If you can’t understand why someone is doing something, look at the consequences of their actions, whatever they might be, and then infer the motivations from their consequences. —Jordan B. Peterson
Peterson’s suggestion has been ringing in my ears as I consider the consequences of the recent federal government shutdown, now the longest in history. This chaos, though theoretically a means to an end, may indeed be an end unto itself. Our president is often castigated by his political opponents as a would-be tyrant, and his affinity for authoritarianism is quite disturbing, but what strikes me most about him is his total commitment to chaos, rather than the rigid order of tyranny.
Nothing, perhaps, demonstrates this more clearly than his constant attempts to undermine and flout the notion of objective truth. This administration has lied so often that some of the successive falsehoods haven’t even fully registered. It is not a new observation that the Trump government lies with an alarming alacrity—such condemnations have been so frequent that they have become noise, not signal. And, in that, we have the root of the problem, and perhaps the genius behind the lies.
One of the most interesting things about the president is his amazing ability to bend his beliefs to reflect the most politically expedient position at any given moment, utterly impervious to either the objective truth or his own past statements on the topic. During his campaign, he “took 141 distinct stances on 23 major issues” according to an article written for NBC News. These are not the actions of a tyrant, but those of a man who seems not so much immoral as fundamentally amoral.
What is so profoundly dangerous about our president isn’t an ideology or a fascist commitment to brutal repression, it’s his flagrant disregard for the concept of coherence itself, the strange banality with which he disregards ethical considerations, common sense and even the need for basic accordance with reality. He is an amazingly shallow man and he is increasingly spreading that shallowness into our culture.
Ironically, his signature issue—build that wall—is precisely the opposite of his fundamental ethos. Trump revels in destruction. During the campaign, he watched the social upheaval precipitated by his various incendiary comments with great enthusiasm. And now that philosophy has become national policy.
Trump follows one basic, three-step negotiation tactic: manufacture a crisis; threaten to precipitate that crisis if his demands aren’t met; try to present the resolution of the crisis as a generous concession. He did this in his negotiations with China and quite frighteningly in his negotiations with North Korea, and now he has leveraged it against the Democrats and, to some degree, his own party. It is therefore perfectly understandable that he resorted to declaring a national emergency in order to get his way. This is simply the logical conclusion of this strategy. Now he has given this manufactured crisis the force of law.
Trump is motivated to a large degree by the simple desire to win, but there is also something much more fundamental at stake. While attempting to fulfill an explicit campaign promise (building a wall along the southern border), he is employing a tactic which fulfills an implicit one. To many people, Trump represented a disturbance of the status quo, and promised a badly needed shake-up of the state of governance. He didn’t speak like a politician and wasn’t politically correct. He was willing to say whatever came to mind, heedless of the consequences. This was what people wanted; this is what they voted for. Trump represented all of their repressed rage and was a salient symbol of protest against the forces that dominated our culture and the people who insisted—beyond all reason—that we watch our every word for fear of giving offense. It is perhaps the oldest and most well known psychoanalytic dictum: that which is repressed is not destroyed and will merely grow stronger in the shadows. Trump is the embodiment of a repressed nation’s collective id: vulgar, impulsive, aggressive, sexually unrestrained and hedonistic.
And we got what we paid for. Our government is now in the hands of a man who acts without consideration and thinks only of himself. So it should come as no surprise to us that we are now mired in chaos. His desire for that chaos was what put the president in the White House to begin with.