Some Historical and Social Antecedents of Trumpistan
August 6, 2017 § 2 Comments
Recently the media has noted a declining percentage of our neighbors who cling to their faith in the rectitude and promise of President Trump. The number is estimated to be 35%. I derive no comfort from these revelations for two reasons: First, an even lower percntage of our neighbors express faith in the government of our country, the only institution with the power to limit the authority of the President to continue his discredited policies. Second, in a population estimated to be 326,000,000, that means that 141,100,000 of our neighbors cling to their enthusiasm for President Trump.
These facts, to me, describe a country adrift, without effective guidance, in a perilous world. Multinational corporations and the United States military complex seem to be the only sources of effective power, a circumstance I regard with anxiety. It describes Germany in the 1930’s. It describes Egypt and Turkey, both of which are sinking into the hands of military-backed totalitarian governments.
Even our Supreme Court, the institution charged with the preservation of our Constitutional republic, appears to be in the hands of a majority who seek the ressurection of legal principles which opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Justices like McReynolds and Field, in the 1920’s and ’30’s, sought to superimpose on the Constitution the limitations of what they referred to as “Natural Law” which, in practice always coincided with and favored the interests of business corporations and thwarted the collective efforts of the people, acting through their government
The Nature of Mass Delusions
Dangerous nonsense thrives when one or more of the following is true:
First, there is widespread disparity of access to accurate and pertinent information. For the first few centuries of life in our country, this disparity prevailed between the majority of our citizens who lived in generally isolated small villages and settlements and a minority who lived and did business in cities. Our literature and folk lore is replete with stories of the “rube” from the country who is the victim of manipulation by a “city sliker”. This phenomenon prevailed until the 1920’s when the automobile and the radio significantly erased this isolation.
Second, there is general access to many sources of information but no filter to insure its reliability. Britebart and numerous similar sources offer carefully crafted misleading and false information equally accessible with CNN, CBS, NBC and BBC. The Internet and the ubiquity of smart phones leave individuals no way to distinguish lies and baloney from truthful information.
Third, significant disparity of knowledge between the originator of information and its consumer and target. “Insider trading” and commercial advertising are examples of this kind of trolling for suckers.
Fourth, the educational background and store of knowledge of the consumer of information determines his or her ability to evaluate and choose sources of information.
To summarize: Our technology, a potential asset for the dissemination of knowledge, has, instead become a treacherous vehicle for demagogues to peddle their messages of hate, division and chaos and to undermine the fail-safe protections of our Constitution.
The Intellectual Ancestors of Trump
The self-absorbed buffoon, supremely oblivious of his own stupidity and groossly unsuited for the task he has chosen, is a character famously protrayed by talented writers and playrights.
The first great novel, Don Quixote de La Mancha, Cervantes’ two volume masterpiece, featured a hero who, after reading tales of dashing knights, fair maidens and thrilling exploits, failing to understand they were fictional, embarked on his own quest for fame and fortune. His efforts were, like our similarly self deluded President, fraught with a series of pratfalls and misadventures.
A few decades earlier, Shakespeare enlivened four of his plays with the antics and absurd exagerations of John Falstaff, who, like Trump, shamelessly misrepresented his accomplishments, ignored his critics and never acknowledged his errors, regardless of how plainly they were perceived by others.
Our own Nobel Prize winning novelist, Sinclair Lewis, immortalized a religious huckster who, again like Trump, transfixed large crowds with emotional performances, promising salvation and happiness to his listeners while offering them protection from threatened harm from their enemies, the devil, in Gantry’s tents personified as Democrats in Trump’s.
For a few decades, beginning in the 1920’s, a couple of cartoonists, Gene Ahem and Bill Freyse, entertained readers of the funny papers with the puffery and exaggerated exploits of Major Hoople in a comic strip named Our Boarding House. The Major, who was a sargent in the Civil War, promoted himself with endless bragging about his bravery, just as Trump never tires of regaling listeners with accounts of his financial successes, artfully omitting mention of his bankruptcies and the legal settlements of suits brought by victims of his tortious misconduct and desperately refusing disclosure of his income tax returns.
Another example of an earlier model of the Trump was Huey Long, the rags to riches Louisiana politician who epitomized Edgar Lee Masters’ warning through one of his characters in Spoon River Anthology: “Beware of the man who rises to power on one suspender.” Long was a demogogue who, like Trump, built an empire with extravagant construction projects. Less fortunate than Trump, Huey’s governorship was cut short by assassination. Also, unlike Huey, Trump had a handsome inheritence, not one suspender, to assist his rise to power. A novel about a character like Huey Long, also the basis for a movie, is All The Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren. Despite the similarities, Warren has stoutly denied his novel was a roman à clef .
Extraordinary Popular Illisions and the Madness of Crowds
Just as the Trump character has several fictional and real identifiable ancetors, his ability to mesmerize large numbers of people with his outsized promises of prosperity has similar historical examples. Several of these have been described in a fascinating book by Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Illusions and the Madness of Crowds. The book can be read online as a PDF file at https://vantagepointtrading.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Charles_Mackay-Extraordinary_Popular_Delusions_and_the_Madness_of_Crowds.pdf
[Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, Bernard Baruch said that what he learned from reading this book,, prompted him to sell all his stock before the crash of 1929.]
The book invites skipping around among chapters listed in the table of contents. Unfortunately I was unable to find any way to skip directly to a particular chapter, so scrolling is required.
This book was published in 1841. I contains a well written account of about a dozen instances when greed motivated crowds of otherwise sane and sensible people to hand over their money to promoters of schemes so bizarre as to challenge the imagination. The events occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries when education levels varied significantly according to class and communication technology was primitive by our standards, thus leaving ordinary people without any means of checking the accuracy of tales of foreign lands or in places inaccessible to the public, like laboratories, mines and business offices.
The circumstances were, as a result, ripe for promoting promises of wealth based on incomplete and sometimes deliberately false information.
Here are a couple of examples: Tulipmania: descibes the obsession of British citizens with tulip bulbs from Holland and the amazing marketing of different colors of tulips, leading speculators buy and sell popular species at inflated prices until the market collapsed, leaving a wreakage of lost fortunes.
The South Sea Bubble is a more famous example. Tales of gold located in Peru and Mexico served as a basis for a partnership between the British government and some private investors in ventures promising great profits from access to those mines. Shares were marketed in the project and crowds of English men and women risked fortunes competing for those shares, whose value inflated significantly until the scheme collapsed, leaving prominent members of Parliament and countles private citizens victimized and impoverished. This occurred before limited liability laws protected investors to the extent they do now. The consequences were, therefore, more catstrophic than they would be today..
The South Sea Bubble, like public confidence in the financial prowess of Trump, is an amazing exemple of publc gullibility because: (a) At the time of the Bubble, Peru and Mexico were part of the empire of Spain and, hence, not available for exploitation by the British. and (b) Trump’s claims of financial prowess depend entirely on the claims by him and his family, all made while vigorously opposing efforts to enable public access to his income tax returns.
This morning I watched Fareed Zakaria’s program on CNN. He is, for me, close to Paul Krugman as a source of intelligent information about what is happening. During his opening remarks he spoke of a new book by Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. I have ordered a copy.
Lilla’s message is, according to Zakaria: The Democratic Party needs to broaden its appeal beyond the issues of race, ethnicity and abortion. He does not argue that these issues should be abandoned, but those who disagree, for example, with abortion rights should not be excluded from the appeal of the Party. Lilla is a Catholic and is not a supporter of abortion rights but he regards himself as a liberal .
I am not making any judgment, obviously, because I haven’t read the book. I have, however, expressed before my frustration about the Democratic Party’s indifference to the rights of unions.
In that way, I feel like Lilla: I find no comfortable place in political efforts which, in my opinion, fail because they treat the working class as in need of education, deserving rebuke for their lack of enthusiasm for racial justice, and as a group having limited relevance in this age of technological sophistication. I attribute the loss of the recent election to these policies and to the fact that neither the Clinton nor the Obama administration paid any attention to the rights of working people.
Welfare programs and training school scholarship programs do not empower the beneficiaries. We are suffering because the only empowered force is corporate wealth. Hiring more experts in money raising and TV ad design is not going to solve our problem.Empowering the working class is the only weapon that will change the political dialogue. That will take years and it’s way past time for the Democratic Party to awaken and begin the process.
In the meantime, I have enjoyed a few hours of placing our present embarrassment in the White House in some kind of historical and sociological context.