(This transcript of a section of Chris Hedges’ recent talk begins around 51:00 on the video linked below.)
Most of the rules of democracy are unwritten. These rules determine public comportment and ensure respect for democratic norms, procedures, and institutions. Trump has, to the delight of his supporters, rejected this political and cultural etiquette. And Arendt noted that when democratic institutions collapse, it is quote “easier to accept patently absurd propositions than the old truths which have become pious banalities.” The chatter of the liberal ruling elites about our democracies is itself an absurdity. “Vulgarity with its cynical dismissal of respected standards and accepted theories,” she wrote, infects political discourse. And this vulgarity is “mistaken for courage and a new style of life.”
Trump’s theatricality works.
He forces the press and the public to repeat his lies, inadvertently giving them credibility. He is always moving. He is always on display. He has no fixed belief system.
Trump, as he consolidates power, and adopts the ideology of the Christian Right, seamlessly forges the magical thinking of the Christian Right with his own magical thinking. Idiocy, self-delusion, megalomania, fantasy, and government repression, will come wrapped in images of the Christian cross and the American flag.
The corporate state, hostile or indifferent to the plight of the citizens, has no emotional pull among the public. It has long presented political candidates as celebrities. Campaigns eschew issues to make people feel good about candidates and themselves. Ideas are irrelevant. Emotional euphoria is paramount. The voter is only a prop in this political theater. Politics is anti-politics. It is reality television. And Trump proved better at this game than his opponents.
It is a game in which fact and knowledge do not matter. Politicians, like celebrities, are manufactured personalities. Reality is what you create. Entertainment is paramount. The skillful manipulation of emotion is confused with knowledge.
We were conditioned for a Trump.
These lies create a climate in which everyone is assumed to be lying. The truth becomes suspect and obscured. Narratives begin to be believed not because they are true, or even sound true, but because they are emotionally appealing.
The aim of systematic lying, as Arendt wrote, is “the transformation of human nature itself.” The lies eventually foster somnambulism among a population that surrenders to the magical thinking and ceases to care. It checks out. It becomes cynical. It only asks to be entertained and given a vent for its frustration and rage. And demagogues produce enemies the way a magician pulls rabbits out of a hat. They wage constant battles against nonexistent dangers, rapidly replacing one after the other to keep the rhetoric at a fever pitch.
“Practically speaking, the totalitarian ruler proceeds like a man who persistently insults another man until everyone knows that the latter is his enemy, so that he can, with some plausibility, go out and kill him in self-defense,” Arendt wrote. “This certainly is a little crude, but it works — as everybody will know who has watched how certain successful careerists eliminate competitors.”
To recover our mental balance we must respond to Trump the way victims of trauma respond to abuse. We must build communities where we can find understanding and solidarity. And we must allow ourselves to mourn. We must name the psychosis that afflicts us. We must carry out acts of civil disobedience and steadfast defiance to re-empower others and ourselves. We must fend off the madness and engage in dialogues based on truth, literacy, empathy, and reality. We must invest more time in activities such as finding solace in nature, or focusing on music, theater, literature, art, even worship, — activities that hold the capacity for renewal and transcendence.
This is the only way we will remain psychologically whole. Building an outer shell or attempting to hide will exacerbate our psychological distress and depression.
We cannot, as the Democratic Party appears to be doing, hope that the 2018 or 2020 elections will solve our dilemma. These reactionary forces, which have been plotting for four decades for this moment, extend far beyond the Trump White House. Their tentacles reach across national borders, meaning no country, including Canada, is immune.