For Donald Trump, the presidency will be a vast stage for accommodating his megalomania and insatiable appetite for money. Those who mock, defy or anger him will feel the wrath of the state. Those who are not obsequious will be cast aside. He will invest most of his energy in his brand. Self-promotion is the only real talent he possesses. Corruption, already rife within the political system, will explode into a full-blown kleptocracy. Manufactured stories about Trump’s prowess, brilliance, sexual allure and goodness, as well as how America is becoming “great again,” will be pumped out by the White House smoke machine. He will demand encomiums that will become ever more outrageous. All love, devotion and allegiance will be to Trump.
Trump is the sick expression of a dysfunctional political system and mass culture that celebrate the most depraved aspects of human nature—greed, a lust for power, a thirst for adulation and celebrity, a penchant for the manipulation of others, dishonesty, a lack of remorse and a frightening pathology in which reality is ignored. He is the product of our escapist world of constant entertainment. He embodies the mutation of values in American society that has culminated in an enormous cult of the self and the abandonment of the common good.
“When a population becomes distracted by trivia,” wrote Neil Postman, “when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people becomes an audience and their public business a vaudeville, then a nation finds itself at risk: cultural-death is a clear possibility.”
Demagogues—insecure and crippled by an unbridled narcissism and seldom of high intelligence—play to the inverted values of a decayed society. They attack all who do not kneel before the idol of “the great leader.” “Saturday Night Live” can continue to go after Trump, but Trump, as president, will use every tool in his arsenal, no matter how devious, to banish such public ridicule. He will seek to domesticate the press and critics first through the awarding of special privileges, flattery, gifts and access. Those who cannot be bought off will be destroyed. His petulant, childish taunts, given authority by the machinery of the security and surveillance state, will be dangerous.
Trump’s fight with the Fox News host Megyn Kelly illustrates his vindictiveness. Kelly, who was sexually harassed by Roger Ailes when Ailes was Fox News chief, questioned Trump on her television program about allegations of rape made by Trump’s first wife, Ivana. Ivana Trump later recanted the allegations, although she had provided graphic details of the rape in a signed deposition during divorce proceedings. Trump was furious with Kelly for raising the matter.
In an interview by Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” that was posted last week, Kelly said that for months Trump attempted “to woo me—not romantically, but just, you know, into favorable coverage.” Trump demanded that she phone him, Kelly said, and she did so. There was a moment in that telephone conversation when he realized he had failed to persuade her, she said. “He became very angry. He told me I was a disgrace, that I ought to be ashamed of myself, and that’s when he said, ‘I almost unleashed my beautiful twitter account against you and I still may.’ ”
The conflict between the two exploded after the first Republican primary debate, in August of 2015, in which Kelly asked Trump about his derogatory comments about women.
Kelly was savagely attacked by Trump for nine months after the debate, including repeatedly on Trump’s “beautiful twitter account.” The attacks ended when Kelly went to Trump Tower to film what she called “a softer focus interview” with Trump but which in journalism slang is called a “puff piece,” one that flatters the subject of the interview.
Kelly told Gross that the attacks by Trump “unleashed a chaos in my life unlike any I have ever experienced.”
“I was receiving death threats regularly, serious death threat against me, against my family,” she said. “Strange men showed up at my apartment building demanding to see me in a threatening manner. People started casing my home. Photographers were found on my property. I don’t know if they were private investigators or what they were, but people started digging into my past, bothering my mother, bothering my closest friends, bothering my high school friends, trying to dig up dirt on me.”
“The c-word was in thousands of tweets directed at me,” she said. “Lots of threats to beat the hell out of me, to rape me, honestly the ugliest things you can imagine.”
“The thing I was most worried about—I have a seven, a five and a three-year-old—and I was worried I would be walking down the street with my kids and somebody would do something to me in front of them, that they would see me get punched in the face, or get hurt.”
Kelly said the “crescendo of anger” sent “my life into lockdown.”
When Gross asked Kelly about the “alt-right” figures gathered around Trump, including Steve Bannon, Kelly was unequivocal. “They will come after you,” she said. “They will target you. And they will be relentless about it.”
Ridicule especially antagonizes the demagogue. It deflates the pretentious and the powerful. It reduces to human size those puffed up by their self-importance. It exposes them for who they are. It affirms the self-respect and dignity of the oppressed. Demagogues, lacking the capacity for self-transcendence, cannot see the ludicrousness and absurdity of their pretensions. They cannot distinguish between their inner fantasies and reality. They can belittle and ridicule others, as Trump does, with great cruelty, but they see nothing humorous about similar treatment directed at the self-created edifice of their own glory.
“There are people who tell jokes,” goes a joke illustrating the morbid humor prevalent among the populace in East Germany during the communist rule. “There are people who collect jokes and tell jokes. And there are people who collect people who tell jokes.”
I have covered numerous demagogues as a foreign correspondent, including the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and the Syrian dictator Hafez Assad of Syria, as well as Erich Honecker of the former East Germany, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. They had different idiosyncrasies and styles. Gadhafi and Ceausescu loved the spectacle and pomp that come with power. Milosevic and Assad spent long periods out of the spotlight. But all had patterns of behavior exhibited by Trump.
Bertolt Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” provides the blueprint for how demagogues work. It is the story of a Chicago mobster cornering the cauliflower market in 1930s Chicago through threats, blackmail and coercion. It is also a thinly disguised allegory for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The Barker, who opens the play, lays it out in the prologue:
Ladies and gentlemen, we present today,
The great historical gangster-play!
Learn all bout blackmail and framing! Further:
How to succeed in big business through murder.
Demagogues expend great energy marginalizing, censoring and silencing all critics, something the corporate state has already done to dissidents such as Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader. They use the media, especially the airwaves, as a vast public relations department to amplify their lies and promote their personality cults. They destroy cultural and education institutions, replacing them with rote vocational training, nationalist kitsch and tawdry entertainment. They elevate members of their family, sect, tribe or clan to the inner circles of power. (Trump’s tribe, of course, is the billionaire class.) They put generals in key positions. Those in the military appeal to demagogues because they are not trained to think but to be obedient. The military also does not shrink from violence. The demagogue and the inner circle grow fabulously rich by pillaging the state. They live in private inner sanctums of opulence and depravity that resemble Versailles or the Forbidden City. They banish anyone in the court who tells them unpleasant truths. They read into the most benign acts wild conspiracies. They often sexually assault girls and women. Hussein and Gadhafi were notorious rapists. Trump’s misogyny is well documented.
Demagogues foolishly see the elaborately staged public events held for them as proof that a populace loves and respects them. And in the final, decrepit stages of their rule they became grotesque parodies of themselves. The sycophants around them, profiting from the orgy of corruption, feed their gargantuan self-delusion. The demagogues, believing they are divinely inspired geniuses and omnipotent, make decisions based on hallucinations. When a demagogue reaches that stage, society can be obliterated.
Demagogues usually seek to immortalize their grandeur in huge building projects that are monuments to their immortality. Saddam Hussein sought to rebuild the ancient city of Babylon. He constructed a replica of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II on the ruins of the original, embossing his name, like Nebuchadnezzar II, on many of the bricks. Gadhafi built the largest irrigation system in existence, calling it “the eighth wonder of the world.” Ceausescu, whose birthday was a national holiday, constructed a massive palace, The People’s House, at a cost of $1.75 billion in Bucharest. He conscripted as many as 100,000 workers for the project. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, who died from accidents during the construction. The palace, which is the second largest building in the world, after the Pentagon, has 3,500 tons of crystal and 1 million cubic meters of marble. It was two-thirds finished in December 1989 when the regime was overthrown. In a visit to the national museum that winter, I found it filled with idealized portraits and busts of Ceausescu. Rooms were devoted to hagiographic accounts of his mythical life story. Building projects and image creation of this kind make Trump—who has decorated his residence in Trump Tower as if he were Louis XIV, the Sun King—salivate.
Demagogues foster the psychosis of permanent war, which often leads to actual war. The psychosis of permanent war becomes a tool to abolish civil liberties and condemn dissent as treason. Huge expenditures go into the military, which demagogues see as an extension of their personal power, while the rest of the country decays. There is nothing a demagogue loves more than a big military parade.
The story of demagogues is as old as civilization. They have risen and fallen like the tides, always leaving in their wake misery, destruction and death. They exploit the frustrations and anger generated by a decayed society. They make fantastic promises they never keep. They demonize the vulnerable as scapegoats. They preach hatred and violence. They demand godlike worship. They consume those they rule.