Trump threatened to deny his defeat and challenged the ballot box because it probably won’t accommodate his desires. This is the most dangerous thing about the election.
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist”Hanna Arendt, ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism‘
Donald Trump connects emotionally with a vital part of Americans because he seems authentic, real to them. He looks like what they are. If you ask them, many believe that because he is a businessman, he tells the truth, and not like the politicians, who always tell lies. He says what he thinks. ‘He’s honest,’ they say. And Trump shouts at his rallies, “Look at those lying, corrupt politicians. I’m not like them. I’m not a politician, and you know it.”
And it is on this direct attack on politics and on the death of truth that he has built his populist legacy, which comes down to this: “tell them what they want to hear and then do what is best for you and your business”. That is the unscrupulous, individualistic business ethic shared by so many of his compatriots. The United States is not a nation, it is a business, they think. They agree with Trump on that.
Thus, his presidency has been based not on governing, i.e., seeking the best possible and lasting solutions for the greatest number of people, but on closing deals. It’s a zero-sum game: we win, they lose. His favorite picture has been the one in which he proudly shows a contract (usually a decree) with his endless signature stamped on it, surrounded by the smiling and satisfied beneficiaries of the business, mainly lobbyists of all stripes, who thrive by flattering the president.
From the beginning, Trump has built his presidency on manipulating reality that is inconvenient for him or that simply does not satisfy him. He began his political career by theorizing that Obama was not born in the United States and was, therefore, an illegitimate president. He insisted so much that Obama was forced to show his birth certificate publicly. But Trump never rectified.
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And so, although it was clear that his inaugural party was far less crowded than Obama’s, he determined that this was humiliating and, therefore, not true. He responded to a hostile media construction, manufacturers of fake news, as he has not stopped repeating during these four years. His spokesman said that the media lied about how many people attended the inauguration and that they, the White House, had “alternative facts.” It doesn’t matter if scientific reality proves otherwise. That is Orwell’s nightmare come true.
As The New York Times literary critic, Michiko Kakutani recently pointed out in her book The Death of Truth, in the dystopia described in the novel 1984, “there is no word for ‘science’ because ‘the empirical method of thought, on which all the scientific advances of the past are founded’ represents an objective reality that threatens the power of Big Brother’s to determine what truth is.”
Thus, his entire presidency has revolved around discrediting the truth when it does not suit his interests. His method is to systematically attack the media and construct those alternative facts that fit his whim. That’s why Trump is now threatening to deny his defeat, if that happens, and challenge the ballot box in case it won’t accommodate his desires. This is the most dangerous thing about this election.
Trump confuses political power with the power to fire people, and he can’t conceive of any scenario in which someone could fire him out. That’s why he’s so dangerous to democracy.
Ontologically, Trump can’t lose. For him, this reality is inconceivable. It cannot be possible that he’s kicked out of the White House. You have to understand the psychology of the character. He built his immense popularity on the television program “The Apprentice,” where his favorite phrase was: ‘you’re fired.’ Trump confuses political power with the power to throw people out, and he can’t conceive of any scenario in which someone could throw him out. That’s why he’s so dangerous to democracy. That’s why he threatens to declare himself victorious, whatever the outcome of today’s election.
Challenging the truth
In any case, we face the possibility of four more years of Donald Trump’s presidency if he manages to win the election or forcefully impose his victory. The polls (and the stakes) say he has it tough, but not impossible. If, on the contrary, as seems more likely, Biden wins, Trump may say that everything has been a fraud (he has been preparing that argument for months). In that case, we will witness the dangerous spectacle of a Trump who refuses to leave the White House, screaming like a hysterical child who doesn’t want to obey his parents.
The evolution of politics in American democracy has suffered significant setbacks in recent years, but none like that of Trump’s presidency, where we have witnessed the blasting of the common ground, where consensus is woven on the values and principles that should govern an open society and the separation of powers that liberal democracy should ensure in practice.
The attack on the truth has been fulminating. While the business politics, conceived as a continuous show where the main actor occupies almost the entire screen virtually all the time, has been a theatrical imitation of the Orwellian Big Brother. The show of his arrival at the White House in a helicopter after being drugged against the coronavirus in a military hospital will go down in the history of the most grandiose propaganda shows.
Never abandoning the screen and occupying the entire public sphere based on noise, propaganda, and the supreme leader’s compulsive tweeting encouraging lies, confrontation and violence, recall the worst nightmare of the 1930s.
But to do so, moreover, not from politics but anti-politics has been the most toxic contribution of Trumpism experienced in the last four years. The formula used has been to position oneself systematically against democratic institutions and attack them as long as they do not play the game of deception and manipulation that favors the boss’s position. Thus, the attack on Dr. Fauci, the government’s primary advisor on the pandemic, for saying that the coronavirus is unleashed in the country, or on the court that validates 127,000 votes in Texas, cast by citizens so scared by Covid-19 that they preferred to vote without getting out of their cars, constitute the latest installments of this dangerous melodrama.
“I am here to heal the terrible damage done to this country by Obama and Biden,” Trump preaches at his rallies. There, he presents himself as the “savior” of America, who has worked true miracles in his three years and ten months of presidency, and who is now coming to save us from socialism.
Only the damned virus, ‘sent by the Chinese,’ which has infected 9 million Americans and killed more than 230,000, might be able to spoil the truth of the best presidency in the history of the United States.
When the most despotic populism, based on the systematic challenge of the truth, takes up residence in the most powerful armchair in the world, only the rebellion of reality itself can dislodge it. And that reality, today, may be called Covid-19.