There is a lot not to like about the new president. His boorish persona and proclivity to wreak havoc are a major source of stress, unless you are one of his joyful supporters. Trump the President is a polarizing figure, but his political clownery is also a distraction from the deeper challenges facing the nation and the world at large.
Trump’s circus act gets all the attention. Rome built the colosseum to distract plebeians from the empire’s economic and political problems by entertaining them with bloody displays of gladiator combat. The famous Tivoli amusement park was built in mid-19th century Copenhagen to divert the people’s attention from politics. Billion dollar football stadiums in the US are venues for mixing blood sport with patriotic display. Entertainment, often fused with military ritual (Roger Stahl calls it “militainment”), sidetracks the deliberation of public policy.
Trump is his own amusement park. He’s the country’s showman-in-chief whom supporters wildly cheer and detractors loudly boo. Spectacle supplants productive discussion and constructive argumentation. Trump’s antics are sordid entertainment serving a nefarious purpose. They warp the structure and substance of public discourse, much like looking at our convoluted image in the distortion mirrors of a carnival fun house or being taken in by the magician’s misdirection.
The difference between carnival and politics is as important as the similarity. The consequences of deliberate distortion and relentless distraction are serious for the life of the polity. Economic displacement—real and perceived—is a deep issue for managing equitably the impact of globalization. Managed poorly, a tiny fraction prospers at the expense of everyone else and, too easily, outsiders and outliers become convenient scapegoats for an aggrieved public: distrust, intolerance, and militancy abound; global warming is dismissed as a ruse; immigrants are blamed for economic decline; terrorism legitimizes militarism and endless warfare.
Trumpism is a distraction from the deep concerns of the people. Complaining about the guy whom many think represents their concerns sounds like defending the political and economic establishment they feel has failed them. It is ironic, moreover, when critics of the war system find themselves allied with “deep state” forces against Trump.
Bernie Sanders is no Donald Trump. Sanders, too, expressed the people’s concern over economic displacement, but he challenged elite rule in a democratic rather than illiberal and authoritarian voice. Trump does not speak for the majority of Americans, but a majority of Americans are troubled by economic inequity and insecurity. They require substantive debate, not scapegoats or other distractions, to address their concern constructively. Our first priority has to be for a healthy democratic process that addresses issues without demonizing opponents.
Donald Trump’s churlish persona and the divisive discourse of Trumpism are symptomatic of a political culture in crisis. Denying global warming, blaming immigrants, fighting an open-ended war on terrorism, and developing a new generation of nuclear weapons will not produce more and better jobs or provide greater security.
Ignoring Trump is not an option. His antics are anything but benign. Yet he doesn’t deserve our full and undivided attention, nor should he set the tone or dominate the agenda of public discourse. Rather than distracting and polarizing us, Trumpism should be an incentive to repair a fractured political culture.