A man who lives at taxpayer expense in luxurious public housing in Washington, D.C. has started a campaign against those who aren’t so lucky. There’s something that repels him about homeless people, and in two appearances in recent months, the president began to clarify what it is.
Speaking in Iowa in June, Donald Trump took a double shot at immigrants and the homeless (whom he sometimes equates), saying, “You see what’s hap- pening in California. …The Democratic-run cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco—do you see what’s happening to those cities? Can you even believe it, what’s going on there? People are getting sick just by walking down the street. They’re getting actually sick, including police officers, who are incredible, the job our law enforcement does is incredible.”
OK, so the problem is not primarily that people are being forced by economic, medical or social circumstances to live on the streets; it’s that other pedestrians—especially incredible police officers, for some reason—are repelled by their presence on our shared sidewalks. He mentioned the smell, and he mentioned needles, as he often does.
In the fusillades of ridicule and rhetoric that President Trump has fired against various classes of American citizens, it would be easy to overlook any one of his many targets, but noticing and remembering are hallmarks of a thriving conscience. So before they slip from our collective memory entirely, let’s consider Trump’s words in early July on homeless- ness and consider what they represent.
After Trump returned from Japan that month, he reported back to his base at Fox News that, as one fawning moderator put it, “the cities are clean. There’s no graffiti. No one going to the bathroom on the street. You don’t see junkies.”
Trump took the bait and ran with it. “It’s very nice, isn’t it?” he said. There are addicts, of course, all over this country and abroad, with perhaps a higher concentration recently in America’s rural white areas, but how very nice the president finds it not to see them on the sidewalks. American rural addicts are perceived as someone’s more sympathetic relatives, unlike the more visible addicts who annoy him so much on “Democratic” city streets. Indeed, the very fact that addicts are visible makes them more useful for his political purposes. They’re valuable, anonymous props that he can point to with theatrical horror and disgust.
Egged on by his Fox cheerleader, Trump said it was “very sad” what was happening in “some of our cities. …New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, they’ve got a major problem with…filth.” By “filth,” he meant homeless people and he meant excrement, as soon became clearer.
As with many fastidious and insecure people of outsized privilege, germs or excrement are particularly repulsive to the president. Areas that aren’t gold-plated to his taste are not simply unfamiliar or vaguely uncomfortable; they are “shitholes,” to use Trump’s own inelegant term for vast, impoverished areas of the world.
In a fleeting concession to conscience, Trump said that “…some of them have mental problems where they don’t even know they’re living that way.” He quickly discarded the notion that unhoused people might be the victims of circumstances beyond their control, saying, “In fact, perhaps they like living that way. They can’t do that.”
Do you see what happened there? The president quickly switched from unsupported speculation to the assumption that people enjoyed living in poverty and squalor—and then he chastised them for the motivation he himself had just ascribed to them: They liked “living that way,” and “They can’t do that.”
“It would be easy to overlook any one of [Trump’s] many targets, but noticing and remembering are hallmarks of a thriving conscience.”
Climbing further out on a speculative limb, Trump began parading his historical ignorance and promising to take action—of some kind—on a problem he clearly didn’t begin to understand. “It’s a phenomena [sic] that started two years ago,” he said, with all the assurance of presidential authority. (That suggests that homelessness began with the start of his administration. It’s not what he intended to remind his audience, but his autonomous mouth frequently betrays him in that way.) Then, speaking as the nation’s leader, the preacher of our common values, he declared, as he so often does, “It’s disgraceful.”
Trump returned later in the interview to his determination that “something” must maybe be done: “So we’re looking at it very seriously. We may intercede. We may do something to get that whole thing cleaned up. It’s inappropriate. Now, we have to take the people and do something. We have to do something.”
In short, stand by for “some other things…important things.” The silver lining is that in the past this president has generally forgotten the important things his rudderless mouth had promised. And in significant ways, Trump’s ends are served by raising the spectre of a threat and then leaving it unresolved. He gives his aroused “base” a common tar- get for righteous indignation without going to the detailed, time-consuming and collaborative trouble of fixing the problem he’s identified and leaving his base content. Their arousal is his greatest strength, so he must leave them aroused.
This president’s most dangerous impact is in identifying “the issue”
for his followers. Granted, his policies have destroyed stable institutions, societal norms, and years of legislative consensus, but even more important are the ways he’s poisoning public values by reframing our perceptions. In the process, problems, to the extent that they are problems, become more intractable, more difficult to resolve. You can’t legislate your way out of a fantasy.
“You can’t legislate your way out of a fantasy.”
At another point in his July diatribe on Fox News, Trump betrays more
of his motivation: “I own property in San Francisco. … [Y]ou take a look at what’s going on with San Francisco, it’s terrible.” With people like Trump, it’s always personal, often in ways only a psychotherapist could unearth. The implications of Trump’s mindset are clear. It is not that social disloca- tion and despair exist; it’s that he (or tourists, property owners or police of- ficers) must see the homeless or smell them as they walk down the street; that it’s happening in areas where he himself has property.
If you’ve spent your life with no greater ambition than to be at least one socioeconomic rung above the next person (a Queens guy dreaming of Manhattan status), then the higher you get, the more vulnerable you feel. Sadly, history has shown us that such fragile people often resolve their grandiose inner turmoil by imposing destructive forms of order on others, usually at the expense of easy targets on the lowest social and economic rungs. Even more sadly, this particular Queens guy is a rich professional brander who has persuaded many of his socially insecure followers that their own grievances are his. We’ve heard it again and again from die- hards at his rallies: “He’s one of us.”
We have paid, and for some time will continue to pay, a heavy price for this deeply troubled man’s insecurity, and as usual, the first ones to pay that price will be those who don’t have the financial resources or inherited influence to buy their way into the corridors of privilege and power where the governing values of a country are articulated and its rules are forged.
Peter Y. Sussman is Berkeleyan and a retired journalist and author who serves as an advisor to Street Spirit.