Crisis, Spectacle, and Donald Trump

10 mins read
"Circus Tent, Taupo" by russellstreet (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Trump claims that impeachment is interfering with his ability to do his job.

When you consider what Trump—as president—does all day as his “work” it makes sense that the way Pelosi and Schiff are conducting this impeachment is throwing off his game.

Yale prof. Timothy Snyder explains that Trump’s “task” is to create crisis & spectacle.

The hitch is that Trump needs to invent the crisis and control the spectacle. He can’t do that with the impeachment probe. He has lost control of the media narrative.

People make fun of how much cable TV Trump watches. Of course he watches TV. How else can he plan his game?

Because he lost control of the narrative, he can’t “govern” the only way he knows how.

Snyder explains that governing by [invented] crisis and [controlled] spectacle is a fascist means of gaining and maintaining power.

The technique comes from Putin, who learned it from an obscure Russian fascist philosopher, Ivan Ilyin.

(Yes, Trump is smart enough to use this technique. He’s a natural, and the technique isn’t hard.)

Ilyin was a Russian nobleman who went into exile after the communist revolution. An admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, Ilyin wrote guidelines for Russian leaders who would come to power after the fall of communism. (He died in 1954).

Ilyin believed fascism would eventually replace both communism and democracy. Ilyin admired totalitarianism and order. The nation, for Ilyin, was like a body. The citizens are the cells. Each must remain in its place.

For Ilyin, fascism = order.

Democracy & communism = disorder & chaos.

Ilyin disliked the middle class, which was always striving for social advancement. Ilyn believed that this fractured society and created chaos. He thought the rulers at the top should rule, everyone else must remain in their place. He thus advocated oligarchy (a few people hold all the power).

For Ilyin, the task of the oligarchs is to preserve the status quo, which means preserving their own wealth and power, and keeping others in their places.

But you can’t tell the people THAT. So you tell them a good story.

You tell them the oligarchs are “redeemers.”

The Leader-Redeemer creates a “mystical connection” with the nation and the people. Make America Great Again is just such a promise.

The Leader-Redeemer earns loyalty by protecting the people from “enemies.” The fascist way to power is to promise to restore the nation to its mythic greatness.

In a liberal democracy presidents spends their days devising policies that make life better for the people.

An oligarch or would-be oligarch can’t do that! If he does, others can rise up and challenge his place at the top.

There will be no “stability.”

OK, so if Leaders don’t govern in the usual sense (devising policy to better the lives of the citizens) what do they do all day?

They manufacture crises. See the Putin-Trump Sadopopulist Playbook in 6 Steps.

They identify “enemies” (brown people, immigrants, Democrats, liberals, migrants, etc.) Then they create spectacle by doing battle with the “enemies.”

They select enemies that can’t actually hurt them (like homeless poverty-stricken migrant families.) This way they don’t have to worry about actual bombs falling on their own heads.

It’s much safer.

What Trump does well is control the media narrative. He does this partly by creating outrage.

Trump didn’t mind that the Mueller probe was hidden from the public because he and his lawyers knew what was happening behind those closed doors, so he knew how to spin the narrative: He misdirected everyone by shouting “NO COLLUSION” for two years. People said “yes collusion!” When there wasn’t evidence beyond a reasonable for conspiracy, he shouted “COMPLETE EXONERATION.”

The only thing Trump can do now is flex his muscles and obstruct the proceedings.

But it isn’t working. When he obstructs, Schiff announces that they’ll simply fold the obstruction into the Articles of Impeachment.

Schiff calmly explains that obstruction shows guilt.

His other strategy—Take Everyone To Court And Stall Until 2021 —also isn’t working. Last spring, the House started subpoenaing the key documents (taxes, bank records). They’ll soon have what they need. They already have enough.

The New York Times reports that, “At the White House, a grim sense of frustration has set in. . . several (aides) expressed fear that other witnesses would come forward. . .”

Of course Trump is frustrated! The House Democrats are in control of the narrative.

Trump can’t do his “work” which consists of 

  • controlling & spinning the media narrative,
  • inventing the kind of crises he likes, and
  • sending his critics spinning with outrage.

So he attacks the probe as “totally unfair” and Tweets nonsense like this:

Trump is losing.

Yes, exactly. People are always amazed that Trump supporters vote against their own economic self-interest. But Trump gives them what they want more than economic advancement: A fight against their “enemies.” They love the fight and the show.

Another good point. Also, the wrongdoing occurred within the Trump campaign, so the only witnesses were Trump world insiders. This wrongdoing occurred in the White House, so we have witnesses in the State Department and other agencies.

Also, with the Mueller probe, we were looking at traditional kinds of crimes. The Ukraine scandal is an abuse of presidential power and a danger to U.S. national security.

This is a good question, and also raises the issue of the mistake the “Impeach right now!” people were making last spring and summer.

Back when Trump appeared to be trying to goad the House into impeachment, it was when impeachment would have been basically about the Mueller findings.

With the Mueller stuff, Trump knew how to control the narrative because he knew the parameters. This was what the “impeach right now” people didn’t understand.

Legally, the House can keep impeaching. Politically, it would be insane. Imagine this: a prosecutor brings charges (obstruction of justice, for example) in June. The jury acquits. Then in September, the prosecutor says, “I have more evidence on that guy! Let’s have another trial!”

See how that looks?

The public was bored with the Russia investigation, and didn’t want to hear about things Trump had done before he was elected president. Scholars on impeachment say that traditional crimes are not what impeachment is about. Impeachment is for a president so abusing his power that removing him in the election may not be an option, or even possible.

If Trump had been impeached last spring, the Senate would have acquitted, and Trump would have declared himself Completely Exonerated.

The House would have looked silly impeaching again.

Trump knew once he was impeached and acquitted, he would would have been insulated from any additional impeachments.

In other words, he would have been untouchable.

Pelosi has decades of Intel experience. A lot of the Ukraine stuff happened in the open. What’s happening now is much more serious and compelling.

Pelosi waited for this or something like it to come out.

Check mate.

Either Pelosi got lucky or she knew what she was doing. Given that she’s the one of the most experienced and savvy people in politics, I’ll take Door #2.

Being a woman complicates this. People are less likely to assume she knows what she’s doing. 

I remember when someone Tweeted this:

I didn’t hear many people referring to Pelosi as “nuanced” last spring and summer.

When Biden said it, it was “nuanced.”

Originally posted on MUSING ABOUT LAW, BOOKS, AND POLITICS. Re-posted with permission.

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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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