While finishing my morning coffee, I recently listened to an interview with Anne Helen Petersen, whose 5th of January essay entitled ‘How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation‘, had gone viral on the internet. Petersen’s arguments about the trials she endures in an era of economic and political instability prompted me to think about and put into the larger context the recent expressions of anxiety voiced by two of my own students here at University College Maastricht. Their fears relate to the intentional disregard of the causes of climate change and the willful neglect of security cooperation at the transatlantic level.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who campaigned and was elected in part to perpetuate the untruth that climate change is not a threat to humanity and to challenge America’s ‘ungrateful’ allies, amplifies both of my students’ worries. Trump’s short-term goals to keep his base happy might be effective to keep him in office but what are the long-term costs of his insurgency? What are the effects of the insurgent—who was elected to burn the house down—when he significantly undermines the procedures that protect workers, students, refugees, allies or the environment?
Trump’s successful propaganda machine
In my course War in World Politics, which examines the causes of major acts of violence, I give a lecture on the role of rhetoric in war. While preparing for this year’s lecture last fall, examples of Trump’s effective rhetoric frequently came to mind. For example, I tell my students that successful rhetoric ‘smolders in the mind’ and for that reason literary figures are often better at it than politicians since writers and poets are more eloquent, with their words evoking emotion in ways that pundits cannot. Trump is not eloquent but in a world where Twitter and reality TV are the catapults to fame and notoriety, perhaps the vulgar is more appealing than the eloquent when arousing feelings today.
Trump is also certainly good at presenting rhetoric that is not merely a conduit of meaning but actively creates meaning. The slogan Make America Great Again, is a good illustration. It conjures up feelings of patriotism and a longing for a return to the grandeur and prosperity of ‘The American Dream’, without actually telling listeners what is meant by ‘great’ nor when America was great in the past. Effective rhetoric avoids specifics and focuses on emotional persuasion using charged language. Such wordsmithing hopes to structure or create new meaning on how the listener should think about the issue or object that is targeted.
It also appears that Trump instinctively understands that people often respond favorably to a deceitful message even when it is obvious that it is biased. People prefer the less truthful story because they want to believe it. This is why conspiracy theories are often so attractive. It is much more comforting to hear that evil has a clear perpetrator, a simple answer, than a devastating outcome was the result of well-intended but bad decisions.
The Whiskey Tango Foxtrot presidency
The combination of wanting to elect the insurgent to shake-up Washington politics, Trump’s effective use of emotional arguments and a preference by everybody to believe untruths that are more palatable, means we have arrived at the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Presidency. One that is adding to the growing sense of disaster for thoughtful people like my students and colleagues. For example, one of my colleagues said that he wakes up in the morning and has a sense of impending doom: what is going to happen next with the Trump White House?
My student who expressed feelings of depression after taking university courses on climate change said his distress related to the realization that we are not doing enough to stop destruction and in fact we continue to aggravate further damage. Gaining knowledge and the realization that the people in charge are resolutely wrecking the future, is distressing.
My student who laments the state of multilateral security frameworks, in particular about the lack of readiness on the part of NATO’s defense capabilities, articulated the same realization. His exact words were, ‘I wish I were ignorant’ about NATO’s ineffectiveness in Afghanistan and in deterring Russia on the eastern flank of Europe. Trump’s view that the U.S. was being played as a sucker—literally that collective defense was a sucker play—magnifies concern.
University students are the segment of our population who should have fire in their bellies to bring about change in our society—who have passion and energy to right the wrongs and fix what is broken in society. When instead they feel the problems are insurmountable or that the powers aligned against them are too formidable, their angst seeps out in various forms of expression and depression.
The Fifth Risk
Over the Christmas holidays, I finished my copy of Bob Woodward’s Fear and started Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk, which has me further connecting the dots between Trump’s rhetoric and his appeal to the willfully ignorant of the true dangers gathering in our future. Lewis focuses on the cabinet and Department level of the Trump administration, revealing how unprepared and uninterested the Trump team was to take over the machinery of government.
Lewis focuses on the Department of Energy (DOE), which has a $30 billion annual budget and is responsible for maintaining and guarding the American nuclear arsenal. The fact that the Trump administration is blasé about the DOE, leaving it largely unmanaged, would be laughable if it were not also terrifying. Add to this the fact that the Trump team holds government bureaucrats in contempt, although 70% of the some 2 million of them work for national security in one form or another, and you have a formula for a real crisis ensuing.
Shut it down
After reading Lewis’ description of what went on in the Department of Energy, and the contempt Team Trump holds for the civil servants that work there, it is easy to understand that he can shut government down. He does not value what they do and he generally has derision for facts he does not like.
He does value re-election and will continue to use the full force of his rhetoric to ensure that he holds onto power. Two years into the Trump presidency, the longer-term effects of his insurgency are to produce anxiety in the people who prefer facts over fiction.