The Potemkin President

Back in the 18th Century Grigory Potemkin, a minister and lover of Russian Empress Catherine the Great, constructed phony villages populated by phony peasants to impress foreign ambassadors with how Crimea had prospered under Russian rule. As the entourage passed, the villages were disassembled and moved downstream to be viewed by the ambassadors as they passed them again.

The villages were obviously a lie, a deliberate way of misrepresenting the truth, a false presentation of reality.

We’re experiencing something like that right now, a kind of Orwellian world in which we’re told one thing when quite the opposite is true. The easiest example is that the world “isn’t laughing at us anymore.” Au contraire, Mr. President. The world, who the President claims was playing us for a sucker before he took office, used to respect and admire the United States for its decency, generosity and humanity. Now, as anyone who has been abroad recently can attest, the world is puzzled by what’s happening in America, and bewildered, if not frightened, by the person currently occupying the White House.

Some of us, many of us, have startling moments of a kind of reverse epiphany. How, we ask ourselves, did we get here?

Modern life increasingly is being shaped and controlled by large corporations and monopolies whose influence overshadows governments. This trend has been growing and accelerating as competition drives it, bigness necessitating bigger growth as smaller operators are forced to succumb to the behemoths that dominate their particular field of endeavor—from media to retailing to food production—leaving individuals increasingly powerless. Government, which should be available to help the public, is in the grip of the very forces from which the public needs protection.,

A feeling of community under this circumstance develops not from a shared purpose but from the despair, frustration and anger that is created by a sense of alienation and impotence. Curiously, this phenomenon seems more pronounced in America’s rural areas than in its cities.

That is a situation ripe for exploitation by a skillful demagogue who both feeds off and fans the grievances of the alienated mass of individuals.  The mass of individuals becomes an angry mob when gathered together. The demagogue is all the more attractive and appealing if he (demagogues are almost always men) appears to have profited from the system—even if he did so in underhanded and illegal ways. He declares that the system is rigged, and he has the expertise of the reformed sinner (“I alone can fix it”). He proclaims that he no longer desires to profit from this corrupt system. The demagogue embraces the grievances, prejudices and bigotry of the alienated and uses his platform to express what they’re thinking and feeling, their resentment.

It may not matter, as has been noted elsewhere, if the bread and butter needs of the mass are left unfulfilled as long as their resentments and grievances are recognized and validated. Psychic needs are apparently more important than material needs. Words are more important than action. Appearances, not reality, are what count. In a very real sense, perception is all-important.

As a result, it doesn’t seem to matter that no concrete actions are taken to deal with the individuals’ grievances, or if the actions taken make the aggrieveds’ lives even worse. “Reforms” that are regressive or even reactionary may result, but the demagogue presents the actions as positive. He expresses his defiance toward an “elite” that is trying to thwart him and his following. He provokes his opposition and declares them “enemies,” and their response verifies his accusation.

And so the hoodwinking goes on:

A “tax reform” law that was supposed to give relief to the middle class without giving substantial benefits to the one percent. What we got instead was a restructuring of the tax law to give a permanent windfall to the very rich while giving minor, one-time benefits to the middle class and punishing taxpayers in high tax states (blue states) by removing deductions for state and local taxes.

A promise to replace the Affordable Care Act—which has given millions of Americans access to healthcare that they didn’t have before its passage and has insured that people with pre-existing conditions could buy health insurance—with something supposedly cheaper and better. What we have gotten instead is a campaign to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, and no real replacement except for cheap health insurance substitutes that may cost little but provide even less.

A trade war that we were told would be easily won which has left American farmers devastated by reprisals from foreign purchasers—especially China—that have turned to other countries to supply their needs.

A suggestion that our country’s disintegrating infrastructure would be a priority by the administration. Nothing has been done to start what would be a decades-long effort.

A promise to bring “the best people” to Washington. Instead, the revolving door Cabinet has featured wealthy mostly white, mostly male office-holders, many of whom had dubious credentials for the positions to which they were appointed. And then there are all the government positions that haven’t been filled at all. The Defense Department has had an acting secretary for more than three months with no appointee in sight; ditto for the Interior Department. The Environmental Protection Agency’s initial administrator in this administration left office in disgrace. His successor advocated for the same industries he’s now charged with regulating. The Department of Homeland Security’s leadership has been gutted. Two remarkably unqualified persons have been suggested to serve on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors so that the current president can undermine the Fed’s independence and bend it to his will.

Which leads me to “draining the swamp”. More like letting more fetid, polluted water into the swamp. Lobbyists now find doors open to the special interests they represent, regulations changed or revoked in favor of the industries and businesses that found them burdensome without regard for the impact on the public interest. The former Interior secretary is under investigation for his conduct in office.

According to the current president, however, his is one of if not the most successful first two years in history. He gives himself an A+ for his performance.

That’s his façade. Here is what many of us not in his thrall see—a vain, vicious, vindictive coward, a phony patriot who gushes over authentic heroes and talks about the American flag as if it were a religious icon but cooked up a false disability (bone spurs) to avoid serving in the military during the Vietnam War.

That’s the reality.




  1. Mary on April 13, 2019 at 1:28 am

    Very well argued column.

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