On the 6th of January my social media went into notification frenzy. Many friends and colleagues wanted to express their shock and revulsion for the events taking place on the Washington Mall and Capitol Hill. Although, I voiced my fears that polarization and Trump’s rhetoric would lead to violence in recent interviews, it was still disconcerting to see it play out in real time.
The fruits of Trump’s strategy of sowing division and hatred in America to remain in the White House erupted last week after he specifically instructed rally-attenders to assault another branch of government. In my November 2020 column, after he lost, I pointed out that Trump still had two months to burn the house down. For those who wanted him to do that, he did not disappoint.
However, for Republicans who hitched on Trump’s star in order to shepherd and bend his 74 million supporters for political power in places like the state of Georgia, the pact with Trump is proving to be very Faustian—in other words, soul-wrenching.
For those readers who are not familiar with the concept, a Faustian bargain is a pact in which one side trades something of moral or spiritual importance, such as personal values or one’s soul, in return for some material benefit, such as knowledge, power or riches. The notion of a Faustian bargain emerges from a medieval story about a German scholar, Johann Faust, who makes a deal with the Devil: Faust would exchange his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. Of course, it ends badly, with the devil transporting the corrupt Dr. Faust to hell.
The lesson is clear, when you trade your principals for power or material wealth, you risk losing it all. Perhaps this realization finally penetrated the minds of the Trump administration officials who resigned the day after the attack on Capitol Hill, including cabinet members who had been with Trump since the beginning of his term. Revealingly, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife.
Trump Enablers and Apologists
If Republicans were engaged in a Faustian bargain with Trump many others in the media and in academe were enablers to Trump’s destructive power. As early as February 2018, I noted that there were plenty of media outlets that profited handsomely from their outrage coverage. For example, did you know, that more than 4,500 English-language books about Trump have been published since he took office? There is even a name for the positive monetary effects realized by the U.S. media and publishing industry: the “Trump bump.”
Trump apologists were enablers too. It was surprising how often I heard the phrase, “I don’t like Trump, but I like his policies.” Even otherwise rational thinkers said things like “he is right to get tough on China,” and the “Europeans need to pay more to NATO.” Neither of these stances are Trump-only policies and expressing the need for Europeans to spend more on their own defense in the Trumpian language of “paying more to NATO” only accomplishes turning European publics against a real need to invest more in their own defense.
I spent some of my Christmas holiday reading Ben Rhodes’ autobiography The World as it Is, which recounts his time as one of Barack Obama’s chief foreign policy advisers. Obama’s meta policy on China and European burden-sharing were identical to Trump’s; differences reside in how these policies were articulated and carried out. Obama’s challenge to China included: negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement as part of an economic strategy against China, the deployment of Marines to Australia as part of a security strategy against China and an opening of Burma as part of softpower strategy to promote democracy in Southeast Asia.
However, if Obama found it difficult to realize policy success, contrary to the Trump-apologists’ arguments, Trump’s China tactics have been a complete failure. This is especially true with Trump’s distinct focus on U.S. trade deficits: in August 2020, the U.S. recorded its largest trade deficit in 14 years, despite the fact that it has gone from being a large importer of oil to an exporter.
Remember that Trump said that he would save American manufacturing, prominently intervening to stop a furnace manufacturer in Indiana from moving jobs to Mexico? Instead, more than 20 manufacturers in Indiana alone moved production to foreign countries since Trump took office, resulting in some 3,000 job losses in the state. Rather than help America’s workers, Trump’s tariffs and trade war with China hit U.S. manufacturing hard.
Twitter, Facebook, Parler etc.
My conclusion is that we are all partly responsible for the insurrection and violence that took place in Washington, D.C. on a day that Congress should have been carrying out a rather boring procedure of counting certified Electoral College votes. The Republicans are responsible for thinking that they could channel Trump’s celebrity for their own political power—their Faustian bargain. The right-wing media is partly responsible for profiting from and spreading Trump’s untruths. The left and center leaning media is partly responsible for profiting from a continual focus on Trump’s outrages, with an obsession on counting the number of Trump’s lies.
And the publics, who lapped up their polarized news sources like there was no tomorrow, they are responsible too. We all kept Trump in the center of our focus, which is just where he wanted to be. For four years Trump was fixated on his own celebrity and obsessed with the media. The New York Times wrote in October 2016 that Trump was a man “intoxicated by the glow of his name in the news media,” and thrilled when he saw his name mentioned.
We all fed his addiction, with every time we loathed him or loved him. In 2018, I wrote that the way to get Trump to function with any sense of normalcy was to hit him where it hurts him the most—ignore him and let him know his bad behavior will go unnoticed. We reject the soap opera and chaos in the White House, instead we will pay attention to good governance and actual policies.
That did not happen. We could not shake off our fascination for all things Trump. And, like all addicts Trump basked in his drug. On the 20th of January 2021, Trump was faced with the prospect of receiving much less attention (with the added real expectation of substantial lawsuits). Trump did what all addicts do, he lashed out at everything and everyone that got in his way of that thing that intoxicated him most.