Donald Trump’s presidency feels both unprecedented and oddly familiar
By Don Watson
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It will be recognised with slavery and the Civil War. It will be recognised with World War One and the Great Depression. It will be recognised with World War Two. It will be recognised with the 1950s, and the red baiting and the witch hunting. It will be recognised with the tragedy of Vietnam, as a period of confusion and disaster.
– Paul Soglin, mayor of Madison, Wisconsin
The election of Donald Trump – even the nomination of Donald Trump – and events since his inauguration are like nothing that has ever happened in the United States. It unseats the habit of our minds to believe that whatever happens had to happen. To borrow a word from Philip Roth, it “defatalizes” things. Donald Trump becomes president of the United States. As one commentator said, it sounds like the logline for a high-concept movie. One of the many reasons why he won is that millions of Americans could not take the concept seriously. Now they have to take the fact seriously.
And yet the uncanniest thing is the sense that Trump’s election is a simulacrum for all manner of events imagined or foretold that hover in the back rows of our consciousness – way back from the daily flow of news, spin, messaging and commentary. A scam artist, an ignoramus, a professional liar, a colossal and malignant narcissist, a vulgarian, a casino operator, a serial bankrupt – a Roy Cohn–mentored billionaire with deep Mob connections – is in the White House. Has there ever been a more American presidency? What took them so long?
For devotees of HL Mencken, these are days of vindication. In a presidential election, he declared around 1920, “all the odds were on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre”. It was the logic of democracy, he said, that the people would one day get their heart’s desire and put a “downright moron” in the White House. While understandable, the widespread belief that George W Bush fulfilled Mencken’s prophecy has proved premature. In the extent and depth of his deviousness and mediocrity – in the sheer grandeur of it – Donald Trump is to Dubya as Mighty Mouse is to Mickey. Dubya was just a shallow son of the political elite, one easily manipulated by tough guys like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. (Though his manifest inadequacy did not stand in the way of re-election, let us never forget.) But Trump is the King Kong of shallowness: the only deep things about him are his roots in the American psyche. He brings forth not just the pout, the hair and the ties, but the greed, indulgence and psychotic menace of the “indigenous American berserk” – to call on Roth again. The mistake of his opponents – including the satirists – has been to focus on his otherness: in truth he’s dredged straight from the brute material of American culture.
No one ever went looking for George W Bush in the high reaches of literature. But people are looking for Trump in these places, and finding him. “Trump is Tom Buchanan farcically playing Gatsby,” Sidney Blumenthal wrote in a recent London Review of Books. (Blumenthal also found Trump – the old, real, wheeler-dealer Trump – satirised as the “short-fingered vulgarian” in Spy magazine 25 years ago.) Others have gone to Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here for his literary likeness, or to films including Batman, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Bulworth, The Manchurian Candidate and Sweet Smell of Success, or to the comic book Judge Dredd. When Roth was asked whether the Charles Lindbergh he presented in his 2004 novel The Plot Against America is Trump’s forebear, he said that Lindbergh was too substantial a person to be compared with a mere “con artist” like Trump. The Plot Against America is uncannily prescient just the same, and not only because in his inauguration speech Trump borrowed Lindbergh’s “America First” slogan, or because in the novel Lindbergh beats Franklin D Roosevelt to the presidency by animating his personal brand, flying all over the heartland in the Spirit of St Louis, just as Trump beat Hillary Clinton descending from the heavens in his own Trump plane. The most intriguing parallel is the way Roth’s counterfactual novel matches so precisely the sense we have that with Trump we are inhabiting a counterfactual world. No doubt the election has given The Plot Against America a second life in the bookshops. Herman Melville’s final novel, The Confidence-Man, published 160 years ago, might also get a boost. Melville’s con man sells get-rich schemes to passengers on a Mississippi riverboat. Like every good salesman he exploits the need of every mug for hope. Every mug on the boat, with the exception of the barber, takes his bait. Roth says he is Trump’s most convincing precursor.
There’s another difference with Bush Jr: nothing he did as president, including the massive expansion of homeland security and the surveillance system he established to spy on private citizens, made George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four a number-one bestseller. But while Trump was sitting in his 5th Avenue tower, picking his cabinet of corporate moguls, tweeting away about anything he saw on Fox News or Breitbart (thus is Mencken’s Morondom expanded) and issuing executive orders, that’s what happened on Amazon.
With one sweep of the new president’s right hand, he would cut federal funding to cities providing “sanctuary” to undocumented migrants; with another sweep he would cut environmental regulations; with another, financial regulations; with another, funding for international organisations that perform abortions; and with another, block entry at American airports to people from seven selected Muslim-majority countries. This last move appeared to honour both his campaign promise of “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and his desire for continuing friendship with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations in which he has business interests – but, to many observers, was as likely to please jihadists and Islamic State recruiters as much as it did the millions of American citizens (40% or more) who fear a terrorist attack above all other threats to their country and themselves. And in case their worry was superseded by something more likely to actually happen, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counselor, aided by social media, Fox News and various radio hosts, reminded them of the great, though fictional, Bowling Green Massacre that terrorists had perpetrated. Equally fictional terrorist attacks, including a big one in Atlanta, were cited by the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer. Meanwhile, in a further sign of resistance from pre-Trumpian Americans, Hannah Arendt’s 66-year-old, 600-page The Origins of Totalitarianism sold out on Amazon.
Mencken did not like democracy. Even late into the 1930s, when totalitarianism was at its atrocious peak, he did not like it. How could he like government by the people when he believed most people were stupid? The vote, the “maudlin herding after rogues and mountebanks”, gave to the citizen “a sense of vast and mysterious power”, “a feeling … that he is genuinely running things” and “a conviction that he is somehow wise”, all of which was hopelessly wrong-headed, but satisfying to senators, archbishops “and other such magnificoes” – and satisfying therefore to Donald Trump. Give him credit: when he spoke in the campaign it didn’t matter what he’d said about Mexican judges or grabbing pussy; when he told them change was coming and that he was going to get even on their behalf for what had been done to them and the lies they’d been told, white American men and women (and not a few Latinos) felt something of that mysterious power. When Hillary Clinton spoke, they felt the power ebbing – or rather they felt their chronic powerlessness all the more acutely. When she spoke it was as if to shout – “More of the same!”
For Mencken the entire worthwhile heritage of humanity depended upon the existence of an embattled minority that appreciated Beethoven and understood Nietzsche. On the knuckle-dragging fundamentalist mob outside the minority’s cultural walls, Mencken showered hundreds of devastating epithets. For calling the white working class (including the non-working part of it) “a basket of deplorables”, Hillary Clinton must at least be given credit for originality. She could have borrowed from Mencken and called them “morons”, or “immortal vermin”. But “deplorables” it was. Consider – at a time when inequality is grotesque and worsening, a woman who demands a quarter of a million dollars for a 40-minute speech labels people who have not seen a wage rise in a quarter of a century “deplorables”. The word will haunt her to the grave. It will outlive her. People will be quoting it in a hundred years’ time, possibly as a marker of American decline.
Of course Hillary Clinton did not mean that the entire white working class was deplorable, but she must have known that the elements she didn’t mean would be easily convinced that she did. It was a bit like calling Trump a misogynist – over and over. A lot of what goes down as outrageous misogyny among the cosmopolitan elites of Manhattan, where 88% of people voted against Trump, is the natural (if not Godly) order of things in much of the American heartland, where 61% of white working-class women voted for him, and 34% for Clinton. Had she managed to get just 50% of that vote, she would now be president. It was not identity but class that counted. Trump saw that and so did Bernie Sanders. Sanders would have taken Wisconsin and Michigan in a breeze.
Tired though it is after nearly two centuries of common usage, “white trash” as Harriet Beecher Stowe defined it carries an essential truth that a “basket of deplorables” does not: namely, that the “trash” are defined by their loathing of federal authority and their fealty to the institutions that exploit and degrade them. The white trash of the old southern plantations would find this much in common with the Tea Partiers who began scaling the Capitol walls after Obama took the White House in 2008 and the hordes who have just voted for Trump in what the new president humbly declared “the single greatest movement in the history of this country”. For the Tea Party, federal authorities are the great enemy – remote authority is their hook back to the Revolution – even though the federal authorities pay their welfare cheques, while Republican state governments screw their unions, attack their voting rights and keep wages pitifully low.
Inequality and unfairness do not upset Tea Partiers and Trump voters anything like as much as what they perceive to be attacks on their freedom. How dare Washington make laws for the nation at large: inflict a national health scheme on them (35% of the population rank Obamacare among their worst fears); tax them and regulate them; secularise their schools; impose migrants, feminism, abortion and LGBT rights on them; tell them where they can graze their cattle; what words they can and cannot use to describe blacks and Latinos and women; lecture them and threaten to restrict the type and number of their guns. A recent national survey found that while guns killed 301,797 people in the US between 2005 and 2015 (and terrorist attacks killed 94), it wasn’t guns but restrictions on guns and ammunition that was, equally with “being a victim of terror”, Americans’ fourth greatest fear.
The heartland is different, simple as that. The divide is as old as the nation itself, as old as Hamilton and Jefferson. It still threatens Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” and “chorus of the union”. It was on that divide, greatly exacerbated as it is now by three decades of neoliberal impoverishment, that Trump built his success. John Feffer, a foreign policy commentator and author of a dystopian novel called Splinterlands, imagines Trump unshackling the states that gave him the presidency – “America B” – from federal authority and creating by the beginning of his second term a United States “in name only”.
That’s one possibility out of many, and might be of a piece with Perry Miller’s observation that Melville’s The Confidence-Man was “a long farewell to national greatness”. The other possibilities include impeachment (but probably not before Republicans get what they want out of him), voluntary retirement on grounds of ill health, and, building upon a successful job-creation program, the same eight years Ronald Reagan and Bush Jr got despite the early odds. There is also the possibility that Trump alone can inspire the kind of popular resistance that will bring the Democrats to their senses. There is the possibility of a mafia state, of rapidly accelerating national decline, and the possibility that, as it did with Richard Nixon and as it has always done, the Constitution will prevail.
Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, American Journeys, The Bush and, most recently, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’.