SIX BOLD HOT TAKES YOUR DOCTOR WOULD HATE FOR YOU TO HEAR ABOUT DONALD J TRUMP
“The last Trump shall awaken our Washington.”
— Abraham Lincoln, address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ill. 1838
I was an early Trump supporter — of TV Trump at least. I hopped on board after the first episode of The Apprentice back in the early 2000s and, together with millions of Americans, ogled the antics of Omarossa and held my breath for many a boardroom scene, unaware then of how small his hands were when the Donald curled his fingers into a pistol shape and delivered his signature “you’re fired.” At some point during the season, I went to a Barnes & Nobles and picked up his bestseller How To Get Rich, and it’s from that book I learned the word “equivocate” (as in “Don’t equivocate.”). I distinctly remember the finale — I was at the beach over spring break and some white guy named like Ryan or Brian defeated Kwame Brown the self-described “skirt-chaser” (another word I learned from the show) to win the grand prize, which was always pretty nebulous but probably consisted simply of the privilege of being a lackey in the Trumpire — after which I dreamed into the wee hours of the morning of possessing my own real estate empire (Jacobopolis) that would deliver me impressive fame and power.
It turned out though that real estate is real boring; at least, there’s little in it to sustain a tweenager’s attention, and so that interest petered out pretty quickly. But ever since I followed that dynamic first season of the Apprentice I’ve always had a soft stop for the Donald (and my affection for him only increased when I learned that in the ’90s he launched a trans-American bicycling stage race once nearly won by Lance Armstrong). His recent stint on the national stage has given me a new birth of bemusement more titillating than the first: I can’t help peaking daily at his latest antics. Many an awkward conversation pause over the past months has been averted by a simple, heading bobbing, “So … Trump …” It’s no secret too how much of a boon he’s been to the news/entertainment industry at large — can’t wait to see the Neilson numbers — and of course, for members of the typing class, Trumpsplaining has become the cashiest of cows.
A popular point of Trumparison for the twitteratti has been David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the thousand-page tribute to America’s addiction to entertainment that happens to be celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The United States of the novel is governed by a character named Johnny Gentle whom DFW described later in an interview as “A kind of post-Perot national joke for years, until — white-gloved finger on the pulse of an increasingly asthmatic and sunscreen-slathered and pissed-off American electorate — [he] suddenly swept to quadrennial victory in an angry reactionary voter-spasm.” Pretty eerie, huh? Trump too has advanced from being the butt of jokes to the head of the polls, and you can count me as among those to have underestimated his vitality. Funny that the smart money — rags-to-riches Rubio — has shown himself to be robotic while the silver-spooned reality TV star comes off as raw, real. I guess people like me are out of touch with reality, which is why we didn’t take Trump’s candidacy seriously. Although, considering that apparently the reality we’re out of touch with is a Manichean one in which the U.S. of A. is consistently besieged by mobs of Muslims, Mexican, and Mandarins (oh my!), maybe what Baudrillard and his buddies have been blabbing about since the fall of the Berlin Wall is more or less true: that reality itself is now out of touch with reality, at least in America.
To belabor the point: consider Trump’s trucker-hat trademark: “Make America Great Again” turns out to have been lifted from a Reagan campaign in the 1980s, and so it’d really be more accurate to say “Make American Great Again, Again”. In the ’80s at least it made sense for us to be great — there were the damn russkis threatening to consolidate the parts of the world we didn’t protect. But this second time around the earnestness has faded into farce, as they say, for in order to believe in it we must conjure up the aforementioned “M”-mageden and believe it really does pose a fatal threat to the teaming shores of our allies and of the homeland. And so, taking to heart DFW’s “sunscreen-slathered” remark, it’s hard not to interpret what Trump’s calling for as something really like “Make American White Again.” And perhaps it’s understandable, given white men in this country can’t expect much personally to improve about their conditions, that many see the Trump Train as a promising vehicle out of the estrangement from great struggles and narratives.
Francis Fukuyama’s famous “End of History Thesis” (basically what I just said — that history for the Great White American Capitalist is only something that occurs to other people — was famously (but perhaps not lastingly) shown to be flawed by the 9/11 attacks, and incidentally, that’s probably the last part of history I remember partaking in (that is, that affected me to my core on a personal level). On what I remember as my first post-9/11 airplane ride, I remember seeing a bearded, Detroit Pistons-jersey wearing young man in the airport and was convinced he was going to do something really bad — because the most inconspicuous garb for a terrorist to wear would be a Detroit pistons jersey, naturally. I cried the entire flight. Even into middle, school, I remember spending afternoons transfixed to my couch watching on repeat as, for example, CNN announced the terror threat level was being raised from like orange to red. At that age, then, one could perhaps be forgiven for unsophisticated Islamaphobia — none of this “Islam is theoretically incompatible with liberal democracy” hand wavy pseudostuff — you saw pictures of what the hijackers looked like, you see someone who looks like them, and you get scarred. I was just a young boy hoping not to die.
But because the only thing that seemed more terrifying than someone possessing an irrational desire to kill you was someone possessing a rational desire to see a peachy child terrified, my terror only lasted until I was old enough to see how people were profiting off my fear of fiery death. Or maybe eventually I just spent too much time absorbed in my phone or typing on my computer at the airport to bother scrutinize my fellow travels for tell-tale signs of terrorism. In any case, in this and other respects I’ve become a ghost of sorts, having been numbed to any emotions that may draw me into political action, prevented from thinking that anyone is speaking or acting to or about me in the political arena. I must say it’s good for my blood pressure. On the other hand, I’m concerned it may not be so healthy for the body politic, since I know people have figured out to weaponize apathy just as they have anger and fear, and so I’m sure the same numbness prevents that me from taking any threats to my own freedom seriously probably numbs me to threats to others’. And this is probably why (I’m somewhat bothered by how) I continue to find in the Trump phenomenon a source of entertainment as opposed to fear.
Now that Trump-Hitler comparisons are starting to be trotted out only half-jokingly, it probably good to remember W. B. Yeat’s poem “The Second Coming.” Reflecting on the conditions the lead to the furor’s rise, he wrote, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Without doing the self-gratifying move of considering ourselves “the best,” we still must be troubled at least intellectually about — if this really were the Hitler moment — whether we would posses the right stuff to resist the bloodthirsty wave of “passionate intensity.” I really don’t think such a thing could happen here (that is, I really do trust in the strength of American institutions), and suspect behind this talk is simply a justification for continuing to talk about Trump at the expense of more serious things/less entertaining things, but in any case, it gives me an excuse to talk about Lincoln, and about the speech from which the ominous epigram to this post is taken.
In 1838, a 29-year-old Abe Lincoln got up before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois to speak on the subject of “the perpetuation of our political institutions” [It’s a fairly short and very recommended read].As in Trump’s stumps, Lincoln laments in this speech departed American greatness: all the great men of the revolution were now gone; it can no longer rely on the honeymoon effect. What will happen to the standing bequeathed to it by “a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors”? Unlike Trump, though, Lincoln predicts the threat will come not from without but from within. “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
In what way? The virtue of our constitution, Lincoln says, is that it’s basically idiot-proof. It’s “a machine that would go of itself,” as the famous description goes. That is to say, it doesn’t require great, virtuous men, but rather — because of its ingenious devices like checks and balances — can manipulate more vicious men’s motivations in ways that mitigate each other and redound to the common good. Precisely because it places bets not on great people but on messiness and inefficiency, it is built to last. It’s especially good at reducing the likelihood of tyranny — the biggest threat to Europe of the time — because in order for one to rise within the government one was to have to shake so many hands, make so many deals, and pander so much to the multitude that by the time one is in office one’s hands are in many ways tied. This works most of the time, says Lincoln. But the problem was the founders did perhaps too good a job; that is, they didn’t leave any work for anyone else. What would happen if someone comes along who wasn’t content to merely be caretaker of the founders’ great work? In the most famous part of the speech, he explains why America is unsatisfying to the ambitious:
The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon? — Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. — It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.
And so Honest Abe predicts the gravest threat to our republic is to find in the same individual the combination of a high opinion of himself and disdain for others who’s little invested in the specific institutions of our political order, nor beholden to quasi-political institutions like interest groups that might constrain his ambition the way the founders envisioned. This seems more or less to be a decent sketch of our current landscape. Precisely because Trump is a not a career politician — he doesn’t have skin in the “game,” the rules of the game don’t chafe him. In our age that recognizes corporations as people, it turns out the person who is also a corporation poses a unique challenge since they don’t have their fingers tied.
Of course, Lincoln’s speech is really interesting not so much for imagined foreshadowing it may have to our present day but to what it foreshadowed about Lincoln’s own life (i.e. “[Ambition] thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.”). However, in order to do a bit more justice to that, and to the themes of American ambition, violence, and anesthesia I started to lay out here, I’ll probably need more space, so I’ll spare your eyes for now and will save that for next time. (Plus I’m getting a bit nauseous from typing on a plane so I think I’ll fall asleep instead).
But speaking of nausea: one reason to hope for a Trump presidency: considering what eight years in the White House has done to the whiteness of Barack Obama’s hair, just imagine the odyssey Donald’s ‘do would be in store for.