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The good, the bad, and the gullible

President Trump is not playing a strategy but simply improvising, like the Music Man, to get through another media cycle and round of federally subsidized golf at his country clubs.

President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
President Donald Trump
Mark Twain understood many things about America, including its people’s gullibility. In “Huckleberry Finn” (1884), the Duke and the Dauphin, itinerant swindlers and pitchmen, persuade small-town folks that they are in the presence of European aristocrats of wealth and prestige — then fleece them blind. The Duke and Dauphins’ rude roadshow, “The Royal Nonesuch” (comically resembling “The Apprentice”) is revealed as a fraud. Townspeople learn that those taken in have urged their friends and neighbors to attend the show and lose money too, so they won’t look as stupid, stoking their collective embarrassment. Before the fall, The Dauphin proudly remarks, “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And hain’t that a big enough majority in any town?” In the end, the town runs the Duke and Dauphin out, tarred and feathered. And so it is now in America.

Meredith Wilson put the same theme to song in the quintessentially American “Music Man” (1957), in which small-town Iowans are similarly fleeced (remembered from Wilson’s youth in Mason City and as a member of John Phillip Sousa’s Band). The locals fall for the fast-talking “Professor” Harold Hill, who purloins their meager savings to create an imaginary “Boys Band.” As he intones: “and this band will be in uniform.”

In 2016, America’s own self-styled Music Man came to town, doing exactly to Iowa and a majority of the states in the Electoral College what Harold Hill had done. His devotees fell for a pitch that promised a glorious, white, immigrant-free future — an empty promise and pitchman’s polemic. At least Harold Hill promised youthful musical achievement and the avoidance of trouble, “with a capital “T.”

Undergirded by racism, misogyny and xenophobia

Trump’s message, by contrast, was undergirded by a troika of racism, misogyny and xenophobia. For Trump, the pitch worked, at least for a while. But as the Trump presidency unfolded into a sodden mess of incompetence and corrupt self-dealing, his pitch lost its tune and became less and less convincing except to the unmasked rubes who had already signed on and drunk the rancid Kool-Aid. Many are now dying of COVID-19, an enduring testament to his fakery and falsehoods.

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Like the Boys Band, there was no infrastructure, or wall to speak of, or prescription drug price reduction, or a pandemic that just went away, or anything else except a huge tax break for the rich. Instead, there was COVID-19 death and economic collapse and agricultural depression and race riots and police militarism and violence. As COVID rages on, its attendant economic impacts destroy small businesses — the core of small-town Republicanism. Farmers are wounded by the loss of agricultural export markets that America used to own, and its hard-won reputation as a reliable export supplier of grain and oilseeds is in shreds, the result of senseless tit-for-tat tariff wars. Pathetically, farmers were compensated for these losses with grotesque and fiscally unsustainable transfers from taxpayers worth more than $30 billion, even as the Trump administration sought cuts to food stamps to the poor, most of whom live in rural America.

Columbia University’s late historian Richard Hofstadter, recently rediscovered by the American media, identified two features of American politics that Trump exploited mercilessly and personally shared. The first is anti-intellectualism; the second is what Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” in American politics. Trump revels in being a nonreader and has adopted Q-Anon and other conspiracy-minded groups as kindred spirits. Apart from these serious flaws in intellect, judgment and character (to put it politely), Trump’s entire personal and political identity was summed up but also contradicted by the circus master P.T. Barnum’s oft-quoted observation that “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” It is contradicted in two ways: Trump repeatedly went broke, and is likely to do so again. Second, in the end, his underestimate of the American people’s intelligence (especially the women and people of color he repeatedly disparaged) led a majority of these and other voters to defeat him soundly at the polls.

Flaws in the Constitution

While the coda for his spectacularly failed presidency will be written in time, it is clear now that flaws in the U.S. Constitution, despite the slavish veneration of “originalists,” suggest that a parliamentary system might have been a good choice in the first place. For the past 50 years, academics and political analysts have pointed to unrestrained executive power as the “imperial presidency.” While actions such as the War Powers Act have attempted to restrain this presidential overreach, it was never contemplated that a president as venal, corrupted and intellectually inept would rise to the top. The media occasionally and smugly refer to Romans such as Nero and Caligula as caricatures from ancient history, as if no such excesses could conceivably occur again. They did not bargain on a Nero or Caligula for our time, although there is some evidence to suggest that these Romans, whatever their other vices, may have strongly surpassed the Trump family in innate intelligence.

photo of article author
Carlisle Ford Runge
The current Republicans in Congress are riven by partisanship and false loyalty to Trump and what he stands for, and therefore unable and unwilling to pass legislation restricting executive authority — at least until Biden takes office, when they will begin obstructing furiously. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, risks becoming a partisan shooting gallery aimed at deconstructing social legislation, environmental protection and abortion rights. On the court, a zero-sum mentality is forming, exactly as Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would have styled it, diminishing the gravitas that the court requires to remain legitimate.

There is no clear way out of this. Biden has appropriately identified COVID-19 as his first priority, but our mishandling of COVID-19 is linked to a variety of other American dysfunctions. These include the severe economic disruptions caused by the pandemic, including unemployment hovering around 14 percent — the greatest since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Quite amazingly in this land of plenty, chronic hunger among many of the unemployed, elderly and children is correspondingly acute. A Nov. 25 story in the Washington Post reported that Census Bureau survey data collected in October and early November show that one in eight Americans reported that they didn’t have enough to eat in the last week, equal to 26 million American adults. In households with children, the number is one in six.

Response to the pandemic has split along the same ideological and educational lines as has politics generally, with predictably fatal results in rural areas, where Trump propaganda encouraged mask-less risk-taking and subsequent surges in cases and fatalities have occurred.

An existential Catch-22

Finally, Trump’s abject delusional psychopathology, refusing to acknowledge electoral defeat, has driven an existential Catch-22 deeper into the calculations of Republicans looking for a way to jump off a sinking ship. Should they stay loyal to Trump and his rabid base by pretending to believe the fantasy that he has not lost the presidency, like those loyal Germans and eventual Nazis who bought Hitler’s assertions that the German defeat in World War I was the result of a “stab in the back” by Jews and others? Or should they admit reality and confront the fury of this same base?

This is the tableau playing out now in Georgia, where two U.S. Senate races will be decided by special elections that will determine whether Republicans retain a majority in the Senate. Trump loyalists, including the fanatical former member of Rudy Giuliani’s less than ace legal team, Sidney Powell, recently threatened to “blow up” the elections based on assertions of voter fraud, with no factual support whatsoever. She was found so unhinged that even the Giuliana team dumped her, but Trump supporters in Georgia are still mainlining the Kool-Aid and may boycott support for the Republican candidates.

The idea that there is an endgame to these machinations is itself a delusion, because Trump is not playing a strategy but simply improvising, like the Music Man, to get through another media cycle and round of federally subsidized golf at his country clubs. He has no future and he knows it, but will play the role of the Duke until he is ridden out of town on a rail. This pretense will have deep and lasting costs for American credibility in the rest of the world and for American democracy at home. It already has.

Carlisle Ford Runge is the Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law, University of Minnesota. Views expressed are those of the author and not the University of Minnesota.

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