Reclaiming American values: A strategy.

There is growing recognition that the administration of President Donald Trump is a direct threat to the values and security of this country.  It is more than a disagreement over the direction of domestic and foreign policy; it is the realization that the president and his closest advisers want to make a fundamental change to who we are as Americans and what we stand for, and the change is a dark and troubling one.

Trump’s presidency has picked up where his campaign left off and is defined by  intolerance and antipathy:  He is against immigration, pluralism, and secular government and attacks the press and other dissenters with open hostility and not-so-veiled threats.  There is a persistent nastiness in his approach to governance that is unprecedented, at least in this country.  Trump ridicules and insults anyone with whom he disagrees.  No one escapes his disrespectful wrath; not even “so-called” federal judges.

One of the most important principles under attack is the value placed on reasoned discourse and the search for objective truth in the formation of public policy.  An op ed by Charlies Sykes in the New York Times is essential reading.  Sykes, a former conservative talk show host from Wisconsin, describes how the Trump administration is deliberately conditioning the public to reject reporting from news sites outside of the conservative media ecosystem, continuing a decades-long process by conservative media in which Sykes himself participated.

Trump and his cronies are attacking fact-based reporting and analysis much as an army would attack the intelligence gathering and command and control facilities of an enemy to destroy the enemy’s ability to gather and use accurate information in order for the enemy to defend itself. When Trump states that he is at “war” with the mainstream media what he really means is that he is in a battle with the role of objective truth.

As described by the editorial board of The Baltimore Sun, Trump seeks to re-write American values.  He has to be stopped from doing so.

Stopping Trump requires exploiting his narcissism to turn him against Steve Bannon. 

To prevent the Trump administration from doing irreparable damage to this country a wedge has to be driven between Trump and his chief political strategist, Steve Bannon.  It is Bannon who is supplying the ideological direction of the administration.  Trump has no ideology of his own and has hitched his political star and personal success as president to one borrowed from Bannon and the so-called alt-right.  To reduce the influence of Bannon Trump will have to be convinced that Bannon is taking him down the primrose path to humiliation and rejection by the majority of Americans.  Rejection is one thing that Trump cannot tolerate.

To understand Trump’s personality is to understand the danger he poses as president.  Understanding his personality also provides the knowledge necessary to halt or at least slow his assault on American values.

Trump is a narcissist and a megalomaniac.  Although it generally is unethical for professional psychiatrists and psychologists to “diagnose” public figures who they have not personally examined, the extent of Trump’s personality disorder – and the manner in which it could influence his judgment as president – has caused a number of psychiatrists and psychologists to put aside such ethical concerns.

The overwhelming consensus is that Trump has a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), with pronounced megalomania.  Megalomania is a symptom of NPD, and includes a highly-exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or power.  At its extremes megalomania can be delusional, meaning that a person believes that he or she has capabilities out of keeping with reality.  Trump’s recent statement that “the world is in trouble, but we’re gonna straighten it out, OK? That’s what I do, I fix things” is a perfect example of megalomania.  Needless to say megalomania can lead to serious miscalculations and errors in judgment.

After the election three psychiatrists, two from Harvard Medical School and one from the University of California – San Francisco, wrote to then-President Obama.  Acknowledging the limitations on diagnosing a person they had not examined they nevertheless expressed their concern in the form of a recommendation that President Obama order a neuropsychiatric examination of President-elect Trump:

“His widely reported symptoms of mental instability – including grandiosity, impulsivity, hypersensitivity to slights or criticism, and an apparent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality – lead us to question his fitness for the immense responsibilities of the office.”

A narcissist on the magnitude of Trump is as incapable of having strong ideological beliefs as he is of feeling empathy – there simply is no room for such things in an ego consumed by servicing its own needs.  That is where Bannon comes in.  Trump is an empty ideological vessel that has been filled with the mean-spirited world view of his chief strategist, Bannon.

Bannon and his alt-right agenda are a means to an end for Trump, and so far have served Trump extraordinarily well, catapulting him to an electoral victory that few predicted.  The relationship between Trump and Bannon is somewhat like the textbook symbiotic relationship between a shark and a remora fish, although in this case it is difficult to ascertain which one is the shark.

Bannon wants to destroy American society and replace it with xenophobic white nationalism.

Bannon allegedly told an interviewer in 2014 that “I’m a Leninist.  Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too.  I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of  today’s establishment.”  Bannon later said that he did not recall the conversation but other statements that have been confirmed are equally inflammatory and he frequently describes himself as “virulently anti-establishment.”

 

A change agent is one thing; a bomb-thrower at the heart of power is quite another.  A change agent wants agency heads committed to improving their departments.  A bomb-thrower wants cabinet members who lack any real belief in the mission of their departments, such as a Secretary of Education who disdains public education and an EPA administration who doesn’t believe in environmental regulations.  For a bomb-thrower turmoil and dysfunction is an end in itself.

Bannon is one of those individuals who lives for a fight and once referred to himself and his colleagues at Breitbart News as “the Fight Club.”  Put that together with the bigoted and sexist slant of Breitbart while Bannon was editor and you have probably the scariest chief strategist ever to advise a president.  Bannon has found himself in the ideal position to do the most damage to the establishment.

Trump’s fragile ego makes him vulnerable to popular pressure.

How does Trump’s personality disorder inform the plan to drive a wedge between him and Bannon?  Dr. Julie Futrell, a clinical psychologist, explained the effect of Trump’s narcissism on his judgment:  “Narcissism impairs his ability to see reality so you can’t use logic to persuade someone like that.  Three million women marching?  Doesn’t move him. Advisers point out that a policy choice didn’t work? He won’t care.”

Dr. Futrell is correct that reason and logic are not likely to dissuade Trump from taking a course of action to which he has committed.  And a single march or demonstration is not going to have much of an effect either.  At the core of Trump’s personality disorder, however, is a highly fragile ego.  Although it will take considerable effort to penetrate the layers of defense mechanisms that protect that ego, it can be done.

Trump himself has told us where he is vulnerable by his obsessions with the popular vote (in his head he lost it only because of massive voter fraud), the relative size of his inaugural crowd, and the fact that his television ratings on “The Apprentice” were greater than his successor on the show, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  When the president of the United States is so inappropriate that he begins an address to a National Prayer Breakfast by finding a way to mock Schwarzenegger’s inferior television ratings you know get a sense of how important “winning” is to his ego.  That is the weakness that must be exploited.

Trump has a never-ending need for approval and adulation.  Conversely, he can’t stand the idea that people neither like nor respect him and will cling to the fantasy that it is a limited number of people opposing him as long as he can.

Trump will never accept responsibility for his own unpopularity if the public turns against him.  His fury will first be directed at the mainstream press against whom he already has declared “war.”  If the rejection and humiliation broadens and intensifies Bannon will try to persuade Trump that Trump is a martyr to a great cause and that glory will come Trump’s way if he stays the course.

Eventually, however, Trump may come to believe that Bannon and his agenda are the cause of his declining popularity and that he can recover the adulation that he craves by moderating his goals and objectives.  Because of his shallowness Trump can turn on a dime when it comes to philosophy and policy, as we already have found out.

Trump also will turn on Bannon in a heartbeat if he no longer perceives Bannon as useful.   Trump is capable of true loyalty only to those persons he sees as alter egos of himself, such as Ivanka and Jared.  If we are lucky Trump can be persuaded that Americans believe in redemption (because they do) and that he can restore his popularity and salvage his reputation as president by turning away from Bannon and his agenda.

What will it take to convince Trump to distance himself from the alt-right?  In my opinion it will take an expression of grassroots resistance to his ideas not seen in 50 years in this country:  Massive and repeated demonstrations, boycotts, civil disobedience and job actions – peaceful protests in all shapes and sizes.  Enough that at some point the resistance to Trump achieves critical mass and Ivanka or Jared turns to Trump and say “the people hate you, Dad.”  That is when there will be a glimmer of hope.

Robert Young, a professor of coastal geology, wrote an op ed in the New York Times in which he said that the proposed March for Science in Washington, D.C. is a bad idea because it is likely to politicize the discussion over such topics as global warming even further.  He advocated instead that scientists try to establish more one-on-one relationships with the elected leaders that they hope to influence.  His theory is that leaders will trust and listen to scientists once they get to know them personally.

I’m sorry Professor Young, but that is hopelessly naïve.  Under normal circumstances you might be right but these aren’t normal circumstances.  You misunderstand the nature of what scientists and the rest of us are up against – Trump and the alt-right aren’t interested in the truth.  This war is not going to be won through logic and friendly persuasion.  The tide can be turned only by intense and relentless public pressure.  People who in the past wouldn’t dream of joining a protest need to rethink their reluctance to do so.  If they won’t do anything else they need to write letter after letter to their representatives in Congress hoping to encourage senators and representatives to join the resistance.

Success won’t be easy and the effort has risk.  Bannon is fiendishly clever and will use every weapon in his arsenal to maintain his grip on Trump.  After spontaneous demonstrations followed the issuance of the Muslim ban the White House announced that President Obama’s executive order protecting the rights of LGBT federal contractors would not be rescinded – at least not yet.  The reason may be that, as reported, daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared prevailed on Trump not to rescind the order.  It also may be the case that Bannon is willing to proceed incrementally and doesn’t want to put too many protestors on the streets at the same time.  Trump is impulsive; Bannon is not and he is in this for the long haul.

It is vitally important that the resistance be a grass-roots movement.  A broad base will make it harder for Bannon and Trump to write off the opposition to the alt-right agenda as the product of the mainstream media or Democratic politicians.  The initial response to demonstrations and other protest actions by the administration will be an authoritarian one.  The administration will double down on attacks on the press and opposition politicians.  The base of the movement must be too wide for the administration to blame it on the mainstream media or a handful of bad actors.  If the American people want their country back then they are going to have to take charge of doing what is necessary to get it back.

There is the risk that Trump may simply unravel as his defenses break down under the pressure.  His comment to Bill O’Reilly of Fox News that more or less dismissed the crimes of despotic Russian president Vladimir Putin as being no worse than what is done by Americans is a sign that his judgment is getting worse, not better.  Trump isn’t thinking straight even by his warped standards.

This is more than political melodrama – the apocalypse could actually be upon us.

By way of conclusion I want to say this:  It is with sadness that I wrote this post concluding that demonstrations and protests are going to be necessary to preserve American values.  I lived through the anti-Vietnam War protest movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s and know first-hand that, once started, the direction and intensity of protests can be difficult to control.  I simply  don’t believe that we have any real choice.  Things don’t just seem bad; they are bad.

Conservative columnist David Brooks wrote in the New York Times that “the Trump administration is not a Republican administration; it is an ethnic nationalist administration” and that “it’s becoming increasingly clear that the aroma of bigotry infuses the whole operation, and anybody who aligns too closely will end up sharing in the stench.”  Brooks’ dire predictions about the direction of the country came on the heels of an article by Eliot Cohen in The Atlantic to which Brooks referred.

Cohen is a former state department official in the administration of President George W. Bush and is now the director of the Strategic Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.  He was one of the intellectual architects of the neoconservative movement.  I don’t agree with all of his theories but he is a genuine scholar not given to hysteria.  Cohen’s article is another opinion well worth reading and he had this to say about the presidency of Donald Trump:

“Precisely because the problem [with Trump] is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him. It will probably end in calamity—substantial domestic protest and violence, a breakdown of international economic relationships, the collapse of major alliances, or perhaps one or more new wars (even with China) on top of the ones we already have. It will not be surprising in the slightest if his term ends not in four or in eight years, but sooner, with impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment. The sooner Americans get used to these likelihoods, the better.”

Cohen believes that damage will be done but in the end Trump will not succeed in perverting the values of this country.

“He will fail most of all because at the end of the day most Americans, including most of those who voted for him, are decent people who have no desire to live in an American version of Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, or Viktor Orban’s Hungary, or Vladimir Putin’s Russia.”

I share Cohen’s optimism about most Americans and that is why I wrote this post.  The decent people to whom Cohen refers, however, better act and act soon if they want America to emerge intact from the Trump presidency.  They need to get out of their comfort zones and fight for our country

February 5, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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