Is Trump in Control of His Own Domain?

The news on Saturday, Dec. 3 was that former president Trump called for “terminating” the Constitution and either re-installing him as President or holding a new election. It’s been known since before the Jan. 6 Insurrection that Trump was all for overturning the Constitution if that meant he could stay in office as President. Much of the outrage over Trump’s statement was a renewal of the outrage over Trump’s Jan. 6 coup attempt and the revelations in Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony that he wanted to join the assault on the Capitol. Trump’s statement also fed into the anxiety over the threats to American democracy posed by the GOP right wing and a determination to prevent new attempts to overthrow the constitutional system

Donald Trump, Truth Social

But I also believe Trump’s outrageousness was designed to shore up his suddenly vulnerable position on the political right and that the defensive dimension of Trump’s gesture also needs to be understood. The weakness of Donald Trump’s post-midterm election position has been widely discussed. While Trump’s only significant GOP rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, was winning re-election by almost 20 points, Trump recruits like Blake Masters (Arizona) and Mehmet Oz (Pennsylvania) were being defeated in races for the U.S. Senate while Herschel Walker faces a Tuesday runoff where his Democratic opponent Sen. Rafael Warnock is favored. Perhaps even worse, Trump-favored Ohio candidate J.D. Vance only won because Mitch McConnell injected tens of millions of dollars into his flagging campaign. After the mid-terms, the difficulty of Trump’s position was confirmed by polling showing DeSantis leading Trump for the first time among GOP primary voters.

But that wasn’t all.

Trump’s political vulnerability within the Republican Party was magnified by his pre-Thanksgiving lunch with anti-semitic rapper and 2024 presidential candidate Kanye West (who now goes by “Ye”) and podcasting America First fascist Nick Fuentes. According to veteran far right activist Milo Yiannopoulos, the inclusion of Fuentes in the lunch was designed to cause a scandal and thus make Trump miserable because of Trump’s disloyalty to far right fringe extremists in his political base.

And it worked.

Because of the slow Thanksgiving news weekend, Trump’s dinner with Ye and Fuentes was the main story in the news for seven or eight days afterwards and was only fully displaced by last Thursday’s appearance of Ye and Fuentes on the Infowars broadcast of extreme right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones (himself fresh off losing a $1B libel suit by Sandy Hook parents). Ye talked about how much he loves Nazis, how Nazis are cool, and continued his anti-semitic attacks while brandishing a net and a Yahoo to ridicule former and soon to be Prime Minister again Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Ye was mainstreaming a form of Nazi propaganda which Jewish people in the United States saw as threatening even larger-scale domestic terrorism against them in the near future. Ye and Fuentes were posing a challenge to the Trump right as well. Part of what charmed white conservatives about Trump in 2015 and 2016 was Trump’s willingness to say and do anything, his giddy transgressions of longstanding norms, and eagerness to break taboos. But now it was Ye breaking the taboos against open anti-semitism, ridiculing Trump ally Benjamin Netanyahu’s Jewish name, and bragging that Yiannopoulos, Fuentes, and he had punked Trump about the Mar-a-Lago lunch. Days later, Fuentes launched an attack on Trump ally Marjorie Taylor Green for her adultery, (pending) divorce, and status as a “girl boss.” The lunch with Trump and the InfoWars incident had given Ye and Fuentes enough media status that they could attack Trump and conservative Trump supporters like Greene from a still further right position. Where Trump made portentous demeaning gestures about blacks, women, and immigrants, Fuentes made his commitment to male and white supremacy open and forthright.

What Trump sought by his Truth Social post about terminating the Constitution was to reassert his pre-eminence as the dominant figure on the American right. DeSantis might have success fighting “wokeness” in Florida but it was Trump who had the “guts” to “terminate” the Constitution. Nick Fuentes might have called for a “dictatorship” but Trump was the political heavyweight who could make that a real possibility. Trump occupies what anthropologist Victor Turner called a “liminal position” in the politics of the American right. During his first presidential campaign, Trump single-handedly defined a discourse around himself in terms of dominance, but the multicultural and liberal opposition grew stronger during his administration and Trump lost re-election despite the powers of incumbency. As a result, Trump’s current claims to dominance are so shadowed by failure that he’s now facing competing claims on the right and Trump announcing that the Constitution should be terminated should be seen as a re-assertion of his pre-eminence.

Spectacles of Conservative Amusement: A Caution

In the 1980’s, Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death about the narcotizing effect of television news becoming a form of infotainment that distracts from the issues being reported on. Fox News has long been thought of as engaging in conservative entertainment to promote the Republican Party and right-wing propaganda more generally. Laura Ingraham has a 10pm nightly show on Fox News entitled The Ingraham Angle and delivers steady ridicule of President Biden and the Democrats, formulations and reformulations of core white conservative values, and a more cohesive version of a GOP campaign platform than most Republican candidates can deliver on their own. With her Fox-blonde hair, late-50’s white attractiveness, and a steady stream of video around which she organizes her commentary, and the Fox chyron concentrating the message, Ingraham provides the kind of attractive, propulsive conservative messaging that Postman warned about in relation to the news media in general. She tells white conservatives who they are, what they think, and how they should experience life in a multicultural, socially liberal America that’s far from reflecting the views of white conservatives.

That brings me to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. My understanding of last week’s flying Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts stunt is that DeSantis was trying to up his status among Republican politicians by providing broadcast content for Fox News. Last week in San Antonio, Texas, a woman working for the Florida state government and known as Perla engaged in deceptive recruitment of newly arrived migrants in San Antonio, promising to fly them to Boston and offering a range of housing and employment benefits. According to the pamphlet being passed out, the migrants were promised things like opportunities to apply for social security cards, “eight months cash assistance, food, job training/placement, help with housing” and other fictitious benefits. Because of the false information given to the migrants, there has been talk about prosecuting DeSantis and Florida state government under human trafficking and other laws. It’s likely that human trafficking laws do not apply because the migrants were not being transported for purposes of sexual exploitation or labor. However, former federal attorney and MSNBC personality Glenn Kirschner believes that the migrant flights were “kidnapping by inveiglement” and ridicules DeSantis for his initial defenses against criticism.

Unlike human beings with ethics, the DeSantis people did not coordinate with anyone on Martha’s Vineyard or in the state of Massachusetts before just dropping off the Venezuelan migrants. However DeSantis did inform Fox News of the flight and there was consequently a Fox crew on hand when the plane landed. The conservative political point DeSantis wanted to make was that Martha’s Vineyard was full of “rich liberals” who would somehow panic at the sight of DeSantis and Fox News bringing the border crisis to Blue America. It’s all nonsense. El Paso, San Antonio, and big stretches of the Rio Grande Valley are already Blue America. Not that that matters to TX. Gov. Greg Abbott, Fox News, or the elderly white conservatives who watch Fox News. What these Republican voters want is to be entertained by the ridicule of white liberals and Ron DeSantis was able to market himself to Republican constituencies by delivering a new form of conservative entertainment through the Fox News television apparatus.

Much like Neil Postman worried about television as a metaphor for reality, it is also possible to worry about Ron DeSantis substituting the creation of conservative media content for the traditional governing functions of a big state like Florida. But I also wonder about the effect of government produced partisan entertainment on white conservative audiences. Postman followed Aldous Huxley in viewing the threat of modern totalitarianism more in terms of its narcotizing effect than the kind of tyranny seen in 1984 but I’m more inclined to see this kind of right-wing entertainment as addicting in the sense of requiring constantly bigger and more sensational spectacles of liberal humiliation.

It can’t be a good thing.