On Saturday, Donald Trump’s diehards held the “Million [sic] MAGA March” in Washington D.C. As the name implies, they promised that millions of Trump supporters would attend. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany concurs. Like a dutiful girlfriend dishing lies about her boyfriend’s mushroom dick, she said attendance will be “quite large.” News reports peg “Million [sic] MAGA March” attendance between three and five thousand (McEnany flattered her boss on Twitter, lying that the crowd was in the “MILLIONS”).
From the 2016 inauguration on, Trump and his people routinely oversell attendance at pro-Trump events. No surprise. Trump clearly admits he lies to inflate pretty much everything. Back in 1987, Trump “wrote,” “The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion” (Art of the Deal).
Trump opponents read that and think, “Those suckers,” without realizing that oftentimes they buy into Trump’s “bravado” by assigning powers to Trump that he doesn’t have – strategic acumen, great communication skills, strength and forbearance. Too often, Trump’s critics forget or lessen the role our institutions play in containing Trump, while ignoring the power of the public.
An example of inflating Trump at our expense is a comment I received to a social media post I recently wrote. I ranted that the American Bar Association and state Bars need to sanction Trump-aligned lawyers who file frivolous and vexatious “election fraud” lawsuits. My commenter wrote, “Do the courts have the guts to sanction Trump’s lawyers?”
There are plenty of things wrong with that question/statement. To begin, the writer assumes that Trump holds sway over the courts (and, by extension, controls the whole of the government). Given that we have three “co-equal” branches of government, none of which are more powerful than the other, and none of which control the other, the idea that courts are subservient to the president is theoretically wrong. Further, if the courts didn’t “have the guts” to take on Trump, New York state and Manhattan would not be investigating Trump for financial fraud and corruption, Trump would not have up to 80% of his executive orders die in court, and judges would not be tossing aside Trump “election fraud” cases as if they were junk mail.
Beyond not being in sync with reality, the question/statement promotes the idea that we are weak, helpless bystanders in our democracy and that our institutions, as flawed as they are, are beyond our control. Certainly, the powerful and wealthy subvert democracy by placing limits on it and corrupting the process with money. Too often those in power ignore the public. However, although our democracy is not perfect, it is also not a lost cause. When we organize smartly and persistently, we can impact elections (we did elect Biden). We also can take to the streets and scare the establishment into acting (as we have with the Floyd/Taylor protests). There are also plenty of ways for us to work democracy that fall between the ballot box and disruption.
If we are spectators of our democracy, that is our choice, one informed by cynicism rather than reality. There is absolutely nothing stopping us from writing judges hearing these cases and urging them to sanction those who are abusing the process (pushing cases based on nothing by hearsay and assumptions, something which would get a law student a Fail if she ever tried that bullshit in mock court). We – especially the lawyers among us – can contact the American Bar Association and state Bars and say, “WTF? You support this kind of ‘lawyering’?” Republican white-shoes law firms ducking Trump and backing out of the fight is a pretty good sign that this “election fraud legal strategy” is a sham. Trump fundraising off it is proof that it is a con.
We must get out of the habit of responding to everything “Trump” with defensive comments which unwittingly reinforce Trump’s power while diminishing our own. Listen to talking head Mark Shields, who last night on PBS Newshour, said that D.C. politics is not about power but the “perception of power.” Make people believe you have power and you have power.
The president, Congress and the courts are only as powerful the Constitution allows. Beyond that, whatever extracurricular power they have is consciously or subconsciously given to them by us. We might be ignorant of our power but those with wealth and influence are not. They spend billion to sell us on the primacy of the powerful and the weakness of the public. They permeate television, the press and social media with cynicism, manipulating us to simply observe and complain about politics and life, conning us to believe that we are powerless to change things. The process is called “engineering consent” (Edward Bernays) or “manufacturing consent” (Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman). Once softened up, conmen like Donald Trump are able to work their “bravado” on us, manipulating our perceptions so that they emerge the All Powerful and we merely weak subjects.
When we deny Trump power by swatting away his claims to extralegal power, we pop that big orange balloon that he calls his head. Trump is left holding a mushroom in his tiny hands, while we chuckle at Kayleigh McEnany’s contention that Trump is “quite large” – which brings us back to MAGA marches and the like.
A month ago, some MAGA freak from Texas “organized” a rally outside Twitter HQ in San Francisco. He advertised it as a “free speech” rally with over a dozen speakers (few who agreed to speak) and said that tens of thousands of MAGAs would be there, including thousands of Proud Boys. On protest day, no more than two dozen MAGAs showed up – No Proud Boys, only one advertised speaker. The MAGAs were swarmed by hundreds of counter-protesters and the Texas MAGA organizer lost a toof after getting punched in the mouth.
Some liberals were worried that the counter-protests and thumping would fuel Trumpers and seal Trump’s re-election. No reason to fear: The whole fiasco fizzled in less than 24 hours. The majority of us perceived what went down exactly as it went down: A pathetic attempt at attention by a very small fringe of American society. We refused to feed the propaganda monster with our worries and fears. And we moved on to more important things.
Today, a few thousand MAGAs in DC participating in a “Million [sic] MAGA March.” Pictures and videos show desperate culties chasing Trump’s motorcade (he drove by on the way to his golf course). The rally grounds resembled an off-off-off-off-off brand comic book convention attended mostly by people there to sell merch. The promised thousands of Proud Boys turned out to be close to a hundred. Anti-Trump/anti-fascist counter-protesters didn’t overwhelm the MAGAs, but they nearly matched their numbers (Biden’s win saps some of the urgency out of Trump’s opposition).
For all their bravado and hyperbole, the MAGAs routinely fail to deliver. Their power lies not in their numbers, but in their loudness and obnoxiousness, as well as our worry and fear. Yes, they have guns, but they are mostly used as props. Aside from a handful of whacked out extremists, MAGAs don’t have the will or nerve or idiocy to use their weapons. Whatever violence we see from the MAGA right will come from a fringe, who will project themselves as a vanguard. In reality they are as much of a desperate nuisance as the hundreds of far-right terrorist groups that have plagued this country since Reconstruction.
Donald Trump was never as powerful as he was purported to be, just as he is not as stable, genius, strategic, wealthy, healthy, sexy, or handsome as he has claimed. And, yet, for the better part of four years, too many people bought into his bravado and enabled him to run roughshod over whatever he please. We allowed him to steal our attention and blind us to our strength. This didn’t have to be.
At the very beginning of the Trump administration, we understood how to deal with Trump’s bravado and we were successful in doing so. On January 28, 2017, only eight days into his reign, Trump signed Executive Order 13769, commonly known as the Muslim Travel Ban. Immediately, tens of thousands of people occupied airports to protest the order. Air travel was disrupted, those stranded by the order were given assistance, and activists set up makeshift legal clinics inside airports. Democrats in Congress were emboldened to push back. The courts took note. Within days, responding to our show of power, a judge shit-canned the Muslim Ban. It came back and was smacked down again. A third attempt got through, though it was bad, it was also watered-down and contained loopholes.
Rather than continue fighting Trump as we did on the Muslim Ban, “The Resistance” insisted on marketing itself with marches, which, while good for “self-care,” gave us the false sense that we were actually doing something concrete. Yeah, its great that millions participate in marches for women, science, and gun control, but, absent a concrete strategy and dedicated commitment to actually change things, the legacy of these marches become memories and cool souvenir t-shirts.
Aside from a handful of protests – mostly anti-fascist actions against far-right MAGAs and Nazis, often condemned by “The Resistance” – the country abandoned direct action and retreated to social media shit-talk, mass worrying, and obsessing over “gas-lighting.” This went on until May of this year when George Floyd’s murder led us to the streets to protest police brutality and the ongoing war against Black and Brown people. When Trump and the police reacted to our protests with violence and force, we refused to submit. Trump invaded Portland and was forced, by the people, to withdraw. He threatened other “Democrat cities” with invasion but bailed on that idea when we flexed our strength.
Because we refused to be bullied, we changed the perception (including our own) of who was truly powerful. Finally, we felt strong. But, here’s the thing, that strength was always there. We have always been powerful. We are the stable geniuses. We are our saviors. We ride the White Horse. Only we can fix everything. That has always been true.
Over the past week, I’ve been rereading a lot of classic political theory – Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau – mostly focusing on constitutions, the social contract and consent of the govern. Aristotle writes that we have constitutions to ensure that the people are not ruled by the whims of a tyrant. Hobbes writes that unless we want “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” lives, we must willingly band together and sacrifice some of our freedom to a leader or leaders, a social contract between the rulers and the ruled that challenges the Divine Right of Kings, the idea that God or some higher force chooses our rulers and dictates what they do.
Locke went much further than Hobbes, promoting the idea of “consent of the govern,” something that the American system of democracy is based on. Locke writes that no leader, government or constitution can claim legitimacy without the implicit or tacit approval of the people. In Locke’s mind, it is the people that dictate the terms of the social contract, not the leaders.
Rousseau takes Locke’s insistence of the primacy of the people and turbocharges it. On the social contract, Rousseau writes, “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.” We, as a community, are as powerful and important as the state because, we, not our leaders, are the state.
Now, there’s a lot of there is a lot to disagree with in Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Aristotle was not a fanboy of democracy, preferring a fusion of democracy and oligarchy to straight democratic rule. Hobbes was a scared little man with a fondness for authoritarianism. Locke was ass-deep in slavery. And Rousseau obviously flirted with totalitarianism and the erasure of the individual.
However flawed Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau were, their ideas form the basis of American democracy, specifically the idea that we the people are at the center of everything. The government is our government. It exists for us to use and enjoy. Our “leaders” are not there to lead but to serve us. Any power that our public servants possess is there by our consent. And that we have a rule-book called the Constitution that outlines what leaders and the government can and cannot do.
That Donald Trump refuses to recognize any of these truths is immaterial, but only if we refuse to believe his “bravado” or entertain his projection of power. When Trump claims that he is a “stable genius,” we laugh at and deny him the power of intellect, as we should. When Trump brags that he is the most physically fit president of all time, we mock and deny him the power of good health, as we should. When Trump insists that he is the least racist person ever, we howl in derision and deny him the power of moral superiority, as we should.
When Trump denies the foundational theory of our democracy and projects power that he does not have, we must reply “No f-ing way, jack” and dunk on him. The same goes for any would-be tyrant. Going forward, we must revisit the ideas that animate American democracy, especially the rule of law, the social contract, and the consent of the govern. We also must recognize that we the people – not leaders or Men on White Horses – are central to our government. That starts with replacing thoughts like “Do the courts have the guts to sanction Trump’s lawyers?” with “We must make sure that the courts and the Bar hold Trump’s lawyers accountable.” In doing so, we assert our power and diminish the power and relevancy of all leaders, including but never exclusively Donald Trump.