Monday, March 20, 2017

Living and Dying by Symbols

Picture in your mind the American Flag, a latin cross, Hitler, the Statue of Liberty, single moms in Detroit, the US Constitution, Robert Mapplethorpe and Big Bird. What do these disparate objects and people have in common? They're all powerful symbols whose images have been evoked by one or both sides in the debate over the current administration. As a picture is worth at least a thousand words, symbols affect us in visceral, and simplistic ways that reams of text never could. A picture of Donald Trump sporting a Hitler mustache is far more immediate than a thoughtful treatise on how the acts and methods of his administration, bring to mind the political situation in Germany in the 1930s.

Conjuring up an image with words is just as effective. Responding to the logic of cutting all funds to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the president's budget director Mick Mulvaney created some memorable imagery with this:
Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?
Pundits were quick to respond with vivid images of their own as this headline from the Washington Post attests:

Trump’s budget director understands that the poor prefer jet fighters to Big Bird

Both sides use symbolism to suit their own purposes, Think of Gold Star family Khzir and Ghazala Khan addressing the Democratic National Convention last August, standing in front of the official US Army portrait of their son Hunayun, who was killed in the line of duty in Iraq while protecting the lives of those in his charge. The Khans symbolized not only the diversity of the US, but especially the sacrifice of many of the immigrant groups disparaged by Donald Trump and his supporters.

For his part, Trump, in his many decades in the public eye did not project an image of patriotism and certainly never implied he believed in anything, other than himself. Yet during the last presidential campaign, he wrapped himself in the American flag so often you'd have thought he was auditioning for the lead role in Yankee Doodle Dandy. And it's likely that, with the possible exception of only his most steadfast supporters, most Americans saw right through the ruse of his "finding religion" during the campaign. The joke was that for his inauguration, Trump would use two bibles, one that belonged to Abraham Lincoln, and the other, the Trump family bible, still in its original shrinkwrap. 

Perhaps the most successful symbol that Trump used to his advantage in his ascendancy to the presidency, was himself, who in the role as the "brilliant dealmaker-businessman", removed from the stagnation and corruption of politics as usual in Washington, was in a better position than anyone else to "fix" all the problems we face as a nation. Like his new found Christianity, rumors of his business acumen were greatly exaggerated. Yet tens of millions of Americans bought into that ruse, being more impressed by his ostentatious display of wealth and his name plastered on buildings all over the world, than his numerous bankruptcies, the lawsuits brought against him for fraud and other less than noble acts, and legions of former business partners and contractors once under his employ, who were stiffed by him. As the writer Fran Leibowitz quipped last fall: "Trump is a poor person's idea of a rich person."

In his new budget released last week, Trump and his staff have created a new and powerful symbol that may very well lead to their undoing, at least in the minds of a great many of his supporters. In his budget, Trump either eviscerated or flat out executed many governmental organizations that are close to the hearts of his opposition. Those organizations are responsible for funding many worthwhile, some (including me) would say essential activities such as the arts, the humanities, public broadcasting, scientific research, the list goes on and on. Also on the chopping block is the EPA which is responsible for making sure our water is safe to drink and our air is safe to breathe. In fact everything in this president's budget is being cut with the exception of the military, and funds to maintain the president and first lady's elaborate lifestyle. Even the State Department is facing drastic cuts, this administration's unequivocal announcement to the world that diplomacy in the Trump presidency is taking a back seat to saber rattling.

But no, none of these cuts I suspect will move any Trump supporters away from him. Nor will his well established relationship with Russia, his aversion to telling the truth to the American people, his insatiable appetite for making unfounded accusations against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, his utter contempt of the rule of law regarding his presidency, or his failed immigration bans. Heck even his repeal/replacement of Obamacare probably won't be felt by the majority of his supporters (who most likely will be the Americans hardest hit by their idol's new health plan), until after Trump is gone from office.

No, the symbolic monster that Trump's administration has unwittingly created is in the words of the web site Market Watch:
the elimination of the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant, which helps fund programs including Meals on Wheels, which deliver food (and human interaction) to elderly, disabled and poor recipients.
You could hear the collective groan all over the country: "He's cutting Meals on Wheels? Are you f-ing kidding me???"

It's important to point out here that Meals on Wheels and other essential services to our less fortunate fellow citizens, won't be wiped out altogether by these budget cuts. In explaining the cuts, the administration is claiming that they're going after...
...wasteful programs, duplicative programs, programs that simply don’t work, and a lot of those are in HUD,
Again in the words of words of Mulvaney in classic bureaucratese:
We’ve spent a lot of money on Housing and Urban Development over the last decades without a lot to show for it.
Now there may conceivably be some sense to this action; that people served by these programs may in fact be better served by a less top-down approach, but Mulvaney didn't make any case for that. Remember the power of symbolism, we're talking about taking away money spent to help poor, elderly people. Meanwhile the president and his wife continue to live their lavish lifestyle at the taxpayer's expense. We may be comparing apples to oranges here, but given the contrast between the Trumps and the vast majority of Americans, Mulvaney's words that there wasn't a lot to show for Meals on Wheels, other than providing meals and companionship for poor elderly people, may go down in history as one of the most clueless, arrogant, and insensitive remarks coming from a public figure since Marie Antoinette allegedly (but not likely) uttered the words: "let them eat cake."

Donald Trump has been riding a tremendous wave of good luck insofar as his ascendency to the presidency. In his campaign, every miscue, every idiotic comment, every unflattering revelation about his past, things that would or should have doomed any other candidacy, seemed only to embolden him, to make him stronger. Since he's been president, far bigger issues have come up and he so far has weathered the storm. But at this moment, exactly two months into his presidency, he has a lower approval rate than any president at this point in his administration.

His good luck can't go on forever. If the big stuff can't bring him down, perhaps it will be small acts of human kindness and generosity that he seems oblivious to that will. He and his supporters may relish the role of the defiant leader who goes to extraordinary lengths, bucking the establishment, political correctness, and even common sense, in order to fulfill his campaign promises to his supporters to make the country great again.

But hardly anyone will tolerate a piddly-shit miser denying our most vulnerable citizens food and companionship.

He may liken himself to Andrew Jackson, but symbolically he's looking more and more like Old Man Potter.

And nobody likes him.

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