Meet the New President–Trump’s Hundred Daze, Part 1

by Mark Lause, editorial board member on April 25, 2017

April 29 will mark the end of the first hundred days of the presidency of Donald J. Trump.  Most of what we hear about it through the self-described “mainstream” media is still as pathetically superficial and weak as it has always been . . . or a mere echoing of the self-dramatizing delusional fictions emanating from the White House.  It is shaping up to have been a remarkable first hundred days–as unique in its way as was the original application of this measure when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office eighty-four years ago.  Not in the same ways, of course.

Trump has arguably severed the last tenuous bonds of presidential politics to the actual social realities of voters, but he has also completely freed it from the time-honored tendency to be consistent in your dishonesties.  He became a viable candidate by denying that the seated president—the first African American to hold the office—was an American.  Once in the contest, he jostled aside his rivals for the Republican nomination as stupid, inept or dishonest.  He offered to bail out supporters who would physically assault his critics.  He talked about throwing his Democratic rival in jail.  And he preemptively attacked on the legitimacy of his possible electoral defeat by citing an endemic massive Democratic vote fraud that would deny him the White House.

What most observers missed was the absolute failure of the institutional structures that were to restrain such behaviors. The “mainstream” and “moderate” corporate flunkies of his own Republican party proved remarkably incapable of stopping his nomination, tempering his campaign, or directly shaping his presidency.  The Democrats have been virtually useless in mounting a clear and common alternate course (as they have been since 2000) and their occasional ritual yelps have been less useful in the end than a pet rock.  Those of us who have waited for years–decades–for a serious Left to take form, must realize that its success will turn on an ability to navigate a political landscape that has become unique

Casting himself as an outside to ruling circles, Trump became the oldest and wealthiest person ever to become the president.  Born to a family that had made a modest fortune in the time-honored craft of New York City land speculation, he assumed the burden of all that wealth and went on to make (and lose) fortunes of his own.  In addition to construction projects, he tinkered with managing hotels, casinos and golf courses. He sometimes financed these ventures with junk bonds and declared bankrupty half a dozen times, being bailed out in bipartisan ventures by friends in high places. They also assisted him in fending off troublesome lawsuits around antitrust legislation, discriminatory practices, etc.

While this all sounds pretty much like the usual amoral Robber Baron stuff, Trump’s ascendancy as a national figure coincided with the emergence and expansion of a 24/7 communications network through the 1980s and 1990s.  These developments sent theorists off to study Edward Bernays, herd instincts, and crowd mentalities.   Cable TV expanded the late-night UHF blurbs for Veg-o-matics into channels that tried without end to sell consumers things they didn’t realize they wanted . . . and, most interesting, got those consumers to pay for it.  This new medium reached into the hitherto unimagined nooks and crannies of society, creating a massively expanded market.

Trump the developer quickly branched out out into selling his brand to a line of various overpriced products from steaks to university degrees.  It turned out that enough people would forego buying a steak at the grocery and pay more to get one with the Trump label.  So, he became a kind of upscale Billy Mays, albeit one with friends in very high places ready to provide a series of golden parachutes.

The Trump brand, his primary asset, began to make him a celebrity. Despite his serial failures in business by cultivating a public persona as the unbeatable success. Behind the scenes, he quietly peppered the local media with gossip about his social life. The press found him good copy and hungry reporters seemed always at the ready, cameras in tow, to hang his every word from the loveable scamp.

At the same time, few of them were likely to report much critical. After all, if Brand Trump represented an asset, anything that potentially damaged it meant that anything that might damage it would be like lobbing a brick through this front window. His coterie of lawyers on retainer to trim anyone telling the truth about his practices could easily result in a serious lawsuit. So the image of the good natured self-made hypersuccess grew unchallenged, rising head and shoulders above other celebrities in the entertainment popular culture of the day. A 1988 Gallup poll showed him as the tenth most admired man in America.

Too, the pervasive triumphalism of this new kind of mass media produced two other innovations essential to Trump’s ascendency. The bipartisan deregulation of the media during the administration of Ronald Reagan left the industry to fill its 24/7 news cycle with stories primarily picked and presented for entertainment value. It also left any networks hoping to remain competitive to tighten its already intimate connection with the very government persons, offices and policies on which it was to report. The 1980s saw the notoriously public U.S. “secret war” on the revolutionary government of a tiny and impoverished nation of Nicaragua.

More importantly, corporate media began sharing the management of the news with the government.  Reagan’s Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver explained that not only was one picture worth a thousand words, but television clips could actually reverse the impact of a negative news story.  In the Reagan years, the media was very happy to have his staff actually choreograph their coverage of the White House.  The public positions of the administration regularly clashed dramatically with its practice, as with its militant refusal to negotiate with terrorists while actually trading arms for hostages.

Television may have desensitized us to the extent to which this approach has established a new standard of American public relations and advertising, so readers might find it useful to pay closer attention to the technique of the advertising agencies used by Big Pharma, producing ads like this for Chantix.  While still required to note side effects, they do so against a backdrop of colorful images evoking the outdoors, health, family, home, etc.–against which a voiceover explains that using the drug may have dire and even lethal consequences.  Political ads don’t even have to note the possible side effects.

With the election of Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, the former head of the C.I.A., standards of coverage became even stranger.  In 1989, government investigators sought to squeeze cooperation from a lifelong U.S. diplomat named Felix Bloch through a series of harassment tactics. These included staging a completely phony news clip showing Boch exchanging a briefcase with a Soviet spy. (See Eleanor Randolph, “ABC and the Spy Story Simulation,” Washington Post, July 25, 1989.)  Willfully ignoring what they should have learned from their inept hyping of the Reagan presidency, media generally offered a voice over identifying the clip as a reenactment that they probably shouldn’t be showing as they showed the clip repeatedly.

Half a century before Kellyanne Conway coined her Orwellian phase “alternative facts” to describe government fictions, theissuance of such fictions became integral to its functioning.  A generation before government and media figures began complaining of “fake news,” they were regularly producing.

Meanwhile , the industry began to meet the challenge of filling the 25-hour cycle on hundreds of channels by producing terribly cheap “Reality TV.”  This quasi-documentary genre gave producers a blender into which they could throw any interest or combination of interests expressed through its marketing studies.  And the format freed them from the necessity of investing much in writing . . . or rehearsing.

This was where Trump found something in which he could be an unbounded success.  Contestants competed in a humiliating process to coax a job from him.  He initially produced and hosted The Apprentice for $50,000 an episode, an amount quickly raised to a million. Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Then helped to launch Celebrity Apprentice.  Critics thought the program showcased his bullying and found an audience entertained by it.

Trump may not have been a successful businessman, but he could play one on TV.

Much the same could be said for Trump’s career as a political leader.

That career, however, was hardly straightforward.   Six of the top ten recipients of Trump’s political contributions have been Democrats.  He had been a registered Democrat until 1987, and a Republican from 1987 to 2001, though he liked Bill Clinton, who he later described as a better president than either of the Bushes.  Trump set up his own exploratory committee for the 2000 presidential campaign, but aiming at the Reform Party nomination. From 2001 to 2008, he registered again as a Democrat, but left after Barrack Obama assumed the presidency, and became an independent for five months in 2011 before returning to the Republicans.

In fact, the new Republican president spent more of his life not being a Republican than being one.

In fact, the Democrats provided Trump his most most obvious real role model as a politician.  A self-described “liberal with sanity,” New York City Mayor Edward J. Koch (1978-1989) promoted “law and order” in the interests of gentrification.  Koch kept his critics off balance by regularly hurling insults and off-handed racist and reactionary slurs, which kept offered the media that covered him ways to entertain more readers and viewers.   (Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin, “As Donald Trump Speaks, Some Voters Hear Echoes of Ed Koch,’ New York Times, April 19, 2016.)

Trump gained a growing political importance through very unusual channels, primarily by tapping into the persistent and pervasive racial resentment of Barrack Obama’s election.  He resurrected the long discredited assertion that Obama had not been born in the U.S., a charge comforting to those who could not see a black figure (or anyone with the middle name of Hussein) in any terms other than a threatening Other.  Trump repeatedly demanded that president produce his birth certificate (which he had actually already done) and carried the slander a step further, insisting that the president was actually a Muslim.  (See Chris Moody and Kristen Holmes, “Donald Trump’s history of suggesting Obama is a Muslim,” CNN September 18, 2015.)

When tales of his sexual harassment of employees surfaced, Justice Clarence Thomas called the coverage a televised lynching, but there was never a more shameful example of such media conduct than its promotion of the orchestrated slander of Obama by the “birthers.” Fox News had episodically raised this particular burning crosseagerly highlighted Trump’s inquisitorial assertions.

However, the wider, laughingly called “liberal media” showcased Trump’s charges even more widely.  Even when they aired his idiocy ostensibly to refute it, they publicized and legitimated it.  The bottom line was about viewers and advertising revenues.  Trump became what the newspapers used to call good copy.  He was the raving, bullying, irresponsible loudmouth bully the media had made, but he was entertaining viewers who were watching in all sorts of venues.

So, too, Trump’s perceived popularity shaped a predictable media response to his activities.  Decades before–during the presidency of the first real media president, the industry actively collaborated with the White House on how it wanted to be reported.  (It then called Reagan “the teflon president,” as if it had not been the news coverage that had coated him with it.)  It requires no conspiracy to do any of this, any more than media needs a conspiracy to charge advertising or promote greater scale and loyalty among its viewers.   Everybody was quite open about it.

The case of Trump exaggerates these responses.  He himself is not a movie star-turned-politician.  He has never been a politician of any sort and made his bid for political power based only on his status as a celebrity.  Throughout his campaign for the presidency, the media covered what he actually does and says, wallowing in the controversies.  However, when these erode his approval rating to a certain point, the media scrambles to save their most popular show.  The history of his campaign for the nomination and, then, for the general election reflected this dynamic.

Nevertheless, in October 2016, most observers thought Trump was in serious trouble.  Tapes surfaced from an eleven-year old of his boasting to Billy Bush on Access Hollywood about how he took advantage of his celebrity to take advantage of women.  Off camera, the nephew of Bush the Elder and first cousin of Bush the Younger listened to Trump discussing his sexual prowess.  “It’s like a magnet,” he gloated.  “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”  The appearance of the tape also brought to light some of the backlog of stories about Trump’s treatment of his female underlings over many years.  In a day when the newly intensive gaze of media had obliterated the career of politicians over their sexual indiscretions. many expected serious fallout over Trump’s indiscretion about his misogyny.

In the end, Trump blustered dismissively, the media forgave him, and Bush lost his job.  Media had its priorities and Trump was more entertaining than any Bush.

The Republicans produced nobody capable of providing better ratings and, in the end, the Democratic candidate proved so uninspiring to progressive voters that they entirely failed to mobilize the base that had elected Obama in 2008 and reelected him in 2012.

Democratic bosses were no less convinced than Trump’s people that the name recognition and celebrity of their candidate would prevail.  And, just as the novelty of running an African American had allowed them to retake the presidency with Obama without regard to what his agenda had been, so too, running a woman against a character like Trump had seemed a sure thing.  Even as the Democratic bosses thugged their way over the broken hopes of the young supporters of Bernie Sanders, they remained confident that those eager for positive change would follow a pattern cultivated for generations in voting against such change so long as they were convinced that the alternative was even more hostile to change.  In the end, voter turnout fell off dramatically and hundreds of thousands of voters who had voted for Obama in key states crossed overt to vote for Trump.

In the end, anyone who didn’t support Clinton was helping Trump and Trump was a “fascist.”  This remained their position right up until Clinton’s concession and her call for Democratic voters to jump into the Trump hot tub for a few choruses of “Kumbaya.”  The description of Trump as a fascist persists, though it represents both a complete misunderstanding of fascism, which involves active paramilitary practice rather than the kind of racist assertions that have always been part and parcel of American life.  Worse, it implies that Trump is the kind of politician who tells us what he’s really thinking rather than what a demographic study has told him he should be saying.

Those who voted for Trump often voted . . . not so much for Trump as for what he calls “Brand Trump.”

And you don’t even need teflon if you’ve essentially made yourself into the cgi of a corporate logo.

 

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Romi Elnagar April 25, 2017 at 9:44 am

Fascism is not about paramilitary practice, it is about the union of business and government, and about authoritarian and dictatorial government. Trump and his cabinet clearly embody all of that.

Reply

John Reimann April 29, 2017 at 10:01 am

“If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck.”
But the opposite is also true: “If it DOESN’T walk like a duck… etc.”

And the fact is that if you read what life was like in fascist Germany or fascist Italy, it was qualitatively different from what we have here today. Just the fact that I’m typing this, and have been writing similar stuff for some time and not in prison or 6′ under tells the difference.

Reply

Mark Lause May 1, 2017 at 8:00 am

If fascism is merely the union of business and government, how was the capitalist state in general not fascist almost from its inception?

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