The Con He Rode In On

The Con He Rode In On

Amid the sensory swirl of the airplane hangar in Freeland, Michigan, the leader slow-walks toward us, fist pumping slowly, with that trademark ponderous tread of his (dating back at least to his boardroom entrances in The Apprentice), adjusts the mike, leans slightly sideways, and lances into it all with a stark declaration: “We brought you a lot of car plants, Michigan! We brought you a lot of car plants. You know that, right?”

Comes in prompt response the ear-splitting roar of affirmation, clear as clear can be: Yes, Mr. President, we know that! A joyful knowledge, a knowledge to celebrate: all those jobs in all those car plants! But what exactly is it possible to know about those car plants? I could not have been the only one in that obstreperous crowd, made up overwhelmingly of Michiganders, to know the presumably important fact that, well   … those car plants didn’t exist. Any member in good standing of the ancient “reality-based community” could have told you that since the coming of Trump no new car plants had been built in Michigan, that since his ascension not less than three thousand Michiganders had lost jobs in the vital auto sector. Perhaps it wasn’t Trump’s fault, but it was a fact. But what was a fact exactly?

In the imagination of the crowd Trump was an original but the lineaments of that imagination, its workings and its cravings, are anything but new. Those surrounding me were not poor (though poorer now than six months before); white working class, middle class, they could see clearly enough what they didn’t have: power. What had become increasingly obvious over the decades of dwindling wages and pointless wars and now this endless pandemic was the extent of their own powerlessness. They needed not only someone to blame — immigrants, anarchists, affirmative action beneficiaries, Black Lives Matter protesters, a corrupt and devious elite who for its own self-interested reasons let them all have free run — but a voice to articulate it.

The dynamic playing out before me was ancient: Already Nietzsche was calling it “ressentiment,” and had he been transported to Freeland, Michigan the German philologist would have recognized instantly what he was seeing enacted before him, a kind of Mummers’ revolt of the powerless:  “The ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with imaginary revenge. … This No is its creative deed.”

Trump, the tribune of the powerless, the unmasker of the powerful, the denouncer, the insulter, the despoiler of idols — Trump was their “imaginary revenge.” He entertained them, flattered them, and from his strength they drew encouragement. Here before me, among those hooting and hollering at fanciful car plants and sacrificing themselves, maskless, to the leader’s imagination was Nietzsche’s futile “resentment of the lambs for the bird of prey,” and it was on that soul-deep instinct that Trump played like a virtuoso.

— Mark Danner (excerpted from the New York Review of Books)

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