This is Your Brain on Trump

If you can believe your eyes, and ears, your screens, your Twitter feed, this is your mind, your country, our very public American life, “on Trump.”  There is no following this story, this confounding condition, this inescapable event called Trump.  

In a sort of 6-months checkup, we’re just taking impressions from near and far: what does it mean for a country, a culture, for our sleep cycles, our sanity, to be “on Trump,” for so long now? And what is it doing to us, alone or together?

Emmett Rensin is a young counter-commentator, still in his 20s.  His vision of the new culture war jumped off the page of the Los Angeles Review of Books.  It’s a fight in our collective soul between the raging Id – the fantasy desires  — of the new power center; and the Blathering Super Ego – the No-impulse in the technocratic center. He tells us that the Establishment-aligned Super Ego is:

A collective of human beings who have absorbed and internalized very deeply this whole notion of like what politics is; what are adult politics; what are the standards of behavior; what can win, what can’t win; how to behave. And they’re watching that just get blown up.

This week, the subject is the unavoidable You Know Who, and what a two-year fixation on a single tragi-comic anti-hero is doing to the mind and spirit of the Great Republic. Laurie Penny is a young English writer who emerged — as Christopher Hitchens did many years ago — as a columnist with the New Statesman in London.  She calls herself a feminist and “social justice bard.” In our conversation, she shares how the culture wars of today are being fought on the battlefield of our collective imagination. She believes that storytelling — liberated from old models based around heroic white masculinity — will prove decisive. 

Angela Nagle was born American in Houston of Irish parents, then grew up in Dublin, where she writes for The Irish Times and a host of hot online sites.  She is known as an astute tracker of the big trends and hidden nooks in the Alt-Right online culture. Her new book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right chronicles her intrepid journey through these dark, shadowy digital worlds.

We asked David Bosworth, our seer in Seattle, for the long view of the Trump moment in the history of our culture, our tech, our economy. He’s a critic who writes novels, too, and a celebrated teacher at the University of Washington.  He tells us that we’re looking at the birth of something as big and complex as the birth of modernity in the time of Shakespeare and Cervantes.  The future is unforeseeable, he says, but it was made in our time in America.

And some advice: People write their headaches to Liza Featherstone at The Nation Magazine under the heading: “Asking for a Friend.”  If you want your Trump-addled brain to come back to life, Liza has a life tip for you.

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.

Guest List
Emmett Rensin
political essayist and contributing editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books.
Laurie Penny
social justice activist, feminist and author of  The Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults
David Bosworth
professor of English at the University of Washington and author of  Conscientious Thinking: Making Sense in an Age of Idiot Savants and The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America
Liza Featherstone
journalist and contributing editor to The Nation

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  • Darryn Remillard

    Another terrific episode this week- I found myself wanting to chime in during one of the segments where you were searching for the best sports metaphor for Trump.

    I agree that Trump is more of a WWF guy- all show, no substance. But his base- the Bannon wing of the right- the alt-right, is what concerns me more.Their sport is mixed-martial arts and to the degree that these folks revel is being outwardly confrontational and offensive they also relish the sheer brutality of MMA. It’s no coincidence that one of Trump’s vocal supporters is Dana White, the founder/president of Ultimate Fighting Club (the head honcho organization of mixed-martial arts).

    Darryn Remillard

  • unhandyandy

    I remember Stephen J Gould writing in the 1980s about neoteny, the retention of juvenile characteristics into maturity, as an evolutionary process. It seems to also be a form of cultural evolution. Think of the rise of graphic novels as a serious art form, blockbuster movies based on children’s cartoons, Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize. In the past we saw popular music establishing itself as its own art form distinct from the classical tradition, and then itself undergoing regular revolutions as last decade’s rebels became next decade’s old guard.

    It seems that each generation clutches to its heart what it loved at the age of about 13, and retains that love into adulthood while the mental image of the object itself transmutes steadily like a heart carved into a tree.

    In politics we have seen a progressive infantilization that might be traced similarly to the zeal of adolescence maintained into adulthood. I don’t whether this tendency is worse in the USA than elsewhere, or worsened by new technology, but it is not new, and it is not isolated to politics.

  • …Am I cheapening myself looking at the news?

    “I was never alone, neither on my own nor with others. But I would have liked to be alone. After all, to be alone means to be whole.”
    Marion (Solveig Dommartin) – Wings of Desire 1987

  • stephentheslayer

    White men? What does that have to do with price of rice in China?

    Anonymous came from 4chan? What?

    Open debate is crushed by trolls?

    Is this an interview of proponents of the more ridiculous SJW’s opinions?

  • Potter

    Yes I am cheapening myself looking at the news, aggravating myself looking for good news, a hope, something bright.
    They, the guests, were all good; they all told their stories. I was looking for something like this, or this actually, when I asked you all for a deeper perspective. David Bosworth fulfilled my quest best on this show. Speaking of quest, though Laurie Penny had a lot to say that I agree with, the bone I pick is her interpretation of Joseph Campbell with regard to women. My reading of Campbell is that this was ultimately a compliment spiritually, i.e. that women are essentially there or more easily where men strive to get. But then it does not break down to man vs woman so easily either. The “Hero’s Journey” is valuable insight.

    Lisa Featherstone gives wonderful analysis and advice. I struggle to get away from breaking news and back to Henry Roth’s “Call it Sleep” ..would love to re-read Melville’s “Moby Dick” ..all for necessary nourishment and solace. I will probably stil be compelled tol look at the news and keep hoping for THE news I am looking for. What a trip this has been!

    • Potter

      Second thought: agreeing that I am cheapening myself by tuning into the daily outrage makes me one of those so-called above-it-all elites… which I am not. I may be wasting my time unable to say to myself “I get the general idea here- outrage us” But I truly feel my expections of normality about the country’s, leadership (“norms”), the ground on which we all stand, is being shaken. No I am down there in the muck of it at times posting comments! There is, admittedly sand being thrown in our eyes daily by this ugly president and his enablers, but we do have to pay attention to what is is happening off stage as well. Aren’t we complaining about “low information” voters? Don’t we have to understand, or just know about those who feel so aggrieved resentful, hateful?..understand the politics, the psychology, how the structure of our government works or does not work, appreciate this awakening? I will not feel guilty about tuning in… obsessive, yeah maybe at times. (on the defensive here!). Please ROS– keep on the case. It’s important.

  • Floyd C. Wilkes

    First, I’d like to offer for consideration an explanation for the demise of our culture. We suffer a pervasive pathological disorder attributable to the ascent of entertainment culture. A pathology characterized by entrainment and enthrallment to infotainment in the age of technology. A pathological disorder traceable to the depreciation of the value of quiet time. A time for simply relaxing the mind and body, intentionally allowing oneself to enjoy rejuvenating, recreational quiet and rest while in the waking state.

    Quiescence, routinely practiced, gradually quickens the mind while fertilizing one’s creative capacities, namely, intuition and imagination.

    As intuition and imagination atrophy, the mind’s capacity for quality inquiry and contemplation diminishes, one experiences a disheartening disorientation and reflexively begins to search in vain for good guidance amidst the echo chambers amplifying the noise of contemporary culture, consequently heightened stress levels which in turn manifest as rampant dis-ease.

    Second, at the core of every culture lies a cult. Cults are defined by shared values and principles. Ours has become a cult predicated on vice, namely, avarice and lust. Our youth becomes enculturated to these shared values and principles through mass infotainment i.e. contemporary mythology and education.

    When a culture is informed by vice, it will eventually produce a vicious cycle of decay and demise. Conversely, when a culture is predicated on virtue, it will produce a virtuous cycle characterized by stability and health. If we can restore benevolence (aka brotherly love, charity, goodwill), liberty and justice to their rightful priority in our culture, I believe we’d dispel ourselves of much of the misery we presently suffer and unfortunate malfeasance presently wreaking so much damage and havoc domestically and globally.

  • Jackie

    This was an excellent podcast- thank you!

  • Pete Crangle

    Excellent discussion, superb guests. Thank you Chris and team ROS. I’ll posting a long polemic related to this and current events…

  • Pete Crangle

    Back to the Alt Future. Dateline: Twenty First Century Blood & Soil America

    Once again, the quandary of speech and weapons has dropped into American lives upon a fury that can be measured in cultural megatonnage. This conundrum comes in the wake of rage and violence outfitted with Tiki torches, MAGA caps, and casual Friday cos play garb. It comes tattooed across the mangled bodies victimized by a weaponized automobile driven by a twenty year old Caucasian male; an American who somewhere along the path of his young life, decided his search for fulfillment required him to become a homicidal monster. This conundrum comes wrapped in a future of white nationalist ‘rallies’ that will, in all likelihood, see a dialing up of rage, weapons, and violence. It comes at the overlap where amendment one meets amendment two for those who use speech to intimidate and instill fear. It comes in the tenants of a movement that wants its ideas heard, and then obeyed with martial obedience, by the threat and the brandishing of weapons — speech and weapons protected by an ever expansive latitude of lobby powered legislation and judicial interpretation that serves both corporate personhood interest and white supremacy interests, to the exclusion of the interests of general, public welfare and safety.

    This is a movement unwilling to integrate itself into a larger, inclusive, civil society. It resists cooperation or power sharing with what it defines as inferiors and the sub-human. It designs its structure, and its future, based upon de facto segregation and the submission and genocidal cleansing of the other, which is identified along ideological and racial-ethnic quackery. It calls itself many names, uses a variety of regalia, and updates its lexicon and symbols to fit into a contemporary idiom. The names, the symbols, the lexicon machinations are unimportant in understanding the intent. The rage, the violence, the terror, and the ideology for which it is tethered is what is important. No rebranding, no renaming, no rewrapping, no representation can hide or obscure its intention or its history. Fashion updates cannot hood what it is. It is the evil of racial supremacy. In this case, it is expressed by an ethnocentrism and ethno-nationalism that is based upon whiteness, and a fiat superiority that exists only in fictional fantasy.

    This movement is using the protection of the bill of rights to express itself in US streets, while ingratiating itself into the arenas of political power. This movement is openly attempting to push itself into the civil institutions of US society upon the invitation of the current president of the United States and his crew of enablers. And make no mistake, it is embraced and enabled by the US administration that currently occupies the executive branch. This executive branch is a collaborator with white, ethno-nationalism that fetishizes the enemies of the people of the United States — Nazism, Fascism, and the Confederacy. Donald Trump, Michael Pence, John Kelly, Stephen Bannon, Jefferson Sessions, Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, Robert Mercer, Kris Kobach, and the rest of this corrupt crew are all white supremacists and/or enablers of white supremacy.

    The donor class that supports this administration are enablers of white supremacy. The GOP is full of white supremacists and enablers of white supremacy. Moreover, this administration and this movement is enabled and given cover by an utterly craven legislative branch, also full of white supremacists and enablers. And of course, let us never forget, Donald Trump and his henchpeople were given massive amounts of free media time for revenue generation and ratings, and continues to be given massive amounts of free media attention for ratings spectacle. This is not an aberration of American politics, this is its leadership and the logical expression of this era, rooted in the darkest of American and European historical forces. And perhaps what is most important, current approval ratings notwithstanding, a critical mass of an American demographic is now on-board with this, either by wilful ignorance or wilful intentionality, or some ludicrous accretion of both possibilities.

    The hoods are off. The dog whistles have been broken. The heart and soul of the extreme elements of American right-wing conservatism has been aided and abetted by conservative and liberal institutions, political parties, media outlets, and various personalities and handlers. It has been mainstreamed by the southern strategy of white racism enjoyed by both the Republican and Democratic parties, and it has now unlimbered itself in the lit flames of Tiki torch marches that recall the apocalyptic menace and theatrics of Ku Klux Klan rallies and Nazi Germany rallies. This movement no longer skulks in the shadows. It is unafraid of a decaying establishment, and it is making an openly determined public push for power and violent confrontation. No one should be surprised by this. It has always been there. Metastasizing among fringe elements.

    Reports of a post-racial America were always farcical and pablum for the op-ed pundit class. The election of Donald Trump has signaled a desire for a radical reconfiguration of the United States government. The movement that gathered in Charlottesville, VA is pushing for a government configured along ethnic lines of fictional purity. Trump, a stumblebum’s version of a billionaire, rode a wave of idiocy, indifference, xenophobia, and racism created by decades, if not centuries, of American exceptionalism fantasy wrapped around white supremacy and its death cult ethos. One needn’t go to the extreme boundaries of America’s imperial projects, or the bowels of large market making firms, to understand the rat-eat-rat death ethos taking hold of the rotting core of the United States. It has been right under our noses for decades, if not centuries.

    Political cartoon by James Gillray published February 22, 1809

    An interview excerpt between Stephen Bannon and Robert Kuttner:

    I asked Bannon about the connection between his program of economic nationalism and the ugly white nationalism epitomized by the racist violence in Charlottesville and Trump’s reluctance to condemn it. Bannon, after all, was the architect of the strategy of using Breitbart to heat up white nationalism and then rely on the radical right as Trump’s base.

    He dismissed the far right as irrelevant and sidestepped his own role in cultivating it: “Ethno-nationalism—it’s losers. It’s a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more.”

    “These guys are a collection of clowns,” he added.

    From his lips to Trump’s ear.

    “The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” — The American Prospect, August 16, 2017

    Racial supremacy twinned to ethno-nationalism using the rhetoric of hopeful, economic fantasy dreams, is a very old technique and problem in America and Europe. It is a concoction that relies upon the darkest of human impulses. It is among other things, a problem of the human psyche expressed through mass, tribal, ethnic affiliation. It is a psychological condition that remains impervious to facts and the processes for which facts are gathered and synthesized through historical, anthropological, and scientific methodologies. This is a movement that requires for its very existence a dogmatic distortion and rejection of physical, biological, and cultural reality in order to accommodate and perpetuate itself through the vehicles of victim narrative, segregation, terror, and violence. Moreover, the foundational principles of the Judaeo-Christian religious system are part of the rooted soil for which the deepest of the core values of this religious system are distorted and twisted beyond their meaning in order to justify and harness the darkest compulsions of this psychic energy.

    This movement has tied itself to the fiction of white, European ethnic tribalism, and uses rage and violence as its articulation. It crafts a narrative that proposes that white, European ethnic groups have achieved a monopoly of superiority in all matters of humanity, and should therefore, be in a position of dominance above all others. It is an ideology that grants itself the power of brandishing death and terror, with impunity, based upon the most capricious whims in order to assert it dominance and reward itself with perverse pleasure. This group considers itself a chosen people due to a fictional outcome mashup orchestrated by God, evolution, sociology, and fiat cultural superiority. Both in this contemporary moment and it’s historical antecedents, is a message, narrative, and declaration of violence and the threat of violence. This movement is based upon the necessity of terror and the deployment of terror in order to dominate, subjugate, humiliate, and exterminate the ‘other’. It is intended to instill fear and anxiety, and prey upon the weak and marginalized.

    White supremacists rallies, such as the one in Charlottesville, VA, are a demonstration of speech and weapons that we are told, repeatedly, are protected by the first and second amendments. An expression that if nakedly integrated into the institutions of power would erode those very protections that this movement now enjoys. This is a movement that would openly obliterate all constitutional protections for the existing general population that did not meet its narrow criteria of inclusion, as well as, media venues that rely upon the protection provided by the first amendment. It would use terror and violence both en masse and episodically, and do so in the name of security expediency, moral justification, corrupt legality, and half-baked pseudo science.

    Any balanced consideration of the free expression of this particular category of speech and weapons, must account for the historical connective tissue. There is a lot of history behind this inertia. In particular, the history of war — specifically the US Civil War and World War Two. It should go without saying that these were two horrible wars, World War Two being perhaps the most violent war that has ever been waged in the history of human experience. Both wars were instigated and started by the disciples of racial supremacy, and carried out on the backs of a critical mass of youthful, diligent grunts. There is not one simple, single reason for these wars, but the pernicious problem of racial supremacy is wed to them. In other words, there is no way to have a considered or comprehensive discussion of the foundational cause of, or justification for these wars, without acknowledging the existence of racial supremacy, and its role in bringing them into a massive, concentrated human activity of destruction, terror, and death.

    Currently, there is a framing of the issue for allowing these rallies based upon a constitutional license expressed in the first and second amendments. This is proposed by various defenders of these amendments for a movement based on the tenants of white supremacy. Consider the history. The United States nearly tore itself apart between 1860 – 1865 based upon the kind of sentiment that has been expressed in Charlottesville, VA — rage and a fictionalized supreme exceptionalism based upon white racism. The aftermath of the US Civil War led to tremendous rancor and dread that we live with here in the US up to the present moment. Slavery was abolished, the union of the states reconstituted, yet the grievances and grudges have remained active and mollycoddled ever since.

    Confederate memorials sit on the surface of this mollycoddling of historic white supremacy, and it is a reminder of those nursed grudges. These memorials serve a variety of psychological purposes reinforced by their physical size, materiality, and location. They provide a patina of cover that wraps itself in passive aggressive phrases such as heritage, valor, and way of life. However, these monuments primarily exist to instill the fear of white power over people of color, especially African Americans, and others who resist white supremacy. They exist to not only insist upon the white supremacy of the past, but a hope for its future.

    Generally, what we memorialize is intended to reflect our common, core values. In this case, what has been memorialized are the values of white supremacy. The first amendment has not only failed to repair the problem, it offered no value to resolve the conflict in the 1860s, or in the pre and post war phases of the US Civil War. Force was required. Not freedom of expression. In the post war phase, Jim Crow continues in various guises and is wed to white supremacy as envisioned by the confederacy.

    Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and reconstruction failed to finish the job for which the first amendment has been an ill suited instrument to secure the life and liberty for *all* people. We are left with the legacy of the incomplete task of reconstruction. A perverse opportunity has presented itself: we should recognize that the memorialization of the confederate persona and symbols, enemies of the people of the United States, can also be used as symbols to remind us of a task that the white ethnic population of the United States has failed to complete in the form of equality, truth and reconciliation, law enforcement and justice, and economic and property reparations. Acknowledging the symbols and memorials of white supremacy can be used to underscore the need to finish reconstruction. These memorials need to be removed from the public commons, and the long hard work of finishing reconstruction must be completed.

    The European continent nearly tore itself apart during the1930s and the 1940s due to the rise and defeat of Nazism — again, rage and a fictionalized supreme exceptionalism based upon German, white racism was tightly woven into this effort. And again, though fascism was defeated, the grievances and grudges for which this ethos was constructed remain active up to the present. Both the US Civil War and WW2 conflicts bled across borders of land and sea, and in the case of WW2, into the near earth sky as well, thus making their realizations transnational, if not global in scope and scale. That makes this problem not simply a problem of national dimension for those territories with regards to the current and historic location, but a global problem for which all of the human species must cope with and neutralize. In other words, white, xenophobic rage expressed and consummated with violence in Charlottesville, VA or Oslo and Utøya, Norway or Athens, Greece is a problem of global dimension and should be treated as such with urgency and unequivocal force for an unconditional neutralization. Not one step back.

    The massive violence of war is connected to this movement, and because of this, we are dealing with an issue that should not be framed as one of only the freedom of speech and guns. We are dealing with an ethos that is connected to enemies of the people of the United States. To understand the grave threat that the fiction of white supremacy poses, particularly when wed to an ethno-nationalism, such as, Nazism and fascism, it is important to remember that a secret technological project was put together in northern New Mexico in the 1940s to develop what is still one of the most brutal and horrific weapon system ever designed and deployed: Atomic Weaponry. This is a weapon that was designed as a specific response to the threat of Nazism and fascism – a fringe political movement that grew to the point that it held a firm grip upon the throat of large swaths of humanity.

    This weapons project, called the Manhattan Project, was not an anxiety response, but instead, a fear response based upon a tangible military and nihilistic juggernaut that attempted to conquer large areas of the European and Asian continents. In addition, Nazi fascism employed industrial technological means on a scale never before experienced to enslave and/or exterminate millions of civilians on a compressed time scale without any historical analogy. Though atomic weapons were deployed in Japan, their driving necessity and primary target was the Third Reich. We should have no misunderstanding about this. An horrendous weapon was designed to meet the specific challenge of white ethno-nationalism. The development of atomic weaponry instructs us as to the degree of virulence that drove the fiction of white supremacy then, and that same ethos and dogma drives it now. The freedom of movement to maneuver in civil society aided and abetted the rise of white ethno-nationalism that wrapped itself in the fiction of racial superiority. It is foolhardy to not understand that the impulses that aroused Nazism and fascism then, which led to crimes against humanity in staggering numbers, arouse the white supremacist movements now. Any claims to the contrary are benighted bullshit peddling.

    Expression was no counterforce to the full assault of radicalized white supremacy. And I grudgingly have to conclude that such a counterforce to Nazism was both rational and required, though the legacy of atomic weapons is an extremely challenging headache to manage for politicians, military leaders, policy wonks, and the technical and scientific disciplines. Nuclear weapons could provide the means to global annihilation, and this hangs over all heads. No amount of consumer Disneyfication or patriotic exceptionalism narrative will make this problem go away, regardless of the amnesia that is engineered by political economies through media and public relation manipulations.

    In other words, white supremacy is a nihilistic force that can actualize itself to such a scale of violence that a weapon of this magnitude creates its own logical response. Moreover, the development of WMDs of this scale outweighed the legacy problems of their existence for a future that could also tip into global instability, dysfunction, and nihilism. This is the horrendous threat that white supremacy poses when it reaches a critical mass of delusion and can position itself as a mass destructive force. This should be considered as we’re watching this activity manifest into a movement that could gather into a mass psychosis. The freedom of these movements to maneuver in civil society aids or abets their rise and poses an extreme danger that historically moves from the fringes to the centers of power — which is underway in the United States and elsewhere.

    I personally do not require the SCOTUS, the ACLU, the NRA, media op-ed personalities, or any other organ of law or establishment to instruct to me on the perils of censorship or civilian disarmament. These sectors are, by training and social conformity, defenders of the first amendment and second amendment for most, if not all, expression and venues. I would expect this from those sectors. Censorship is a dangerous protocol, and leads to potential governmental and corporate lawlessness beyond what is currently the status quo. And yet, white supremacy becoming a mass movement and insinuating itself into the institutions of power is far more dangerous. This is the lesson of history. There is the devil one can live with, and the devil that one cannot.

    We are, for a variety of reason, once again, in the terrain of bad options. The US Civil War required a massive effort, bodies, resources, and a sickening loss of blood and treasure to push back white supremacy to a snarling, defeated, undead zombie. World War 2, also required a massive effort, bodies, resources, and a sickening loss of blood and treasure, and significantly, a weapon of tremendous legacy problems to defeat white supremacy expressed in the various forms of ethnocentrism and ethno-nationalism. Freedom of expression and courtesy eventually gave way to war. It seems paramount to understand the stakes we’re facing by allowing these forces free expression and excessive armaments.

    Accommodation and civility invite a train wreck of trouble. Censorship invites a train wreck of trouble. An unarmed population has both pros and cons, and can be rolled by armed state security forces. An excessively armed population has both pros and cons, and can descend into nihilistic madness and vigilantism. Unfucking this will require something of a modern Aristotle and King Solomon to avoid mass annihilation or enslavement by tyrannical forces.

    A question that hangs over this: Preempt now, or deal with it later? It will, in all likelihood, get worse before it gets even more worse.