Playing the Trump Card

With the latest round of incendiary campaign rhetoric from the ostensible Republican frontrunner, modern American politics reaches yet another level of irrelevance. It's not that such words don't matter -- indeed, the consequences in the real world can be significant -- but more so that their public invocation reveals an utter lack of having anything substantive to offer on the pressing issues of our time.

And as is often the case when engaging in a game of cards, when one runs out of the relevant suit, it's time to shake things up by playing the trump card.

Of course, card playing is a game, and animosity positioning itself as policy is not. Such a posture plays to the basest instincts, exacerbating xenophobia and exploiting fear. Yet on some level, it does in fact play -- over and over again on issue-hungry media outlets everywhere, within the political halls of our allies, and into the hands of our adversaries. And it also apparently plays, unfortunately, with a sector of the U.S. populace, including those in places where political careers have been made despite (or even due to) the perpetuation of invidious ideologies.

As such, it's worth noting that just as we may be approaching a critical cultural tipping point on race relations in America -- including reaching back into our tainted history with college students taking the lead, and with #BlackLivesMatter refusing to let the violence of the status quo pass without contest -- a reactionary cadre finds political cover and distractive value, once again, by playing the trump card.

This is a familiar pattern, namely that when movements for justice gain traction, a tragic event will shamelessly be exploited to remind people why they should be afraid in general -- and in particular of precisely those who are calling for change and who the present unjust order is intent on keeping down.

Scaled up to a global context, a variation on this theme is that when people begin to tire of endless warfare and pointless strategies, and even a hint of dialogue about trying other approaches creeps into the mainstream consciousness, horrific episodes are folded back into a narrative that calls for doubling down on impracticable security apparatuses and expanding militaristic measures that do little more than provide the illusion of at least doing something. And it's clear what happens when this is the case: the military-security nexus trumps all other perspectives.

Sometimes the sheer spectacle of it all makes it hard to see that there's actually a time-tested (and likely pollster-tested) script being followed in this veritable theater of the absurd. Indeed, much like the brilliantly named genre of the 'reality show', the entire appeal is premised on viewers believing that the activity inside the container is authentic and spontaneous, while conveniently ignoring that the container itself is entirely manipulated and structured to produce precisely the 'reality' being consumed at home.

Political theater plays by similar rules, made all the more evident by the aforementioned GOP frontrunner whose persona and pedigree alike include playing 'The Donald' to a tee. Whenever the character (either as reality star or political actor) needs an infusion of ratings to remain relevant, even the eponymous mogul himself can thus be seen playing the trump card.

Again, I don't mean to belittle the seriousness of this appalling rhetoric, but I do want to point out that the source of it cannot truly be taken seriously. If we do, it only reifies the stature of the speaker, and misdirects our attention from the forces in society that perpetuate the underlying injustices in the first place.

The problem isn't the casino owner so much as it's the endemic poverty, desperation, and alienation that drive people to its tables. It's not the CEO alone who immiserates the workers but rather the widespread acceptance of profound inequality found in almost every sphere of our society. And it's not the reality star who drives on-air content but the corporate sponsors and program underwriters.

At the end of the day, the best recourse is for people to mobilize and demand a world based on the values of inclusion, opportunity, equity, dignity, sanity -- through all of the available means consistent with those aims at their disposal. In any political contest, the locus of power devolves upon the people, who after all hold the real trump card.