By David K. Shipler
In Soviet times, Russians used to tell the joke about the man who went into a Moscow clinic to ask for an eye and ear doctor.
“We don’t have an eye and ear doctor,” said the receptionist. “We have an eye doctor, and we have an ear doctor. You’ll have to get an appointment with one and then the other.”
“No,” the man insisted. “I need an eye and ear doctor.”
“Because I keep hearing one thing and seeing another.”
Listening to Donald Trump and his Republican enablers is like hearing the fictions of communist propaganda inverted, not to glorify the country as in the Soviet Union but to picture America as having fallen into the dark abyss of violence, helplessness, and “humiliation,” a word Trump favored in his acceptance speech. This portrait is essential as a prelude to autocracy. A country does not move in that direction without fear, anger and despair, which has to be generated and heightened as the population is presented with a savior.
Moreover, an earlier American utopia existed, according to the bizarre Trumpist vision, and it can be restored by one man alone, who first has to convince enough citizens that they live today in dystopia. Trump’s declarations contain no legislators, no political pluralism, and no legitimate competing interests in a diverse society. “I alone can fix it,” he actually said as he described a broken system during his address to the Republican convention. The blustering promises of the Republican candidate for president suggest that he is entirely unfamiliar with the American constitutional system of checks and balances, the separation of powers. Indeed, as the rabble he has mobilized chanted at the convention for Hillary Clinton’s imprisonment, history was being made: it might have been the first time that one American political party has called for the jailing of its opponent for president.
While the responsible press dutifully fact-checks and exposes each of Trump’s lies and fabrications, it is not just the individual falsehoods but the way they are strung together in a grim necklace of discontent that decorates his appeal. Only if you harbor a particular bitterness and terror will you recognized the country he describes.
The United States has plenty of defects, but most of them are not the ones being attacked by Trump or addressed by the Republican Party. The Trumpist propaganda would be harmful enough if he were running as a Democrat with a party behind him that believed in promoting social justice, fighting poverty, retarding global warming, regulating the economy for consumer protection, and reforming policing. No effective problem-solving comes out of misstating the problem.
To get cheers at the Republican convention, though, Trump had to invent a crime scare by focusing on a few cities with a spike in the murder rate and ignoring the precipitous drop in violent crime during the last 25 years. He had to adopt the Nixonian call for “law and order” against the terrible specter of anarchy raised by two gunmen who picked off police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. To avoid boos at the Republican convention, he had to avoid mentioning the killings of unarmed or non-threatening black men by cops.
He had to decry “poverty and violence at home, war and destruction abroad” but steer clear of proposing the vast anti-poverty programs that are required. Like a benevolent dictator, he declared, “I will restore law and order to our country.” And of course ISIS will be handily wiped away like a toxic stain. His scapegoating of “illegal immigrants,” blamed for the imaginary whirlwind of crime, gave his virtually all-white audience the red meat needed for the simplistic hatred that drives his campaign.
“The situation is worse than it has ever been before,” Trump declared of the international scene. Apparently, history began the day Trump was born, which was just after the end of World War II. He spoke of the world’s mightiest armed forces as a “depleted military.” He pictured law enforcement as the purview of the federal government alone, rather than the disparate state and local authorities where policing is largely done. President Obama, he said, “has made America a more dangerous environment than I have ever seen.” What he has seen has been from his perch on the upper stories of privilege. How many voters will compare the superlatives with reality will be known in November.
Nevertheless, as he boasted at the convention, Trump has given voice to the marginalized and the disaffected—but only among the white working class that got clobbered in the Republican-created economic collapse of 2007-08. Democrats have a lesson to learn from him—not his demagoguery but his talent at tapping that discontent. Those folks should have been courted, respected, and honored by Democrats, if they could have done it without the tools of racism and ethnocentrism. Obama and Congressional Democrats were good on policies but failed to make psychological and emotional connections. Helpful policies, it seems, are necessary but not sufficient in generating political support.
If Trump is elected, which seems highly possible, he will have to manipulate his propaganda. When he fails, as he will, he will have to find scapegoats. They will be citizens of color, foreigners, and liberal movements. He will have to ride roughshod over civil liberties, eroding the Fourth Amendment even more than it has been today. He will have to politicize the criminal justice system to the extent possible. He will have to rule by decrees that will euphemistically be known as executive orders—as much as he can unless he gets a supine Republican Congress.
He will thus bring the dystopian America into reality. And by 2020, he’ll probably have to invert his propaganda to convince the citizenry that utopia has either arrived or is just over the horizon. That brings to mind another joke that Russians liked to tell: The utopia of communism lies just over the horizon, but the horizon is an imaginary line that recedes as you approach it.