When Believing Is Seeing


Proof: Some people gonna call you up
Tell you something that you already know
Proof: Sane people go crazy on you
Say ''No man, that was not the deal we made
I got to, I got to go''
Faith: Faith is an island in the setting sun
But proof, yes proof is the bottom line for everyone
--Paul Simon, "Proof," from Rhythm of the Saints, 1990.

I wonder: when Donald Trump looks in the mirror, does he tell himself the same words he's used on audiences longing for someone, something, anything they can rely on to improve their lives: "Believe me!" And when he sees that huckster expression on his face, hears those words bouncing back off the glass, does he, in fact, believe whatever thoughts are bouncing around under his expensive meta-combover?

Judging from the fallout of Saturday's Trumped-up "Obama wiretapped me" tweets, the answer to that rhetorical question is a very solid "yes." Here's White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, being interviewed Sunday morning by Martha Raddatz on ABC's This Week:

Look, I think there have been quite a few reports. I know ... others earlier in the program mentioned that it was all conservative media, but that's frankly not true. The New York Times, BBC have also talked about it and reported on the potential of this having had happened....I think the bigger thing is, let's find out. Let's have an investigation. If they're going to investigation Russia ties, let's include this as part of it. And so that's what we're asking....[Y]ou guys are always telling us to take the media seriously. Well, we are today. We're taking the reports that places like The New York Times, FOX News, BBC, multiple outlets have reported this. All we're saying is let's take a closer look. Let's look into this. If this happened, if this is accurate, this is the biggest overreach and the biggest scandal....I think he's going off of information that he's seen that has led him to believe that this is a very real potential. And if it is, this is the greatest overreach and the greatest abuse of power that I think we have ever seen and a huge attack on democracy itself. And the American people have a right to know if this took place.
As Raddatz observed, these statements are rife with "ifs" and circular references to mainstream media reports on the specious speculations in the conservative media that Trump was apparently channeling into his tweets. The BBC reporting that Breitbart spread a conspiracy lie about wiretaps does not reverse the veracity of that lie. It shouldn't take graduate studies in logic to make this case, but week after week, interview after interview, serious journalists from across the spectrum are coming up against the studied illogic of the Trump regime. These people will not be trapped into admitting that speculation is not proven theory, that fantasies are not news reports, that lies are not proven facts. In citing the quotation of lies in reliable journals that are fact-checking (and finding false) those very lies, they are playing the authority card, a fundamental rhetorical error that, nevertheless, is mother's milk to religious fundamentalists the world over.

That, I am realizing, is how he would should be handling the President's falsehood ejaculations: the man has no interest in objective reality. His public image, his campaign, and now the policies of his regime have all been faith-based, rather than fact-based. As a pre-political celebrity, Trump believed himself to be powerful, desirable, influential, clever; and because he weaponized his wealth, people let him believe those things. Being the owner of an international pageant gave him the clout to walk in on dressing rooms, ogling women young enough to be his granddaughter. It kept many a sexual assault victim from publicly fighting back. It beat down plenty of contractors who found themselves, and their workers, stiffed out of wages they had honestly earned building Trump properties.

As a candidate, Trump's narcissism rose to new levels, as he rode the waves of adulation from the self-selected crowds he drew, however many of them might have been onlookers eager to witness a talking train wreck. The lies he told so sincerely, bulleted with the words "Believe me!" and "Trust me!" carried a ring of conviction. People responded emotionally to the show of the put on by the wealthy vulgarian who had deep faith in what he was saying. Trump's skills as a huckster, a barker, a confidence man are undeniable: it's Tony Robbins coupling self-actualization with a check, Herbalife and Amway sticking poor shills at the bottom of the pyramid with thousands of dollars of worthless merchandise, for-profit colleges collecting federal loan money from students incapable of finishing degree programs.

The scary thing, of course, is that Trump hasn't just been conning his voters: apparently he pulled one over on himself. As President, he's come up against the harsh reality of Washington bureaucracy which may, ironically, be one of the best protections we have against a power-grabbing madman. The insane policies he seeks to implement by fiat still must pass through Congress, the judiciary, and most importantly, all the levels of civil servants who were working their jobs years before Trump arrived, and will be there long after he's gone. They are a bulwark against faith-based policy making, the polar opposite of an executive that seeks to govern in the same way a born-again evangelical starts a new life today.

Frustrated with these barriers to the eschaton he's long envisioned, most recently in the snowballing scandal of Russian influence on his campaign and regime, Trump turned Saturday morning into a Twitter tantrum, attacking President Obama with accusations of wire-tapping which he apparently did not realize would have been so illegal as to place his predecessor at risk of impeachment. He'd read something on Breitbart, heard something from one of his favorite radio ranters, and it confirmed in his mind the sense that something demonic must be at work defeating his Messianic plan. His final tweet was a dig at a different irritant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who'd had the gall to 1) be a celebrity with a far more successful turn as a politician; 2) be an immigrant with an accent; 3) be unfortunate enough to take charge of Trump's beloved Apprentice reality show, long past its prime, and preside over its swan song; and 4) post forceful, progressive videos critical of the new regime's destructive policies on immigration and the environment. Schwarzenegger is, in many ways, worse than Obama, who has always been the enemy in Trump's eyes (he is, after all, Black, intellectual, careful in his choice of words, and has that scary Muslim name): Arnold is a traitor to the cause, not so much of the Republican party (which Trump could take or leave) as of the Trump name, abandoning The Apprentice after just one season.

We are actually fortunate that Trump refuses to abandon Twitter. When his handlers take charge of him--as has really only happened twice since he took office (the nomination ceremony for Neil Gorsuch and last week's teleprompted address to Congress)--he is reined in, a mouthpiece for the establishment Republicans who will be around long after he's hung himself by his own red necktie. But when he Tweets, we get pure, undiluted Trumpism, the fanatical narcissism that has kept him at the forefront of American wealth even as so many of his signature projects and properties have proven miserable failures. He is the quintessence of the Baby Boom/Yuppie self-actualization movement, a man whose spiritually has no basis in objective reality, and is grounded ultimately in belief in himself. There is no God but Donald, and if you want to work for him, you'd better be his Prophet. Any hint of heresy, of drifting even an iota from the faith, even if it happened long before you were converted to the cause, places you before his judgment seat, where there is no mercy, just the worst judgment he can imagine anyone hearing from his mouth: "You're fired." These are not what many Christians consider to be "Old Testament" judgments, either (harsh but just): they're more like the judgments that came from mythological Greek and Norse gods, capricious, fallible, whimsical. One never knows what will trigger the ejection into the outer darkness, so one had best always have one's affairs in order.

The problem for narcissistic id-Gods like Donaldus Rex is that they cannot hold the faith of their fanatical masses forever. For one thing, unlike the Greek and Norse pantheon, they're human. Trump is 70, and despite the letter from his doctor, cannot be in as robust health as he claims. I'm an almost-56-year-old man with a good diet who exercises regularly, and I still find myself needing earlier bedtimes, not to mention daily naps. Even with the most expensive health care money can buy, the bell of aging and death tolls for every human being. For another thing, there just are not enough competent Trump believers in Washington to get any but a fraction of his agenda off the ground. As powerful as the Presidency is, that power is expressed and exerted through the million-headed hydra of the federal government; and as I said above, they may just be the most powerful buffer we have against knee-jerk hegemonism.

In the end, even the gods of the pantheon came crashing down. In the final scene of Wagner's Ring Cycle, Asgard is in flames, the gods cast out, and humans must now take responsibility for earth. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings ends similarly: with the demonic Sauron defeated, the immortal elves and wizards depart Middle Earth, leaving it in the hands of the mortal races. As long as the last six weeks has felt, I take comfort in the sense that everything about this regime is accelerated, and the hope that that includes its downfall. I doubt if this will be a second-term Nixon collapse, taking three years to arrive at convictions. There have already been resignations and abandoned nominations; Jeff Sessions' final turn in office seems at risk; Republicans in both Houses of Congress are finding it harder and harder to ignore the strident compassion of their more progressive constituents; the Russians are backing away from the President they preferred over Hillary Clinton; not an A-list celebrity on either side of the country will have anything to do with Trumpenstein; diplomatic surrogates for the regime are constantly having to backpedal their leader's pronouncements when they meet with foreign counterparts; the regime's mouthpieces are finding themselves and their slippery lies unwelcome on the Sunday news shows that are their bread and butter (not boding well for future careers); it is proving impossible to recruit bureaucrats who both possess the necessary skills for the position they will occupy and pass the Trump loyalty test; and mainstream news outlets are abandoning their false equivocation to label the falsehoods in official statements of the regime, even in front page headlines. This is not the comforting purr of a well-oiled machine; it's the death rattle of a mad science experiment, flailing about in agony that none of its appendages are compatible with the body they've been sewn onto.

One might conclude from the above meditation that I have something against faith. One would be partially right: faith has not served me well, at least, not as long as it was grounded in belief. But there my apparent atheism ends: true faith is not in believing, but in being. The most spiritually happy people I know live not for some coveted apocalyptic future, but for the grace present in every moment of every day. When I realize that both the rain and the sun are gifts, I have no need to lash out in anger that I'm getting waterlogged or sunburned. When I realize that twenty of my first graders are deeply invested in the lesson, and that the two who are disrupting it are acting out of their own learning disabilities, I have no need to personalize my frustration, but can seek a solution that honors both their neediness and the ultimate goal of the lesson. Every meal can be a Eucharist when it is appreciated for what it is; every bath, shower, or swim a Baptism. I have no need in these moments to actualize myself, to make myself greater than those around me, to insist that you believe in me as much as I believe in myself. It's not faith, but belief, that is the real culprit here, the adversary ultimately brought down by proof. Faith, that island in the setting sun, will take us much farther, much happier, than belief in any reality TV huckster ever can.

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