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Trump: Hero, Villain, Scapegoat
Reflections on America's greatest obsession.
By JOHN LEAKE
Long before Covid arrived, I’d joked with friends that if the ever boasting and self-promoting President Trump discovered the cure for cancer, his detractors would rather forgo the treatment than acknowledge he’d done something of value for humanity. It’s probably an inevitable outcome of America’s two-party system that any president may become the object of hyperbolic loathing. In the nineties, Republicans obsessed about President Clinton’s faults, real and perceived. In 2003, the columnist and psychiatrist Charles Krauthammer coined the expression Bush Derangement Syndrome as “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency—nay—the very existence of George W. Bush.”
During the presidency of Donald J. Trump this syndrome became so virulent that it created a strangely binary posture in public affairs. If Trump expressed even mild enthusiasm for a policy, person, or thing, his opposition automatically rejected it. To be sure, Trump often threw gasoline on the fire with his vices, his bombastic personal style, and occasional buffoonery. The qualities that had once been viewed as showman’s schtick were widely deemed unacceptable in a US President. The court jester had become king, and it drove the lords and ladies at court mad.
As anthropologists and psychologists have long understood, humans are hyper-social and tribal. Stanford Professor Rene Girard has pointed out that during times of stress and rivalry, we are inclined to ascribe blame not to a complex state of affairs, but to a particular person or group. Persistent problems and misfortunes build up negative psychic energy, which generates a collective yearning to destroy the person or persons on whom the blame is heaped. This process of scapegoating is amplified by what Professor Girard called mimesis—that is, imitation—the tendency to embrace an opinion or sentiment because everyone in a preferred group is embracing it. In trying to make sense of the world, we often look to those around us for cues to guide us in our perceptions and opinions.
So, it was when President Trump declared the old malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to be a potential game changer. Soon stories appeared under headlines such as “Trump’s Covid Cure” or “Trump touts hydroxychloroquine,” proclaiming the drug lacked efficacy and safety, and caused “irreversible retinal damage” and “dangerous heart arrhythmias.”
It seems to me that it was during the presidency of Donald Trump that the U.S. mainstream media adopted its current policy of lying about everything all the time. Even more disturbing was about half the public’s willingness to believe the lies—not because there was any reason to believe them, but simply because they were negative assertions about Trump. Likewise, if you wanted HALF the country to dismiss a proposition out of hand, all you had to do was get President Trump to state it.
It’s tempting to dismiss people who have such a childish and primitive way of responding to the world as emotionally dysregulated morons who can’t be helped. However, in the context of a national presidential election, such an attitude of contempt runs the high risk of leading to unbridgeable division and civil war.
Trying to understand other people’s perceptions of Trump is extremely challenging, because he elicits such deeply personal feelings. Years ago, when Trump was an occasional guest host on Saturday Night Live, he always reminded me of the real estate developer, Al Czervik (played by Rodney Dangerfield) in the 1980 comedy Caddyshack.
Ever since then, my mental posture towards Trump has always been humorous. Because humor is so disarming of hostility, I could never understand why people got so worked up about him. Many have told me about their visceral feelings of distaste when they see him and hear him speak. Some women regard him as loathsome to behold. Other women have confided in me that they are overwhelmed with sexual desire when they see him. It’s remarkable that the same man can evoke such an array of opposing feelings in people, and I’ve often wished that Jordan Peterson would do one of his marvelously clever analyses of Trump.
When Trump first entered politics, he struck me a protest candidate and as something akin to a Court Jester—that is, someone who was at liberty to make fun of the lords and ladies at court without getting into trouble for it. The trouble with the latter comparison is that the jesters in the old courts of Europe were protected (though Will Somers once had a very close shave with an angry King Henry VIII).
The interest groups that run this country behind the scenes did NOT find Trump funny. On the contrary, they regarded him as a mortal threat to their power and money, which they worship.
During his presidency, Trump was brave and scrappy and had good instincts, but he was totally lacking in sophistication about how to deal with the vipers who surrounded him. This was especially evident during the pandemic, when he allowed Gnome Fauci and Bescarved Birx to hover around him and undermine his executive authority. Why he allowed himself to be hemmed in by that duplicitous duo remains a mystery. I would have certainly told them to beat it.
The COVID-19 Pandemic presented by far the greatest challenge to Trump’s presidency. All of the previous BS intrigues, starting with the Russian-Collusion Hoax, were nothing in comparison. Alas, because he allowed Fauci to remain in the driver’s seat, and because he endorsed the fraudulent and dangerous COVID-19 vaccines, he will have a difficult time escaping the perception that the pandemic was his Waterloo.
To me, it seems obvious that Trump is an infinitely more desirable candidate than the braindead Joe Biden, but I have to recognize that half the country does not share my perceptions. The true challenge Trump faces now is not how to win the election, but how to heal the enormous divide that runs through the soul of this country—a divide amplified by white hot passions.
America’s greatest political thinker, James Madison, spent innumerable hours thinking about the ruinous effect of passions on public life, and the practical question of how to subordinate them to reason. He believed that managing public passions was the single greatest challenge that faced an elected leader, and he frequently expressed skepticism that it was possible. Alas, I fear that—as funny as I find him—Trump is not up for this challenge.