidate the marriages of homosexuals, threats to legitimize discrimination in employment and housing against the broader queer community, the looming threat of inaccessible healthcare for the poor or chronically ill. Trump’s entire campaign has been about terrifying his frustrated white base with the threat of the “other” (rapists from Mexico, terrorists from Syria, nukes from Iran) and terrorizing the rest of the country into fearful paralysis.
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Donald Trump may have underestimated the American spirit and the American public, because that fear seems to be channeling into a focused eruption. Protesters yesterday closed in on Trump Tower in New York City. Effigies were burned in Los Angeles. People have apparently learned the lesson of optimistic hesitance in the face of racist authoritarianism, and Donald Trump, or at least his advisers, may be cognizant of this.
Police in Portland dubbed the protests “riots”, a convenient and arbitrary distinction; authority can use a kind of linguistic slight-of-hand to designate a “protest” a “riot” at any arbitrary point. That point is generally when the public sentiment exceeds what the power structure considers permissible to the status quo. But the police, presumably, are only obliged to abuse or silence the public so far in service of Donald Trump’s interests. President Barack Obama remains commander-in-chief until Trump is sworn in on January 20th, and it is hard to imagine the President deploying the national guard, against U.S. citizens, to protect Donald Trump’s property or public image.
Trump, no doubt at the behest of his spin doctors, has switched from railing against the “media instigated” protesters to praising their passion for their country. For now, he keeps his claws withdrawn. It is, of course, imaginable how Trump will handle organized dissent when he is actually president, given his views about police authority and “law and order”. But for now, he plays it cool. Any too obvious betrayal of megalomania or retaliatory action would only solidify the American people’s legitimate fear for their civil liberties.
It is now projected that Hillary Clinton may have won the popular vote by two million. This isn’t counting the disillusioned, but quite possibly anti-Trump non-voters who stayed home this election season. Trump’s supporters would like us to accept his election as evidence of a concrete majority, but clearly that isn’t the case. With protest movements surging against his administration, Trump is probably looking to put on a softer glove, tame the public’s insurgency: at least until he has the authority to call in the military to put them down.
Trump’s other potential, if unlikely fear, comes from the very establishment that he decried and that gave him his victory: the electoral college. The electors of the college, though expected to vote in the direction their states have indicated, are under no actual material obligation to do so. Although no electors have voted faithlessly in recent elections (except for an accidental Kerry vote gone to Edwards in 2004), it remains theoretically possible that a concerted group of electors could hand the presidency, legally and legitimately, to Secretary Clinton. This is almost inexpressibly implausible. Still, the Trump team may be hedging their bets around a possible resurgence of “Never Trump” sentiment in the GOP. The electoral college could theoretically complicate things if enough electors abstained or voted for someone other than Trump, throwing the election to the House.
The college could theoretically cave to immense public pressure. Demonstrations against Trump are already flowering around the nation, and Hillary Clinton is projected to have won the popular vote by a significant margin. With Clinton having been the favorite for arms contractors, wall street, and even some of the Republican establishment (including both Bushes and Mitt Romney) it’s conceivable that a block of electors could play hero under the influence of pressure from special interests. There is a change.org petition demanding that the electoral college do exactly that.
None of this has an even remotely realistic possibility of handing Hillary Clinton the presidency, but a few blips could create some kinks in the transfer of power. Trump’s loss of the popular vote denies him a mandate from the American people, and many are attacking the legitimacy of his presidency based on his contempt for constitutional rights, alleged ties to Russia, alleged fraud via Trump University, and alleged sex crimes.
Donald Trump has secured his entrance into the White House, and what he wants to do there has not changed. He will surround himself with establishment, Republican cronies (so much for populism), institute massive tax cuts for his own class at the expense of social services, and then engage in the classic, establishment Republican culture war against abortion rights and the LGBT community.
Nothing has changed. Donald Trump is not softer. Donald Trump is not safer. Donald Trump has not changed his mind or his heart, more importantly, Donald Trump has not significantly changed his platform or his agenda. He is what he always was.
He just wants you to forget that, until he has the military in his corner, an ideological puppet on the supreme court, his chance to neuter the bill of rights, and you have no recourse.
Since the initial publication of this article, Donald Trump has appointed Steve Bannon, the Breitbart executive who fostered the creation of the white nationalist alt-right movement, to be his chief strategist. Members of the Republican establishment have already begun pressuring Trump to revive the Keystone pipeline project, while Trump himself has financial ties to the Dakota Access pipeline. We may define fascism by racial supremacy and the merger of personal business interests with the state. Donald Trump is trying to reassure America, while sending ominous warning signs through his actions and appointments.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images