Trump Is Making Authoritarianism Great Again
But he’s not really addressing the problems that gave rise to the unrest.
I took some time yesterday to watch some of the speeches at the Republican National Convention. The message was clear. Law and Order. The message was that the Trump Administration is working hard to put down the protests, to ensure that the protesters are not heard. The Trump administration acts as if the protests are something detached from the conditions that people like him helped create: a country that is mostly powerless to deal with the pandemic because of extreme inequality. Then they tell us that Donald Trump is protecting us from the protesters who destroy property.
I have serious doubts that this is the truth. I doubt that Trump, a product of the system that we have now, has any real intention to change the system that made him and his family wealthy. I doubt that Trump will actively work to address the flaws in the system that favor those who have for themselves what Jon Stewart called, “Wealth Incumbency”. Donald Trump owes his status and wealth to a system that favors authoritarianism, rendering him without any obvious incentive to change it.
In recent days, a 17-year-old boy shot and killed two people and sent one to the hospital. His name is Kyle Rittenhouse and I saw a video of him walking a street during the riots in Kenosha. I saw him shoot at least one person. I saw the police drive right by him. Then I found an article that shows that he was sitting just a few feet from the president at a rally in January. This is not a typical Trump supporter.
I’m thinking about law and order. I’m thinking about clashes between the police and the protesters. I’m thinking about 40 years of legislative history that got us to this point. Trump can say what he likes about Joe Biden, but I’m reminded that Trump made generous donations to political campaigns to both dominant political parties during his adult life. I remind myself that Trump is very much a part of the system that Trump says he wants to change. Trump likes wealth incumbency.
I’m thinking about the boy, Kyle Rittenhouse. It is clear to me that the boy was amped out on adrenaline and fantasy as he assembled the gun, as he loaded it, as he walked down the street, and as he shot people on the street, “in self-defense”. This is a coward who shot unarmed people. This is what I see in the Trump campaign, authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is implicit in the phrase, “Blue Lives Matter”.
When I hear people tell me that the protesters should rot in jail, I hear that word again, “authoritarianism”. When I see police beating a protester with a baton, I hear that word again. When I see an image of Kyle Rittenhouse at a Trump rally in January, I think, “authoritarianism”.
Authoritarianism does not teach impulse control. Rittenhouse was almost certainly raised in an authoritarian family, else he would not consider the use of deadly force while walking down the street during what appears to be a peaceful protest. Somewhere he got the idea to buy a weapon, load it, and carry it down a street with intent to shoot someone. Anyone who dared to touch him. That’s what I see in authoritarians. They look for the slightest excuse to punish others. Rittenhouse clearly lacked impulse control, or he would have considered the implications of his actions before shooting someone. You know, like prison.
Authoritarianism promotes the idea of using force to modify the behavior of other people. Rittenhouse demonstrates this notion well when he pulled the trigger numerous times. Trump demonstrates this notion when he sends in the National Guard. Protesters who destroy property demonstrate this notion well, too. Authoritarians punish each other bloody.
But I pause to wonder if the people who were destroying property were really protesters or agent provocateurs intent on delegitimizing the protests. I don’t believe that peaceful protesters include people who destroy property. I have seen a video of peaceful protesters stopping someone from committing an act of violence, and pushing him right into the hands of the police. The police took that man into custody. I am beginning to believe that much of the violence and destruction has more to do with adversaries of the protesters than the protesters themselves. I don’t think we will know for sure if the people who burned down buildings were actual protesters. In fact, I don’t believe that people who protest violence have any interest in destroying property or hurting anyone. But that’s just me.
So I’m still thinking of Rittenhouse. I’m still thinking of the men in blue who shoot unarmed civilians during conflict. I’m thinking about impulse control. I thought the men and women in blue were trained to use deadly force as a last resort. You know, like they were trained to understand impulse control. I could be wrong about that.
Most conflicts occur due to a lack of impulse control. Most conflicts escalate because one party believes that they have greater power than the other and that if they use that power to abuse the other person, they can restore order. I’ve never seen that work out, ever. Rittenhouse demonstrated a clear lack of impulse control. I saw it in the video. He had a weapon that he couldn’t wait to use. He planned to use it. He used it when confronted by protesters, ostensibly in the belief that greater firepower would restore peace and order. Somehow that didn’t work. The riot continued. Rittenhouse got the high he was looking for.
Authoritarianism does not teach impulse control. It teaches people to use external stimuli for impulse control. Here is the difference. A parent says to the child, stay off of that chair or I will spank you. If the child gets on the forbidden chair, the child is spanked. The child has learned no internal impulse control to stay off the chair. When the child grows up, he will constantly look for outside influences to manage his own behavior, but his parents are gone. Cigarettes, drink, meth?
A child gets on the same forbidden chair. The parent says, “The chair is high. The floor is hard. If you fall, you will cry.” The child understands this and makes a decision to get down from the chair. The child looks inside to find the motivation to act according to the situation and his need for safety. He needs no external motivation to change his behavior. Children who can see the natural consequences of their behavior have no need for authoritarianism. They have no desire for violence.
Trump represents authoritarianism to me. Trump and people like him promote an ideology that supposes that people are motivated by punishment and reward. If you dangle enough reward in front of people you can keep them working. If you threaten people with enough punishment, you can keep them under control. This is what I see in Trump. I see little evidence that Trump promotes self-motivation. Trump is promoting a national Skinner Box.
Trump is not promoting self-direction or what he likes to call, “freedom”. If he were actually promoting “freedom”, he might establish a dialogue with the protesters and work out a durable, easy to execute solution that would be mutually beneficial to all interested parties. I don’t see that happening with the Trump Administration. With them, I see “my way or the highway”.
Trump believes that he’s growing the economy, that incomes will rise if we just let him do whatever he wants with the economy. He’s a businessman, he tells us that he knows how to grow the economy. Trump believes that if he dangles enough reward in front of us, we’ll go back to work. But Trump is not telling us something that is implicit in the available data. He’s not telling us when we work, the vast majority of the income generated by our productivity will be squirreled away in the bank accounts of the top 1%.
But let's assume that Trump really intends to grow incomes for the rest of us, an assumption that is not supported by his behavior for the last 50 years (just like Joe Biden!). First, Trump is a billionaire. Then we would then have to assume that people are motivated by money. Well, there is a ton of work that is done every day by people who are not paid. Women are not paid directly for the bulk of their work as housewives and mothers. There are software developers working on the most popular operating system in the world who are not paid directly because that operating system is free to copy and use. There are postal workers willing to work overtime without pay to get the absentee ballots through the mail and some of them even carry stamps they bought with their own money to get the ballot delivered! There is plenty of work being done without being deranged by a carrot on a stick.
Building the greatest economy in history isn’t going to solve our problems, Mr. Trump. Millions of people have proven this every single day that Trump has been in office, and long before Trump ever became president. Millions of people demonstrate an entirely different motivation for doing the work: the acquisition and application of skill. We’re wired to learn skills and apply them. We get a nice jolt of dopamine when we take a skill we learned and apply it to a problem in front of us. Mother Teresa did that. Edmund Hillary did that. Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson, two men smarter than Trump by a mile, applied their skills for fun when they wrote the UNIX operating system, a task that was well beyond their job descriptions.
Authoritarianism despises the use of skills like this, unless said skills further authoritarianism. Authoritarians believe that we are motivated by punishment to stop doing unwanted behavior and that we are motivated by money to do good things, with no regard for our skills. Authoritarians are seriously confused when they see people doing good things without regard to reward or money. Yes, Trump talks a good game about the volunteer spirit. But have you *ever* seen Trump volunteer for anything? “He ran for president”, you say.
Trump, the man who refuses to divulge his tax returns, is not motivated by money to run for president, you say? Trump the man who refused to put his business in a blind trust while he’s president is not motivated by money? Trump, the man who directed as much government travel to his properties as he possibly could, is not motivated by money? Trump, the man who attempted to blackmail the president of a Third World backwater country by withholding money from the man, is not motivated by money? Trump loves money. The love of money is the root of all evil.
By all appearances, Trump does not look inside for motivation. He expects others to be the same. He expects others to want that Skinner Box. He just wants a better Skinner Box than the rest of us. This is the problem that authoritarianism cannot solve.