Pop Stuff: Golden Goose, Rotten Egg
The normalization of bad behavior, followed by refusal to concede is playing out like a spectator sport
By one tally, Donald Trump is the biggest loser in America today. Over seventy-eight million Americans decided, in casting a vote for now President-elect Joe Biden, to vote Trump out of office – the most votes cast for any president in American history and as such the most votes cast to oust the losing candidate. In the days since, President Trump, ever the sore loser, has been absorbed in litigating, as he calls it, ‘the rigged election’, rife with ‘fake votes’ and encouraging the seventy-three million-plus people that voted for him (the second-highest tally in American history) to mistrust the vote count. As America grappled with a massive second-wave surge in Covid-19 cases, her President essentially threw an equally giant size tantrum that included him proclaiming on Twitter ‘I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!’ shortly after every major news network in the country had decided that he was, in reality, on his way out. Twitter marked these and other tweets as misleading and television networks cut Trump off as he raged from the White House, during the vote count, that the election was being ‘stolen’ from him. In four years of incessant headlines usurped by a man who thrives on confrontation, attention, self-adulation and defying every imaginable rule of conduct, the days around the election literally trumped all the others.
Trump’s legal battles are unexpected to amount to anything except a great scourge on the democratic process. No evidence of voter fraud has been found and election officials representing both Democratic and Republican parties in every state have stated no irregularities. Still, Trump has proceeded to resist the U.S. election results in a move never seen by a sitting president. Days after the election his attorney general, William Barr, authorized investigations into supposed voter fraud as many in his party fell in line. For over two weeks after the results were broadcast, Biden’s team was refused access to transition offices, intelligence briefings, coronavirus information and resources guaranteed under law even as leaders across the world from Boris Johnson to Angela Merkel to Narendra Modi congratulated the President-elect. It was only after losing battles in several states where he was contesting vote counts and receiving a scathing letter signed by over one hundred and sixty top American executives demanding that the administration recognize President-elect Biden, that Trump allowed the transition to proceed. Even as he did so he refused to concede, promising he would ‘never concede to fake ballots’ in an election that officials have described as the ‘most secure in American history’.
Still, the fact that Trump pulled in seventy-three million votes, defying the wide margin that pollsters had predicted he would lose by, cannot and should not be scoffed at. He delivered for his base in crucial ways; expanding a conservative judiciary, recognizing a White working-class voter who felt increasingly ignored, presiding over low unemployment and a roaring stock market prior to the pandemic (even if it was not entirely of his making) and sticking to America-first protectionist policies that shook both Washington and the world order. Even Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic has been viewed positively by people within his base who are eager to move on, understandably worried about shuttering their businesses, less understandably disinclined to trust science. What America really has to grapple with is not so much why so many of her citizens embrace his policies as where the tacit acceptance of his conduct could lead.
Donald Trump the Queens-born, formerly Manhattan-based, real estate developer who rose to television fame with the success of his reality show The Apprentice began his presidency with a lie that foreshadowed four years in power that would be rife with them. Right after inauguration day, Trump had his press secretary declare that his audience ‘was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe’. Everything from drone footage to a simple side-by-side shot of his inauguration crowds versus those of his predecessor President Barack Obama showed quite clearly that Obama drew the bigger crowds by multiples, yet President Trump insisted that his numbers were well over ‘a million, a million and a half people’. This wasn’t entirely shocking given that he had spent several years promulgating the ‘birther lie’, the lie that Obama was not born in the U.S. and therefore not fit to be president himself. He had to give this one up after Obama presented his birth certificate. Trump’s ensuing years in office were marred by lies about everything from stating that Mexico would bear the cost of building the border wall which had been one of his key campaign promises, to circulating the conspiracy theory that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections, something which U.S. intelligence found no evidence of, to suggesting that the coronavirus would be gone by April because it was ‘fading’ and would ‘miraculously go away’.
We need go no further back than George W. Bush and the weapons of mass destruction that were never found in Iraq or Bill Clinton’s claim that he never had sexual relations with an intern in his White House to find instances where U.S. presidents have told blatant untruths but Trump has made lies so normal that all news everywhere now risks seeming fake. The Washington Post has been keeping a tally of Trump’s lies since the day he took office and their total surpassed twenty-thousand earlier this year or more than twelve lies a day. It feels absurd to have to point this out but the problem with lies told by the leader of a country once seen as the world’s exemplar of democracy is that they undermine her citizens’ trust in each other, in government and other countries’ trust in the United States. When the President lies, the politicians in his party who have a stake in his policies are compelled to stay silent and the people who voted for him must either abandon him at the cost of their political ideology or stand by him and be disdained by the other side in the two-party system that is America. Living with lies creates a cesspool of suspicion, angst and cognitive dissonance that has eaten away corrosively at both sides of the political spectrum. Republicans on the Right and Democrats on the Left, imagining demonic caricatures of the other, are further from compromise than they have ever been.
If lying has been Trump’s way of projecting an image of success when the reality falls short of it, bullying has been his preferred method of managing people that oppose his narrative or don’t fit into his world view. The hallmark of a bully is a tendency to insult and traffic in-group stereotypes in place of reasoned discussions. Early on in his presidency, Trump began by referring to immigrants as potential ‘rapists’ in defense of his border wall. Later in 2018, in a conversation with a group of U.S. senators about protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and several African countries he was said to refer to these places as ‘shithole countries’ preferring to take immigrants from European countries like Norway. Prior to this ‘shithole’ had not been a big part of the presidential lexicon. Trump has called people so many derogatory nicknames that there is a Wikipedia page dedicated to them from ‘Crooked Hillary’ to ‘Sleepin’ Joe’ to ‘Jeff Bozo’. Last year he posted a series of tweets suggesting that a group of Democratic congresswomen of color, ‘go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came’.
Comments like this which would have seemed unthinkable of in the pre-Trump years have become part of an increasingly ugly vocabulary which, as with this particular attack, often reek of xenophobia and racism. The racist rhetoric only ramped up in the final year of Trump’s presidency which was marked by the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. Instead of using language to heal during crisis, as great leadership is called on to do, Trump persisted in referring to Covid-19 as the ‘Chinese Virus’ or ‘Kung Flu’ and undermined the Black Lives Matter protestors by referring to them as ‘thugs’ and ‘terrorists’ even as the large majority of the protests were peaceful. In reacting to protests that did turn violent, Trump chastised state officials for not ‘dominating’ the streets as many of them tried to diffuse the tension and tweeted a phrase first used by segregationists saying, ‘when the looting starts the shooting starts’ which prompted Twitter to flag the President’s post as violating their rules against glorifying violence.
It is not unusual for judicious use of force to be required to de-escalate the hostility of the kind many U.S. cities saw in the wake of the protests following the death of George Floyd but Trump’s rhetoric and actions, which included sanctioning the use of tear gas on peaceful protestors outside the White House, seemed to do just as much to fan the flames. In fact, studies have found that hate groups have ballooned to well over one thousand during Trump’s presidency. White nationalist hate groups have grown by over fifty percent. When asked in the first presidential debate if he would condemn White supremacist groups like the Proud Boys, Trump said ambiguously that he would tell them to ‘stand back and stand by’. This echoed his 2017 refusal to condemn violent White nationalists during a rally in Charlottesville where he responded by saying there were ‘good people on both sides’. The racist sentiment can be traced back even further to 1989 when Trump, in his early days as a real-estate tycoon in New York City, took out ads in local papers suggesting that the Black teenage boys who were prime suspects in the horrific rape-killing of a White female jogger in Central Park, be hanged. Even though the men, known as the Central Park Five, were exonerated after serving their sentences and spending the better part of their lives in prison, Trump continued to maintain that they were guilty.
More flagrant even than what can be construed as the racist underpinnings of Trump’s actions in numerous instances is his abysmal treatment of women. It is hard to forget the image of Donald Trump on national T.V. prowling menacingly behind Hillary Clinton on the debate stage as she tried to ignore his presence and speak to the audience. It seems obvious when we recall that this is the same man who allegedly walked into the Miss Teen USA and Miss USA changing rooms, as owner of the pageants, while women as young as fifteen were in various states of undress. It is not shocking that someone with little respect for women’s physical space has been accused of sexual assault twenty-six times. Trump has denied all these assaults but there is no denying the demeaning terms which he has used to describe women – from ‘horse-face’ to ‘crazed, crying lowlife’. Diplomacy has no place in the Trump rule book. He insulted Theresa May and Angela Merkel, calling the former ‘a fool’ and the latter, ‘stupid’, whilst having warm words for Vladimir Putin on multiple occasions.
Trump has reserved his biggest insults for powerful women who have crossed him. When the Fox news anchor Megyn Kelly was tough on him during a debate he responded the next day by saying, ‘she had blood coming out of her wherever’. Of Nancy Pelosi, the senior-most woman in U.S. government as Speaker of the House of Representatives, he has said she has ‘mental problems’. Of teen activist Greta Thunberg, Trump, loathe to acknowledge climate change, suggested that she has ‘anger management problems’ and needs to ‘chill’. The world’s most powerful leader used his bully pulpit to attack a sixteen-year-old fighting for a healthy planet. Fortunately, Thunberg can fight for herself. In the long days of vote counting before the election result, Thunberg took to Twitter to suggest that it was Donald who needed to ‘chill’.
I could have used more of Thunberg’s clarity of mind as a teenager. When I was thirteen years old, I was walking in a crowded, outdoor market a few paces behind my mother when a man, whose face is a blur, walked quickly past me, shoving his hand between my legs as he did so. I was confused and mortified enough not to tell my mother what had happened and only years later did I even grasp that these few seconds were an invasion and not just an imagined mistake. I was luckier than the majority of women whose experiences are far more traumatic and ‘forgot’ about the incident until decades later when Donald Trump ran for President of the United States of America and a tape surfaced of him in the run-up to the 2016 election from eleven years prior where Trump, then star of The Apprentice, bragged to television host Billy Bush that as a celebrity he could have his way with women boasting to Bush, ‘Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.’
Watching this news, I had a vivid memory of the white and green dress I was wearing on that forgotten day as a barely-teen. There was wide speculation that Trump stood to lose the presidency in light of the incident caught on tape. Shy of a month after the tape was released, Trump secured an electoral victory to clinch a win. Ultimately, not enough people were that concerned about women being ‘grabbed by the pussy’. Who cares if the President engages in a little ‘locker room talk’, they said.
Four years later you could say Trump has held a country hostage in his personal locker room treating people of all stripes in a way unimaginable for a respectable leader. And yet people make myriad excuses for him. The same politicians within his party who once called him out for his behavior have caved, often slaves to party politics. Many voters who once wanted a change but not a tyrant have turned into MAGA loyalists because they feel he is the only spokesperson for their grievances. Trump apologists suggest that Trump is a strong leader. I ask what kind of strength needs to rely on lies, bullying, ugly rhetoric and sowing division to lead. These traits are the domain of the massively insecure not the strong. The people who dismiss them might look inwards at their own relationship to misogyny, patriarchy and power. On the flip side, Trump’s most fervent detractors have called him a strongman and claim he foreshadows a dictator. Besides the fact that he has not actually excluded political rivals or blanketed airwaves with coverage, Trump frankly lacks the interest in actual governance to be called either. Yet, the allure of Trump-ism does pose a significant threat to democracy in America and around the world.
While some voter statistics confirmed largely expected biases- a majority of older, White men, White men without college degrees and Christian social conservatives voted for Trump and a majority of college-educated men, younger voters, women, specifically minority women, voted for Biden – other voting blocs went against the pollsters’ expectations. Trump brought voters out in greater numbers than ever before. The gender gap was expected to widen given Trump’s treatment of women and there was not much change. Notably, White women continued to support Trump in large numbers – fifty-five percent of White women voting for Trump, versus only eight percent of Black women. Whilst Black votes went overwhelmingly to Biden, Trump’s support from Black men increased over the previous election in spite of the media focus on police killings of Black men as did Trump’s support from Latino men.
Post-election pundits seeking to make sense of the results have had to elucidate Trump’s appeal for a Left that appears blindsided. Older, White men are afraid of losing their grip on power. Wealthy taxpayers don’t want to part with their money. Republicans are pursuing party politics over personality. Many on the religious right are single-issue voters for whom sexual ethics and pro-life laws are the only concern albeit one that has ironically led them to make an ally of an unethical figure. Democrats, once the party of the working class, are increasingly seen as coastal elites who at best don’t understand the issues the blue-collar worker faces and at worst snub him entirely. The Democratic Party is losing the propaganda war and spooking moderates with their framing of far-left initiatives. Trump’s often overbearing use of force appeals to voters who want a ‘Law and Order’ president. Lower-income voters, some of whom believe their pocketbooks have fared better under Trump, simply don’t have the economic privilege to make a decision that is about rejecting the cult of personality for the path of perceived moral superiority. For some, a stimulus check emblazoned with Donald Trump’s signature (something he insisted on even as he opposed more generous measures) feels like the only safety in a world of talking-head news channels.
The truth is it is easier for me understand the Trump voter who votes from a place of food insecurity than the one who votes from a place of wealth preservation or because they cannot read between the lines of Trump-issued, scare ads showing elderly people unable to get help from a 9-1-1 call. And I am not generous enough to empathize with the voter who votes from a place of preservation of the White power structure and is unable to accept a more equitable order. In a country that is as bitterly divided as America is right now, perhaps my intransigence is more problem than solution. People with opposing views might call my focus on equality a fantasy or say my inability to stomach Trump’s abrasive qualities makes me a liberal snowflake bound by political correctness. To those on the Left and the Right, I would say the same thing. If a call for decency in leadership – a modicum of honesty, a push away from prejudices, a tempering of language – is somehow too subjective or too fluffy, then consider this. Donald Trump doesn’t really care about you or me, the person Donald Trump cares most about is himself. And that means that in the end he will fight, unfettered by scruples or bound by duty to the whole, for the cause of those who prop him up the hardest.
The quality that has defined Trump’s presidency more than anything else from the day he wildly exaggerated the numbers at his inauguration is his narcissism. He has built himself up by putting others down, overplayed his successes and papered over his failures as evidenced by a lengthy New York Times investigation into the tax returns that he refused to disclose to the American public, surrounded himself by sycophants, elevating those that agree with him and firing those who don’t and has scarcely let a day go by without using his Twitter feed to make himself the day’s headline. This has been nowhere more evident than the 2020 election wherein the long days of vote counting, at new peaks of the pandemic, Trump called for his win whereas Biden called repeatedly for unity. After the election was called for Biden, Trump took to Twitter to make unverified claims about voter fraud, proclaim that he won the election and took time out to chastise his one-time ally Fox News, who he was reportedly furious with for being the first to call the once Republican stronghold of Arizona for Joe Biden. ‘@Foxnews day time ratings have completely collapsed’ Trump tweeted, ‘They forgot what made them successful, what got them there. They forgot the Golden Goose.’
Trump’s narcissism has driven him to push the electorate to the most palpable disharmony that I can recall, consistently fueling his supporters with the potent force of anger towards the other side. In this sense, he wins while America loses. In the Trump years, it has grown increasingly difficult for citizen Democrats and Republicans to have healthy debates, tearing communities, families and generations asunder. The level of political polarization seen around the elections of Democrat Barack Obama and Republican George W. Bush before him seem like a high school spat in comparison. In both these elections, the transfers of power from Bush to Obama and Obama to Trump proceeded relatively seamlessly as Bush and then Obama welcomed the new entrant into the White House and called for disappointed factions of voters to give him a chance to lead. The now-famous note that Bush Sr. left for incoming President Bill Clinton in 1989 reads like a wistful paean to bipartisanship, ‘Your success is now our country’s success,’ he wrote, ‘I’m rooting hard for you’. Today a concession speech from Trump seems like a longshot. A welcome and a handwritten note would be a minor miracle.
Even in the contested U.S. election in 2000 which pitted presidential hopeful Al Gore against incumbent George W. Bush and was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, the difference was a little over five hundred votes in the single state of Florida. Today, Trump is challenging several states that Biden has won by numbers ranging from over ten thousand to over forty thousand. Trump’s refusal to concede endows, like-minded populists, with a new rule book that encourages pushing the absolute limits of government in the service of power. It is also a gift to autocrats everywhere. After all, if it’s good enough for the Golden Goose it’s good enough for the gander. It seems fitting that the leaders who held back on congratulating President-elect Joe Biden are not known to champion democracy. Putin, Kim Jong Un and Bolsonaro were in this increasingly tiny club of holdouts.
Politics has always been a murky game that risks getting a lot murkier everywhere. The normalization of bad behavior, followed by refusing to concede, rejecting the smooth transfer of power, and pushing to contest an election that has no known evidence of irregularities or fraud, delegitimizes governance and is playing out like a spectator sport across the world, that cannot be unseen, a dog-whistle that won’t be unheard. But it is up to anyone who believes in the sanctity of voting to push back. Not least because whilst Trump may be mired, post-presidency, in a raft of legal issues including cases of tax fraud, campaign finance violation and a defamation suit from an alleged rape victim, he will also enjoy continued support. A presidential run in 2024 or the launch of something that looks like ‘Trump TV’ are both real possibilities. If his supporters as much as his detractors don’t hold the Donald Trumps of the world to a bar of decency and conduct, there might be few liberties left to hold on to. History has proven that there is often dirt under the rim of even the shiniest politician. When the grime is so evident, it is the role of the electorate to point it out and force a clean-up before the wheels fall off the car.
Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. Twitter: @soleilnathwani