The Modern Gorgias: On ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’, 2015-09-11

At this moment, I am watching MSNBC, and across the screen flashes a banner: “Breaking News: Donald Trump Refuses to Correct Questioner Who Believes Obama is Muslim!” Though hardly startling news, Trump’s exchange with two supporters at a rally, replayed on MSNBC ad nauseam and soon appearing everywhere else, is a remarkable embarrassment in an election cycle predicated on ceremonial public humiliations. The exchange proceeded as follows:

PATRIOT IN AUDIENCE: We got a problem in this county: it’s called Muslims! You know our current president is one…

TRUMP: Right…

PATRIOT: You know he’s not even an American…

TRUMP: We need this question… this is the first question! (laughs)

PATRIOT: But anyway, we have training camps growing, where they want to kill us. That’s my question: when can we get rid of them?

TRUMP: We’re gonna be looking at a lot of things, you know, a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.

SECOND PATRIOT: I applaud the gentleman who brought up the Muslim training camps here in the USA. The FBI knows all about that…

TRUMP: Right…

Already now, on the evening of September 17, 2015, commentators are excoriating Trump for his cowardice and pusillanimity. His response (or lack thereof) to uncensored bigotry could well be the weakest rhetorical moment in the history of American politics — even the most vapid teenager would balk at Trump’s equivocations, not to mention his seeking refuge in the word “things”. His birther-ism notwithstanding, Trump’s tone is more revealing than his confirmations. When he casually responds, “Right…” to his sycophantic followers, he is obviously humoring them, enabling a fantastic worldview in which he, a fabulist, might possibly ascend to the presidency. But by the middle of the brief exchange, Trump has already tipped his hand, poorly stifling a laugh as he almost incredulously says, “This is the first question!” He really means to say, “I wish you wouldn’t ask this in public, but I realize that I have to nonchalantly validate the fantasies my sophistry has instilled in you.”

Trump, that terrible simplificateur, only plays this game because he knows that he can dominate, manipulate, and infiltrate a disconcertingly weak Republican field. I suspect his sympathies on a range of issues, from gay rights to the minimum wage to the separation of church and state, are fairly liberal, but his ego supersedes any ethics, and only in the Wild West of today’s Republican Party can his ego run so recklessly. Were there more viable Republican opponents — a John McCain or a Jack Kemp — Trump would be preening on the sidelines. Because the Republican’s Wild West show lacks a mayor or sheriff, however, the town’s biggest gambler can run the frontier.

I doubt Trump really believes that “Muslim training camps” dot America’s interior (presumably the Patriot meant “terrorist training camps”, as one needn’t covertly train to become Muslim). Yet such conspiracies are available everywhere on the internet: consider, which warns that up to three Republican candidates may not, in fact, personally own a gun and that atheists will “declare all-out war” on real Americans and will be “targeting your children!” Belying (or perhaps confirming?) the American Freedom Fighters’ deeply set religiosity, their site’s banner ads spotlight the spread buttocks of a female tennis player (one of the “31 Best Photos on the Planet!”) and the exposed, flopping breasts of a spied-upon woman (one of the “Perfectly Timed Photos You Must See!”). Doubtless the Freedom Fighters applaud the arrest of Ahmed Mohamad, the thirteen year-old Muslim boy whose homemade clock Texan police mistook for a bomb, but in their defense, the Sharia Law the Fighters fear would certainly rob them of the masturbatory freedom to ogle unsuspecting ladies.

Trump excuses his pusillanimity with the caveat that he’s an “entertainer”, but as an entertainer he’s pretty awful. Good entertainers take risks, rebuff hecklers, and satirize phonies. That Trump plays it safe by relying on conservative prejudices allies him more with Gorgias, the wealthy Athenian sophist whom Socrates dresses down in the Platonic dialogue of the same name. Gorgias asserts near the beginning of the dialogue that he, a master rhetorician, is more powerful than any autocrat, for he wields the linguistic power to make autocrats do his bidding. Socrates soon reveals, however, that Gorgias’ ostensible power is divested of freedom: because his persuasive tools bend to conventional wisdom and rely on popular prejudices, Gorgias is himself enslaved to the masses, and his power extends only as far as conventionality will allow. Should Gorgias overstep his bounds and advocate something truly unconventional, revolutionary, or subversive, his hold on autocrats and peasants alike would instantly dissipate. In a nutshell, this is Trump. A leader of nobodies, he becomes enslaved to the likes of self-styled patriots, freedom fighters, illiterate xenophobes, and ordinary morons. For all his bluster about leadership, Trump is the ultimate follower, confined by the stunning lack of imagination that we call “patriotism”.

Trump’s specter roamed about the perimeters of September 11’s edition of Real Time with Bill Maher, which expectedly made room for recalcitrant county clerk Kim Davis, whom Maher dubbed “the Rosa Parks of homophobia”. By denying the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses, Davis is obviously attempting to take advantage of popular disillusionment with do-nothing bureaucracy. Because the rationality Max Weber ascribed to bureaucracy is itself idealistic — because bureaucracy impedes rather than facilitates action — Davis naturally believes a religious calling should supplant the legal structure for which she nevertheless volunteered. At the same time, Davis, the pettiest and saddest of martinets, draws upon the legitimation and officialdom her office bestows. We often see these attempts at self-aggrandizement in low-level government functionaries, from the bus driver who forbids speaking or smoking to the DMV booth attendant who demands neat queuing and the methodical delivery of paperwork. As in most bureaucratic scenarios, functionaries inherit the arbitrary power of their uniforms, which instill their wearers with delusions of legitimacy. Ironically, Davis believes she is God’s vessel, but only her mundane status as a bureaucrat grants her any power, much as Trump’s only resource are dregs of the earth who could never trespass into his penthouses.

I don’t begrudge Davis, an adulterer, for her hypocrisies per se. We’re all hypocrites in some way, but when we begin exteriorizing our hypocrisies, inflicting them on fellow citizens in the form of theocratic proclamations, hypocrisy loses its everyday quaintness. No rational (or simply Weberian) mind could defend Davis’ delusions, but one of Maher’s guests, “reasonable” Republican operative Linda Chavez, offered mild apologias, arguing that conservatives have had only “15 years” to become accustomed to the notion of same-sex marriage. We should be patient with religious conservatives, she argues, who need more time to come around. I’m not sure how or why she estimates “15 years” — the Hawaii State Supreme Court found anti-gay marriage laws discriminatory in 1996, in Baehr vs. Miike, a case begun in 1991. But the current marriage debate has been something of a beard, as prejudice isn’t limited to the merely bureaucratic institution of marriage. Stonewall occurred 46 years ago. Isn’t that enough time for conservatives to get accustomed to some new ideas? Perhaps they need a hundred years? Or a thousand? Or perhaps they just need to die off, still shrouded in righteous indignation?

An apologist like Chavez — or, indeed, the Supreme Court, which claimed that one’s protected religious beliefs only need to be “deeply felt” rather than sensible — would argue that Davis should enjoy the freedom of delusionary belief, even if she’s relieved of her official post. Such a “democratic” argument is hardly comforting. I am reminded of Herbert Marcuse’s general thesis in Eros and Civilization: never knowing the meaning of freedom beyond institutional repressions, we live our repressions as our freedoms, as if we, rather than our maggoty ancestors, had invented the rules of the game.

The millennial generation can easily cast off the ancien regime’s bigoted trappings, but American youth remain as directionless as their grandparents were narrow. In a conservation with Maher, documentarian Alexandra Pelosi bemoaned the cultural corruption of San Francisco, now overrun with corporatism, unaffordable housing, chain restaurants, and affluent invaders from Silicon Valley — youngish tech millionaires who supposedly represent liberalizing demographics but who, in fact, are only the old neoliberalism reincarnate. Clearly, we cannot be content with exchanging a conservative corporatism for a superficially enlightened one. Eco-sustainable, organic produce that fails to deliver actual health results is no substitute for affordable health care. But too many Americans haven’t even reached that juncture — still humoring false idols, they are crippled by a hubris of humility, following leaders who are themselves servants.