Unlikely Stories: The Gospel of Trump

Politics, like religion, is about the stories that we tell ourselves. Leaders who win elections and start movements do so, in large part, by creating a story that people believe in and ascribe to. The stories impact our worldview, and we start to interpret events through the lens of the story. This isn't a metaphor - it's a fundamental principle of leadership called crafting a strategic narrative, and political, business, and religious leaders do this intentionally. There are books and websites and academic programs devoted to it. When the stories told are targeted lies, we call them propaganda. When they are true, we call them history.

In campaigns it is easy enough to recognize that this is happening because candidates title the narrative in their slogans: "Change you can believe in", "Stronger Together", "Make America Great Again". The person who turns out the most votes is typically the person who creates the most compelling story and tells it most effectively. People voted for Obama, especially in 2008, because he sold the idea that he could create hope and change, and connected his message to some of America's most deeply felt values. People voted for Trump this year because he sold the idea that he could make America great again, and connected that story to some of America's most deeply felt anxieties. (Clinton lost, I would argue, because a large number of voters didn't find her story inspiring, and didn't believe the story she told about herself anyway - whether justifiably or not.) In large part these stories are classically bullshit in that they are exaggerated projections of what the leader might actually be able to accomplish, (my friend Jeff Encke wrote a great piece on this), but they also tell us something about the person we are voting for, and the direction that they want the country to go.

I say all of this because it is an important principle for anyone who wants to understand how political leadership works. And in our current American situation, keeping in mind the reality that we're being told a story is crucial if we're going to be able to sort through what is true and what is false in any meaningful way.

There may be ways in which Trump, and his campaign, have operated erratically and flown by the seat of their pants, but I think it is a mistake to overlook the choreographed intentionality of the movement that he heads and the strategists that he employs - guys like Steve Bannon who have spent years developing the grass roots populist movements that have made a presidency by someone like Donald Trump possible. And in his own right, Trump's most valuable political skill is as a salesman, and in the events, tweets and stories that are leaked to the press and publicized to the public, it is important to recognize that we are continually, and intentionally, being told a story.

The Gospel of Trump

Some key elements of the story we were told during the course of Trump's rise to power can be read, basically, as a straightforward messiah narrative with a clear problem and a clear solution:

Problem:

The government has messed everything up, so we need an outsider to come in and fix it.
There are identifiable groups inside of America that are responsible for bringing down the middle and working classes, and for endangering their lives, and the government has been letting this happen. The media and government and immigrants and urban thugs have been destroying us. And there are identifiable enemies outside of the country that are threatening America's very existence, and someone has to act to save us. China is killing us economically, and radical Muslims are killing us literally.

The solution is Trump:

He's a strong enough personality to clean up government by 'draining the swamp', sending Hillary to jail, and putting 'the establishment' in their place. While his opponents were all corrupt because they've been in government and taken money from lobbyists, he's pure, because he's so rich he didn't need lobbyist money. And that wealth is a sign of success. In fact, Trump's been nothing but successful in business and entertainment, and there's no reason to believe he won't be successful in government.

And because of his strong-man approach, Trump will be able to restore safety and prosperity to America by going after those groups that threaten it inside and out: kick out the illegals and "Build a wall", restore law and order by empowering the police to crack down on inner city "thugs", keep out terrorists by banning Muslims, bring back jobs by standing up to "China", repealing NAFTA and the TPP, and making really great trade deals that disincentivize businesses from leaving the US, win the war on radical Islam by "Bombing the shit out of them".

Emerging Truths and Fictions

There are already emerging indicators about which aspects of this story aren't bullshit - the parts that Trump and his advisors themselves believe. For example:

1) I think there's strong reason to believe that Trump sees himself, at least to some degree, in messianic terms. That is, as a leader who is uniquely capable of reshaping the world in America's interest. Grandiosity is a common impulse among narcissistic authoritarians, from Castro to Putin, and his rhetoric has often reflected an inflated view of his own abilities to tear through the barriers that typically hang up political leaders when they get to Washington. It is hard to sell a messianic story unless the storyteller believes it themself, at least to a degree.

2) His phone call with the leader of Taiwan doesn't read as an accident or a simple congratulatory call in the context of Trump's larger narrative. It was clearly meant as a message to China's leadership, and to true believers, that he will indeed stand up to them. It probably signals a real commitment to altering trade commitments and the structure of the global economy.

3) The story about saving 800 jobs from leaving a Carrier plant in Indiana could be read as silly and a general waste of time, unless you recognize that it is a symbolic communication about Trump's commitment to saving American jobs. For a variety of reasons, this deal was not a realistic indicator that he'll do that in any meaningful way, but it does indicate that he sees it as important to be viewed in this way.

4) And the strangely effusive praise and promises of friendship leaked from his call with Pakistan's Prime Minister probably shouldn't be read as Trump "not knowing what he's doing", when you recognize that Pakistan is a nuclear power in a region where his team may well be planning to launch major attacks. And in a similar vein, his communications with Putin and promises to partner with anyone who is on our side in the battle against radical Islam most likely again reflects a willingness and desire to follow through on promises of a more hardline, less humane approach to conflict in the Middle East, and to ramp up a war against Islam.

5) Re-stated commitments to deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants, and to development of some form of Muslim registry probably indicate that he will really attempt to implement hardline approaches to immigrants who he views as dangerous to American society.

And there are also some clear indicators of which aspects of the Trump as messiah narrative were calculated falsehoods.

1) Most notable is an immediate abandonment of pretense that he will "Drain the swamp" in Washington or distance himself from the leadership of lobbyists or the influence of big money, by appointing a cabinet that has so far been made up almost exclusively of billionaires and lobbyists.

2) His desire to place control of his financial assets in the hands of his children, rather into a blind trust, indicate that he will likely be more directly influenced by personal and financial interests than previous presidents, rather than limiting the influence of money in his politics, and his nepotistic inclusion of family members in meetings with foreign leaders and key advisory positions fits into that narrative as well.

3) He also abandoned any pretense that he was taking a principled stand against corruption in government in his promises to investigate Hillary Clinton for crimes in the (stupid, fake) email scandal, when he walked them back, and began considering David Petraeus (who has a bonafide conviction for the same alleged crime that Hillary committed) as Secretary of State.

4) In general terms, I expect that he will walk back or simply leave behind promised battles on issues where he would likely lose (which, admittedly enough, is so common among politicians as to be unremarkable).

Where the Narrative becomes self-defeating.

Recognizing that we're being told a story by our leaders is important because it allows us to make predictions about where the story will end if allowed to develop uniterrupted. And it also gives us the tools to call BS on the elements that clearly aren't true.

In terms of developing an appropriate response to the Trump narrative, both of those points are important. The most powerful political tool that any leader has is the trust of the public, and in response to the story we've been told, it would be foolish for the public to give trust over - either on the right expressed as excitement about what is possible, or on the left as a willingness to hope for the best. There's no such thing as a political messiah, and there are dozens of historical analogies that demonstrate that leaders who present themselves in such terms, particularly while scapegoating 'outsiders', are a particular type of dangerous. There are already strong indicators that, among other things, this story will end in escalated war, corruption, and the erosion of both trust and civil rights in America.

And maybe the most dangerous lie told in the Trump narrative is that we can't trust each other. You can't trust politicians (Clinton's evil incarnate and Obama wasn't even born here and the Republican establishment are all a bunch of limpwristed idiots). You can't trust the mainstream media. You can't trust Saturday Night Live (it's not even funny). You can't trust liberals. You can't trust your neighbors so you better patrol the polling site. You can't trust Muslims or immigrants or inner city 'thugs'. You can't trust our electoral system or our democracy.

That message is a dark distortion of the truth, and contributes to a sense of division, weakness, and uncertainty in the population as a whole. And when you ask yourself why that story is being told, it seems likely that a lack of public trust provides a smokescreen for corrupt leaders themselves to act without consequence. Who does it benefit when we don't trust the majority of media outlets? Or the majority of scientists? Or the majority of political, spiritual, and academic leaders? Or even an Alec Baldwin caricature on Saturday Night Live? Why is the new administration so persistently intent on convincing us that we can't trust basically anyone outside of their circle?

A basic downfall of this type of argument in a country like America where distrust of high-level government is deeply ingrained in culture, and trust in the grassroots connections between neighbors is seen as the backbone of democracy, is that it's likely that most citizens have already started also asking of the Trump administration, even before he's taken office, "Why should we trust you either?" We shouldn't, and if I had to make a guess based on the overarching American story, I would guess that eventually, most won't.

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