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Considering Trumpism as a social disease


Over the past several weeks, I have witnessed the death of an idea – the United States as a democratic republic. With the craven abdication of the Senate to Trump in the Impeachment trial, our Rubicon has been crossed. As Caesar noted: “The die is cast.”

The death of our democratic republic is not due to a sudden malfunction of the body politic. Rather, it seems to me more of a congenital weakness that allowed a social disease to ravage our body politic. Trumpism is the latest, and likely fatal, iteration of our particular social disease.

Slavery as our congenital social flaw

There is a split in the collective American psyche, a cleavage emanating in large part from the original sin of slavery. Our self-proclaimed better angels of egalitarianism more often than not fall prey to our foundational racism. The primary fault line in our collective psyche, our civic San Andreas fault, lies in a dichotomy embedded in a proclamation of the equality of all men made by our slave-owning founders. A dichotomy is a division into two contradictory parts. Our tragic flaw seems to be that this twain has never healed, notwithstanding the bloody Civil War.

Governance as the spawn of slavery

This psychic dichotomy runs throughout our constitution and its governmental principles and practices. A quick scan reveals anti-democratic elements arising mainly from political compromises over slavery. The Three-Fifths Compromise in the original constitution (i.e. a slave counted as three-fifths of a white man) is a pillar of our anti-democratic foundational myth. This essential inequality spawned other anti-democratic institutions such as the US Senate (a state with 40 million has the same voice as a state with less than 1 million) and the Electoral College (the avenue for Trump’s undemocratic election).

Moreover, the slave compromises gave rise to other delusions such as the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Contrary to the notion that it protects an individual right to bear arms, this amendment was born as a concession to slave-owners to ensure that the federal government could not impinge upon their slave-capturing militias.

Finally, there is the naked fact that the majority of our citizens, i.e. women, are not constitutionally guaranteed equal rights. Such are these dark clouds hanging over our Reaganesque “shining city on a hill.”

A pox on the body politic

Our foundational racism made us susceptible to outbreaks of nativism and anti-rationalism. This racism is akin to a chicken pox virus lying dormant on our social nerve endings. In periods of homeostasis, the virus remains present in a benign and latent state. However, when a stressor arises in our society, the virus breaks out as a painful attack of shingles. In the 19th century, this outbreak could be seen in the nativist Know-Nothing movement against new immigrants. More recently, the virus appeared as the Tea Party, where the social stressor was the election of a black man as President.

Trump as symptom, syphilis as metaphor

I find a metaphorical analogy to the social and political phenomenon of Trumpism in the disease of syphilis—which in the past was referred to as a social disease.

Syphilis manifests in three stages. The first stage is the initial infection, appearing as a chancre, a lesion that is the entry point of the disease. In the second stage, often manifested as a rash, the disease spreads throughout the body. The third, or tertiary stage, brings the destruction of major organs, especially the brain.

Trumpism Stage 1: reality TV as chancre

The first stage of the social disease that is Trumpism can be located in his reality TV program of the early 2000s. Here the huckster, a demonstrably bad businessman, was given a huge venue to sell his snake oil to an uncritical American public. This played to an element in the American psyche that resonates with the saying “There are simple answers to complex questions …and they are always wrong.” Unfortunately, a large segment of the American public bought Trump’s simple snake oil solutions.

Trumpism Stage 2: the rash of racism

Following his exposure on reality TV, Trump rode the coattails of the Tea Party movement into the political arena. Here he embraced the underlying racism of this movement, and made it manifest in the rash of birtherism. He played on the bias that Obama, a black man, was “other,” and therefore could not qualify to be president. A large, gullible sector of the population bought into Trump’s racist absurdity. This set the stage for Trump to enter the 2016 election via an escalator in his glitzy Trump Tower—a gaudy descent into the abyss, where he and his cohort would go to work destroying our democratic republic.

Trumpism Stage 3: the terminal collapse of democratic governance

In tertiary syphilis, the major organs of the body are compromised and destroyed. So too the destruction of the organs of our body politic began immediately with Trump’s undemocratic election, and has continued with the complete corruption of all norms and standard of good governance. To enumerate a complete list of Trump’s destructive impacts would require a large tome. I will mention two areas of corruption emblematic of the rest.

In the farce of the Impeachment trial, we witnessed the collapse of the constitutional system of checks and balances. Clearly, the legislative branch no longer exercises effective oversight of the executive branch. Trump has asserted autocratic executive powers and the craven Republicans in the Senate have given him their stamp of approval.

The latest, and perhaps most sinister development, can be seen in the corruption of the Department of Justice in the Roger Stone case (which is still unfolding as I write). In effect, Trump has turned the DOJ into his personal political weapon. In my opinion, the crossing of this Rubicon, the transformation of Barr’s Justice Department into Trump’s political police force, is the death knell of our democracy.

One remaining critical question

For some time, the comedian, Bill Maher, has been posing the question that most politicians want to avoid answering. That question is: What if Trump loses the election and refuses to leave office? I end this reflection with this disturbing question hanging in the balance.

Denis Langhans is a retired corporate executive who holds a PhD in the humanities.

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