American horror stories

Trump's absurd Twitter outbursts are easily debunked, but they serve the right wing's purpose of directing rage and resentment at the "enemy within," writes Danny Katch.

Donald Trump (Wikimedia Commons)

DONALD TRUMP is a dark guy. He boasts about groping women against their will. He created a TV show about firing people. As president, he reportedly spends much of his free time alone in his bathrobe, bitterly commenting on the cable news shows' coverage of him.

So it shouldn't be surprising that when this person wants to fire up a crowd, he invokes not the usual sunny clichés about God, freedom and plucky small business owners, but instead describes the country as a desolate plain of "rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape."

The current president looks down from his plane at the landmass between Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago and sees a forlorn place where "attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life," and whose borders are little more than velvet ropes, where rapists and murderers exchange fist bumps as they walk right in.

Trump's speeches are so unrelentingly grim that his first address to Congress--which centered on vows of revenge for the loves ones of people killed by Latinos and Muslims--was hailed by the press as "optimistic" because he dialed down on the fire and brimstone just a notch.

There's nothing wrong with politicians being negative or angry, especially at a time when people are rightly upset about working longer hours for less pay and feeling insecure about the future for themselves, their kids and the planet. There's a reason why Hillary Clinton's "America is already great!" campaign slogan failed so miserably last year.

But Trump's speeches aren't about real problems facing real people: the addiction epidemic of opioids pushed by Big Pharma; the thousands of factories and warehouses that are open, but ban unions and don't pay a living wage; the billions of dollars diverted from schools to police departments even though crime is at historic lows across the country.

Instead, Trump recycles the racist campfire stories that rattle around the echo chamber of Fox News and Breitbart: Did you hear the one about how immigration in Europe has gotten so bad that entire cities have become "no-go zones" for the police? No, but did you know that Black neighborhoods in the U.S. so rough that "you buy a loaf of bread and end up getting shot"?

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THESE BOGEYMAN tales are corny and sound like the frightened ramblings of an old man--which, of course, is exactly what they are.

But Trump is much more skillful--and therefore dangerous--when he talks about the wounded pride of an empire in decline, and his rage and resentment toward the leaders that he believes let it happen.

In his inauguration speech, Trump said:

For too long, a small group in our nation's capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished--but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered--but the jobs left, and the factories closed."

The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation's capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land....

We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it's going to be America First.

This isn't wild incoherent rambling about marauding bands of immigrant-terror-thugs. It's an accusation that we've been sold out by our own country's ruling class.

It rings true because we absolutely have been sold out by people who have spent decades telling us to be loyal to our country, while they were slashing our wages and raiding our pensions and stashing their wealth in overseas tax havens. Socialists look at this and conclude that nationalism is a con--that's where we get the whole "workers of the world unite" thing from.

But the right-wing response is to double down on patriotism--and accuse those who were in charge before of treason. The accusation isn't just about international trade deals, but about neglecting their duty to protect us from the violent enemies within.

"The most basic duty of government is to defend the lives of its own citizens," Trump declared at the Republican convention last summer. "Any government that fails to do so is a government unworthy to lead."

Why wouldn't leaders defend our lives from criminals, terrorists and drugs? Can anybody really be that "politically correct"? Inevitably, some people conclude that there must be something more sinister going on for this kind of gross negligence to take place.

Enter the scapegoats.

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ANTI-SEMITISM has made a stunning comeback under Trump because Jews have always played the role of the treasonous villain in reactionary fantasies.

But if you're constructing a racist conspiracy in the 21st century, all roads inevitably lead to Barack Hussein Obama.

Last year, when he was calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country after the massacre at a gay club in Orlando, Trump said: "Look, we're led by a man that either is not tough, not smart or he's got something else in mind. He doesn't get it or he gets it better than anybody understands--it's one or the other, and either one is unacceptable."

Trump was long infamous as the leading proponent of "birther" conspiracy theory that Obama was illegally occupying the presidency because he was born in Kenya--not to mention a Muslim, though that technically isn't illegal.

But birtherism didn't just launch Trump's political career. Its themes fundamentally shaped the politics and the message that he projects even now as president.

Obama paranoia went way beyond Trump into the supposedly more respectable quarters of the Republican Party. Remember the line that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio kept repeating like a robot when he had his famous debate meltdown: "Let's dispel this notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. He is trying to change this country."

Divorced from the context of a major political party that has gone off the deep end like a doomsday cult, it's hard to see what Rubio is saying. Of course, a president is going to try to make changes--on purpose. But in the paranoid Republican world we've all gotten used to, it was obvious that Rubio was trying to throw the party base some red meat by implying that Obama was trying to destroy America.

So even though it's shocking to hear the president of the United States accuse his predecessor of wiretapping him--on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, the truth is this is completely in keeping with the message that has been coming for years, not just from Trump, but from most of the Republican Party.

So what's going to happen now that Trump is in office?

It gets harder to keep up the conspiracy theory act once you occupy the position that most conspiracy theories revolve around: the White House. That's why Trump's team is suddenly talking about the "deep state" being out to get their boss.

By pushing for plans to have government agencies publicize crimes by undocumented immigrants (but not hate crimes against immigrants) and "honor killings" by "foreign nationals" (but not violence committed by U.S. citizens, Trump clearly wants to use the power and authority of his office to expand the audience for his racist lies.

For now at least, the majority of Republican leaders and voters seem happy to go along with it. And once you've accepted aspects of the conspiracy, it can be hard to find a way out--since evidence and statistics that contradict Trump can be dismissed as just another part of the conspiracy.

That's why it's not enough to show that Trump and his co-conspirators are buffoons and their allegations preposterous, as everyone from the Democratic Party elite to Saturday Night Live is able to do. We need to organize around a left alternative that addresses the sources of the underlying discontent that allows Trump to get a hearing for his lies.