Ursula Carlson: The crafter and seller of dreams
After four years of unkept promises: no decrease in our $19 trillion debt; no infrastructure built; no help for students drowning in debt, no health care “that will cost the U. S. nothing,” (July 27, 2018), no draining of the swamp, no cuts in taxes for the middle class, no end to our chronic trade deficits, no peace between Israel and Palestine, we have a President (until Jan. 20, 2021) who has been a more effective agent for the Russian regime than Putin’s top spy.
That is the reality. But to 70 some million Americans who voted for President Trump, reality is whatever he tweets or says. Let me give you an account of a rally the President held on Sept. 10 in Freeland, Mich. Until I read this account by Mark Danner, a writer and James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College, I had trouble understanding Trump’s appeal.
Danner sets the scene: the voices screaming, the MAGA hats bobbing, the 50-foot flag snapping in the wind and Trump making his trademark The Apprentice approach to the mike. Without preamble, he shouts out, “We brought you a lot of car plants, Michigan! We brought you a lot of car plants. You know that, right?” An ear-splitting roar of affirmation rings out: “Yes, Mr. President, we know that!”
As I’m reading, I find myself wondering, “what car plants?” I grew up about 90 miles from Freeland, and I stay in touch with family and friends, but I feel like I’m out of the loop. What have I missed? There are no new car plants in Michigan or I would know about them. I read further. Danner points out that the Detroit Free Press noted the next day that at least three car plants had closed in Michigan since the coming of Trump. Yes. That was the fact. The reality. I read further.
Danner is waiting in line for hot dogs and lemonade and begins a conversation with a sweatshirted woman after she exclaims, “Dang! I had no idea he had done so much for the state! I mean, people hardly even talk about it…” She turns out to be a nurse, trained in anatomy, physiology, biology — in science. But, Danner explains, “to her the president’s word was Truth.” The reason hardly anybody even talks about those car plants is because they do not exist. But to the nurse such a reality is “not only heretical but inconceivable.” And not only to her, but probably to many, if not most Trump enthusiasts.
So, the Leader’s first words were a lie, one of the 20,000 and more that The Washington Post has tracked, cataloged, and codified.
Danner points out that Trump’s “greatest gift had always been the imposing of his own imagination on the crowd.” He quotes Trump: “I play to people’s fantasies.” And then he quotes further from The Art of the Deal (ghostwritten by Tony Schwartz): “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.”
A hyperbole would be something like this: “I’m so hungry I could eat an elephant.” It is never an out and out lie, a falsehood. But lying has been a very effective form of promotion for Trump. And it’s promotion, public relations, advertising, branding that he is skilled at. Not business, much less government.
Yet no one I have spoken with about Trump has ever brought up the fact that Truth is important. Instead, Trump became a “tribune of the powerless, the unmasker of the powerful, the denouncer, the insulter, the despoiler.” He entertained his supporters, flattered them, and as Danner says, “from his strength they drew encouragement.” He was the “artist of grievance.”
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.