Elli Tikvah Sarah

The people vs the reality TV star president

A ‘Reality TV’ star has become President of the United States.

Is it a joke?

When ‘President Trump’ was featured on ‘The Simpsons’ in the year 2000 the spectre was supposed to make us laugh – and perhaps also, to make us think… Can we ever know what the future holds?

Sometimes, absurdities can become realities.

CBS News reminded everyone about the episode the morning after Donald Trump declared victory in the Presidential election.[1]

So now, we are not laughing – perhaps because we know that ‘Reality TV’ is for the most part, ‘Fantasy TV’, and Donald Trump is a fantasist, who is now occupying the most powerful political office on the planet.

‘America first’? Donald Trump first.

The question is, what will it take for him to feel he has satisfied his megalomania? Is a megalomaniac ever satisfied?

Trump does not appear to be an ideologue, he is far too self-centred to have a vision that is more than a reflection of his own vanity. But he has tapped into the discontent and real suffering of millions of Americans, left behind by globalisation, and managed to persuade them that he is their champion, their saviour.

Whether or not he does fulfil any of his promises to the people of the discarded ‘rustbelt’ and to the rural poor, Trump has achieved in their adulation exactly what his ego requires: to be the star of the greatest show on earth – which is probably why he was so determined to promote ‘alternative facts’ about the turnout at his inauguration.[2]

If this was really all there was to the election of Donald J Trump as 45th President of the United States, perhaps it would simply provide a nauseating comment on the dire state of political discourse that such a narcissist, with no experience of public service, could assume the Presidency.

But, of course, President Trump is not alone.

He has surrounded himself with people of strong convictions, who seem to be committed to a very narrow vision of America – not least, Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian, who would re-impose the hetero-normative family ideal on the nation, repeal hard-won LGBT rights, and make abortion a crime once again. And then, let us not forget that the narcissist fantasist is also a successful billionaire businessman, a wheeler-dealer, who is used to getting his own way.

He has already issued several executive orders to demonstrate his determination to put his campaign promises into practice – which have included an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees entering the country.[3]

So, although a gift to comedians and cartoonists and late-night TV show hosts, President Trump also poses a threat to the people of the United States, and possibly to the entire world.

Perhaps, ‘America first’ nationalism is just a game to Donald Trump, a way of keeping his supporters happy – after all, he only got to be a billionaire by engaging in global capitalism; a crucial ‘fact’ that they seem to have missed.

But whether or not he means it, Trump has incited and aroused nationalistic and racist sentiments amongst those who need someone to blame, and boosted the nationalist and racist elements that already exist in American society – like the Ku Klux Klan.

Sounds familiar? The election of Trump has been likened to the election of Hitler in Germany in 1933. But Trump is not a new Hitler, and it is doubtful that his xenophobia will be translated into genocide – although he relishes the prospect of torturing terrorist suspects[4] and often speaks of ‘annihilating’ ISIS.[5]

Nevertheless, there is a striking parallel.

Ultimately, as was the case with Hitler in Germany in 1933, Trump’s ability to woo those who felt marginalised and left behind, determined the outcome of the election.

A special Channel 4 report the day before Trump’s inauguration was very telling.

Matt Frei spoke to a miner in West Virginia, who voted for Trump although he had always voted Democrat in the past, who told him that Trump had been the first presidential candidate to visit them since JFK.[6]

At the moment, the story of the Exodus is the theme of the weekly Torah portion. It is tempting to portray Trump as cast in the same mould as Pharaoh – and indeed, like Pharaoh, who saw the Israelites as a threat,[7] Trump has demonised minorities, in particular, Mexicans, Hispanics in general, and Muslims, and is determined to execute policies to keep them out.

But there is an important difference. Pharaoh did not have to make appeals for public support when he decided to kill all the firstborn Hebrew baby boys.[8]

Pharaoh was an autocrat, with absolute power, presiding over an autocracy. Like it or not, Trump has become President of the United States because he won a democratic election.

While linking Trump to Pharaoh may not get us very far in our efforts to make sense of the Trump phenomenon, the story of the Exodus has other important lessons to teach us, when we turn from the powerful to the powerless.

Immediately after delivering the Divine promises of deliverance to the slaves, we read that the Israelites ‘did not listen to Moses because of shortness of spirit – mi-kotzer ru’ach – and because of hard bondage.’[9]

Those words say all are that needs to be said about what it feels like to be oppressed. But, of course, that is not the end of the story. When it came to the final plague, the death of the firstborn, the only way the Israelites could be saved was by saving themselves – by taking the blood of a lamb and putting it on the doorposts and lintels of their houses, so that the Eternal would pass over their houses; hence the inauguration of the Festival of ‘Passover’, Pesach, to celebrate the liberation.[10]

In the story of the Exodus, we are confronted with two visions of power: the self- interested, self-aggrandizing power of Pharaoh that is all about domination and control, and the power of the Divine that empowers the powerless.

Since Trump’s election, there have been Moses figures and Miriams at work; ordinary people, inspired by the values of justice and equality, determined to defend and extend human rights, who reject nationalism and racism, sexism and homophobia.

Demonstrating solidarity across races, religions and ethnicities, sexualities and genders, on-going demonstrations against Trump’s policies convey a compelling message.

A narcissistic megalomaniac will not improve the lives of the poor and discarded; only people working together can change the world.

[1] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/this-episode-of-the-simpsons-predicted-a-president-trump/

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-inauguration-what-did-he-say-a7539831.html

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/38781496

[4] http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/trump-talks-torture-of-terrorism-suspects/

[5] Trump has repeated this so many times that a ‘USA Politics Now poll’ on 21 November 2016, asked the question, ‘Do you support Trump annihilating ISIS?’ http://usapoliticsnow.com/live-poll-support-trump-annihilating-isis/

[6] https://www.channel4.com/news/taking-trump-home-to-west-virginia 86% in West Virginia voted for Trump – the highest support for Trump in the election. West Virginia is the second poorest state in the Union. Presidential candidate, J.F. Kennedy visited in 1960.

[7] Ex. 1:9-11.

[8] Ex. 1:15.

[9] Ex. 6:9.

[10] Ex. 12:1 ff.

About the Author
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah has been the Rabbi of Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue since 2000. She is a pioneer in the area of lesbian and gay inclusion.
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