More and more commentators, politicians on both sides of the aisle, and ordinary citizens are waking up to the fake presidency of Donald Trump, recognizing that our leader is woefully unqualified and unprepared to lead.
As shocking as that is, it should come as no surprise. Donald Trump's election victory was no accident, nor was it primarily engineered by him and his team. He is the beneficiary of a fake society that has been germinating for decades and has now burst into full bloom.
How did this fake society come to be and why has a large segment of the American population embraced it?
The underpinning of the fake society can be found in the vast upheavals that have injected pain, uncertainty, and fear into the daily lives of millions of Americans--upheavals that have shattered the "American dream” with little hope for many of recapturing it. Upheavals that mean fear of losing a job and being unemployable, fear of never working again for a living wage, fear of poverty, fear of a compassionless society with few and disappearing safety nets. These fears ignite the key features that define our fake society:
•Illusory beliefs and unworkable solutions that inject a feeling of power to relieve suffering from loss of self-esteem.
•Blurring of the line between fantasy and reality.
•Equating beliefs, ideologies, and feelings with facts and logic.
•Seeking feelings of security and power by devaluing and persecuting others.
•Being overly swayed by words and promises while ignoring contrary actions and the implausibility of those promises being delivered.
•Supporting illusions by embracing fake facts and rejecting the truth.
•Denigrating legitimate sources of information to empower fake facts.
•Identifying with demagogues and false messiahs who offer the illusion of power.
The roots of the fake society can be traced to the technological revolution that transformed the work world and disenfranchised large segments of the population. The modern day technological revolution started in the 1950’s, picked up steam in the 1970’s, and accelerated further in the 1980’s, with the proliferation of the home computer.
New skills were required for emerging tech-based industries, while the old manufacturing industries found cheap labor overseas. Even those with the education and skills necessary to participate in the technology-driven work world faced constant threats to their security. Unions declined, pensions vanished, and today the rapid turnover of technologies, many with half lives of two years, has created unprecedented job insecurity. The lifetime job, common for earlier generations of workers, has largely evaporated, replaced by numerous sequential jobs and careers.
Those who could not keep up with innovations would join the ranks of the unemployed and unemployable.
If you were unemployed at age fifty you were now likely to find not only age discrimination, but also diminished opportunity because you did not have the skills demanded by the relentless stream of technological innovations. In the manufacturing sector, automation of factories that remained in the U.S. decimated working class communities throughout America. And falling prices of cleaner energy from solar, wind, and natural gas upended coal mining, leaving many workers unemployable and reduced to poverty.
The rising tide of dislocations ripping through the United States made Americans ripe for the escapist fantasy world of a fake society and a fake president. Millions of people, beaten down by the societal shift, craved power, even if it was an illusion to relieve feelings of defeat, helplessness, and fear. Donald Trump gave them that illusion.
Trumpeting the illusion of his power over the weakness of others is how Donald Trump defeated his opponents in the presidential campaign. While they talked issues and policies, he boasted about his power—and his opponents’ lack of it. “Little Marco, low energy Jeb, frail sickly Hillary, (lacks strength and stamina),” a dystopian America that is “weak and collapsing.” He puffed up his fake image of strength with mantras and war cries: “I’ll make America Great again; I’ll bring back the 1950’s to give you the security of a lifetime low-tech job; I’ll restore the manufacturing production lines and pick ax jobs in the coal mines; a wall that will keep out immigrants who are taking your jobs away and threatening the safety of real Americans; I’ll protect a weakened America by building up our military, which is depleted and a disaster.” All fake promises based on fake imagery that played to fear and false hope. It worked to get Trump elected and continues to work to maintain his base’s fervor.
Once Bernie Sanders was out of the picture, candidate Hillary Clinton had no inspiring message to address voters’ fears and despair. The Democrats’ mantra, introduced by Michelle Obama, “when they go low, we go high,” was a disastrous abdication. It meant that Democrats would not challenge the fake Trump messages at the emotional level, where it was resonating. Democrats would go on to speak the language of logic and policies that much of the populace had closed their ears to ---especially when coming from “weaklings.”
In truth, the presidential election was not a contest between Republicans and Democrats, and thus shouldn’t be looked at through the lens of political parties. Electoral choices were driven by the suffering of a desperate public barely treading water and praying for a lifeboat. In that desperation people will cling to a leaky defective raft, if it’s all that is available. The proof: most of those who voted for Donald Trump could very well have voted for Bernie Sanders; that was made clear in post election polls, interviews, and town hall meetings.
The desperation for feelings of power and protection among fearful and disenfranchised citizens explains other societal trends that have taken root, such as reality shows. It's ironic but revealing that these shows are called "reality" when many reflect blatant unreality. But keep in mind that unreality is the lifeblood of the fake society.
The following incident reminded me of that unreality. Some mornings I would stroll to my favorite coffee bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, passing "Elaine's" restaurant, which for years was a popular video site for Woody Allen films and many television shows. Once, as I approached the eight trailers stretching several blocks with dressing rooms and technical support, I noticed a member of the technical crew, a big burly guy, standing in front of a breakfast buffet that was being dismantled. Further down the street, others were setting up the lunch buffet. The burly guy held a cup of coffee and was munching on what looked like a prune Danish.
A segment of a reality show a few days earlier came to mind. It was about a couple in a jungle setting who were competing with other couples for survival. The couple was lost and hungry, not having eaten for days. They were discussing whether to eat rats. If the camera that was filming the desperate “lost and alone” couple were to turn 90 degrees, we would see the technical guy standing in front of the breakfast buffet, munching on his Danish.
Nevertheless, the public continues to relish the fake reality that permeates these shows. No surprise for the fake society and the election of a president groomed on reality TV.
Enter social media. Those feeling isolated, beaten down, insecure, and yearning for attention could now communicate with the world. They could inject the most trivial events in their lives with the illusion of importance. Today, many people have vast networks of friends and followers on social media sites where they cross-validate each other's trivia.
Facebook and Twitter constantly confront us with names of people who are friends of friends and followers of followers, who we are encouraged to hookup with. Since it only requires a click to add new friends and followers, many mindlessly go for it. LinkedIn recently informed me that there are 1,403 contacts that I may know, suggesting that if I connected with them I could grow my connections.
But are these friends, followers, and connections real or fake?
That question was answered for me recently when I wanted to access my Facebook account and forgot my password. To get a new one I was asked to identify the names of three of my “friends" whose pictures were provided. I had no idea who they were. And what about all those alerts from Facebook that "today is you friend's birthday"--a friend who you couldn't pick out of a lineup.
A prominent writer told me about his surprise that another author had received a six-figure advance for a new book. According to the literary agent, the author got the windfall advance because he had 150,000 Twitter followers--many of whom would presumably buy his book. In fact, it’s possible to accumulate Twitter followers by diligently following others, many of whom will gladly follow you because you are following them. And there are tech experts who will help you build an impressive number of fake followers.
Celebrities and others hire ghostwriters to produce books, articles, blogs, and social media entries for them and thus keep them in the public eye. Are these productions real or fake? And whose views are represented, if anyone’s? In the fake society it doesn't matter.
One of the most disturbing developments in the evolution of the fake society is the emergence of fake religion. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump--a key factor in his victory. In doing so they had to abandon many of their professed core religious and moral principles, since they knew full well about his treatment of women, his shameful business practices, his ridicule of the disabled, his lack of compassion for immigrants, his trashing of Mexicans, his mocking of an American hero (John McCain), his uncharitable charitable foundation, his sham university, and more. In the face of these revelations, the attempt to rationalize support of Trump by drawing immoral equivalency with Hillary Clinton—“she used a private server”--comes across as hollow and absurd.
In fact, according to commentators familiar with the Bible Belt, where evangelicals are concentrated, their support of Trump had mostly to do with placing economic concerns over morality. In interviews, many who voted for Trump said they deplored his behavior but defended their vote, claiming he’s a successful businessman and will provide them with jobs. Perhaps to justify their hypocritical choice, many added that Trump would be their ally in defending Christianity in American life—a bizarre expectation when he has never had any active participation in religious activities and when first asked, could not even name a favorite bible verse. In sharp contrast, Hillary Clinton’s active affiliation with the Methodist Church dates to her childhood and continues today. Her extensive religious activities include taking bible classes as a sixth grader and teaching Sunday School as an adult.
We might ask evangelicals: What happened to the principle of faith? Has religion become just a thin veneer of self-righteousness that is betrayed by actions? Sunday sermons are rife with the celebration of the story of Job, who despite unrelenting tragedies never lost faith. But in the face of economic hardship tied to societal shifts, many evangelicals promptly abandoned faith and religious principles—and also lost faith in America as the land of opportunity. They opted instead for the promises of a fake messiah.
Popular television preacher Joel Osteen champions faith in the face of adversity, stressing that hard times are only a sign that “God will intervene.” His stadium audience of 43,000 beams, inspired by his message of hope. His 10 million television viewers, no doubt, are similarly moved But are they imbibing his message or is Osteen talking to himself? Once outside, many in his flock apparently can’t run fast enough to abandon faith to join in the worship of “the Golden Calf,” in return for the fake promise of fake jobs that will not materialize in the new work world and global economy.
Another dangerous addition to the fake society occurred during the 2016 presidential campaign. Social media took on a new sinister role as the conduit for outright fake news—like the totally fabricated story that Hillary Clinton was allegedly connected to a child porn ring. This and other fake news in the closing days of the presidential campaign went viral across social media. They were emblematic of this new trend, made easy by social media that can be used to instantly communicate with vast audiences. Since almost two thirds of American adults get news from social media, fake news can effectively become real news; this is reinforced by a growing fake society that has little respect for facts or fact checking. "Alternative facts" in the “post-truth” era are elevated to equal if not superior status to real facts: “If it sounds good and I like it, it must be true.” In the fake society there is little distinction between fantasy and reality. And if fake news can swing an election its output is not likely to slow down.
In one sense, Donald Trump is the most honest politician ever. He ceaselessly tells us exactly who he is. But those who supported him chose to ignore the graphic displays of his dishonesty and incompetence--facts about him that have been know for decades. Former Mayor of New York City Ed Koch had his number back in 1990, when he endorsed the comment of a former deputy mayor: "I wouldn't believe Donald Trump if his tongue were notarized."
In the fake society, though, notaries are not needed; certified facts don't count. Uncertified alternative facts rule in the fake society.
Sadly, neither the Republicans nor Democrats have significantly helped dislodged workers adapt to the technological revolution and global economy. Neither party has come up with a way of providing comprehensive educational and retraining programs to help these suffering workers participate in today’s work world. And neither party has found a way to provide adequate safety nets for secure living for all working families.
As long as we fail to address the fears and insecurities underpinning the fake society, fake leaders will continue to take center stage to cheers and worship. This real danger poses a real threat to our democracy and the America envisioned by the founders of our Republic.
Bernard Starr, PhD, is a psychologist and Professor Emeritus at CUNY (Brooklyn College). He is also a past president of the Brooklyn Psychological Association and the Association for Spirituality and Psychotherapy. His latest book is “Jesus, Jews, And Anti-Semitism In Art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus’ Jewish Identity & How Today’s Artists Are Restoring It.”