A “Potemkin village” signifies any deceptive or false construct, conjured often by cruel regimes, to deceive both those within the land and those peering in from outside. Scarily familiar? We may be experiencing this in America right now, especially with the way truth is being purchased. In this episode, Bill Stierle and Tom dive deep into the stark similarities between how we are doing now and the Potemkin village. They then talk further about how the media is creating a Potemkin village for Donald Trump on a daily basis, especially now with the pandemic.
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Truth And The Potemkin Village
Bill, we had to look up a definition before this episode and it is interesting. It has now become the subject of our episode. The term is called Potemkin village. In context, reading some writings, articles and things, it made some sense, but when you look up the definition, it’s a jaw–dropping thing. A Potemkin village signifies any deceptive or false construct conjured often by cruel regimes to deceive both those within the land and those peering from outside.
That’s a heck of a definition is what that is.
It’s scary honesty too because it’s familiar. When you read that definition, it’s like, “That sounds familiar.” As Americans, we may be experiencing some of this.
One of the things that you were mentioning to me as we’re getting going was there’s an article in a series of different news outlets that are talking about this. Who was the original article from?
There are several, there was a Washington Post article and then also there’s one on MSNBC. I know some people reading this that may not like some of those outlets are probably going to dismiss the articles as being biased because of the outlets that they’re being published in. However, if you take the time to read the articles, you’ll find that the sources of these articles are Donald Trump administration officials. They talk about how they are creating a Potemkin village for the president on a daily basis, especially as it relates to the realities of the Coronavirus.
If they’re only feeding him the good news, if they’re only feeding him the news he wants to hear, what does he do with the news he doesn’t want to hear, Tom? What are the staffers so afraid of? Does the article go into that?
It does. What it’s saying is that what the staffers who are still there in the White House have learned that if they don’t present to the president a rosy scenario, a positive feedback loop, that then Donald Trump will get rid of them. They’ll be cast as not a team player, not being helpful, not being productive and they get marginalized, if not fired. For the sake of self–preservation, a lot of the president’s staffers are giving him only the news that he wants to hear as much as possible. One of the big examples of this that the article points out was the Axios interview on HBO with Jonathan Swan, where Donald Trump brings out all these printouts of the US number of deaths as a percentage of cases, and Jonathan Swan looks at that. What this article says is his own White House staff helps steer him in bad directions. They’re feeding his worst instincts, providing him with what they call bogus proof that makes him feel better about this pandemic, which is an utter disaster. As a presidential leader, it’s a catastrophic failure in reality. They’re feeding him what he wants to know. Jonathan Swan goes through these documents and clearly, Donald Trump didn’t print those out for himself. Some staffers gave them to him as talking points.
If you’re getting the papers and you’re trying to use them as a proper talking point, it doesn’t go so well because you haven’t done the due diligence to say, “What form or what possible truth am I going to pitch off of this?” other than a very, “It says it right here on this chart,” and then you are left with like, “What’s on this chart?” “Do you mean the number of deaths? It’s not the number of tests. It’s not the number of deaths. I was talking about the number of deaths.” Immediately he’s going like, “I don’t know the relationship between testing and deaths. I don’t know how that comparison is.”Communication needs to move into an empathy discussion. Click To Tweet
Jonathan Swan was saying that he was talking about deaths as a percentage of the population, which is a fixed proportion ratio that you can have. You have these many people in the country, how many people are dying? Of course, how many people are dying per day? We can definitely have a productive debate in this country about are we testing enough people? Are we not? I would agree wholeheartedly that to look at how many people are infected versus how many are not or how many have died related to how many have been conclusively tested is, in many ways, not a helpful comparison. When you look at absolutes, if you’ve got these many people in the country and these many deaths, it’s pretty hard to debate that.
You and I are experiencing what I would call the fact vortex. We’re getting swirled into the circle of the vortex of talking about facts. I feel like I’m at one of the MSNBC shows where they’re talking around in circles, but we’re not talking about the facts here. The answer is that facts are not helpful in this situation. Communication needs to move into empathy discussion about are we talking about what safety looks like? Are we talking about how to return to stability? These are all winning talking points for the president if they choose to put a pivot there. “Here are the things that we’ve done to protect. Here are the things that we’ve done for stability. Here are the things that we have done to get progress.” Those are all winning points for him.
He can do his best to spend whatever small pieces of evidence he has to try to support those three talking points. Not having skilled communicators around him creates these things, and if they’re afraid of his tantrums, it’s like you’ve got bad parents. They’re in a restaurant and you’ve got a 4 or 6–year–old teeing off in the middle of a crowded restaurant. The parent that’s going like, “This kid’s upset. Let’s meet the need for consideration for others. Let’s take him outside and talk to him about the thing that they’re upset about and talk him down.” It’s almost like his tantrums have gotten in the way of truth–telling. All that’s left for the people that are around him is to set up these false constructs of positivity. I feel like that America is not being run from a White House, but being run from a gingerbread house. Any cartoonist could have a little bit of fun with this one, “Here’s the White House and here’s this candy effect.” I’m thinking of a cartoonist right now that would love to draw this.
It’s like, “Here is the candy, children, and we’re going to talk positively about the candy that’s available.” Just like Hansel and Gretel being seduced into the lair, what’s happening is that Americans are regrettably being put in the oven that they don’t even know that they’re being put in. This type of metaphor is helpful for us because if we’re being attracted to marketing, a branding image of America versus the reality of, “You can have a gingerbread house every once in a while, but having it for dinner on a daily or for three meals a day, being in this place of positivity with a false construct around it. Meanwhile, people are dying in the kitchen in the back, that’s not the America that we were that we would like to have those leaders in charge with.” What do you think, Tom? To create a Potemkin village for your kids, what would you need to do?
The reality is we do create a Potemkin village for our children at times in their lives because they are not mature enough to handle the scary honesty. We all do that. I did this actually with my children when we were going to move into a new home and the deal was done. After the deal was done, we showed them the house to get them used to the idea. We wanted to slowly do and not make it an abrupt change because one of my children has never lived in any other house than the one that we’re in that she was born in. This house had a pool and a spa. If anybody who is dealing with the Coronavirus in Southern California knows all our community pools are closed.
This was an exciting thing. They ended up coming to this major problem with the house. It was very complicated. Rather than getting into the details, we could not take possession of that house through no fault of our own, but we could not move to it. We had to unwind this with our children. There was actually a problem that had to do with health and safety for my family, protection and things like that. It was a dangerous reason. I had to say, “I’m out. We’re not moving to this house,” but I didn’t want to tell my children that because that’s scary honesty is something that they’re not old enough to process. I don’t want them to have nightmares about it.
They will collapse the old thing into the new thing. If you want to move again to find what house it is, they’ll think, “Is this house dangerous? The other one, dad, you told us it was dangerous.”
I created a Potemkin village, which was letting them know a made-up story about why we were not going to be moving there. It had more to do with a structural problem with the house that’s going to require construction, it’s going to take months and we’re not going to move into it. A reason that was believable and something they could understand but was not the scary honesty. It’s very interesting that I’ve had this experience. That is what an example of the type of thing that’s happening with the president. The interesting thing is that when you read these articles is while some people might want to suggest that the president’s the victim here because his White House staffers are not giving him accurate information.
They’re giving him partial truths, rosy scenarios and a positive feedback loop that may prevent him from governing responsibility. The reality is that the president has created this himself. He’s created this mess where people are bending over backwards to create his Potemkin village for him because the alternative is presidential tantrums. The White House staffers who don’t support that Potemkin village and give him that rosy scenario are not going to be White House staffers any longer. I have to tell you, Bill, to me, this is so sad, disappointing and disheartening because here’s the thing. I’m a business owner and you’re in business for yourself too, Bill, but you’re a business owner.
Donald Trump is supposed to be some brilliant businessperson. By many measures of success, I would maybe argue partial truths that he’s very successful. Here is one thing that I know from having been in business for many years here. If you want to have a successful business, you cannot have your blinders on. You have to hire to your weaknesses and surround yourself with people who know more than you do. Part of being a great leader in business, and I’m not going to pretend I know everything about being a great leader in government because I’ve never held a government position, but I do know the business.
If you’re going to be a great leader in business, you’re going to guide your company to success. You’re going to provide more jobs for people. You’re going to be a profitable company so you continue to be around in the future. You need to recognize that you don’t know everything and that that’s not a character flaw. You can hire people who know things you don’t to bring you information, to bring you truth so you can make the right decisions to move forward as a company. This is what the president should know having been in business. Regrettably, he either hasn’t learned that lesson or doesn’t care about it.
He puts people around him that don’t necessarily support the things called measurable success. He’s not measuring things. He’s providing a narrative of great, outstanding, wonderful and optimistic, we can’t give him the negative. He has done a great job of selling the gingerbread house. He has done a great job of selling the Hansel and Gretel of his base. The Republicans that enjoy eating that candy of, “Look at this guy, he’s an in your face guy and he’s taken it out on those Democrats that are X, Y, Z.” What happens is that they’re going to be sitting, and eventually when we start facing the adult things that we need to start facing as a nation and grow up because this is a little bit of our World War II and we’re on the back end of this one. We’ve got a restoration project to go on.
We’ve got a remodeling job to do in America, things like respect, recognition, acknowledgment, trust and truth-telling. All of those things are a part of the restoration. There’s a dismantling of the Potemkin village that needs to take place. “Welcome, Joe Biden. Your first year is dismantling the village.” You’ve got to hire a reconstruction project to go, “Here are all the departments that weren’t being run under Donald Trump because he never staffed them.” There was no movement on this thing that was focused on Southeast Asia and this thing that was focused on Europe. All these different people that used to keep our respect, recognition, acknowledgment of what we stood for in place. On Joe Biden’s second year, rebuild the relationships so they can trust us again. Rebuilding skills and competency are going to be a little bit of a stretch because we were not there to help the rest of the world. We were not even there to help ourselves. That’s pretty tough to do that’s scary honesty.
It’s tough when the world perceives the United States as the country of blame and shame, which is what the president has done in the world. He’s blaming and shaming NATO, the World Health Organization, other countries, and the immigrants that come in from other countries.
Whatever target will sell that our gingerbread house is perfect. These other people are stealing our candy and you better prevent people from taking candy. Therefore, we need a wall in order to keep them out from our candy, and instead of going like, “That’s not the job of this government.” Stability, safety, consistency, protection, use government to support capitalism, to support the economy. You don’t want to dismantle government so that capitalism runs it. You want to make sure that the government has enough for capitalism to sit on top of it. That’s when the machine runs. It’s like you pour the foundation for the floor to run on and you build the house of capitalism on top of it.
The government sits underneath and going like, “There are things that are going to go wrong here in capitalism. We’re going to be there to fix the airline industry, this industry or that industry because there are a lot of jobs that are dependent upon that. We need to do a better job with that.” Some ways to think about this is that if we have people that are bad contractors, that’s what’s in the White House. Contractors that are giving him pieces of lumber to say, “We have this great piece of 2×4. There’s a stack of rotten 2x4s but we’re not showing you those. We’re going to show you the one.” “Here are these papers, go out and go and do the interview on Axios because this one piece of paper is going to help you.” Meanwhile, the reporters going like, “I see the stack of rotted wood over there that you’re not looking at. Look at this 2×4.”When we’re unaware, we become attracted to a marketing, a branding image, of America versus the reality of it. Click To Tweet
That was an extraordinary moment in that interview that quite honestly, Donald Trump has responsibility for because he put himself in the position to be there.
Donald Trump needs to take responsibility for. Do you see that one? It’s like you asking your daughter to take responsibility for the move for the house. I want the readers to not get enraged as an adult because I’m getting enraged and you’re getting in rage in a good way. It’s positive, it’s vibrant time, Tom, but you didn’t do anything wrong by the way.
I love it when you call me out on something. My point was that Donald Trump didn’t take responsibility for being informed to be able to answer questions. He was prepared by his staff and they didn’t prepare him either for, “Here’s the reality but you don’t want to talk about that. You want to pivot to this.”
Keep going to the word unavailable and you’ll feel better. It’s unavailable to be able to give him information and to process it and him to deliver a consistent message. It’s unavailable.
I’ve never seen anybody in his position. It’s like a president walked themselves out on a plank and jumped off the way Donald Trump did right there. It was hard to watch. He willingly sat down for that interview.
The people that are trying to protect them are saying media is tricking him. It’s like, “He’s under–skilled. He’s not doing adult communication about being honest,” and many people have mentioned that.
The way you talked about it, if the president were more skilled or able to think at the moment, he would have done what you suggested, which is saying, “You’re right, Jonathan Swan. There are a lot of deaths every day. We are moving heaven and Earth to slow that down as fast as we can. We’re doing this, we’re doing that. We’re doing the other thing,” and focus on what they’re doing instead of focus on the number. He has probably a lot of good things you could talk about, but he doesn’t do that.
He doesn’t have the range and ability to talk through a plan. He’s the guy that holds the brand, the name that you tack on the outside of the building, and then all the other contractors, either low–cost contractors, mid–range contractors or summoned in some cases, high–end contractors that are able to work with him know how to navigate around, “You would like that? I’ll put a gold toilet seat in there.” “Sure. Do you want a gold toilet seat inside a plane?” “Yes, but it weighs too much, Mr. President.” “I want a gold seat.” “We’ll put a gold seat inside the plane,” and the plane can’t fly because it’s using gas mileage. It’s like, “I don’t want the fact of how much gas is the planes using because it’s flying around a golden toilet seat.”
It’s like, “Why do you need a golden toilet seat? I’ll spray paint it gold.” The mindset is that I want to be there for the unveiling of the gingerbread house. How long it lasts, how long the candy stays there until it goes stale. I’ll keep spray painting varnish over it so it never goes away. That’s a little bit what’s happening. If you think about a candy house that you’re not eating and all that happens is the parent says, “My kid loves this thing. I better spray varnish over it or spray plastic over it so the thing stays up there and it looks the way it does,” but you can’t eat it. You can’t do anything with it but it looks good.
To me, I’m going to drift into labeling here because I can’t help myself. Reading these articles, learning about what’s happening in the White House, I’m coming to see that this is an ostrich presidency where the ostrich buries its head in the sand because it doesn’t want to hear the bad news. It’s more than the president. The senior administration officials in this post article were quoted as saying, “White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows who’s responsible for coordinating the entire White House is the one that in their morning daily meetings at 8:00 AM is no longer interested and he’s become increasingly skeptical of the two physicians, Deborah Berks and Anthony Fauci.”
He’s routinely questioning their expertise to the point where he no longer holds that daily meeting that includes health professionals to discuss the pandemic. Instead, he’s huddling in the mornings with half a dozen politically–oriented aides. When the virus comes up, their focus is more on how to convince the public that the president has it all under control rather than on actually doing the hard work on planning ways to contain it and to fix it. To me, this is even worse than the president being the main ostrich with his head in the sand. Now the people around him that are supposed to be providing him information so he can properly govern are putting their heads in the sand and they’re removing themselves further from the truth. This is a scary situation for us as a nation.
It’s scary from the perspective of how much of the gingerbread house that we need to dismantle. The amount of time that Joe Biden is going to need to spend on doing this because it would be extremely painful and extremely difficult and very close to catastrophic if he gets re–elected. Who’s going to steal what from who? That’s what shows up in the next presidency. What’s on the auction block? Who’s going to steal from what? If they’re convincing the public that the president has it under control, it’s like feeding a giant that whenever the giant wakes up, you better throw some red meat in there. You better feed it.
Regrettably, this particular giant, although most unknowingly doing this, is being fed people in the forms of the lives of the pandemic victims. That’s what the red meat is. To put the bigger metaphor in place here is that when you talk about the gingerbread house when you talk about Hansel and Gretel coming up to this house made of candy. There’s no discussion of the oven in the back is being meant to cook the children or cook the people, so that they can fit in there so the witch can eat. His childhood trauma is the ovens in the back. If you don’t do things the way this gingerbread house is set up, as a child, you will be cooked in the back.
With the book of Mary Trump, that’s what that family did. They had that feel to it. The giant would eat whoever is available to eat in the form of competitiveness between siblings. Who’s the one that’s going to get the day? The one that’s going to pretend the same way the patriarch is pretending. It’s very painful to go through this. It‘s disturbing to watch us go through this. It’s uncomfortable to have the American family have to face this form of this type of family that we have in our midst. The best way to start dismantling this is to start gently being compassionate to the voter that voted for Donald Trump. We can’t point our finger and say, “You never should have went and left your house and found the candy thing and be enticed by the witch.”
The answer is, “Sorry. She was offering cookies,” and Donald Trump offered cookies. To use a metaphor, it’s like he went to the hen house, got the egg, promised that he’s going to cook the egg, give it to the kid, give it to the entire family, then magically put the egg back together so it could be hatched into a chick. Donald Trump sold the entire, “I can have the egg, cook it, eat from it and it will still be alive. In the end, it will hatch and everything will be fine.” He sold that entire narrative of, “You can do the pre–conditions. You can have this thing. It’s the best healthcare ever.” None of that is available to us. You’ve got to make the hard choice of who’s paying? How much is it going to cost? What is it going to take to be accountable? How can we be honest about accountability? How can we bring bad news and not over–promise to sell the gingerbread house with all the gumdrops and icing?
I want to take this gingerbread house metaphor one step further and to do this, I’m going to bring in a very commercial created by The Lincoln Project. We’ve talked about this before. I don’t know when they’re planning to air it or if it’s meant only for YouTube or maybe they’re going to run it in an extensive ad during the Republican convention. There’s literally this more than six–minute commercial that The Lincoln Project put out, which I know immediately you might say, “That’s scary. It needs to be short messages.” It was actually quite amusing in many respects. Think of the gingerbread house you’re talking about being the construct that the administration and Donald Trump want everyone to believe.If you don't do things the way this gingerbread house is set up, you will be cooked in the back. Click To Tweet
The scene is in a hospital room and there are these 3 or 4 family members gathered around this patient who went into a coma shortly after the 2016 election when Donald Trump was elected. The guy has woken up three and a half years later. He’s awoken to his greeting him, “We’re so glad to have you back. This is wonderful.” His family is clearly Republicans and they’re trying to explain it to him, he’s asking, “What’s happened?” They were explaining to him. As they explained to him things that have happened, he’s like, “The Republicans will absolutely skewer Donald Trump for that.” “No, they didn’t.” Everything that they talked about, he then brings up what any Republican would have said about it pre-Donald Trump, whatever event that occurred.
It’s breaking down all of Donald Trump‘s talking points and Republican talking points. In a way, it’s interesting. The reason I brought it up is because it’s giving empathy toward the Republicans for what they believed, thoughts, their values and what they fought for. The family keeps bringing the reality of the situation and the guy waking up is saying, “We don’t support that. We don’t want that.” “I don’t know about that.” The family keeps trying to steer his ship to wherever Donald Trump is. The patient waking up is in this disbelief of, “I know I was a coma, but is this a parallel universe because we don’t believe that, we don’t want that. We don’t want this,” and yet here’s where they are. It’s very interesting how it’s done.
I haven’t seen that yet, so I’m delighted to hear that.
We could potentially do a whole episode unpacking that one, but it’s interesting. Your gingerbread metaphor is very appropriate in that regard. All of these things we’re talking about with the Potemkin village are a construct to try to get the people of America and the people outside of America to believe certain things that are not true. It is to me some of the scariest purchasing of truth because again, as a business person, you don’t want to run a business that way. Why do you want to run a country that way?
The government needs to stay in its lane of safety, stability, progress, projection, providing the foundation for capitalism to run, not to be efficient. I can order masks whenever I want to. Not three million of them, you can’t. It’s got to have a stockpile. It’s got to have things that they’re going to buy and not use. The government is okay if you buy something and you don’t use it because if you need it, it has to be there.
Also, think about there are lots of people. There are lots of news outlets that keep running Donald Trump‘s greatest hits since January, “We’ve only got five cases. It’s not a problem in the United States. We’ve only got fifteen cases. In April, the thing is when it gets warmer, it’s going to go away.” The entire president’s greatest hits of either denial or trying to sell the American people on, “We have it under control and it’s going away.” Meanwhile, deaths keep climbing and you’ve got to stop with all this and actually face facts where you are.
The thing to also have empathy for is we’re not going to be looking at wealthy people the same moving forward. A wealthy person that says, “I have the best people,” no. You have a bunch of money and it’s buying you cover. You don’t have the best people working for you. You have people working for you and whether or not they’re the best people, that’s hard to say. This rich person has shown us that you could be rich and so rich that you can have very mediocre and poor, and even not good people around you and still have the cover to become president. It means that type of selling would be very hard.
I agree with you, Bill, that’s a very interesting point. When you have money, you can afford to make more mistakes and not fall from being the king of the hill. Here’s the thing though. Most often, it’s like a Ponzi scheme where sales can cure–all for a while. You keep getting more sales in, you keep getting more revenue, then that can cover poor efficiency in the backroom or in the ranks of your business. It can do it. At some point, if that revenue falters at all, then the whole thing, the house of cards falls down, that’s not a healthy company. People can be rich, wealthy and be horribly unsuccessful. They’re successful enough that their wealth is allowing them to be bad businesspeople.
It’s easy to get excited about a promise, but it’s very difficult to get to be honest about something that’s not working or that you’ve been taken. You’ve got to go like, “I needed to vet that a little more. The person was pushing their agenda at my expense.” There’s still this thing that we need to get to around this Potemkin house which is how is Joe Biden, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party are going to come together and work on this when the great divider is still money that they need from their donors? How is that going to take place when there are these elected officials on the right and the Democrats, all of them have to raise money? They need so much money, they’ve got to go to big donors to do that. The big donors have moved to the place of, “I want something for my money,” not, “I want something for America.” “I want the value of my money to be paid in tax breaks,” instead of, “I want what’s best for America and you’re the man or woman that could do this.”
That’s one of our big systemic problems in America. The money in politics and even the Supreme Court ruling that money is equal to free speech. We have a lot of problems that are getting in the way of what you were asking for is that, “I want you because I believe you’re a good person and you’re going to do the right thing for the country,” versus “I’m a lobbyist. I’ll support you if you do this for me.” It’s a tit for tat.
That’s the thing that is so unsettling. There’s some work here about the rebuilding of the house, the American brand respect and of those other things. All the things that have not been acted upon that was in our best national interest, but that have been left to, “Look at the money that Donald Trump has saved by not filling all those staff members.” Look at the value that he has lost by not staffing those different positions that he did. Here’s where the brand has lost things.” What does purchasing truth and brand America going to look like post-Donald Trump? Because there’s a post-Donald Trump somewhere, whether it’s in November or whatever. What’s brand America going to look like and how soon is that going to be?
Honestly, what brand damage happens to the Republican Party? If that’s why The Lincoln Project, the Midas Touch, some of these different organizations are trying to stop the bleeding in the Republican Party now and are advocating to get rid of Donald Trump now, instead of waiting four more years.
They’re pretty divided now. They’ve got the group that used to think that they were getting their values done and the group that was in it for the money. Now, those people are in opposition. The last time it happened to them was when the Whigs Party separated and had to break into two. That was Civil Wars time. There’s more to come on our interesting times, Tom. That’s for sure.
Thanks so much, Bill. I enjoyed this conversation.
- MSNBC article
- The Lincoln Project – YouTube
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