Thursday, November 17, 2016
On being Trumped-Out
I was serving at the Trump Tower. Jared Kushner, who had been supervising my work had to attend a meeting. He left me responsible for Trump’s belly-guard. When he is at home in his tower, Donald Trump doesn’t walk upright. Instead, he lopes about on all fours. In fact, this is his customary mode of locomotion. Beasts that use four legs for walking and running, frequently have soft, white underbellies, parts of their anatomy that are prone to attack. Donald Trump is no exception – his belly is pale and pendulous, a sort of male udder that is very soft and fragile. Accordingly, when Mr. Trump goes out in public and is, thereby, required to walk as a biped, standing upright on his two hind-legs, his vulnerable belly is exposed. For this reason, a servitor is required to make certain that Mr. Trump’s underbelly is properly protected, wrapped in a corset of copper-wire reinforced belly-guard. While Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, was absent, Donald suggested several times that he was about to go outside and meet his adoring public. In each case, I hurried to his side with the belly-guard and suggested that we enclose his delicate parts in that corset. But Mr. Trump is unpredictable and can behave in a whimsical manner – in each case, he waved me away, loping off to another corner of the penthouse on all fours. "I’ve changed my mind," he barked. "I’ve changed my mind." I was a little chastened that I hadn’t been able to help the great man for I was eager for his praise.
It wasn’t an unpleasant dream. Indeed, I enjoyed being useful to the great man. But, of course, as I rested in bed in the darkness, the indignity of the situation occurred to me. I was dreaming about Donald Trump. Thoughts about this politician had invaded my psyche to the extent that there was no respite even in dream. Across town, sirens wailed mournfully and nearby dogs took up the refrain and the wind was rising, perhaps, about to blow into town a snowstorm ripened in Colorado or New Mexico.
I’m tired of thinking about Donald Trump. I’m tired of formulating responses to his antics and to the equally unfortunate denunciations of his foes. I don’t want to waste my nights dreaming about Donald Trump. And I certainly don’t want him figuring in my dreams. In short, I am all Trumped-out.
In Wim Wenders great film, Im Lauf der Zeit, two men sit in a car gazing across a desolate border. An American rock and roll song plays on the radio. One of the men says: "The Americans have colonized our sub-conscious." Donald Trump, I am afraid to remark, has colonized my sub-conscious. He now appears alongside my dead father as a hero and tyrant in my dreams.
Although it was with dismay, I voted for Hillary Clinton. I try to be reasonably well-informed and, so, like others of my station, I believed mainstream media’s prediction that she would win the presidential election easily. Needless to say, I was disappointed when these expectations proved false. For a day or so, I felt tired and angry.
But life goes on.
Since the election, readers of liberal, East Coast periodicals have been treated to wild-eyed Jeremiads about the vile consequences of Donald Trump’s victory in the Electoral College. The New York Review of Books paid 20 intellectuals to write page-long think pieces in advance of the election denouncing Mr. Trump and his followers in well-nigh apocalyptic terms. The London Review of Books followed the same pattern – twenty or so pundits decrying Trump’s bigotry and demagoguery and the downright evil of those who might be persuaded to vote for him. The New Yorker followed suit. Of course, all of these experts predicted Mrs. Clinton’s victory. After the election, each of these periodicals repeated this exercise – disappointed and outraged intellectuals appearing with litanies of the most dire predictions, each contributing about a thousand words to a denunciation of the President-elect and his supporters. It’s a peculiar and dispiriting literary form – an iteration of abuse presented seriatim with no dissent and real variation from the established script of insults and vituperation. It’s as if the editors of these magazines sensing that their outrage was neither particularly contagious nor persuasive decided to simply repeat the same message 16 or 20 times in a row. In my case, in fact, this mindless repetition of name-calling and hand-wringing has had the opposite effect – it has actually caused me to feel some sympathy for Mr. Trump and, indeed, forced me to align myself, at least provisionally, with him.
Two things must be observed about these litanies of rage. First, the people writing them have no credibility either as political observers or opinion-makers. The authors are all disqualified because they didn’t predict the outcome and because they allowed their bias to interfere with objective reporting of the facts. Any college sophomore who has taken a class in experimental science understands that there is such a thing as "margin of error" – all of the so-called "swing states" were, in effect, too close to call, that is, within the margin of error. Wishful thinking obscured this truth for these pundits. Hindsight counsels that the outcome of this election was reasonably visible – it should have been understood that Mrs. Clinton could lose this election on the basis of statistical margins of error. Motivating some of the righteous indignation now current, I suppose, is an embarrassed sense that an objective assessment of very readily available statistical information, viewed in light of the margin of error, would have shown the way to more balanced reporting if the writers have preserved even a modicum of professional objectivity. It’s always hard to admit error, particularly if the so-called expert making the error earnestly desired a different outcome and was well-paid for prognostications that were wrong. These Harvard- (or other Ivy League) educated elites are simply unwilling to make a mea culpa, unwilling to admit error particularly when it arose from such egregious blindness, and so compensate by expressing rage at the outcome. This is the first point that is apparent in these peculiar convocations of hysterical anger. (It must admit that I vociferously predicted that Trump would lose the election – I made every error that the elites writing for The New Yorker made. The only difference is that no one paid me thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to objectively assess the situation and state my views.)
Second, the sheer hypocrisy of the so-called liberal, or progressive, commentators is breathtaking in its brazenness and unprecedented in its scope. For years, the Left has denounced certain lunatic fringe elements of the Republican party as seeking to deny the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s election. With the proverbial shoe on the other foot, these very same writers now undertake to deny the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s election. Recall that there was an immense hue and cry when Trump suggested that he might challenge the validity of the election were he to lose. Enormous oceans of ink were expended vilifying Trump for these supposedly anti-democratic threats. And, yet, with Trump having won the election, the Left now advances these same arguments – Donald Trump didn’t win the popular vote and so the outcome of the election is dubious. The mantra of Leftist commentators is that those disappointed in the electoral outcome must resist the temptation to "normalize" Donald Trump, to regard him as just another politician like Mrs. Clinton or President Obama – rather, we must preserve in the forefront of our mind, always and with the utmost focus, the notion that Trump is illegitimate as a President, that he has no right to be President because he has disqualified himself due to intemperate and demagogic rhetoric. Now, of course, it doesn’t help that the lunatic fringe of the Republican party growling that Obama was not a legitimately elected President included the Birthers, one of whom was Donald Trump. But, on the most elementary level, all of us should understand that one wrong doesn’t authorize an adversary to commit the same infraction against common decency and the body politic. The fact that Trump behaved irresponsibly after Obama’s election doesn’t legitimize the Democrats from behaving with equally audacious (and hypocritical) irresponsibility. The persistent outcry that we must not "normalize" Trump’s election is just another variant of the Birther movement – this time expressed by advocates on the Left. And here is a significant distinction that should be made – responsible elements of the Republican party disavowed the Birther movement and distanced themselves from it; as far as I can see, most of the Democratic party (or, at least, that party’s surrogates) seem to be embracing a "Never Trump" ideology that insists that Mr. Trump’s election can not be "normalized." What if John McCain or Mitt Romney had announced that we must not "normalize" Barack Obama’s election in the wake of their contests with him? What if dozens of commentators in well-respected journals had argued that we should not "normalize" Mrs. Clinton’s election, had she won, because of her alleged criminal conduct and corruption? A simple thought experiment shows the speciousness and alarming hypocrisy of much that passes for political discourse on the Left in the wake Trump’s successful candidacy.
The New Yorker issued on November 21, 2016 is indicative. The cover shows an ominous looking wall made of red bricks rising so high as to almost obstruct vision of the magazine’s title. "New York" itself is threatened by this wall of red. In a section called "Dispatches," sixteen columnists provide their responses to the election under the title "Aftermath." The first commentator, George Packer, says that Trump is like Nixon in that he will work to destroy the Constitution; Democrats should be prepared to behave like "nihilistic opponents" to block his agenda – it will be "ugly" but any other alternative is a "sucker’s game." Atul Gawande denounces Trump as lacking "decency, reason, and compassion," but seems most concerned about repeal of Obamacare and, correctly, I think, believes that local institutions will prevent such repeal from occurring. Gawande is reasonably temperate in most respects and takes care not to denounce in broad terms Trump’s supporters – although he is also quick to use as an example, a middle-class White man in poor economic straits who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, but didn’t vote for Trump either. Hilary Mantel opts for a poetic memoir about her ectopic pregnancy, remarking that Trump will possibly bring back the "Salem witch trials" and order "public hangings" – she talks about the elites ignoring the ignorant "majority" not even human "but roaring from their cages outside the gates." Peter Hesler reports from Ouray County, Colorado, noting that the place is full of Trump supporters and that 50.6% of the electorate in his State voted in favor of bizarre amendment to the Colorado Constitution eliminating bans on slavery – Hesler, whose point is not clear, seems uncertain whether he voted for or against slavery. Toni Morison, ever the voice of reason and tolerance, accuses Trump voters of wanting "to kill small children attending Sunday school" and "shooting black children in the street. Citing a Faulkner novel as diagnostic of the state of electoral concerns about White privilege, Ms. Morrison suggests that Southerners rather than "los(ing)...whiteness" will choose murder. Jane Myer tells us that the big-money "lobbyists and special interests (have) already taken over" Trump’s White House – although, of course, the candidate is only the President-elect right now. Evan Osnos devotes his column to a parable about a minor bureaucrat who defied Arnold Schwartzeneggar’s administration – from this tale, he draws the conclusion (or has his protagonist draw the conclusion) that bureaucrats in the government must be prepared to "refus(e) ...to obey the orders of the executive." Trump will likely curtail abortion rights, obstruct Gay marriage, suppress voting rights, and abolish any kind of legal protection for illegal immigrants – so says legal scholar, Jeffrey Toobin. (Toobin, who became famous as a commentator on the O. J. Simpson trial is a fixture of cable-news talk shows – he loudly asserts that it is wrong to "normalize" the dire consequences of a Trump presidency.) Mary Karr after itemizing Trump’s extreme rhetoric and asserting that she has PTSD from this election sounds the rare conciliatory note: "Now it falls to us to listen (to the election results – for America has spoken) with gracious and open hearts". But she can’t resist suggesting that Trump belongs in the lineage of those who "haul out and shoot" poets. Jill Lepore suggests that Trump’s election is a "wound", the first signs of "fatal illness," and like "the moment when a marriage began to fall apart." She imagines Trump’s victory as akin to a deadly heat wave that causes sparrows to drop dead from the skies. Novelist Gary Shteyngart invokes torched churches with the words "Vote Trump" scrawled on their walls, Jews sent pictures of themselves wearing concentration camp garb, and argues that Trump’s election will create an American "dystopia" on par with the old Soviet Union from which his family escaped many years ago. Nicholas Lemann who writes on money issues claims that Trump will make anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish economists and that, "as a tragic consequence of financial crisis," the electorate has brought to power "the politician most likely to create the next one." Larry Wilmore is an African-American comedian, although he was raised in South Africa. Wilmore was a fixture of Jon Stewart’s show and had his own comedy news program as well, although it failed. Wilmore associates Trump with every form of racism, claiming that Trump’s voters despised Obama for "P.W.B., Presidenting While Black" – Wilmore’s race-baiting is shameless, dragging into his discourse D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film that is 102 years old. Feminist Jia Tolentino asserts Trump is a rapist and has committed "many hideous offenses" of a sexual nature. Mark Singer canvases thespians, acting experts for advice as to how Trump managed to create the persona that got him elected – the opinions are various and not complimentary. An acting coach at Juilliard, for instance, accuses Trump of "believing his own story" when he denied committing sexual assaults – of course, he is a sexual assailant, the man is just a good liar. Junot Diaz, a Latino novelist, tells New Yorker readers that little Puerto Rican girls are weeping because of Trump’s election and that the United States has elevated to President " toxic misogynist, a racial demagogue who wants to make American great by destroying the civil-rights gains of the past fifty years." Notwithstanding, this dire characterization, Diaz cites Jonathan Lear’s excellent book on Chief Plenty Coups to suggest that people console themselves with "radical hope...directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is." And, on this note, the parade of mourners comes to an end.
Sixteen voices, all more or less, in complete accord that Donald Trump’s election represents the darkest hour in the history of this Republic except, perhaps, the Civil War. (With the exception of Atul Gawande and, to a limited degree, Mary Karr, these commentators are less sophisticated that Dave Chapelle on Saturday Night Live – an African-American comedian who denounced Trump’s election rhetoric but suggested a "wait and see attitude" as to his governance; one of the SNL skits with Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock watching with wry amusement White liberals decrying Trump’s election as the "worst thing ever" was smarter than all 16 intellectuals and pundits combined.) Most troubling, I think, is the complete agreement expressed by these writers, their lockstep denunciations of Trump, and their mutually reinforcing animus against the electorate. This is less an agreement in principle than the party-line of some kind of sinister and mindless cult.
It’s puzzling – what is the purpose for these strings of denunciation, these prose poems of outrage and despair? No one’s mind will be changed by these peculiar cult-litanies of hatred and sorrow. These essays are, in effect, preaching to the choir, assuaging the wounded feelings of people who have the same outlook and political orientation as the writers.
Hardcore Trump supporters are not merely indifferent to this concatenation of poetically expressed misery, they are, I surmise, gleeful. There is nothing more amusing to a victor than a bunch of sore losers exercising themselves over the injustice of the contest’s outcome. The totem for some Trump supporters is Conan the Barbarian, a figure with which they identify their pudgy and small-fisted champion. Making the rounds on the internet was a snippet from that film. Some Huns are sitting around a fire at a banquet feast debating what joys are greatest to a true man – one of the Mongols asserts that freedom is man’s greatest joy, to ride the wide steppes unconstrained with a falcon on your arm. Arnold Schwartzeneggar, immobile as a Buddhist saint, responds: "No, man’s greatest joy is to defeat his enemies, to drive them before him, and to hear the lamentations of their women."
"The lamentations of their women" is an excellent description for the think-pieces that I have mentioned in the liberal media. This kind of lamentation is, exactly, what Trump supporters have hoped to induce – a kind of panic and fear and desperation in their adversaries. In my view, this undignified show of grief at a mere election makes the Right rejoice.
How much more dignified would be this response: Our side lost, your guy won. You win some, you lose some. We’ll oppose vigorously the more lunatic proposals that your man makes. We’ll support his reasonable policies. And we’ll work like hell to win the mid-terms and, then, take back the White House in 2020.
What would be wrong with that response? But I don’t see any of the 16 mourners and wailers in The New Yorker responding in any way even approximately similar to this approach. Instead, they impute apocalyptic consequences to a mere election.
Trump’s election is illegitimate, the argument goes, because he was elevated to office by an army of bigots. This theory ignores the fact that many people who previously cast their ballots for Barack Obama apparently voted for Donald Trump. And this argument begs the question: is America really 48% racist?
The elites opposing Donald Trump assert that they are the product of the multi-ethnic metropolis, that they are educated in tolerance, that their carefully politically correct discourse is a guarantor of their credibility and righteousness and the truth of their opinions. People living in big cities – at least, to the extent that they are pundits and opinion-makers, assert that they are totally without bias, that they see the facts for what they are, and that their only intolerance is for intolerance. But, of course, this is total folly and self-delusion. First, Donald Trump is a product of New York City – he is the archetypal East Coast hustler and self-promoter. A figure like Donald Trump is unimaginable in most parts of the United States where norms of self-deprecation, humility and contempt for boastfulness prevail. To the extent that he is wicked, Donald Trump embodies a sort of big city iniquity. Second, anyone who has ever spent time in one of our big cities realizes that the most virulent racial hatred and bigotry simmers under the apparently genteel surfaces of those places in a way that is unknown in the Midwest or throughout most of what is contemptuously called "fly-over country." Third, I have never met a person who is without prejudice, indeed, without racial prejudice of the most primitive and tribal kind. Racism and bigotry is a conspicuous component of the way human beings are constituted. The man or woman who tells you that he is without racial prejudice is lying to you and to themselves. Any rational thinker on this subject must conclude that question is not: do we harbor racist and intolerant thoughts? but, rather, are we vigilant to recognize those biases when they occur to us and do we act to restrain ourselves for harming others by reason of those biases? I am sick to death of people appearing on TV or in print assuming the mantle of purity with respect to racial or other kinds of prejudice. I am racist, I am prejudiced, I am biased. I am conscious of these defects in my character. I restrain my harmful instincts through the operation of reason and by attempting to act virtuously toward others. People are fed up with being told how to feel and what not to think – the only criterion for virtue is good action.
Finally, it is a commonplace but bears repeating: to the Left not all bias or prejudice is equally to be condemned. Of course, it is cruel and wrongful to display prejudice against Latino immigrants or African-Americans, but, apparently, fair to condemn Trump’s White, lower middle-class voters as a "basket of deplorables." Always keep this in mind: there is no one that a New Yorker staff writer despises more thoroughly than an evangelical White laborer from St. Louis or Nashville.
But to write on this subject is to fall into bad habits of extremist rhetoric and foggy thinking. That’s why I am all Trumped-out.
Last night, I watched a beautiful little film made in 1933, James Whale’s The Invisible Man. The movie is skillfully shot and atmospheric. It is witty, understated, and, even, expresses some important philosophical points about human nature. I would much prefer to write about that little film and extol its excellences than to pontificate about Donald Trump. This is what I mean when I say that Donald Trump had colonized our imagination – in the middle of reading a sonnet or looking at a painting, as I am driving through the pretty countryside and admiring the shapely hills and the architecture of the bare trees, as I am making love or walking my dog or enjoying a film, the horrible Donald Trump is always there. He can’t be ignored. He requires a response.
I hope I don’t dream about him again tonight.