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Get Me Out of Here, Fast: Escape from D.C.?

The forced monotone of Donald Trump’s public address to the nation on March 12 was a striking contrast from his most recent State of the Union address. He sought to calm the nation as it faced the pandemic of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in what was perhaps his most important public address. On the verge of breaking beneath the gravity of circumstances that spun far out of his control, however, rather than show his customary confidence, Trump seemed a President scrambling and in panic mode trying to rehearse stale tropes, but immobilized by events.

President Trump tried to look as presidential as possible, re-inhabiting a role of authority that he had long disdained, as he was forced to address a nation whose well-being he was not in control. The national narrative, as it was begun by WHO’s declaration of a pandemic, was perhaps seen as a narrative which seemed to spin out of his control, below his eyes, as he tried to calm markets by addressing the nation in what he must have imagined to have been as reassuring tones as he could summon. With his hands grasped but thumbs flickering, as if they were a fire under which he sat, as if he were wriggling like a kid strapped in the back seat of a car where he was a passenger to God-knows-where, wrestling with the increasing urgency that his aides demanded he address the outbreak of the virus in the United States that he had long tried to deny. Serial flag-waving continued to fuel President Trump’s attacks on China and the World Health Organization, as if trying to toe the line of adherence to America First policies of nationalism before a global catastrophe, that did not compute. If America First as a doctrine allows little room for empathy, affirming national greatness and the importance of a logic of border closures was all he could offer, and would be predictably lacking reassurance or empathy as he attempted to create a connection at a defining moment of his Presidency, but looked particularly pained.

March 11, 2020

If Trump rarely trusted himself to make hand gestures as he plighted through the speech, thumbs flickering, hands clasped, he every so often seemed distinctly out of synch with his austere surroundings, gold curtains drawn to reveal two flags, barely aware, perhaps, that the eyes of the world were very much on his performance in this new sound studio to which he was not fully accustomed, trying to explain that he had undertaken measures that had made us safe, even if he must have been worrying that the lack of worry he had been projecting and urging in previous weeks had risen across the nation, and his performance was not calming them at all. He was tasked with describing the vulnerability of the nation to the novel coronavirus whose effects he had downplayed repeatedly, but was no longer able to dismiss, and no longer able to concede posed a far greater threat to the American economy than the danger of “illegal” migrants he had so often pointed to as a cause of national decline: the virus that had already crossed our borders repeatedly, since the first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in San Jose and Seattle, would potentially bring down his presidency, and he lacked any ability to explain the scale of the effects of the virus that he had effectively helped release by ignoring warning signs.

Oval Office address of Wednesday, March, 11, 2020. Doug Mills / The New York Times)

The link of America to the world defined in his America First candidacy–even made the very identification of a pandemic difficult to process. And he did so in the starkest national backdrop possible, vaunting his closing of borders, suspension of “flights” from China, and ties to Europe–even as he encouraged Americans to return from abroad, and had allowed unmonitored entrance of Europeans and world travelers into New York that would make it the site of the entrance of the disease to the majority of American cities where the viral load arrived, with over 900 people entering America through New York daily for months after China suspended travel from Wuhan on January 23–after China called the outbreak “controllable” on New Year’s Eve. The declaration that echoed the concerns of the World Health Organization may have been buried in global celebrations, even as Trump blamed it for starting a sense of false complacence before undeniably “real” news that he feared would come to define his Presidency.

Trump was unable to accept declarations of the World Health Organization had just called the coronavirus outbreak–an outbreak which, we now know, he had in fact been hearing alerts from American intelligence as early as November 17, about the outbreak of cases of the novel coronavirus in Hubei province, rather than January, when initial infections in the United States were reported. As much as Trump found it difficult to admit the vulnerability of the United States to a global pandemic–or to the recommendations issued by WHO–who set the caduceus that symbolized medical ethics authority over the North American continent–at which he bristled at the notion of a global scope of edicts across boundaries, as if a map where national divides were erased as if it compromised national authority for a disease the President has been uncannily persistent in localizing in China, even before an increasing preponderance of evidence of its global circulation and transmission over a series of months.

Fabric Coffrini, AFP

As cascading fears grew in markets across the world, Trump was perhaps forced to realize his new relation to the world, even as the German stock exchanges plummeted as the measures he announced seem either difficult to process, or failing to address the importance of maintaining trade ties–or of taking adequately prudent steps of public health.

Slumping in his seat at the Resolute Desk, perhaps contemplating how no predecessor had ever delivered on air unprepared remarks from the desk, and visibly discomfited in doing so. He must have hoped to make up for his televised performance by sending surrogates scrambling to social media, issuing clarifications for misstatements–as the exemption offered U.S. citizens to return from China, or the exemption of Ireland, as well as England, and an assurance that trade would “in no way be affected” by the ban, as markets had reacted poorly to his performance. While it seemed that Trump was cognitively unable to process the possibility of a crumbling American economy–and a decline of America’s place in a global economy–under his watch, a prospect faced since he had met with airline executives with whom he discussed the effects of stopping flights of foreign nationals from China in a March 4 meeting, offering them a bailout that limited the impact economic effects of heightened travel advisories, is it possible he had no sense of the massive fallout on the national economy?

March 11 Address/Ralph Orlowski/Reuters

As Trump spoke, global markets not only failed to register confidence–but plummeted, as he revealed no clear plans to to call for social distancing to contain the spread of the virus, and revealed that lack of national preparation for confronting an infectious disease that had no vaccine. He may have remembered that he had outright fired a former cabinet member, barely remembered in the rogue’s gallery of administration, Tom Bossert, who had demanded preparedness “against pandemics” and a “comprehensive biodefence strategy” of the sort the previous administration of Pres. Barack Obama had tried to institute, or that a simulation of a pandemic that could devastate the American economy and kill up to half a million revealed in October 2019 “just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.”

It seems likely he was rather trying to conceal the massive scale of lying to the nation about the effects of an economic downturn unprecedented in scale, but which the increased lines at Wuhan’s Tianyou Hospital the previous November had already indicated had a problem of infectious diseases on their hands that would have a potentially global consequence. Trump tried to spin the consequences as purely local, in an unprecedented wishful thinking whose scale of deception far exceeded the pathological deceits he had long taken to perpetrate on investors, business partners, and even on family members–from hiding his older brother’s treasured trucks that were a Christmas gift and then admonishing him not to cry, or he would destroy them before his eyes. Even as satellite imagery showed a clear rush to hospital emergency rooms in Wuhan in November, as clusters of cars marked in red crowded the emergency rooms that revealed “a steep increase in volume starting in August 2019 and culminating in a peak in December 2019,” when China began epidemiological investigations that led to identifying and sequence of the novel coronavirus by January 12, ten days before the city went on lockdown to contain its spread.

Annotated Satellite Photographs of Wuhan’s Tianyou Hospital in September 2019

While Trump registered no alarm at the arrival of the very pandemic whose global impact American simulations feared would cripple the national economy, he tried to offer spin on having closed borders to the virus, as if it were not already diffused within the country, in a mind over matter sort of exercise that suggested limits purchase on reality, as if he was able to recognize the risk earlier administrations had identified as a national priority.

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Filed under borders, Coronavirus, COVID-19, data visualization, national borders

Mapping the New Authoritarianism: Trumpism, Tampons, Misogyny and the Volatile American Electorate

It seems, goes the popular wisdom, Donald Trump stunned the country by being able to make up for the lack of a party organization by followers he developed on Twitter.  But Trump was able to tilt against a candidate he was able to identify with an establishment, and an establishment that he convinced voters had not served a plurality of states, as a salesman of something different than the status quo, adopting a highly mediated populism that was rooted din claims to reorganize the state and its effectiveness.  The bizarre combination of an outsider who promised a range of constituencies that the state would be remade in their own interests–defending American sovereignty; returning jobs to depressed regions; defending anti-immigrant interests–may not be able to be aligned directly with the appeal of a fascist state, but provided a collective identity for many that gave meaning their votes, at the same time as dropping voter turnout across the midwest and new restrictive voting laws, including in Wisconsin and Ohio.

Trump gave a greater sense of urgency to the crucial number of undecided in his favor–before a broadly declining turnout nationwide, but also decreased turnout in many states where differences in the popular votes were small, as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa, and pronouncedly higher in the “deep south,” based on estimates of the U.S. Elections Project.

 

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The extraordinary effectiveness of Donald Trump’s affective appeal to voters in the 2016 Presidential remains particularly difficult to stomach for many, moving outside of a party or any civic institutions, but rooted in the adroitness by which he branded himself as a political alternative.  Trump’s uncensored comportment was central to the success of that campaign, many have noted, as it lent cathartic license for exposing emotions of fear, hatred, and anger rarely seen in political discourse–and seemed to run against reasoned discourse.  The performative orchestration of a wide range of emotions–tilted toward the red end of the spectrum market by fear; resentment; indignation; anger; disorientation–which drew lopsidedly from an atlas of emotions.  If the range of emotional responses were triggered in a sense by the prominence of social media, which allowed a quite careful orchestration of retweeting and public statements designed to trigger emotions to make political decisions, it was orchestrated carefully more from Reality TV than Reality,–orchestrating its audience’s attention by means of quite skillful editorial manipulations of footage, fast cuts, and clever stagecraft to create the needed coherent story from declarations, angry accusations, and assertions.  Trump’s campaign touched on issues of fear and anger, hopping between nearby sectors of the below map, but focussing attention on a fear of women and scapegoating of others to manufacture an actually illusory model of strength.

The emotional integrity was more important than the language–leading to bizarre debates as to whether his supporters took him literally, or if his references were serious in content even if the actual utterances he made were not in fact as central his appeal as the feelings of antagonism and alienation that he so successfully seemed to tap.

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As a creature of the airwaves, Trump used emotions as a way to orient voters to the changing world of globalization by emotional venting that appeared to defend a past order:  despite his lack of qualifications to serve as President of the United States, the defensiveness created a source of validation for his candidacy that few expected, but are so familiar to be available to install as browser extensions via Reaction Packs.  The recognition of Trump’s display of emotions are so familiar that they convert easily to downloadable Reactions as emoji, so iconic has been Trump’s animated orchestration of anger, fear, and resentment across the body politic, in ways that remain difficult to map.

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The popularity of such “rage faces” recouped the repeated registering of emotions in Trump’s campaign.  Indeed, Trump’s–or the Trump campaign’s–active retweeting of 140-character declarations defaming individuals or amping up socio-economic antagonisms prepared the way for the recognition of these emoticons which, although not released or sanctioned by Facebook, had first become recognizable in American political discourse that summer in much of the American subconscious.

The animated reactions engaged many online not politically active or voted in previous elections, redefining the political landscape outside of red versus blue states, and mirroring tools of psychometric profiling–first successfully used in political settings to mobilize support online for “Leave E.U.” in the Brexit campaign–first framed by researchers at Cambridge Analytica, developed by an psychologist Aleksandr Kogan, before changed his name to Dr. Spectre, sold to the MyPersonality tools of Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre to the shady Strategic Communications Laboratories, who in 2013 established Cambridge Analytica in the United States.  The tools had indeed boasted the ability to measure voters’ personality from their digital footprints, decrypting psychological criteria for emotional stability, extraversion, political sympathies, able to predict sexual orientation, skin-color, and political affiliations by using FB likes as an open-source psychological questionnaire based on an OCEAN scaling of personality traits that rank the positive-sounding values of Openness, Conscientiousness, Aggreeableness, and Neuroticism, all the better “to understand [their] unique personality type” in order better to define their decision-making process–each letter can be clicked to reveal a face registering individual emotions on their website, in ways that creepily echo emoticons as tools to achieve “better audience targeting” by “better audience modeling” through 5,000 data points per individual.

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Through such data profiles and the pseudo-scientific claims of “audience insight” or “targeting”, Trump was helped to orchestrate emotions to construct a sense of belonging.

For despite his lack of political qualifications, if in part because of it, Trump represents the victory of the unqualified–“the people”–and an illustration that someone outside of a political system can assert their importance in government, and to discredit the political system itself.  While Trump’s campaign had not been data-heavy, the use by Democratic strategists of big data analysts from BlueLabs had perhaps encouraged the Trump campaign to turn to Cambridge Analytica, whose boasts of a huge ROI for political campaigns would be wildly boosted by the June success of “Leave” in the Brexit vote.  The orchestration of emotions most familiar from the production values of Reality TV have little precedent in politics, but was honed against those assumed to be part of a political class and designed to refute any notion of scientific expertise.

The particular targeting of emotions of dislike, fear, and resentment increased in the Trump campaign from mid-August 2016, about a month after the marquee event of the Democratic convention celebrated diversity, with the entrance of Stephen K. Bannon, serial wife-abuser of Breitbart fame, and he who invoked the “church militant” to explain the need to bind together church and state in fighting for the beliefs of the West as campaign chief of the Trump campaign, united a deep fear of refugees, terrorism, and “Radical Islam.”  The accentuation of such a call to militancy was tied to an accentuation of misogyny in the Trump campaign, as Bannon joined Trump’s new campaign manager pollster Kellyanne Conway,to play to the lowest common denominator of voters through their economic and social fears, in ways that particularly distorted the campaign that benefited Trump and tilted to the unique brand of misogyny.  In ways that shifted the logic of the campaign for U.S. President after both conventions had concluded, the expansion of Team Trump helped direct a model of behavioral sciences–already used by NATO in Eastern and Central Europe as propaganda against the dis-information released by the Russian government–as a rallying cry uniting many ranges of hatred–the “deplorables” Hillary Clinton famously and perhaps fatally invoked–within the highly charged emotional language of Trump’s campaign.

Many refused to label Trump as recognizably fascist in his political thought, despite his outright xenophobia, manipulation of fear, and cultivation of a rhetoric of crisis, refusing to recognize the roots of his strong authoritarian characteristics by a name that has long been identified with utmost evil, in an attempt to explain Trump as something else.  Most notably, historian Robert O. Paxton allowed that Trump only openly took a selective rehabilitation of the anti-modern fascist movements, whose strongly authoritarian character offered “echoes of fascism,” rehabilitating the sanctioning of social violence, suspension of rights, and dehumanization from fascist movements in his assertion of openly extra-judicial rights he asserts as a leader.  Yet in its open aggression motivated by a the violence of urgency–and in its turning in from the increasingly complex world that Obama attempted to navigate, and rejection of globalism, as in its rejection of civility and disdain for women, Trumpism closely rehabilitates fascism in its doctrine of prerogatives of the protection of the state that transcend constitutional law, or the subordination of constitutional law to Staatsrecht.  Whereas fascism arose in response to international communism, Trumpism seems an open response to globalism of the twenty-first century.

While not a direct descendent of fascism, Trump has defined himself as a man of action–together with Bannon–in his proliferation of executive orders as a form of decisions, creating the relation of individual to state in his own oratory and the security of America that he claimed to guarantee.  The championing over urgency and privileging of emotions and accusations over issues–a hallmark of fascist politics–serves to fabricate public consensus, cast in Trump’s tacitly gendered assertion “America needs a CEO,” as if to call into question the existence of a historical authority in the state. While Paxton rightly lamented increased usage of “fascist” as an accusatory epithet, able to be applied interchangeably to the intolerant authority of the Tea Party, the intolerance of the Islamic State, or Donald Trump, but failing to discriminate its actual target, Trump’s near-consent courting of the limits of Freedom Speech led him to launch attacks that test the limits of Free Speech and First Amendment, shocking many neighboring countries,– “I’m so tired of this politically correct crap”–labelling political correctness as “the big problem in this country” to which he claims his own authority will create a long-awaited corrective.

His campaign, notwithstanding serial unrepentant falsehoods, his campaign promised to rectify confusion by the ability to Make America Great Again, invoking an idealized notion of country to which he invited all to rally behind and stigmatizing the most vulnerable scapegoats–the undocumented; the refugee; the poor–as targets of collective anger, albeit without racialized theorization of a subordinate status or staking openly ethnic claims.  Trump sewed a steep set of divisions in the nation that were concentrated in non-urban areas in “swing states,” but which corresponded to the emotional aesthetics of and a deep feeling of abandonment–a deeply declining distrust of government across the nation not adequately mapped a full year before the election, far deeper among Republicans than Democrats but at  record low–but supported by a broadly declining belief in government fairness, across “red” and “blue” states.

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In many ways, the vote was the victory of a performative model and the emotional satisfaction that that model of performance offered.  Trump’s victory made sense to those who bought the promise of those who believed that America Needed To Be Made Great Again–and who entertained the importance of time-travel to do so, and entertained  a delusion of going backwards in time.  For Trump appealed precisely to those areas and regions that entertained return to a past, conceived of often as a rebirth of a lost economy, peacefulness, and prosperity, but concealing an era of small government, and proposing the myth that there was indeed a chance of returning to a bygone of the imagination:  many saw a rejection of globalism and of multiculturalism or of a disturbance of a past gender politics, and they saw it as best embodied in someone himself moored in an earlier, whiter era,–and a civil society in which charges of Trump’s gender could not be made to stick.  Trump’s performative model seemingly surpassed logical contradictions  inherent in his words or person, making it all the more difficult to comprehend, even as we have repeatedly turned to maps to do so–even as we were frustrated by them:  Trump’s wealth papered over the huge contradictions of someone whose wealth was apparent, as he performed the role os a man of the people; his age was apparent, even if his improbably marriage to a younger woman could conjure an image of apparent potency; his lack of political convictions was concealed in a patriotism that few saw the need to question; his lack of political expertise affirmed the lack of relevance of expertise to getting the job done, as it only confirmed a belief in the failures failures of a political class and distrust of government already at historic lows across the country.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential election, 2016 US Presidential Election, data visualization, Donald Trump, Reality TV