The trouble I have with grasping the reality of Donald J. Trump’s election to the office of President of the United States has little to do with his policy or personality. It has much to do with my lifelong struggle to tell the difference between fiction and reality, and my viewing of a video of “The Battle of The Billionaires” a few months before the election. I did not know about the event before that. I learned that “The Battle of the Billionaires” was one of the events on the WrestleMania 23 card held on April 1, 2007. The video shows Mr. Trump pummeling and humiliating Vince McMahon, a promoter of professional wrestling matches.
At the age of seven I asked my dad if the stuff I saw on professional wrestling on TV was for real. “What are you doing watching that junk?” he asked me. “It’ll ruin your mind.” He meant the storylines and the trash talk by the contestants. That was almost fifty years ago, when professional wrestling programs were locally produced and aired.
A Cryptoquote© puzzle that I solved a few years ago also causes me to question the reality of the election:
“Politics is the entertainment division of the military- industrial complex.” - Frank Zappa
Before you label me a conspiracy theorist, remember that a real United States president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, really did warn us of the military-industrial complex in his farewell address. He defined the military-industrial complex as “this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry.” He explained that, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."
Zappa’s words imply that we did not heed President Eisenhower’s warning, an opinion shared by Eisenhower’s own granddaughter. The quote implies that the military-industrial complex has control of our political system, and that it stages elections and government proceedings so that we can believe we have a voice in government. Though he did not use the term “military-industrial complex,” Donald Trump acknowledged as much in a campaign speech:
“This election will determine whether we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged. This is reality, you know it, they know it, I know it, and pretty much the whole world knows it.”
Later in the speech Trump admits his insider status, and claims that, “Because I used to be part of the club, I'm the only one that can fix it.”
I can believe that one would need an insider’s knowledge and clout to survive the system and reform it. President Eisenhower did not call himself an insider, but he would have had to have been a major player in the military-industrial complex to achieve victory in Europe and secure an advantageous position for the United States in the Cold War. He had enough pull to not get killed for his reluctance to send men and arms to Viet Nam. President Kennedy did not enjoy the same privilege.
In his inaugural address, President Trump said: “...we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.”
Does Trump really intend to wrest political power from the military-industrial complex and give it back to the people, or merely give the illusion of doing so? If he really intends to win back our power, can he? Can anyone? Will he trample the Constitution to do it? Will “draining the swamp” in Washington merely result in more entertaining sessions of Congress? Is Donald Trump for real, or is he a puppet of the military- industrial complex?
Each new day gives me reason to believe Donald Trump is for real, or reason to believe that he is not for real. Whether I agree or disagree with his opinions on issues, I can see how some of his past words and actions could run counter to the interests of the military-industrial complex.
In 1988, Trump took out a full-page ad in The New York Times that urged the U.S. government to press other members of NATO to contribute more to the military operations of the organization so that the U.S. could save money on defense. The ad prompted Oprah Winfrey to ask him if he would consider running for president. Well before Trump announced his candidacy, I heard or read statements by both liberals and conservatives that more or less agree with Trump’s assertion that everyone in Washington is a lobbyist. Trump addressed cost overruns on the Air Force One and F-35 fighter jet programs before taking office. He addressed the revolving door between the United States Department of Defense and defense contractors shortly after taking office, but proposed increased spending on defense.
I question whether Donald Trump is for real because if a guy getting caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by the pussy doesn’t lose a guy an election, I don’t know what will. Also, before taking office, Mr. Trump criticized both Democratic and Republican opponents for taking money from the banking firm Goldman Sachs. Since taking office, he has recruited several former Goldman Sachs employees to positions in his administration. Perhaps public and private sector finances are so tangled that he had no choice.
I keep remembering my father’s warning that watching professional wrestling on TV would ruin my mind. When I saw “The Battle of the Billionaires” video, I immediately thought of a Star Trek episode entitled “Bread and Circuses.” Captain Kirk and senior officers beam down to a planet where The Roman Empire never fell. A Roman-style dictator forces them to fight in gladiatorial matches on live television. This dictator kept the masses under control by providing food and entertainment.
The title of the Star Trek episode comes from an ancient Roman satirist named Juvenal, who used the phrase to describe how people made it easy for their leaders to transform their Republic into an empire:
“… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
(Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81. Translation by J.P. Toner in Leisure and Ancient Rome.)
I understand that the “Battle of the Billionaires” was held on April Fool’s Day, and it looks as though Mr. Trump enjoyed a fine lark. This further confuses fiction and reality for me. The event shows that Mr. Trump had experience providing politics as entertainment before he ran for office. The storyline was that Donald Trump was up against The Evil Mr. McMahon. McMahon was evil because he grew his media empire by ruthlessly putting local professional wrestling programs out of business. He violated gentlemen’s agreements between local professional wrestling programs to not encroach on each other’s territory. He also had a reputation for not dealing fairly with the professional wrestlers he promoted.
The dispute between Mr. Trump and Mr. McMahon was over which of them had more money. Rather than produce ledgers or bank statements, the two men hired professional wrestlers to represent them and settle the question in the ring. When the fight in the ring became boring, Trump took matters into his own hands and attacked McMahon. Trump won the bet and got to shave off McMahon’s hair.
It all looks pretty fake to me. I don’t mean I think the video was doctored. I mean it looks fake the way every professional wrestling match looks fake: you can tell it’s neither a real fight nor a true athletic contest, but stylized violence for show. I now think of campaign speeches, debates, press conferences and political news as pretty much the same thing as professional wrestling, and remember my father’s warning.
If Donald Trump is correct, that we are “controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system,” and that “the whole world knows it,” then that helps explain why 38% of eligible voters stayed home on Election Day. Perhaps they already knew that we live under an “illusion of democracy.”
With voter participation rates the way they are, the popular vote is almost as non-representative as the electoral vote. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton received a majority of the popular vote. Clinton received 48.25% of the popular vote to Trump’s 46.15%. Trump won the election by persuading less than a third of all possible voters to vote for him.
An analysis of interviews with political scientists tells us that “...the President-elect’s leap from long-shot candidate to the most powerful political position in the world may have happened in part because of apathy toward Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.” Even Michael Moore, a strident critic of Donald Trump, acknowledged that both candidates represented the military-industrial complex:
“But her vote for the Iraq War made me promise her that I would never vote for her again. To date, I haven’t broken that promise. For the sake of preventing a proto-fascist from becoming our commander-in-chief, I’m breaking that promise. I sadly believe Clinton will find a way to get us in some kind of military action.”
Some days, I wonder if Donald Trump saw a quote that I often see on Twitter, and took it to heart:
“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” - Bertolt Brecht
Trump knows that politics is the entertainment division of the military-industrial complex. “The Battle of the Billionaires,” "The Apprentice" and his appearances on numerous talk shows were part of a decades-long unofficial campaign to get elected President. I don’t share his taste in art, but acknowledge his success at it. He can use his position as entertainer-in-chief to get us outraged enough to shake off our apathy and educate ourselves about how our system of government is supposed to work.
Trump’s promise to build a wall along our border with Mexico reveals the injustice and hypocrisy of our food production system. We depend upon illegal immigrants for much of the hard labor involved in getting meals to our tables, but we take advantage of their legal status to deprive them of just compensation for their hard labor. If President Trump succeeds at halting illegal immigration, we face increased food prices because very few legal workers want to do agricultural labor. As one frustrated farm manager put it:
“I’ve been telling anyone who will listen: you either import your workforce or you import your food,” Aiello said. “Unless American citizens are willing to do this work - which they haven’t shown they are willing to do.”
President Trump’s policies on immigration do not radically differ from those of previous administrations, but he plays the news media like Duke Ellington played his orchestra. His outrageous statements during his campaign got him all the coverage he wanted, and allowed him to define the arguments. Advancing a shocking and entertaining idea such as building a wall and making Mexico pay for it causes us to discuss a problem we would rather ignore. If this discussion leads to legislation that addresses our immigrant labor issue, Donald Trump will have succeeded at using art to shape reality.
On other days, I wonder if we have reached the point predicted in another quote attributed to Frank Zappa:
“The illusion of freedom will continue as long as it's profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, they will pull back the curtains, they will move the tables and chairs out of the way and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theater.”
Donald Trump may be the guy hired by the military-industrial complex to take down the scenery and move the tables and chairs out of the way. We won’t like anybody who reveals the brick wall at the back of the theater. Donald J. Trump may not be the one to wrest control from the military-industrial complex, but he may be the one to lay it bare.
I reserve making a determination on whether Donald Trump is for real until his smackdown with Vladimir Putin. I hope he wins, but I’ll be looking for the same signs of fakery that I saw in “The Battle of the Billionaires.”
1. WrestleMania 23, wwe.org
2. Transcript of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Farewell Address (IV), ourdocuments.gov
3. 50 years later, we're still ignoring Ike's warning, By Susan Eisenhower, washingtonpost.com, Outlook & Opinions Sunday, January 16, 2011
4. TRANSCRIPT: Donald Trump's Speech Responding To Assault Accusations, NPR, Oct. 13, 2016
5. The Inaugural Address, whitehouse.gov, Jan. 20, 2017
6. In 1988, Oprah Asked Donald Trump If He’d Ever Run For President. Here’s How He Replied, Huffington Post, July 28, 2015
7. Interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes, Nov. 13, 2016
8. Exclusive poll: GOP voters want the party to stand by Trump, By Steven Shepard, Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, Politico, October 9, 2016
9. Elizabeth Warren probes Goldman Sachs' ties to Trump White House, by Matt Egan, www.ksat.com, Feb. 10, 2017
10. “Bread and Circuses,” www.startrek.com
11. Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81. Translation by J.P. Toner in Leisure and Ancient Rome.
12. Trump’s victory another example of how Electoral College wins are bigger than popular vote ones, by Drew DeSilver, Pew Research Center FACTANK, Dec. 20, 2016
13. What does voter turnout tell us about the 2016 Election? By Michael D. Regan, PBS Newshour, November 20, 2016
14. 5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win, by Michael Moore, michael moore.com, July, 2016
15. Trump's Immigration Crackdown Triggers Anxiety Across U.S. Farms, Mario Parker and Mark Chediak, Bloomberg, Feb. 14, 2017