By Andonis Vassiliades
Here he goes again. ‘I have total authority’, he declares in his customary fashion of speech and body language.
If you did not know who he is or what position he holds, you could be excused for thinking that he is a self-promoting, self-centred, attention-seeking individual who uses his stand-alone open-air press briefings as a staged reenactment of Hyde Park’s Speakers Corner in London to deliver a multiple of sermons, poke fun at others of choice and denigrate opponents.
This is not however the American equivalent of Speakers Corner. It is the White House and the speaker is none other than the president. Donald J. Trump. He is not there to be heckled by the audience. On the contrary, heckling and any criticism are sharply prohibited.
When someone in his audience has the audacity to challenge his achievements or suggest there are other alternative takes on his claims, he reacts aggressively by pointing and shaking the finger and telling the challenger to stop being a pest. He finishes off the assault by hitting the person with the usual much-loved vindictive verbal punch: ‘You are disgraceful…You are a fake.’
The man who boasts about being the most successful businessman on the planet and now the most successful president ever is a compulsive distorter of truth. He is so skilled at it that fabricating facts comes as second nature to him. Between 1990 and 2009, records show that this self-proclaimed successful man filed six times for bankruptcy protection of his financial empire in order to wipe out billions of dollars in debts and leave others to bear the fallout.
Even at times of extreme global stress emanating from the ravages of Covid-19, this president remains unmoved. He still chooses and manages to keep marching on, holding up and waving his own banner; blowing his own trumpet by using a repertoire of self-assessed natural qualities and achievements; and espousing in a repetitive form his chapter and verse of all things normal and abnormal he has handled and resolved in the world.
President Trump is desperate for power, recognition, approval and admiration and proves to be an ineffective and unstable leader who cannot be up to the task.
In his ruthless quest for the limelight and his ferocious appetite to promote his own needs and interests, the president presents as a symptomatically amoral and merciless political voyager who would do everything possible to satisfy his personal enhancement. He reminds me of the infamous Emperor Nero who ruled Rome between 54 and 68 AD. Such was his big ego and quest for total personal wealth and power that there was no end to his ambition. When his attempt to demolish and rebuild a massive new palace failed, out of spite he allegedly set fire to Rome. As Rome burnt to the ground, Nero watched in delight and merrily played his fiddle.
The coronavirus has upstaged Trump and he is not happy. First, it has demolished his argument and the lie about the USA economy. Trump’s exploitations and false presentations that everything is ‘great’ with the economy, have been blown adrift and have been exposed as half-baked truths. The onset of the virus has demonstrated that the strength of the economy is simply skin-deep. The USA has been hit, at the time of writing, with a massive 26 million people becoming unemployed in just a couple of weeks with the majority of the workforce lacking any basic structural safeguards as for instance sick leave that most in Europe take for granted. Many of its people are downright poor by any universally applied definitions of poverty and are subject to a lack of basic welfare protection standards. Secondly, the spread of the virus like a bush fire has exposed and nullified the administration’s claims that its citizens are medically well covered. Factually, medical care is out of reach for most and a non-affordable luxury. Thirdly, the coronavirus has taken over and it is the news on all matters affecting the nation. As such, it has taken centre stage and has upstaged Trump.
His engagement in the fight against the virus has been, therefore, less about leading the world or protecting his people in the face of a pandemic but more of a theatrical war between him versus the ‘invisible enemy’.
His wounded ego and his loss of control over events forced him into a defensive stance. He went into overdrive and unleashed his usual parasitic tricks of diversion and destabilisation to politicise the virus and polarise politics: he embarked on a mission of inventing new enemies and blaming everyone else but himself for the ongoing crisis.
He started by proclaiming himself a hero who single-handedly acted to protect America from the foreign ‘Chinese virus’ invasion; blamed China for the misery and lately that they may have manufactured the virus in a lab; attacked his own task force of medical advisers for contradicting him and stealing the show from him (causing a backlash against Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease specialist); promoted his own highly dangerous medical prescriptions by falsely claiming their efficacy in treating the infection; described democrat state governors as mutineers akin to his ‘all-time favorite movie’, Mutiny on the Bounty; and accused them of strangulating the economy and undermining American democracy by restricting the right of people to free movement; accused WHO for failing in its task and for allegedly allowing the ‘Chinese virus ‘to take hold by protecting the source; stopped all funding to WHO; and blamed a host of others including Europeans for a conspiracy to undermine the success he has had in making America great again.
It is fair to say that both China and WHO may have much to account for. But in the midst of a catastrophic pandemic which has passed the three million infections and over 200,000 deaths worldwide without an end in sight; and with the USA registering over a million infections and over 58,000 deaths to-date, the last thing one wants is recriminations and a war of blame and counter-blame. Let us not forget too that in its seventy-two years of existence WHO has played a pivotal role in the fight against infectious diseases (e.g. various types of flu, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Zika, SARS-CoV-1 and MERS) and it is the only body in existence that provides for a global and united approach to health issues.
In fact, this is the president who until February this year boasted of his ‘beautiful’ relationship with China and the ‘beautiful’ job WHO was doing. He is the same man who refused to acknowledge the threat of the virus to the USA, failed to provide proper leadership by claiming that the virus was a ‘hoax’ and another attempt by democrats to undermine his achievements. He is the same president who denied state governors’ desperate calls and pleas for federal assistance to manage the collapsing healthcare infrastructure and services because they were just a bunch of ungrateful democrat governors. He is the one who scorned sarcastically the likes of Spain and Italy and other European states for the high incidence of infection and death rates from the disease and who claimed that the USA was robust enough and not affected by the ravages of the virus due to his administration’s strong governance.
His diversionary techniques and outbursts succeeded in destabilising the political scene. Realising his chance, he moved on to sow the seeds of a broader social division by challenging the constitution and the powers of states. He claimed unlimited powers which put him above and beyond everyone’s reach: ‘When somebody’s president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be. It’s total. It’s total’, he declared.
His remarks could be put down to ignorance. But Trump’s scapegoating and claims of total authority are a calculated ploy to manipulate the truth, to confuse, to unsettle and destroy consensus. It is the classic case of the politics of divide and rule. It allows him to come up ‘trumps’ by creating a new manufactured reality of a president with unlimited powers and who still runs the show. Basically, when you start chipping away at a rock sooner or later something will fall off that mass.
His approach is to throw a spanner in the works to reap the benefits out of the ensuing riddles, confusion and cracks that follow. In this case, Trump’s intent is to divide the country further still by putting state against state and state against federal government. He then manipulates the populace. He sets up citizen against citizen by rallying his base, conservative and ultra-right bodies, gun lobbies, religious groups and the unemployed to rise to the occasion and come out en masse. Already, such bodies are hearing and bearing his message and are beginning to create a movement of obstruction and rebellion. They are seeking advice on legal redress and how to challenge lockdowns; are coming out in force on the streets and on news channels and social media to express their discontent; and are seeking a reaffirmation of their constitutional civil rights and choices on assembly and free movement with banners (and in some instances guns) blazing with the message, ‘Down with Lockdowns’.
The actions of this president are a form of social engineering which attempts to alter the social landscape by nullifying the constitutional powers of states and transferring more powers in favour of a rotten presidency. Even if these challenges never reach court, they (like rumour or fake news) can prove successful in creating false beliefs about the powers of the executive. Ambivalence and falsehood are powerful tools capable of redefining reality. In an informal and uncodified way the powers of the president are expanded through the social back door without citizens being fully aware that a redistribution, shift and concentration of more powers in the hands of an individual are taking place. In general, his divisive policies could threaten the long-term survival of the union and whether a ‘united states’ can exist in America as we know it.
Donald Trump started his presidency with a dominant message: ‘America first’. What he meant all along was, ‘Donald J. Trump first’. He lacks a sense of decency. At the time of writing, millions of Americans who have been made redundant and are desperately in need of his benevolent chicken-feed financial assistance (the Covid-19 relief cheques of 1,200 dollars) are still waiting for those delayed cheques to arrive. The self-styled Emperor, or his administration, would not permit their distribution and delivery unless his name, Donald J. Trump, was printed on them.
Andonis Vassiliades is an emeritus professor