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The Con He Rode In On
View other pieces in "The New York Review of Books"
By Mark Danner October 21, 2020
Tags: Donald Trump | Trump | Election 2020 | New York Review of Books | Mark Danner Print
Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally, Freeland, Michigan

Evan Vucci/AP Images

Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally, Freeland, Michigan, September 10, 2020

Amid the sensory swirl of the airplane hangar in Freeland, Michigan—the thousands of voices screaming, the red MAGA hats bobbing and shifting, the fifty-foot flags on cranes flapping and snapping, the long sleek blue-and-white bulk of Air Force One gleaming, the elbow-to-elbow crowd heaving and swelling (and, in my worried fancy, the predatory virus molecules dancing ominously amid the sea of tiny Trumps filling countless tiny cell phone screens)—the leader slow-walks toward us, fist pumping slowly, with that trademark ponderous tread of his (dating back at least to his boardroom entrances in The Apprentice), adjusts the mike, leans slightly sideways, and lances into it all with a stark declaration: “We brought you a lot of car plants, Michigan! We brought you a lot of car plants. You know that, right?”

Comes in prompt response the ear-splitting roar of affirmation, clear as clear can be: Yes, Mr. President, we know that! A joyful knowledge, a knowledge to celebrate: all those jobs in all those car plants! But what exactly is it possible to know about those car plants? I could not have been the only one in that obstreperous crowd, made up overwhelmingly of Michiganders, to know the presumably important fact that, well…those car plants didn’t exist. Any member in good standing of the ancient “reality-based community” could have told you that since the coming of Trump no new car plants had been built in Michigan, that since his ascension not less than three thousand Michiganders had lost jobs in the vital auto sector. Perhaps it wasn’t Trump’s fault, but it was a fact. But what was a fact exactly?

He had promised Michigan new car plants and within the chilly expanse of his own mind he had delivered. And the roar of worshipful approbation meant that he had carried these thousands of souls to that place with him. “Dang!” a sweatshirted middle-aged woman told me afterward as we waited in line to buy hot dogs and lemonade. “I had no idea he had done so much for the state! I mean, people hardly even talk about it…” She was a nurse, trained in anatomy, physiology, biology—science, that is to say. But to her the president’s word was Truth; the idea that “people hardly even talk about” the car plants because they don’t exist was not only heretical but inconceivable. She couldn’t conceive it and neither could the thousands of others shouting around me.

Nor could they conceive—as could I, the timorous heretic hidden among them—the virus particles in every explosion of breath, every bit of spittle cast aloft on the gales of mass enthusiasm. The virus was a hoax. Was the leader afraid of the virus? (Asked the following week—before his own infection—if he was concerned about the virus spreading at his rallies, he responded with his customary laser focus: “I’m on a stage and it’s very far away. And so I’m not at all concerned.”) So how could the virus threaten them, armored as they were in their Trump-as-Superman T-shirts and Trump flag pajamas?

So when he came before them, the leader’s first words were a lie, one of the 20,000 and more that The Washington Post and other “enemies of the people” have presumed to track, catalog, and codify. To the reality-based community he would seem to embody as none before him the ancient Hollywood joke:

How do you know he’s lying?

His lips are moving.

And yet to call this lie a lie makes little sense. These words constitute merely a single brushstroke on the vast canvas of a created world, full of car plants and steel plants and the millions of smokestacks making up “the greatest economy the world has ever seen.” True, it was all imagined but Trump’s greatest gift had always been the imposition of his own imagination on the crowd. “I play to people’s fantasies,” he (or more probably his ghostwriter) had written back in 1987:

People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.

I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.

 [my italics]

“Truthful hyperbole” because the details of that created world emerge from one central belief in the hero’s mind, rooted directly in his gargantuan and fragile ego: I have done an incredible job. All those auto plants and steel plants become not lies or creations but exaggerations flowering decoratively from that a priori truth. Before the crowd of red-faced partisans chanting his name, he transformed from a snake-oil salesman, a great pattering con man in the Elmer Gantry tradition, a postmodern Willy Loman, to a masterful crafter and seller of dreams. They believed him and not their lyin’ eyes because they wanted so desperately to believe.

In the imagination of the crowd Trump was an original but the lineaments of that imagination, its workings and its cravings, are anything but new. Those surrounding me were not poor (though poorer now than six months before); white working class, middle class, they could see clearly enough what they didn’t have: power. What had become increasingly obvious over the decades of dwindling wages and pointless wars and now this endless pandemic was the extent of their own powerlessness. They needed not only someone to blame—immigrants, anarchists, affirmative action beneficiaries, Black Lives Matter protesters, a corrupt and devious elite who for its own self-interested reasons let them all have free run—but a voice to articulate it. The dynamic playing out before me was ancient: Already Nietzsche was calling it “ressentiment,” and had he been transported to Freeland, Michigan the German philologist would have recognized instantly what he was seeing enacted before him, a kind of Mummers’ revolt of the powerless:

The ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with imaginary revenge…. This No is its creative deed.

Trump, the tribune of the powerless, the unmasker of the powerful, the denouncer, the insulter, the despoiler of idols—Trump was their “imaginary revenge.” He entertained them, flattered them, and from his strength they drew encouragement. Here before me, among those hooting and hollering at fanciful car plants and sacrificing themselves, maskless, to the leader’s imagination was Nietzsche’s futile “resentment of the lambs for the bird of prey,” and it was on that soul-deep instinct that Trump played like a virtuoso.

He was the artist of grievance, for here was an emotion he understood intimately, as only an ambitious boy raised in Queens and never taken seriously in the sacred precincts of Manhattan power can understand it. “I have been treated very badly”—was this not his mantra, not only for his presidency but for all the decades before? What more appropriate phrase for workers who had fled the Democrats for Ronald Reagan but still saw their jobs shipped abroad, their cities and businesses despoiled of factories and downtowns? The elite, the leader reminded them with offhand resentment, had spent the previous decades “offshoring Michigan’s jobs, outsourcing Michigan’s factories, throwing open your borders, dragging us into endless foreign wars, and surrendering our children’s future to China and other faraway lands.”

But, he told them, their aggrievement was his: the outsider, the one who would not rest in fighting for what was right against the machinations of the elite and the Deep State and the other agents of betrayal. Who fought even the diabolical child abductors and blood guzzlers around Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Democratic cabal (I counted the QAnon sweatshirts dotting the crowd, the magic-markered Q on a cheek here, on a forehead there) and stood against the torrent of abuse and for the innocence of childhood. He told them what they hated and he shared their hatred—but he could do something about it. And with every imaginary success he showcased the incompetence of the elite he’d supplanted. His followers took solace also in seeing that, despite the aggrievement he shared, the leader retained the plumage of the bird of prey—as had demagogues back to Cleon and Catiline and before—and they were proud of that, of his planes and houses and business chicanery (and even, were the truth admitted, of his porn stars and his Playboy Bunnies). For them in turn the leader offered his own peculiarly self-centered form of flattery and a reverie on their shared glory:

You know, this is not the crowd of a person who comes in second-place, you do know that? The same thing happened four years ago. It was election eve, but by the time I got here it was late. Some of you were in that audience, at one o’clock in the morning, now election day. We had 32,000 people show up, and the reason I went was that I heard that Crooked Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and Barack Hussein Obama were traveling to Michigan because they heard they had problems. They were supposed to win Michigan but they did such a lousy job that they had to come and get some votes and they came and I heard about it. They said, “Sir, could you do it?” and I hopped in the plane…. Thirty-two thousand people. She had five hundred people. I said, “Why are we going to lose Michigan?” And we didn’t.

They all knew by heart the climax of this epic: Trump with his late-night barnstorming had drawn to an inside straight and pulled out Michigan by a minuscule 10,704 votes—along with Wisconsin by 22,748 and Pennsylvania by 44,292. Those 77,744 people, in the face of Clinton’s vast plurality of nearly 2.9 million Americans, had made Trump president. Barely twice the number that had been howling on the Freeland tarmac at one o’clock in the morning on election day four years before.

I felt an elbow jostle me, found myself crashing against a bearded man in a red hoodie: Trump 2020: No Bullshit! We were packed shoulder to shoulder but no 32,000 now. By the next day the official estimate would be 5,500. How many were wearing masks? Two hundred? Maybe, at a stretch, five hundred? I felt vaguely self-conscious in my red Trump 2020 mask. Mostly I felt vertigo. It had been six months since I’d been in a crowd. And now the voices overwhelmed in the echoing hangar. Trump was insulting those ideologues among the elite whose greedy, blind belief in so-called free trade had pauperized the smokestack heart of the country. People laughed, hooted, rocked back and forth. “Four more years! Four more years!” He smiled benevolently at the crowd, drinking in the adulation. It seemed to make him grow in size. Easy to see why these events were necessary to him, why stopping them was like depriving an addict of his supply. What did a narcissist fantasize about?

But the crowd loved it, too. Above our heads floated still that constant glitter of cell phone screens with their little Trumps, tiny echoes of the man onstage, their bearers stretching and crouching and straining in that most contemporary pose of electronic prayer. The leader joked, sneered, laughed. “I love you!” came from the crowd. “Don’t say that,” Trump shot back. “I’ll start to cry, and that wouldn’t be good for my image.” Huge chortles. Then back to the culpable elites.

He insulted, he ranted, he stabbed and hacked with his ridicule. With him, Nietzsche’s “imaginary revenge” of the lambs on the birds of prey became vivid and entertaining—especially when it turned into the gold of elite outrage. “If you are a little different, or a little outrageous…the press is going to write about you,” the young Manhattan developer had opined knowingly nearly four decades before, and how much truer now for a president? He would portion out the vitriol daily, just enough to dominate the news cycle, and for his followers this would be recycled as his “No,” his “creative deed.” Each wave of elite outrage bolstered his authenticity, made them love him more. From everyone else the outrage would bring that most valuable of contemporary commodities—eyeballs!—and Trump would rule the airwaves and the Twittersphere. Whether it was against Trump or for Trump, everyone everywhere was selling Trump Trump Trump. That was why, he explained to The New York Times with a knowing smirk, he was sure to be reelected:

I’m going to win another four years…because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes. Without me, The New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times, but the failed New York Times. So they basically have to let me win.

A melted Trump/Pence campaign sign after the Bear Fire, Feather Falls, California

Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

A melted Trump/Pence campaign sign after the Bear Fire, Feather Falls, California, September 2020

The joke was on the so-called commercial press, which had revealed itself decisively under Trump to be commercial first, press second. Was it $2 or $5 billion they had given him in free media in 2016? Had it not been this very cycle of outrage, and the eager selling of that outrage by his supposed political antagonists in the “lamestream media,” that had made Trump president? Lenin would have been pleased. The elite had sold the rope to hang themselves with.

Of course no elites had been hanged. Trump had smeared and besmirched and traduced and denounced. The volume had been high, the outrage constant, the spinning news cycle exhausting. He had depopulated entire bureaucracies of the federal government. He had exchanged “love letters” with Kim Jong-un and long meaningful gazes with Vladimir Putin. He had schemed and plotted and obstructed. He had kept the white supremacists and the denizens of all sorts of armed and angry fever swamps locked and loaded. To Portland and other cities he had even sent the country’s own version of Putin’s “little green men,” armed troops without insignia who tumbled random protesters into unmarked vans.

It had all been unprecedented. But there had been no revolution. Amid all the disruption and furor and insanity there had been merely a right-wing Republican program of tax cuts for the rich and reactionary judges for the ideologues. Of populism, not so much—not even an infrastructure bill so the builder-leader could put his followers to work. Still, “we’ve already built 310 miles of border wall,” he reminded us proudly, and as the chants echoed around me—“Build that wall! Build that wall!”—I was put in mind of a favorite bamboozling passage from The Art of the Deal:

I called in my construction supervisor and told him that I wanted him to round up every bulldozer and dump truck he could possibly find, and put them to work on my site immediately. Over the next week, I said, I wanted him to transform my two acres of nearly vacant property into the most active construction site in the history of the world. What the bulldozers and dump trucks did wasn’t important, I said, so long as they did a lot of it….

One week later, I accompanied top Holiday Inns executives and the entire board of directors out to the Boardwalk [in Atlantic City]. It looked as if we were in the midst of building the Grand Coulee Dam.

Thus the southern border, where, in that strange, flickering antiworld of reality that seldom peeped through his words, Trump had built perhaps four miles of new wall. Here too the idea of the wall was what he had brought his followers, as real as those auto plants. It had begun as a Wall of the Imagination, and so it would remain. The truth was that as president he had built little. The truth was he knew nothing of governing and was loath to learn. His ideas were cartoonish and shallow, and where his simple slogans had met with frustration—at the border, for example—he had imposed cruelty. Elsewhere his concerns had been mundane. He had fleeced the republic with amazing ease and embarrassing homeliness, charging his Secret Service detail more than $1 million to stay at his properties. He fired, craved loyalty, sought revenge. Every tempest a headline.

What astonished was not the leader’s lack of respect for norms—had that not always been obvious?—but how ephemeral those norms proved to be. Before the will of Trump’s henchman at the Department of Justice, the highly touted “rule of law” was revealed as one tiny step removed from “a country of men, not of laws.” The widely cited Wizard of Oz comparison appeared truest when it came to the most cherished of the country’s institutions, first and foremost its vaunted “separation of powers.” What good are Congress’s institutional prerogatives when those in the Senate majority want only their tax cuts and their judges and prove eager to close their eyes to the rest? Their brute reverence for political survival over all else was as mundane as it was shocking. Emoluments clause? Foreign countries are paying for rooms in Trump’s hotel without even bothering to show up. “They know this guy,” a friend in the Persian Gulf said of his own country’s rich and autocratic leaders. He rubbed his thumb and index finger together. “With this guy, the only question you need to ask is: what’s it gonna take…?”

Think of it all as a stress test for the country’s institutions, one they badly failed. The reverence had been badly misplaced, or anyway badly dated. How much, with barely 80,000 votes and his own imagination, had he shown to be a façade? How many times might that Potemkin construction site be held up as metaphor?

Finally, it had taken nature, not man, in its embodiment as deadly virus to show the fatal limits of his imagination. We were “rounding the corner” on the virus, he assured us. And for these 5,500 mostly unmasked souls we were. They believed him, even those present who might well die of it. But elsewhere there were 220,000 dead and rising caseloads and kids were unable to go to school. Elsewhere people were wearing masks and staying home. Was that the reason we were 5,500 and not 32,000?

“You better vote for me, I got you so many damn car plants.” Those car plants had become the leitmotif of the speech, but they had turned, slowly but inexorably, from a tone of triumph in his salutation to a blunt assertion and now at last to a kind of plea. The note in his voice was unmistakable. He had made the unforgivable error of the cartoon figure who has run out into space and dares to look down. He feared he might lose.

In his plea now I couldn’t help but find a trace of poignancy. He had done so much damage, but had it not been true that we had let him? How much of my life of the last four years had been spent reading and watching and talking Trump Trump Trump? He had taken the adulation and the hatred, too, as a kind of drug, but so had we. And who were we to laugh at his self-estimation as “a very stable genius”? Had he not become president riding nothing but his own con? No, Mexico would not pay for the wall—but who else could have created, out of thin air, such an outlandish and lucrative bit of politics? The bearded Trump: No Bullshit! red-sweatshirt man jostled me again and, looking at the slogan with the caricatured face above it, I recalled a wisp of a definition:

For the bullshitter…is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

His original purpose, of course, had been to outrage, and to build his brand. That was his art, to capture the imagination—to capture the gaze—and he would go down in history for that. That he had shown the shambolic state of the country in its post–cold war embodiment was a vital consequence. A democracy that brings to office as president a man who receives three million fewer votes than his opponent. A country that preaches advancement based on hard work where median incomes have been nearly frozen for four decades. A nation whose political cleavages run so deep that the polity cannot even agree to wear masks during a deadly pandemic. A people struggling still to put into deed an end to the institutional racism that was meant to be banished by law a half century ago. A population undergoing a painful shift to minority-majority rule where members of the coming white minority use every institutional advantage to cling to power.

After a twenty-year span that should have been a golden age and included instead a stolen election, a terrorist spectacular, disastrous wars of choice in far-off lands, two cataclysmic economic collapses, and a catastrophic pandemic, he had been a kind of cartoon leader shouting and gesticulating and illustrating with frenetic ferocity all we had taken for granted and all that had fallen into ruins. And we had followed every move with the fevered attention of the binge-watcher.

They had begun to leave, though the leader was still speaking. They had gotten what they’d come for, the people in their multifarious Trump paraphernalia. I saw not only the ubiquitous Trump-as-Superman T-shirt—here in red, white, and blue, there in rainbow colors—but Trump as motorcycle gang leader, Trump as Hulk, Trump as Rambo. I stopped someone, asked him if Trump would win. After the initial look of shock, he exclaimed, “Yeah, yeah, no question.” A pause. “Course it depends on how much the other side cheats.”

That was the consensus here. A Trump loss could mean only one thing: widespread and shameless cheating. The narrative was already laid down, elaborated, and well established: there would be an early claim of victory, then a stab-in-the-back narrative as those dubious mail-in ballots piled up. And why not? Trumpism was a movement of resistance, of grievance, of the creative No.

Win or lose, it would remain so—if or until those grievances began to be met. For some, perhaps, it was already too late for that. Walking in I had seen the pistols on hips, here and there an assault rifle. A few weeks later thirteen would be arrested in Michigan for plotting to kidnap, try, and execute Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor. Had any of them been at this rally?

Win or lose, the grievances would remain. They could no more be banished from this earth than the imaginary car plants. They would wait, as before, for the leader who would vow his imaginary revenge.

—October 21, 2020

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© 2020 Mark Danner