That Time in 1969 When Kurt Vonnegut Accurately Profiled Donald Trump
Whenever the world gets into sticky times, there are certain books I like to re-read. During this election cycle, I’ve been re-reading Slaughterhouse-Five and Man Without a Country. One of which you probably read in middle school if you’re old enough to remember when that was a thing kids did, and both of which are worth a read in an election year…or any of the other 3.
So, burning Through S-5 (that’s what the slick blockbuster reboot of the film adaptation would inevitably be called), I was struck by how much the Howard W. Campbell (Twitter: realhowardcampbell) character’s proposition to the American POWs resembles Donald J Trump’s proposition to America. I’ll paste Vonnegut’s description below, and then add my (completely skippable, whatever) analysis below that. Whatever your political leanings, it is really interesting that a scene from a book about time travel and the immortality of characters could so accurately parallel our current…predicament?
Listen, Howard J Campbell has come unstuck in time…
“The Americans in the slaughterhouse had a very interesting visitor two days before Dresden was destroyed. He was Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American who had become a Nazi. Campbell was the one who had written the monograph about the shabby behavior of American prisoners of war. He wasn’t doing more research about prisoners now. He had come to the slaughterhouse to recruit men for a German military unit called ‘The Free American Corps.’ Campbell was the inventor and commander of the unit, which was supposed to fight only on the Russian front. Campbell was an ordinary looking man, but he was extravagantly costumed in a uniform of his own design. He wore a white ten-gallon hat and black cowboy boots decorated with swastikas and stars. He was sheathed in a blue body stocking which had yellow stripes running from his armpits to his ankles. His shoulder patch was a silhouette of Abraham Lincoln’s profile on a field of pale green. He had a broad armband which was red, with a blue swastika in a circle of white. He was explaining this armband now in the cement-block hog barn…
…’Blue is for the American sky,’ Campbell was saying. ‘White is for the race that pioneered the continent, drained the swamps and cleared the forests and built the roads and bridges. Red is for the blood of American patriots which was shed so gladly in years gone by.’ Campbell’s audience was sleepy. It had worked hard at the syrup factory, and then it had marched a long way home in the cold. It was skinny and hollow-eyed. Its skins were beginning to blossom with small sores. So were its mouths and throats and intestines…
…Campbell offered the Americans food now, steaks and mashed potatoes and gravy and mince pie, if they would join the Free Corps. ‘Once the Russians are defeated,’ he went on, you will be repatriated through Switzerland.’ There was no response. ‘You’re going to have to fight the Communists sooner or later,’ said Campbell. “…
…There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”
It’s uncanny right? Of course, in this parallel universe, Trump is Campbell, the painfully average but extravagantly costumed cartoon of a clown of an American strongman patriot who at some point saw the Nazis (who were…literally…the new right) rising to power and said: “we like so many of the same things. Ima pull these tights on and join them.”
Campbell despises American POWs (he likes people that weren’t captured, okay), but thinks that they are a ripe audience. The American POWs, of course, are the American people. A captive audience that is, if you listen to the pavement, at its most exhausted. That’s you. You’re tired, you’re hungry, you’re vulnerable you are very literal huddled masses. And Campbell is offering you steaks (the world’s greatest steaks) if you’ll join his Corps. And he appeals to your patriotism…your American-ness to help fight the Communists.
It should be noted that the white supremacist parallels are not even really parallels. “White is for the race that pioneered the continent” could just as well be “Make America Great Again” and “Drain the swamp” is, well, “Drain the swamp”. One of the things to realize about white supremacists…or bigots of any stripe, is that they love a veil of plausible deniability. They love to speak in code, to swap terms in an attempt to make the unforgivable things they wish to communicate sound more reasonable to outsider ears. But they are also very, very stupid… we all see right through their codes. So in this case, I’m just going to assign the terms Communists and Russians (our extremely valuable, strange-bedfellow allies in WWII, in case you maybe skipped History class) to represent the specter of all of the things a Nazi might think he could convince you, as an American POW to hate, even though you, as an American POW, know god damn well who the Nazis are and that they, and not the Russians, or the Jews, or the French, or the Polish, or the Socialists, or the gays, or the women, or the Muslims, or the Mexicans, or the black Presidents are the enemy.
So who are the Trump loyalists in this scenario? They aren’t also POWs. In Vonnegut’s classic, none of the Americans convert. They call Campbell a snake and tell him (in more eloquent terms) to fuck right the fuck off. It’s excellent. It’s hilarious. If you haven’t read it, you really should.
The Trump loyalists are The Free American Corps. They are Nazis. They are Americans who flipped under pressure. But they are also the unarmed, unauthoritative German guards. After all of this is over, I suspect we will think of Trump supporters like we think of those German guards at Dresden. The impotent old men and the impudent young boys whose fear of losing their “superior” ethno-national identity and all of the advantages that come with it got them all Hitler’d-up-and-enlisted at a time when their war was all but over. They live in the same hog house with their prisoners who, at this point, are no longer prisoners but just Americans following the rules and taking mutual shelter with the Germans. In the end, the bombs fall and the Russians come and collect the guards and their POWs all the same. The guards probably thought the hog house was theirs, and at one time that may have been the case, but it’s not anymore. I’m not saying the Trump folks are bad people. This is a metaphor. I’m not saying they’re (all) Nazis. But I am saying that they are the really, really sad and broken leftovers of something that never should have been.
And who am I in this one? “One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”