Written by Daniel Udell
In the present-day political climate, Donald Trump appears to be analogous to a bizarro version of Voldemort from the Harry Potter novels. In the fantasy series, citizens of the wizarding world fear to speak Voldemort’s name, for decades only referring to him as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Toward the climax of the series, it is revealed that by someone actually speaking his name aloud while he is in power, Voldemort is able to track those bold enough to address him by name and hunt them down, justifying the fear and paranoia exhibited throughout the bulk of the series by those who had lived through his first rise to domination.
Trump, in our context, is He-Who-Must-Be-Named; for months, it has seemed that we can’t go a single day without him being brought up as the latest subject of controversy and discussion. He has been ever present in the news cycle, often turning the race into a spectacle of outlandish sound bites, reeling the election into a competition determining who can receive the most amount of attention, negative or positive. Whenever his name is uttered, particularly with disapproval by an individual of influence, in very Voldemort fashion Trump swoops in and publicly shames any who dare criticize him. In the process, he creates a sense that denunciation of Trump is a punishable offense. Both characters (and rest assured, the Trump you see in this race is a character) inspire passion and support from hooded, racist, and historically dangerous groups (the Death-Eaters and the Ku Klux Klan). Both characters suffer from superiority complexes, show a dangerous lack of empathy, and lead with iron-fisted authoritarianism.
Lately, it is hard to tell where the character of Trump ends and the flesh and blood individual begins. And this is why Donald Trump is so dangerous.
I use this analogy largely to point to the way we speak about Trump as instructive of his overall place in American culture. Part of why we struggle so much to come to terms with a character like Trump is that he was not always like this, and even now there are days when he can almost come across as comically entertaining. When we discuss Donald Trump, who are we talking about? The Donald from the 90’s who frequently derided the right and openly supported left-leaning policies? The Reality TV Star Donald from the early 2000’s who permanently ingrained himself into popular culture with his trademark slogan, “You’re Fired!”? The often overlooked racist Donald of the early Obama administration who spearheaded the “Birther” controversy amidst the rise of the Tea Party, publicly and disrespectfully challenging the sitting President of the United States on his birthplace, constantly implying that President Obama was not truly an American, and subsequently did not deserve respect or support? Or the new and improved Donald of the 2015-2016 election cycle, one who has perfected the art of stealing the spotlight by whatever means necessary, even if it means stooping to levels of rhetoric and prejudice not seen since the 1930’s? It is nearly impossible to get a lock on Donald Trump simply because he has remained so consistently inconsistent over the decades, all the while remaining a mainstay in our popular culture and effortlessly dipping back and forth between his Donald Trump “Trump” persona and his genuine self. Lately, it is hard to tell where the character of Trump ends and the flesh and blood individual begins. And this is why Donald Trump is so dangerous.
Regardless of what he says, the media will gladly parrot his talking points out to the world unchallenged, knowing that by challenging Donald Trump, they lose their ticket to unbroken profit and endless constructed stories to run around the clock.
We have a nationally recognized celebrity who is known for being predictably unpredictable, one who aims for a train-wreck quality to attract attention and who performs as if he’s been pining for an Oscar his entire life. We know that he is genuinely intelligent, and we know he is capable of real insight and political savvy, particularly with how the media conveys information to audiences. Trump’s entire brand is reliant on marketing himself as the best at anything he does, like a carnival barker, and cable news companies are appallingly incentivized to showcase him at every opportunity because he brings in viewers, and thus, brings in profit. Regardless of what he says, the media will gladly parrot his talking points out to the world unchallenged, knowing that by challenging Donald Trump, they lose their ticket to unbroken profit and endless constructed stories to run around the clock.
What’s worse, because we’ve only been publicly exposed to this version of Trump, the media character, we don’t know the real Trump well enough to judge his true motives. Character Trump wants to be President, and an unabashed fascist one at that. But what does Real Trump want? How ambitious is Trump, on a personal level? Is this a dare to himself to see if he can really do it? Can he really say whatever he feels like, off the cuff, whether he truly believes what he’s saying or not, and deceive millions of voters into believing that he actually cares about them or their interests? Is he working for broader powers at play, dismantling the already unstable GOP from the inside, ensuring a potential victory for Democrats, who will likely pour out in outraged droves to fight him at the ballots in November? Was this all a personal joke that just went too far and now he has to see it through? Even if he does genuinely want to be President, if he loses, will he simply turn around and pull back the curtains to the world, exclaiming “Fooled you! You almost let me be President of the United States, and I was pulling your leg the entire time!”, only to turn the entire stunt into a marketing tactic for his next big reality TV show The Candidate, where he presumably trains and hires political candidates to support in the 2020 election? Or will he try to undermine the Democratic president for the next four years, building even more steam and outrage for a second and far more lethal attempt at the White House in 2020? The equally sad and terrifying answer is: these are all perfectly plausible conclusions regarding the true nature of Trump, and we can’t talk about all of them at once; we have to consider all of them as serious as the last.
If Trump is serious about this race, from word to intent, then we face an existential crisis where the very fabric of the American politic is at a tearing point. If Trump is truly conning the world and seeing how far he can impersonate the Wizard of Oz before an eventual defeat, or even if he pretends to have conned us as a means of saving face, there will be riots in the streets and all faith in the United States will be wiped clean both domestically and internationally. The situation we currently have with Donald Trump is terrifying no matter how you look at it; because in any scenario, the American people have been failed by their politicians, their traditional watchdog institutions, and their own countrymen and neighbors. If Trump wins, we stood by and allowed for conditions to marinate and stew for the past two decades that allowed fascism to creep into the most powerful country in the world, effectively ending the American Experiment that the Founding Fathers initiated with the Declaration of Independence, a document specifically designed to safeguard against tyranny. If Trump loses, it will be by such a close margin that any respect and good faith in the American voters will be tarnished and the sitting President will have to preside over a truly broken and ugly post-Trump America.
How do you talk about such a nightmarish situation? With family? With friends? On the news? By and large, we don’t discuss any of this at all, either by choice, ignorance, or by the honest nature of being so overwhelmed by such an unimaginable scenario facing the American identity. How do we talk about Trump when, even by World War II standards, we have never seen such a perfect storm of potential calamity? Compound this with impending environmental damage that will gradually sweep different parts of the world, either by flooding or drought; the growing racial tensions between a shrinking (and well armed) Anglo-American majority and a growing and indignantly informed minority demographic; the real blowback from the Bush and Obama Administration’s War on Terror and the real nightmares abroad who wish to bring death and totalitarian theocracies upon the world; the growing restlessness of the Millennial generation that increasingly views their political system as corrupt and purposefully undermining their chances at fair economic opportunities; and the daily existential crisis of mass shootings around the United States, and we find ourselves on the brink of what may be a global crash of proportions not seen since the fall of Rome.
But rather than talk about any of this, informing the public of real issues and planning for real tragedies, we talk about Donald Trump, unsure of the one we’re talking about that particular day. And like a spell or a curse, we’re left powerless to do anything. So how do we responsibly talk about Trump? Or rather, is even uttering his name at this point another weapon for him to spread his influence into every corner of the American spirit? When we discuss Trump, are we foreshadowing the end of the American Experiment started hundreds of years ago, or are we doing everything in our power to argue and fight against it?
It is the ethical obligation of journalists and we as viewers and media consumers to call out bullshit when we see it, wherever we see it, and to not rest until the curtain is dragged from the stage and the tent is cut down from the circus show.
Here are some ways we can fight it: hold those who report on Trump and spread his message accountable. Outlets like CNN and MSNBC, sometimes more so than even Fox News, showcase Trump’s hate speech and do so without any real critique or condemnation, allowing for his message to stand in a vacuum. There has been a recent trend in news media where an interviewer will ask someone who has made blatantly racist or inflammatory comments, “Are you a racist?” When the person interviewed (in this case Trump) deflects, the interviewer drops it and moves on as if that settles the case. You cannot ask a racist “Are you a racist?” and then nod in agreement when they deny it. That’s like a police officer asking a thief caught on camera if he stole anything, and when the thief says he didn’t, letting him go without further questioning. In no other scenario is that socially acceptable except in our media culture. It is the ethical obligation of journalists and we as viewers and media consumers to call out bullshit when we see it, wherever we see it, and to not rest until the curtain is dragged from the stage and the tent is cut down from the circus show. When you hear someone supporting Trump, politely but sternly ask them why, and when they give a weak answer or factually incorrect response, correct them, provide facts, and provide alternatives that incentivize them to continue learning on their own. Name-calling or giving up only convinces the other side that their position, views, or stances are acceptable. Lastly, stay vigilant, stay informed, and encourage all of your friends, politically active or not, to vote in November. There is one way to silence Trump once and for all – destroy him at the ballot boxes this fall.
Be it Sanders or Clinton on the Democratic ticket, even if your first choice isn’t the chosen candidate, you must vote. If Clinton wins and the Sanders supporters don’t show up to vote, Trump will win. If Sanders wins and the Clinton supporters don’t show up to vote, the election will come dangerously close. We must unite, win over our Trump-supporting neighbors, and prove once and for all that America is not a breeding ground for fascism. If we can come through this stronger and more united than ever, then this will be the greatest challenge the United States has faced since the Civil War, and it will definitively say to the world: We choose progress, not the darkness of the past. That said, even if we pull through this, the sense of victory will not last for long. We’ve crossed a line as a nation that cannot easily be taken back, and regardless of the next President of the United States, the geopolitical world will collectively live in a post-Trump America and all that entails. We’ve allowed decades of corruption and regression to slip by us and we are seeing the fruits of those distracted years today; it will take decades and more to begin reversing the current developments we see around us, assuming we can even redirect course without some serious power struggle.
On a final note, don’t let Trump eclipse real news from around the world. There are heartwarming stories, violent tragedies, and international crises happening every day, and often times they are glossed over in favor of discussing Trump. Sometimes, the best thing to do about Trump is to simply ignore him for a few days. What Trump wants and feeds off of is incessant attention and spotlight on himself, in either praise or criticism. As hard to believe as it may seem sometimes, the world does have bigger problems than Donald Trump, and it is a disservice to those struggling with these problems and hurtles to ignore them in favor of a man who, at the end of the day, will say anything to keep you interested and tensions high. So if you do feel the need to bring up Trump, on social media, in conversation, or in class, balance it with other worthwhile stories that also deserve attention to help bring balance back to the national conversation. If all we ever do is talk Trump without considering the ramifications, then whether or not he is President-Elect, we all serve his agenda.