We profoundly misunderstand what is happening at the White House. Politics previously referred to as presidential have now become entirely precedential. Before this administration, there was some expectation that a chief executive would at least appear to be watching out for the interests of citizens in a way that befits a president, head-of-stately by definition, attempting to be worthy of respect, deliberate, unhurried, or in some way dignified. Even the appearance of presidentiality is no longer required.
Some would say that the power of the office is now, for the first time explicitly, entirely, publicly devoted to retaining power for its own sake. But even this is a diversion, pulling a cloak of the appearance of individual hubris, as with G.W. Bush before, over the cultural reformation happening. The office has been stripped even of its own definition in service to curating the mythology that allows a faction of the most powerful to control The People even more deeply by setting new precedents, controlling narratives that will be persuasive when making decisions about subsequent issues. The "president" is now only the Distraction-In-Chief. There is now not even a need to pretend that he has an interest in policy or service.
There were things Obama wouldn't do, purportedly because he found them distasteful. He was publicly admired by his opponents for applying with some frequency an archetypally coherent (appropriate to the role he was playing), conservative, public service code of ethics. The Current Occupant of the House That Is White, on the other hand, insists that every interaction is a game of high stakes, life and death deal-making, endlessly playing the one Card That Always Wins: he will go to any length to get what he wants. This will continue to cloak the destruction of the people's government as long as he is allowed to game with impunity the choices that make up what once was called Civil Society. Simply "fact-checking" or commenting on him does way too little, way too late, and supports his strategy in so far as it pretends that the ongoing media blitz resembles a civil discussion.
Flinging our hands over our heads and running about in dismay will not make us less desirable targets for manipulation. It is all well and good to point out that the person striking you in the face is being unfair, but this does little to make an epic beat-down less likely. Even if we can admit that we are in the mythological equivalent of a bar fight, we must admit to ourselves that stock outrage at opprobrium is as predictable as other Deary Me, What Have You Done operatics.
The KQED radio Forum program of March 16, 2017, for instance, worked to put in context the federal budget put forward by the White House, which proposed redirecting the majority of funding devoted to public service toward hostilities both foreign and domestic. A deputy director for external affairs at the California Department of Finance, H.D. Palmer, put the process in the context of theater, as "the opening act of a multi-act play". It is time to acknowledge that our politics are no longer like theater. They have become theater but without qualification, non-stop vaudeville, Vegas vagueries, burlesque from sea to shining sea.
Honest theater requires voluntary participation in pretending. When pretending becomes pretense, suspension of disbelief becomes both unnatural and required, insisted upon on pain of media assault and the removal of federal money. Is some sense of reality required to move from the Reality TV metaphors of the campaign into the literal Oval Office? Now the players entirely lacking relevant qualifications must insist on being treated like The Real Thing, stuffing the derisive art form that mocks by imitation into the suit of actual governance wherein the parody bares real teeth at anyone who doesn't join the pretense. A royal family of paid and unpaid federal "employee" consultants is setting up camp on ground made secularly holy by the sacrifice of generations who struggled to keep us a constitutional democracy.
The adult entertainment show continues to titillate through news-cycle infotainment, stripteasing the public with alt-facts: how far will He go today? When he moves next toward more expansive War President Powers, will he drop his literal pants, having been metaphorically pantsed so frequently already, and wave his actual genitals toward the cameras, so the ensuing tabloidal orgasm will be big enough to dominate the "news" cycle for long enough to thrust legislation through? When the metaphors of the ludicrous imitation campaign are forced into being literal policy, the caricature, travesty, and gross perversion is of the office, and then of justice. Thus is the boundary crossed into the overt manufacture of propaganda, grinding up the bones of good governance to feed the rooting feral pig of kleptocracy.
On the libertarian website Reason.com, Ira Stoll asked "This question—is it ritualistic theater, a kind of performance art, or is it real?—is one worth keeping in mind for all of [his] initiatives, not just his budget. Is, say, the effort to repeal ObamaCare real? Or is it, like the budget cuts, an elaborate show?" Our current political situation makes sense, if you've got the right stories (interpretive metaphors) in mind. Let's quit acting surprised, especially when the political weapons customarily used for stage combat are sharpened and turned on the most vulnerable. We knew they were weapons all along, but hoped we'd get to remain in The Audience. No more. Precedent Rump's Feral Government is rooting out the last truffles of hope.
Hitchhiking into the galaxy of cultural mythology, looking for guidance from a metaphorical world that relished being a parody, and thereby honest, when someone tries to knock your house down it may seem like courage to lie down in front of a bulldozer. This may seem, for a while, to have been an ironic choice, or at least beside the point, if the world continues to appear beyond saving and doomed by an always criminally expedient status quo that is Just Following Orders and Doing Its Job. But it is not too late if there is more to the story.
It is never too late to acknowledge that the positive possible future is as complex as the negative possible future, and equally beyond comprehensive predictive understanding. Despite the danger of looking pathetic, the Hero knows that humane and courageous individual action is not only its own soul-healing reward, but is also absolutely required to make a brighter tomorrow possible, along with organizing and strategic planning without certainty about outcome. Getting down into the mud and reclining in front of a bulldozer has been and can be a genius move that brings specific madness to a halt so that the story of the isolated and vulnerable may continue into tomorrow.
Returning to our climate of denial, however, bulldozer blocking is a less advisable tactic if the aim was to kill you outright or, at least if you live above the poverty line at the moment, roll over any bodies in the way of knocking down the People's house, the ownership of which was once the middle class bellwether of a free/civil society. The White Occupant published his plans for the Western Spiral Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy with every tweet and campaign tactic. If you didn't check the local planning office at Alpha Centauri for details of demolition plans in your sector, then that is not his fault. If you buy the idea that there never was/will be a government obligated to serve The People, then the Occupant is archetypally coherent--doing what he promised--as he is fond of tweeting. His poetry doesn't get better. He is known the universe over for enjoying torture of just this kind.
Promise-keeping, he made very clear, has very little to do with the content of what he says, and everything to do with the context, how and what he does, his every behavior up to this point. He has taught us carefully and made crystal clear through endless repetition that his words are entirely changeable in order to control what people expect and believe, while his behavior remains rigidly consistent. He forces high-speed news cycle-based change-ups to point attention away from substantive changes taking place, and instead on the latest outrage, while his team eliminates with bold strokes the parts of our system of government that check rather than facilitate the accumulation and deployment of power by the powerful and exploitative, especially as they sign-on with his team.
The gloves came off in the era of Dubbya, and are now not only off but have been tossed over the shoulder of the grinning gamesman who has managed to occupy the mightiest position from which to truly be himself, the Randiest individual unfettered and unrestrained. Each time we rend our garments on Facebook decrying his duplicity, we enter a net designed to catch us with the prerequisite that the Emperor if Fully Clothed. He showed us what he would do and be, campaigned explicitly on a history of naked ambition, and now is Trumphantly true to himself. Admirable! It is a most American of triumphs, over which many will not be able to help but swoon. Raw power is ravishing, even as one is being devoured.
The problem, as always, is in the deadly consequences for everybody attempting to live in the fact-based world that will not see the importance of mythological study and expertise. What happens when you elect to head the government someone who has promised to destroy it? If he is a man of his word and a man of action, then he destroys it. All he needs for Mission Accomplished is enough conflict-averse people to depend on invisibility or his approval for their livelihood, or believe that he wouldn't really go as far as he is obviously ready to go, or react to his provocations instead of responding by organizing themselves to enact and insist on the myth of civil society.
We have a massive developmental leap before us, which The Occupant's team counts on The People failing to make. To survive we must now become mythologists, liberal artists (freely and expertly metaphor-proficient) working with mythologies, the way narrative shapes belief and thereby controls action, so that we will be less controlled by media we consume. We must behave like adults, able to put aside products, both media and industrial, which we have come to depend on consuming uncritically and in great quantity.
Even beyond this, we must become martial artists of nonviolence, expecting and practicing conflict on our way to an honorable peace, opting out of violence, systemic oppression, retribution, and even revolution, all of which take too much time and don't satisfy the requirements of civilization. Insted, it is time for coordinated enaction of a truly civil order in which our primary goal and success metric is humane treatment at every level of decision-making and in every connection we make. We can't simply object or resist; we must make Politics As Usual obsolete, an historical artifact like slavery will be someday.
America has always only ever been Great when it has responded to inhumanity at home and abroad by enacting change that works toward the humane light of compassion and dignity shining on every one alike. Lesser goals will stink of Business As Usual. We won't enact this change perfectly, because that is not how human beings have ever worked, but we must set about it and do our very best. It is now, quite literally, a survival necessity. Let us quit acting surprised that the adversary is up in our face, especially when he jumped out of the back alley of street-fight deal-making, promised the world that he was coming for our children, and then ran 83 blocks toward us shouting epithets all the way.
Brandon WilliamsCraig Ph.D.