THE BLOG
05/17/2016 11:50 am ET Updated May 17, 2017

Trump and the Triumph of Pabulum: Why?

In the May 12-May 25, 2016 issue of The New York Review of Books Jeremy Bernstein has a most interesting article entitled "The Trump Bomb" in which he shows how clueless and ignorant Donald Trump is about foreign policy. He mostly refers to the interview Trump gave The New York Times on March 26 in which Trump never answered questions and showed how ignorant he was. Bernstein uses an interesting image to describe the candidate: "He did not seem to know his ass from a wheel." For instance, Trump was unaware that Iran could not buy planes from the US for US law prevents it.

Paul Krugman pursued the same theme in his May 9 New York Times column entitled "The Making of an Ignoramus". Now there is no doubt that Trump is an ignoramus who doesn't know his ass from a wheel but the question remains: why does he have so much success in some segments of the US population? The same question could also be asked about the success of other famous ignoramuses such as Berlusconi in Italy or Sarkozy in France, not to speak of Reagan in a previous generation in the US itself. Or George W Bush.

First academics should be careful not to look down on people who do not know because they have not had the privilege of an education; it is also dangerous to underestimate demagogues who often have a form of emotional intelligence that explains their success.

It is of course impossible to know what Trump really thinks about any serious topic for he keeps changing his expressed views, about abortion or Hispanics to name just two issues. It is also impossible to ascertain whether he thinks about issues at all but, like so many demagogues, he has a gift, let's say the gift of the gab, and he knows how to suss out what crowds want and how to offer himself as a screen for them to project their desires and emotions onto.

This is not unusual among politicians, actors and buffoons. Obama actually even said it about himself (The Audacity of Hope): "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." So even though Obama is certainly neither ignorant nor an ignoramus he knew what makes people respond positively to someone they see on stage, on TV or in social media.

Thus people who have lost their jobs because their companies offshored production to China hear Trump's simplistic and xenophobic anti-Chinese comments and they project their desire to stop the negative effects of globalization affecting them. Simple, effective but it, of course, misses the point that the Communist party of China and Wal-Mart are in cahoots to exploit both American workers and Chinese workers, that the destruction of companies in the US is in large part the result of decisions made by US business leaders who are not really anti-Communist if so-called Communists grant them privileges such as access to prison labor or under-paid quasi-enslaved labor. China is like a red rag agitated in front of legitimately angry workers who do not know how capitalism works.

Has it always been like this? Or is the age of Google and social media worse in terms of not being able to unmask the ignoramuses and demagogues? Trump has variously been compared or linked to Andrew Jackson, Mussolini, Father Coughlin, Hitler, George Wallace and other demagogues of the world such as Putin who seems to be far less ignorant than him though. Demagogues have always existed so it is tempting to think Trump is just the latest incarnation of one.

As Michael Lynch shows in a Sunday Review New York Times article Trump thrives on contradiction ("Trump, Truth and the Power of Contradiction" ). He appears strong because he challenges what authorities say, what he calls "political correctness."

In the age of "truthiness" (Stephen Colbert) which started before the latest electoral circus truth does not matter only the appearance or semblance of truth. Reagan was also clueless and had to be told what to say in his speeches or when meeting foreign leaders such as the far more intelligent Gorbachev and he too was a blank screen onto which people projected their hopes and desires. His personality was said to be sunny, he was a genial man and he projected bonhomie. His words, knowledge, consistency hardly mattered. He signed bills he did not understand and let others do all the spadework in his administration. William Leuchtenburg wrote about the so-called "Great communicator" : " (...) a Republican senator went so far as to say: "With Ronald Reagan, no one is there. The sad fact is that we don't have a president."
Trump is as vacuous as the Great communicator who was not there, not a real President and he probably does not know much more about any political or economic topic yet, like the inadvertent Iran-contra schemer, Trump appeals to people for he makes the right noises to accompany the screen he offers voters to project their fears onto. Obama added after the sentence already quoted: "As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them."

Trump does not have the insight to realize this, he is blinded by his narcissism and for him reality is just a deal to be made. He is a dream catcher. His supreme self-confidence or boundless narcissism is actually an asset. René Girard, the philosopher who developed a theory of mimesis and mimetic desire, argued that a flirtatious woman (coquette) knew more about desire than Freud for by loving herself she attracted the desire of others. (Things Hidden Since the Creation of the World ). Trump is a flirt who loves himself and though ignorant he has the same effect on crowds as a femme fatale (another possible translation for coquette) on the proverbial male. Calling a notorious sexist and narcissistic man a femme fatale is not really a contradiction.

So yes Trump is a pabulum expert and balderdash is his trademark but facts and rational thinking will never destroy him for he appeals to the subconscious or the unconscious. He does not want to make sense he wants to create emotions and run away with the anger he has stoked. He is very good at it, tapping into fears and offering fictions to deal with them. He also knows you can be an ignoramus and a president, Reagan was there before and George W. Bush is in the same boat. But as the fate of Ann Richards, the Democrat who had been defeated by W in Texas, shows one should not underestimate the gifted and wealthy ignorant.

Political analysts always want to discuss ideas and policies and platforms but with Trump this is a waste of time. He's in the circus barker market, he is Buffalo Bill creating a myth for gullible spectators who do not want to think but to feel and be wowed. The historian telling Buffalo Bill "ah, your show is a pack of lies" would be a ridiculous figure. The King's buffoon was supposed to make everyone laugh and his mockery of the monarch was accepted; it was even a safety valve or a control mechanism in royal courts. Trump the buffoon of democracy makes a mockery of politics and rational debate. The buffoon made people laugh but he was not expected to replace the King, buffoonery and ruling were different realms. In our age of constant sensational media coverage the buffoon can be the ruler and the ruler can use the tricks of the clown to impose his or her will. Think of Boris Johnson the former Mayor of London.

No amount of fact checking no denunciation of Trump's lies or outrageous statements will diminish his appeal. His words are weasel words and bags of tricks, he is all posture and no substance so he cannot be pinned down. No one ever expected a femme fatale or a self-confident narcissist to be a philosopher or a historian. The attraction here does not lie in the intellect. Trump is a magician who does not care about knowledge or consistency and he will always appeal to non-academics, non-intellectuals who live in the reality of TV escapism, Internet bubble or Google isolation and social media superficiality.

Already a Bush adviser, probably Karl Rove had told Ron Suskind: "...we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality--judiciously, as you will--we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out." Trump is creating his own fantasy reality, exactly what he did on TV, and it has nothing to do with facts or scholarship. He can only be stopped by a counter narrative that does not insult reality and facts but is still a story that appeals to people. Honest story-telling to counter the balderdash of the digital age Buffalo Bill.