The Funny Games Presidency

Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games portrays a bourgeois family that is gradually destroyed by two anonymous men with an appetite for cruelty. In the face of these destructive nihilists, all the victims’ instincts — negotiation, compromise, and submission — serve only to prolong their suffering. The invaders have no long-term goal, hence there is no “getting it over with” or “meeting their demands.” They cannot be paid off or otherwise satisfied. All they want is dominance and control for its own sake.

We are now entering into the Funny Games presidency. There have been many attempts to make sense of Trump’s beliefs and strategies, and in the thinkpiece literature, he seems to alternate between being an undefeatable genius and an incompetent child. The truth, in my view, is that he is something like a genius in one very narrow field: asserting dominance. The baseline condition for that dominance is that Trump should be the center of attention, with everyone reacting to him.

As long as people are responding to him, he has control over the situation — and as long as he has control over the situation, there is no way out, because he has no other end goal. He cannot be bought off or satisfied and made to go away. As soon as he recognizes that you want something, that gives him leverage over you, and since he is a total nihilist, there is no reciprocal leverage over him. He will only give to you in the context of maintaining his dominance and control. Hence his tendency to tell his followers “what they want to hear,” which always turns out to be Trump’s brazen lies. What is most shocking in this context is how casual those lies most often are. If we review the infamous speech where he proclaimed that all Mexican immigrants are rapists, he does not particularly emphasize that remark. It’s as though he’s “just throwing it out there,” almost like he’s brainstorming.

Trump uses language as a weapon. His utterances are all tactical moves to maintain initiative and destroy his opponents. Hence his tendency, on display last night, to simply throw an accusation back at the accuser. Trump won the election under dubious circumstances, so he hallucinates a situation where Hillary won the popular vote under dubious circumstances. Trump is one of the most corrupt men alive, so he coins the nickname Crooked Hillary. We could multiply examples. The goal is not counterargument — I don’t know if he expects people to take his words literally, or indeed if he’s even thinking consciously to that extent — but to make argument impossible, to take away that weapon from his opponent. If there is no truth, then everything returns to his home territory of aggression and dominance.

He seems to know how to control himself — for instance, to use flattery as he did in his NYT meeting, or to let his opponent twist in the wind, as he did after the Comey revelations. He knows how to string people along and give them false hope. But he cannot sustain those behaviors because they are not where he lives. They are indirect means to dominance, and he prefers to achieve that goal more directly.

How does one deal with Trump? If we stick with the Funny Games example, it seems that the only solution is not to let him into your house in the first place. Once that initial bridge is crossed, he may come to control reality to such an extent that even extreme action proves ineffective.

4 Responses to “The Funny Games Presidency”

  1. Adam Roberts Says:

    I don’t know if I read Trump as quite the nihilist you portray him as here (although obviously: who knows?) He strikes me as a profoundly needy narcissist, who has been raised to believe in a particular New York tough guy masculine aggression do-anything-to-win ethos. But there is something he wants to win: adoration. It’s not winning for the sake of winning with him, it’s winning in order to have people admire him for winning, to have stadia filled with fanatical Trump-lovers chanting his name. I don’t know if that inflects the bracing gloominess of your analysis, mind you; except that now he’s President he’s going to be exposed to a lot more ridicule and contumely which he won’t handle well; and as he fails to deliver his insane campaign promises many of the people who currently adore him will withdraw, and there’s a risk he’ll up the ante in an attempt to win them back.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I was wondering how to fit his vanity into this account, but I think in a way it’s irrelevant — after all, we have no evidence that he has ever been convinced to do a single good or worthwhile thing in his life.

  3. Gordon Hull Says:

    Alternately, adoration is one of the modes through which he understands dominance – because your adoring fans will let you do anything, and then praise you for it (see: entire campaign). He has power over them because his vanity has convinced them that ‘I alone can save you.’ He seems pretty good at the Machiavellian strategy of getting people to love and fear you. It’s our misfortune that the times are apparently right for such a figure. As noted above, what he can’t seem to handle is that there are some people over whom he nearly zero power, who he can’t have power over, and who absolutely hate him. Hence the puerile Twitter rants, which seem to be based on the belief that hurling insults on Twitter is an assertion of dominance. Lucky us: we get the world historical tragedy during the day, and the farce at 3am.

  4. Adam Roberts Says:

    That may be right, but his bad behaviour has this needy quality to it that, to me, points in a different direction. So the thing that struck me about the whole ‘grab em by the pussy’ tape was not the hideousness of his behaviour (which I agree is all about dominance) so much as his need to brag about it to a nobody like Billy Bush. That later part is almost a kind of abasement: the need for somebody so low down the food chain to ‘admire’ him for his sexual aggression. I mean, it’s not like he was bragging to Putin: it’s more ‘I’m so emotionally starved that I crave the approval even of nobodies’.

    This, though, is coming close to saloon-bar psychoanalysis of Trump which is one thing I take it Adam K was trying to avoid doing in the O.P.


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