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Are Donald Trump and his acolytes sinister or just crazy?

The U.S. president and the people around him hold deep intellectual beliefs about historical cycles and upheaval on the horizon


 
President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office of the White House, January 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. Also pictured, from left, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Press Secretary Sean Spicer and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office of the White House, January 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. Also pictured, from left, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Press Secretary Sean Spicer and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In the frenzy of hot takes, pop theories, academic analyses and turbo-partisan “narratives” confounding the effort to make some sense of the disorienting post-truth dystopia that appears to have enveloped the United States now that Donald Trump commands the American presidency, most of the exertions tend to run along a single line of inquiry.

The point is to resolve the puzzle by expounding upon or at least discerning some kind of precedent or prophetic warning or harbinger from the past that might account for the underlying circumstances that allowed the White House to be taken over by a possibly crazy reality-television egomaniac, and that might even anticipate the implications.

It was widely noticed last month when George Orwell’s 1984, with its Airstrip One nightmare state of thought control and propaganda fictions, suddenly shot up to become the best-selling title on Amazon.com. This made some sense, owing to Trump’s various proxies and spokespeople accusing mainstream news organizations of trafficking in “fake news,” and then redoubling their anti-journalism rhetoric by inventing their own category and inventory of “alternative facts.” Trump’s own routinely upside-down, 2-plus-2-equals-5 assertions come so thick and fast it’s nearly impossible to track and enumerate them all.

MORE: What is Trump’s constant lying makes his false reality believable?

Admirers of Orwell’s contemporary, Aldous Huxley, quickly revived their long-held objections to 1984: No, if you want to know something about what has led to this state of affairs, it’s Huxley’s Brave New World you should be turning to, with its blissed-out, manipulable subjects lulled into a mass stupefaction and idiocy. In the pages of the Guardian, siding with the Huxleyites, but with a twist, Andrew Postman, son of Neil Postman, author of  the mid-80s Amusing Ourselves to Death, waded into the fray under the headline: “My Dad Predicted Trump in 1985”.

Still other antecedents of Trumpism are said to be found in the Depression-era Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here, which conjures a fascist demagogue, Berzelius Windrip, and the terrors he inflicts upon Americans after winning the presidency. To make sense of Trumpism and its contemporary lumpen populist iterations in Europe, quite a bit of effort has similarly gone into revisiting the real-world features of 20th century fascism. It isn’t just “liberal” hysteria that explains the renewed interest in Hannah Arendt’s history, The Origins of Totalitarianism, which charts the outlines of despotic European regimes down through the years into the rise of Adolph Hitler.

And it isn’t just from Trump’s adversaries that you’ll find this strange juncture in American history vested with such dark, bloodcurdling significance. An analysis of precisely that variety, but one that situates Trump as a hero rather than a villain, comes directly from Steve Bannon, the radical-right webzine editor and documentary filmmaker who is Trump’s closest confidante and advisor.

Now that Bannon has been promoted to a senior post in Trump’s National Security Council, his profile has quickly evolved from the persona of a Breitbart News rabble-rouser to a kind of White House Rasputin. An important point to take in about Bannon’s view of Trump’s pivotal place in American history, however, is that the theory behind it has the benefit of at least some serious intellectual coherence.

Central to Bannon’s obsessions is an interpretation of history set out by Neil Howe and the late William Strauss in their 1997 tome The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy – What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny. The gist of it is that history unfolds in generational cycles lasting up to a century, each ending in cataclysm. Within each cycle are four “turnings.”

MORE: Inside Steve Bannon’s reading list

In America’s case, the last cycle’s turnings were punctuated by the conformist period following the Second World War, the rebellious “awakening” of the tear-it-all-down 1960s, the cynicism and corrosion of the years leading up to the 2008 financial crash, and with Trump’s election the United States is now up against a cataclysm. Bannon is pleased with this. He wants to bring it on, and he says so: it is only with the destruction of the old order that a new cycle, and a new flowering, will begin.

There is nothing even slightly eccentric about the idea that the world is currently shuddering from social, economic and geopolitical upheavals at some deep tectonic level. There’s nothing especially fascistic in the notion that such crises present opportunities to advance long-stalled, systemic, radical reform: that is, after all, what Naomi Klein was advocating in her 2014 bestseller This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate.

While The Fourth Turning failed to impress many of their fellow historians, Howe and Strauss are not alone in postulating a cyclical understanding of history. Two of the modern world’s most influential historians, Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler, both dominated the study of history with their own versions of its cycles. It’s the rigid, deterministic view arising from The Fourth Turning‘s theory, however, and Bannon’s extreme, mechanistic, bring-it-on attitude towards the impending cataclysm the theory postulates, that is more than just a bit creepy. It’s history as conspiracy theory. It’s why Marxism failed. It’s why every economic earthquake, decade after decade, would caused campus Marxists to declare confidently that at last, the final crisis of capitalism was at hand.

It’s the apocalypse that never happens. But for Bannon and the Trumpists, a cleansing apocalypse is just waiting to happen, and all it requires is a few strong shoulders to history’s wheel. It’s the American people against their parasitic elites, the heartland against the establishment, the United States against an expansionist China and an expansionist Islam, and the Judeo-Christian western world at war with pretty well everything else, abroad and at home. Nothing else matters. Bring it on.

There is another line of inquiry, however, that does not attempt to solve the puzzle of the Trump presidency by peering into the past for prophecies or by reckoning what comes next in the autopsies of history’s cycles, real or imagined. It’s not necessarily any more comforting, but it requires some close attention to what is unprecedented about the current moment, and offers a way of accounting for Trumpism as something wholly new and utterly abnormal.

This is where “fake news” and post-truth disorientation come back into the picture, along with the Kremlin’s vandalism by disinformation during the U.S. presidential campaign, Trump’s own habitual conflation of the real with the wholly fabricated, and the trafficking in “alternative facts” that is apparently a requirement of membership in Trump’s post-election entourage.

It could very well be that Trump and the people around him are just crazy. The California Congressman Ted Lieu, unsurprisingly, a Democrat, is proposing a bill that would compel the Trump administration to retain an in-house psychiatrist. But what distinguishes the present moment in history from everything that came before is that it’s a time of “hyper-reality,” a postmodern chaos swirling around in the diffusion of digital technologies that up-end everything and wear down our capacity to discern reality from virtual reality and the objective from the subjective. Legacy media is shrinking in its sphere of influence, crowded out by social media and the Twittersphere. We’re all retreating into our “safe spaces,” content that we don’t have to confront people or ideas that we’d prefer to avoid.

It could be that Trump isn’t lying all the time, that he genuinely can’t tell the difference between what is real and what isn’t. And if that’s the case, a great many Americans, a great many of all of us, might share more in common with Trump and his legions of guileless admirers than we would want to admit.


 

Are Donald Trump and his acolytes sinister or just crazy?

  1. This is where you’ve gone sideways, Terry. One cannot wring one’s hands and rend one’s hair over fears of totalitarianism arising from the right without acknowledging first that, historically, totalitarianism has been the sole purview of the left. Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Castro, Ceausescu, etc. were all socialists. By comparison, while the left in America riots (mob rule being a common tool of fascism), Trump has also put forward several executive orders that specifically dis-empower the federal government and re-empower the common citizen.
    The evidence is overwhelming that Barack Obama was the closest to a true fascist president we’ve seen in my lifetime. He habitually bypassed Congress, he enjoyed the luxury of a fawning and almost wholly uncritical media, he weaponized several federal agencies (or more charitably sat idly while federal agencies were weaponized against the American people. e.g., When a head of the IRS invokes the Fifth Amendment multiple times while testifying before a congressional committee, you have hard evidence that crimes have been committed. Ditto at the EPA, where the agency ran what was essentially a racketeering scheme of sorts by funding lawsuits aimed at expanding the reach of the agency.) against the American people, his administration imposed tens of thousands of pages of new regulations aimed at eroding the ability of the citizenry to gain employment or create jobs, and so forth.
    If you were not equally aghast at the excesses of the Obama admin, or have simply failed to call out Justin Trudeau for his open admiration of the murderous Castro’s, then any criticsisms of the Trump administration must be seen for what they are, mindless tripe.

    • Bill, your views have always been a bit “out there” but I think you’ve officially crossed the line into conspiracy theorist.

      • But, Keith, doesn’t this sudden eruption of anti-conservative and anti-Trump rioting give you some pause for thought? For the 8 Obama years, there were quiet and lawful protests from the right, over the common overreaches of the Obama-led federal govt. there were no riots or closures of public facilities, such as we’ve seen. Interestingly, things such as Tea Party rallies were characterized largely by the preponderance of home-made signs at rallies that were well organized and planned. Compare that to the hundreds of professionally made placards visible at supposedly “spontaneous” protests. Compare the lack of violence at conservative protests to the violence common at left-wing events. Ask yourself who pays for the scores of buses that are used to bring protesters from far and wide to some of these supposedly spontaneous and grass root protests. Start there.
        I’m not exactly sure how else to define an EPA program where they gave grants to small environmental activist groups, instructed them to use the funds to sue the EPA over some grey area of EPA authority, and then mount a tepid defence in order to ensure losing in court, resulting in a court supported mandate to expand the reach of the agency into one more aspect of American life as anything but racketeering. This began during the Clinton admin, was not checked by Bush 43, and absolutely exploded during the Obama years. It’s very well documented, and represents nothing other than a fascist attack on the concept of a government held in check and to account by well thought out articles of governance proscribed in the Constitution by men such as Madison and Adams.
        That Trump has surrounded himself in the Oval Office with mementoes of Andrew Jackson is far more telling than any shrill warnings from the leftist media.

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        • Bill,
          It is very refreshing to read your very true and thoughtful input.

          The author’s title for this article left out a very obvious third choice beyond “sinister” or “crazy”-that being very smart and focused.

  2. I enjoyed this article. Thank you.

    As to Mr Trump I believe him to be functionally illiterate…….with the strange ideas developed when he misunderstood the world around him. Probably some autism involved.

    The really odd thing is the voter support…..and that appears to be coming about from the rapidly changing world…..one that bewilders and frightens the average guy……so they look for a messiah that will ‘save’ them.

    A female president would have been a massive change for Americans……and now he’s trying to go back to coal, ‘America First’ isolationism, and a belief that the US is ‘the leader of the free world’

    It will all come crashing down of course…..but in the meantime I refer you to Future Shock by Alvin Toffler.

    This collective convulsion was predicted in the 70s…..I’ve been watching it unfold ever since.

    • Clinton would not have been a MASSIVE change for Americans-she is just the female, Caucasian version of Obama. The real impetus for positive change was the person the Americans decided to elect.

  3. An excellent article… except that it doesn’t answer the question in the title. Are Drumpf supporters sinister or crazy?

    My answer is that they’re sinister. Some are sinister because they’re using Drumpf to gain power and personal profit, not to mention that they have no empathy at all (but I just did mention it.) Whether they subscribe to theories such as inevitable cycles and ‘fourth turnings’ really doesn’t matter. The fact that they are willing to encourage upheavals, knowing that many will suffer, displays a lack of humanity that I find appalling.

    Other Drumpf supporters are sinister because of a horrifying lack of understanding of fascism. Recent Public Policy Polling results show that 51% of Trump supporters believe that Drumpf is free to, and should, ignore the courts. They obviously have no idea about the rule of law and how important it is to a democracy. In my opinion, stupidity is no defence to the label ‘sinister.’

    I don’t think it’s helpful for Americans–or for Canadians–to criticize Obama/Roosevelt/Reagan/Kennedy/Trudeau/Harper (pick your favourite poison). What’s more important is to deal appropriately with the attacks on our democracies. We cannot change the past. We must fight for our futures.

  4. Have you checked the reading level of this column?

    I think the grade level is too high for Macleans.

    I liked it….but you’ll notice you didn’t get many responses.

  5. While there’s no doubt history does tend to have cycles and markets check and recalibrate themselves, Trump and Company (specifically Bannon) seem convinced that they will be the clean-up crew (both financially and politically), when it seems more apparent each day that they will actually be the instigators of the next great downfall/collapse.
    We are left wondering in Matrix-like fashion, whether it’s better to be blissfully unaware and/or if knowing what the future held would change anything in what occurs. Would the public still vote in the likes of Trump? Many, if not the numerical majority did vote for him (with reservations or not), even though the indications of what would transpire were there for all to see.
    As the Oracle puts it to Neo: “You didn’t come here to make the choice. You’ve already made it. You’re here to understand WHY you made it.”

    • Where is this “great downfall” notion coming from. That had already happened under Obama. The markets favour Trump’s economic policies as witnessed by the sky rocketing Dow. For his most contentious move yet-the temporary immigration ban on 7 terrorist sponsoring countries- 55% of Americans support it; 30% don’t and 15% have no opinion one way or the other.
      Trump is doing exactly what he promised to if he became President. It’s nice to see a leader do what he got elected to do. We should be so lucky here in Canada.

  6. Trump, his staff, and his partisans are sinister because their craziness threatens to be unchecked. Ancient Rome is the closest historical parallel, in my view, because it shows how people with unchecked power go crazy, and people born into wealth who then get power go crazier. I think the reason for this is that wealth, in the first instance, causes those around you to cater to you extravagantly in order to get money; that depends on winning your approval. The obvious way to win approval is to tell the wealthy person he is right, smart, handsome, charming, discriminating, special, and entitled to the best of everything. That’s like a daily diet of delusion, of fake news, over a lifetime, since as the years pass all of those flattering compliments get less and less true. Trump has always been told what he wanted to hear. He liked to say, not “I have $8 billion,” but “I’m worth $8 billion.” Which is rubbish. If you put him on the block at a slave auction, the bidding for a stout, opinionated, cruel, selfish, stupid old man would be jolly sluggish. Maybe nobody would bid at all.
    If you define ‘crazy’ as being out of touch with reality – he never had a chance.

  7. The histrionic attempts to de-legitimize the Trump administration only helps his standings with the moderate voters who elected him.

    If sinister or crazy is the only option then your bias is showing Maclean’s editors. Just as the bias of your contributor is.

    Who is surprised that a piece written by who was a signatory to the Euston Manifesto and has written for such unabashedly left wing publications such as The Georgia Straight, The Tyee and Adbusters doesn’t like President Trump?

  8. Just a whole lot of well-fed, smug, white guys … appropriate given that’s Trump’s base.

  9. Sinister or crazy. Only these 2 options? This type of article is why Macleans is going down. The left wing has only contempt for other views, never reasoned arguments. The progressive left has had it their way for half a century and this is only the beginning of the end. It can’t come soon enough.

  10. I agree, when the ‘wrong people’ get elected, it’s very upsetting! Don’t the common people know to listen to their ‘betters’? Don’t they trust the opinion of virtually the entire media establishment? Who could be that stupid? Surely nobody YOU know could be that stupid?! It’s undoubtedly a conspiracy! Those empty morons are being manipulated by Breitbart! Help! Help! etc.

  11. Are Terry Glavin and his Maclean’s acolytes sinister or just crazy?
    Talk about “straw-man” arguments!
    I think Donald Trump and his acolytes are heroes and Glavin is either sinister or crazy.
    Now who’s to say Glavin’s assessment of Trump et al is correct, and mine is incorrect? No one!
    Oh, yes! Emilyone, that’s who.

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