I wrote this as US journalists were silenced by a mixture of amazement and embarrassment that anyone could tell such blatant lies. Due to a computer upgrade, I’ve only now been able to publish it. Since then, events have only confirmed these words but the words and actions of the Donald have gone beyond my fears.
We all know that the crowd of Inauguration supporters of US President Donald Trump was not ‘the biggest ever’. He knows it and his toadies know it. The only defence they can come up with for such a blatant lie is that other presidents have not told the truth. So why tell it? Why was this (after the photographs in the Oval Office of him signing something to apparently initiate the repeal the Affordable Care Act, and the removal from the White House website of the pages dedicated to LGBT people and Climate Change) the first move in the game he’s playing?
The Donald, as he is known in the Scottish island of his mother, is extremely thin-skinned. So the embarrassment of the silenced journalists at the press conference is that proper to the witnesses of folly. Part of it is about face-saving. He may be a political opponent but it’s painful (especially in the German sense of embarrassing) to witness someone making such a social gaffe. This goes beyond his ridiculously worn tie, his wild gesturing, his apparently quoting a Marvel villain in his first presidential address. And the accompanying amazement is that anyone could be so blatant. If we go high when they go low, can we even stoop to contradicting a lie that everyone knows to be a lie – including its source and supporters?
Yes. It’s important that we all, always and everywhere now, continue to contradict the lies. Even when they are obvious. It’s very, very important. Because the battle over the control of social discourse began with this first move. The point about the story of the Emperor’s new clothes is absolutely not that he was naked or that a small heroic or naïve child pointed this out. The point is that the trickster was confident that he could control the social discourse. To see and see again and not see the truth; to hear and hear again and not hear the truth. It needs repeating. It’s important that we all, always and everywhere now, continue to contradict the lies. Even when they are obvious. It’s very, very important.
We need to do that whenever and wherever his toadies lie; and they are legion and so are their spreading lies. But that’s not the way to deal with the Donald. The mistake that oppressed groups make time and time again is to confuse the ability to predict the behaviour of their oppressor with his or her motivation. [I’ve plagiarised this piece of wisdom from somewhere I’ve forgotten, so if you know the source please let me know on twitter @gumptionology.] The motivation of the new President of the United States, whom we may have to put up with for some time (‘we’ being Earthlings) may be discovered in the work of the greatest and most undervalued philosopher of the 20th century, Robert M. Pirsig.
He writes: “The cause of our current social crises […] is a genetic defect within the nature of reason itself. […] I have a vision of an angry continuing social crisis that no-one really understands the depth of, let alone has solutions to” (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Ch 10). Pirsig published wrote those words in 1974 and the book reflects his experience of the division caused by, and that caused, the American-Vietnam War.
The sequel, Lila (1991) develops his solution to this angry social crisis and as his first work was “an inquiry into values”, his second was “an inquiry into morals” (subtitles of Pirsig 1994, 1991). He sets up a hierarchy of morals, of patterns of values, drawing on an ancient philosophical tradition. But where others (such as Aristotle) saw only higher and lower beings, Pirsig sees levels of quality and their complex interaction as the lower levels simultaneously support the higher levels and constantly attempt to bring them down. So it’s not only these levels of morality that are in a hierarchical relationship, it’s their conflicts. [My critique and development is here]
An illustration. Contrast the social ease of (former) US President Barack Obama with the awkwardness of President (elect) Donald Trump. Now ask what it is that these two individuals value. For those schooled in Pirsig’s philosophy [actually it’s metaphysics but, if that word causes you anxiety, call it ‘ontology’] this question is key.
While Barak Obama is a master of social quality and is now focussing on intellectual values (truth being one of them and respectful dialogue with other, opposing, thinkers a way to discern truth more clearly) Donald Trump, who was a handsome young man, has infamously struggled to master his biological urges and is desperate for social esteem.
In Pirsig’s hierarchy, the social transcends the biological and supports/ tries to bring down the intellectual level of quality. In other words, while Barak Obama is secure socially and can use this security to further develop his evident intellectual gifts, Donald Trump has a legacy of lack of sexual self-control and his social acceptance is even more precarious now that he is so much in the harsh glare of global media attention, most of it antagonistic. Intellectual values (truth being one of them and respectful dialogue another) are appropriated on the social level of quality as no more than competing discourses. The winner is not the most truthful but the one who can force his or her preferred discourse to prevail. Adolf Hitler spoke of ‘the Great Lie’ that only needs to be constantly repeated to be eventually accepted as truth. There may be a lot of this in the days and months (and years?) ahead.
So how do we deal with the Donald?
Impeach him! (there’s enough evidence)
Resist him (there’s enough will)
Give him what he wants.
No, don’t stop reading in disgust, think! He has no real interest in the treatment of any particular group of people or system of economics or even (perhaps) in money. He wants the social esteem that accompanies being recognised for a good performance. Which is why the comments of Meryl Streep on his performance got to him so much [again this thought is plagiarised]. Knowing this, we can not only predict his behaviour but also understand his motivation. Demonising him won’t get us anywhere (and, with his thin skin and finger on the nuclear button, may be highly dangerous). Understanding him will.
So it may not be very revolutionary advice, but if your organisation wants an incredibly powerful and wealthy patron, now is the time to ask. Put up a plaque, invite him to cut a ribbon, control very carefully his verbal discourse but play up the positive symbolic action and he’ll lap it up. Just be prepared to take it down quickly once he’s impeached and to justify your dubious means with excellent humanitarian ends. But realise that as a human being dominated by intellectual values is a philosopher, and one dominated by social values a performer so one dominated by biological values is an animal. So surround him with burly men to physically block access to any women. This is a petulant and dangerous tyrant (think Joffrey in A Game of Thrones) whose real ambition is to be esteemed as a magnanimous and magnificent president of the Rotary Club.
His inability to comprehend the use of diplomatic discourse, the rule of law or even martial strategy, show him to be a mostly biological being. Physically blocking people from entering what he perceives as his territory, sexually invading the personal space of women, trusting to brute force in unplanned military maneouvers, even his attempt at shoulder-bumping and cheek-brushing former President Obama (and kissing a male colleague on the forehead) these are the hallmarks of a brute not who only subverts but profoundly misunderstands social values.
I think the Donald has realised that we (Earthlings) don’t think he’s okay and therefore he’s decided we’re not either. He looks angry and unhappy, and is blaming anyone but himself for his lack of success in this new position which he expected to bring him popular acclaim and had brought him quite the opposite. So the brash clown in his quest for celebrity has become a bully and the bully a tyrant. He’s treating the Oval Office as a board room and the role of president as that of majority shareholder. His constantly televised performance of that role (being filmed signing executive orders and holding them up to camera) is not just playacting, not now, because these speech acts and written orders have presidential power.
His campaign was conducted with an incoherent but strategic bricolage of appeals for and promises of support: for the ‘rust belt’ un(der)employed, for big business, for small business, for White racists, for Latinos, for Blacks, for Americans, for Republicans, for the political elite, for those against the political elite, for homophobes, for LGBT people, for Democrats for Bill Clinton, for Democrats against Hillary Clinton, for those for/ against public healthcare. The campaign never made any sense. The only group he consistently opposed (and mentioned in his Inaugural address) was foreign Muslims whom he classes as terrorist suspects. Why single out this group when the Christian right also hate LGBT people? Because, if you can’t unite people with love (and, unlike Barak Obama, the Donald just doesn’t have that gift) the easiest way is through fear.
So while we should be afraid (and should be doing everything to counter lies and get out the truth so he is impeached and jailed) we should not be paralysed. If we have to put up with him for months or years, we need to learn how to deal with him.
Understanding someone’s primary value conflict is the key to understanding their motivation. Donald Trump feels good, feels moral, when he manages to control his libido and does the right thing (the accepted thing) socially. The infamous wall is the keystone of his version of the New Deal, a public works project he can sign off to get the rustbelt back to work. Except it’s not going to work. The very last thing the post-industrialised world needs is a massive, unsustainable public building project. If he invested money in organic garden allotments, it would make more sense. It just wouldn’t make the news or be popular with his rabid supporters.
However, he may even eventually realise that he can get the attention he craves with good behaviour. He could even change. He could even realise that popularity is not the only good. Miracles do happen. Meanwhile, the Donald’s biggest personal challenge is not getting caught consorting with other women when his wife is in New York. His biggest professional challenge is working with other elected officials, who are not going to put up with his autocratic ways any more than did the honourable Senate supporters of Julius Caesar. And as for the battle over the control of social discourse, how on earth did he imagine that he could win that by alienating actors, journalists, the judiciary, the White House staff and the intelligence services?
The great apes, for all their power, control their individual biological urges in order to interact socially. Most human beings learn to do this in infancy. Some take quite a while longer. Perhaps the promised presidential jobs might include a primatologist.
Thanks to Paul Brennan who has released his photograph, ‘Silverback Gorilla profile image’ into the public domain.