Donald Trump presides as he once campaigned: by anecdote. Hard facts, which are hard to digest, do not work well for him. “I’ve seen that information around,” is his typical refrain. Or he saw “something” on TV or heard it from “somebody,” like, you know that thing that didn’t happen in Sweden last night. And every time he draws on these spectral anecdotes—which is almost daily—he looks like the weak-minded tool of these nameless sources and their tweets. Or, to be more precise, like a witless rich guy in thrall to a smart, unprincipled intellectual con man like, say, Steve Bannon.
But surely we are used to that by now. So, when Trump talked at CPAC on Friday and made this statement in the midst of his usual onanistic oratory, one might have been inclined to shrug:
“I have a friend, he’s a very, very substantial guy. He loves the city of lights, he loves Paris. For years, every year during the summer, he would go to Paris, was automatic with his wife and his family. Hadn’t seen him in a while. And I said, Jim, let me ask you a question, ‘How’s Paris doing? ‘Paris? I don’t go there anymore, Paris is no longer Paris.’ That was four years—four or five years hasn’t gone there. He wouldn’t miss it for anything. Now he doesn’t even think in terms of going there.
“Take a look at what’s happening to our world, folks. And we have to be smart. We have to be smart. We can’t let it happen to us.”
Was Trump thinking about the terrorist attacks of 2015? Guess not. Those were long after Jim Whatshisname supposedly quit going to Paris. Was it taxes? One can imagine that would be the case if Jim were not just a visitor but a resident, but, no, that’s not what it sounds like. Was it a heat wave in the summer? Air conditioning’s not great in France, and the world is getting warmer. But, no, probably that wasn’t it either.
So what was it? We won’t get an answer because there probably isn’t one. Anecdotes are like that. As the ironic old adage of the news business goes, they’re “too good to check.” And Trump, who has the attention span of a restless eight year old, but without as much curiosity, wouldn’t see a need to verify the information in any case.
There’s something more at play here, however. Because Trump, who knows fuck all about France, is pushing an agenda and promoting politicians there, thanks to Bannon, who will be hugely destructive to France and to the future of the European Union as a peaceful, cooperative enterprise. Bannon’s favored “Le Pen women,” one of whom may be the country’s next president, are quite clear about that.
Bannon’s public utterances and occasional appearances on stage, as at CPAC on Thursday, are reminders that he’s playing what he figures is a great intellectual game with this orange-haired Barnum as a front man. And a big part of that game, for Bannon, is to destroy the social contracts that have developed in Europe over centuries of blood, sweat, tears, and more blood—social compacts and compromises that have been admired and to some extent emulated by American liberals, especially when it comes to questions like health care and human rights. Bannon likes to posit the press as the “enemy of the people” and himself as the enemy of “the state,” especially that European kind of polity and policy.
Thus when Bannon talks about the “Trump” revolution, he says it’s about “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” Interesting turn of phrase that, using the term “deconstruction” popularized by the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida and banalized by academia ever since. What Bannon meant by it, one presumes, is not just dismantling (which would be the usual American word) but a whole new and fluid conception of what the state is and what it does.
This would be amusing if we were bullshitting in a bar. Bannon’s very smart. But these conversations are ones he’s able to have in the White House with a man who may think deconstruction is what happened to the elegant old Bonwit Teller building before he built Trump Tower on top of the rubble on Fifth Avenue.
As for “Jim” and his alienation from Paris, let me say as someone who has lived in that city for almost 30 years: it does have its problems. It’s not as pristine as it once was. And it was shocked by the terror attacks of 2015, sure, just as New York and Paris were shocked in 2001. But Paris is still the city of lights, not only because it’s brilliant at night, but in the sense of the Enlightenment. If that makes Jim uncomfortable, the city can get along quite well without him. And if Bannon wants to come spend drunken evenings in the Latin Quarter telling us about deconstruction, that’s okay, too.
In fact, we’d much rather have him there than in the White House.