What Katherine Anne Porter taught me about Donald Trump’s America
Some time ago I read a novel called Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter. It is set in 1931, at the time of the Weimar Republic in Germany, before the Nazis came into power. Though the novel purports to shed light on the conditions that existed then that allowed Hitler’s rise, it barely mentions political movements and governments. All the action relates to people: the bigotry, the cowardice, and the self-involved solipsism that permitted Hitler’s pogroms.
Many have compared the time of the Weimar Republic to current-day America. Germany had suffered humiliation after their defeat in World War I; America too has had two demoralizing wars in the Middle East. They, too, had had a deep recession the effects of which still lingered.
So perhaps it isn’t surprising that much of the Ship of Fools rings true today. In Weimar Germany Jews were being blamed for the defeat in World War I, and at the same time scapegoated as communists and conversely, as wealthy bankers who caused the recession on Wall Street. These fears played on long-standing anti-Semitism in German society, as the novel depicts. In contemporary America, the ‘othering’ proceeds for different others. But the underlying bigotry is the same.
Most of the action is set on board a German passenger ship that sails from Mexico to Germany, with stops in Spain and France. The story begins in the port city of Veracruz, where we are shown a glimpse of the turmoils of the era. This was a time of labor strikes and renter strikes in Veracruz; a group of provincial business owners sit around a table muttering among themselves about the violence they would like to wreak on the strikers. One speaks of what fifty machine guns could do if used on a gathering of strikers. Another calls them ‘cattle’ and speaks of turning them to pulp.
The ship sets sail. On board are a mix of people. A painfully shy Swiss girl with few prospects, who doesn’t feel at home in Switzerland nor in Mexico where she has spent her childhood. A middle-aged German couple, constantly sea-sick, who have remained childless but shower their affections on a stolid bulldog. An alcoholic husband, his long-suffering wife, and miserable eight-year-old boy. A Spanish Condesa, addicted to narcotics, exiled from Cuba for political crimes. A group of brazen Spanish zarzuela dancers, who moonlight as prostitutes while their male companions pimp them. In steerage, eight hundred deported migrants packed in like cattle.
Colorful enough? This is only a smattering. But given my lifelong project of understanding my adopted country, my attention was drawn to a few of the passengers in particular.
First, William Denny, a young Texan. A mayor’s son, he has grown up as part of the natural elite — not only because of his father’s connections, but because of his race. He is white. His thinking is deeply provincial. It isn’t just that he is convinced of his superiority — it is that he cannot conceive of a different place or time where his race should not give him automatic privileges.
He is used to simple categories in Texas. There are Mexicans, there are African-American descendants of slaves, and the white elite, like himself. But here in Veracruz, the races are mixed, the categories not well-defined, and his natural superiority questioned. The sheer cognitive load of figuring out how to behave among these shifting categories makes him confused — and angry.
He makes up his mind to be ‘polite’ by calling a clerk ‘Pancho’ in a friendly tone of voice—and finds himself causing offence. He does not understand the interaction, except to note instant belligerence from the clerk upon being called that nickname. The clerk smoothly moves his papers, waiting to be processed, to the bottom of the pile. William Denny, after what seems to be have become an interminable wait, solves the problem by returning the same belligerence and gets his papers processed at last. This teaches him an inchoate lesson. Understanding isn’t necessary: belligerence is what gets things moving in this city of Panchos.
Jenny and David
Also on board are Jenny and David, and American couple, both of whom are artists. The author draws a sharp contrast between these two moderns and the other passengers who seem to be tightly held in place by social structures. Jenny and David, on the other hand, float as individuals in a sea on individuals; social rules mean so little to them that they are unable to see them. They are oblivious to the consternation they cause as they step on board as a cohabiting couple, while being clearly unmarried (they are assigned separate cabins). Jenny blithely befriends people around the deck, while David broods, lost in solipsism; never fully satisfied with his couplehood with Jenny, but too nihilistic to effect change.
Since they have rejected society’s rules, they have to make up their own. And thus they are involved in constant negotiation that never ends. Should they go to Spain or France? Since they cannot resolve that, they choose Germany, which neither of them wanted. Should they paint in colors, or sketch in charcoal? How should they deal with an imperfect world? Invite it in, with constant expressiveness and no discernment whatsoever, as Jenny does, or shut it out in ascetic bitterness, as with David?
They each have their ways of dealing with the injustices they see around them. Jenny wears a Mexican workman’s scarf (that she has taken without leave) wound around her neck as a fashion statement. For her, it is a way of showing solidarity with what David calls ‘the primitives’; but in her romanticism, she does not grapple with the functions that scarf actually performs for the workman.
David finds an artist among the migrants who are packed into steerage: this man carves wood figurines with his pocket-knife, which David admires and purchases several of. But when the man’s knife is unjustly taken away from him, leaving him weeping, unable to scrounge together the meager living he had, David is left in a white rage, just as impotent to affect change as the wood-carver who sobs at the ship’s railing.
Herr Siegfried Rieber
Herr Rieber is a successful publisher of a women’s fashion magazine, returning home to Germany from Mexico. A small, pudgy man with a bald head, he spends his entire time on board chasing a shallow, screechy woman called Lizzi, for sport and potential sex.
His boorishness is clear from the start. In Veracruz, as the passengers commiserate about a recent bombing of the Swedish Consulate, Herr Rieber can only express satisfaction that it was the Swedes this time, not the Germans.
“Why should not other people sometimes have a little trouble too?” he says, with undirected rage; “why must it always be the Germans who suffer in these damned foreign countries?”
Completely unconcerned that the other passengers think of him as a crude bully, he takes as his due, by virtue of his status as a wealthy German, a seat at the Captain’s table. He happens to be assigned a cabin with a Jewish man named Lowenthal — the only Jew on board. Herr Rieber’s lips curl in instant distaste as he enters his cabin and finds the Jewish man already occupying the other berth. He barks a perfunctory greeting. Later, Lowenthal finds his toiletries unceremoniously thrown to the ground from the shelf.
Herr Rieber instigates one of the main sub-plots of the novel. The passengers discover that a handsome German man named Freytag, who has consistently refused pork at meals, is married to a Jewish woman who he is deeply in love with. While most are content to gossip and pontificate about this discovery, Herr Rieber is outraged that a Jew-in-all-but-name should be seated at the Captain’s table alongside them. He, along with his side-kick Lizzi, writes a formal letter to the Captain demanding that Freytag be deprived of his seat.
The ostracism of Freytag only mildly scratches Herr Rieber’s itch. He then demands to be moved from his shared cabin with Lowenthal — clearly, he explains to the purser, it is an outrage for him to be asked to share a cabin with a Jew, when the Captain will not even accept a man married to a Jewish woman at his table. He jokes about putting Jews in ovens; when that causes dismay among his housewifely listeners, he insists, stubbornly, that he isn’t speaking of mere fumigation, either. And yet, he claims, he is not an anti-Semite — not at all.
An American novel
I read Ship of Fools a while ago; but as I have watched Donald Trump rise in the polls and win primaries by labeling entire ethnicities as rapists, terrorists, or irreducibly wily, as he has invigorated some of the most egregious groups in American society, from white supremacists to alt-right members to men’s rights activists (mostly a euphemism for straightforward misogyny), the salience of some of these characters would not let me go. Here are some of the things that the Ship of Fools taught me.
- In some ways, American liberals don’t get it.
There is a vast gulf between Jenny and David and the rest of the passengers. In them I saw modern American liberals (‘the nicest people in the world’, an Indian cousin once informed me), well-meaning and earnest, but lost in mutual recriminations against each other. Both constantly fall short of their shared ideals, but these shared ideals mean nothing to the passengers around them; nor are Jenny and David able to discern the anti-Semitism shown by everyone from the Captain on down. When Jenny discovers why Freytag is being shunned, she comes up with the notion of inviting him to share meals with her and David; a praiseworthy attempt to pat a ‘there-there’ on a fellow passenger’s shoulders, but a completely inadequate and absurd gesture, given the depth of feeling on the other side.
This might explain some of the trouble that Sen. Bernie Sanders has had connecting with minorities. While his heart is in the right place, the grammar of racism seems like a foreign language to him, and he does not seem to have the tools to understand it, let alone grapple with people who speak it.
2. Unfamiliarity breeds bigotry
In William Denny I saw the deep provincialism of some of the cadres that follow Donald Trump. Denny is not a particularly admirable character, but his main problem is that his life experiences have kept him from getting to know people from other races in a social way. When he meets any of these ‘others’, they are so unfamiliar that their differences loom large. Their different ways of talking, looking, different ways of making a living, all stand out so much that his cerebral cortex is simply overwhelmed by these big, blunt categories; and he cannot find the faculty enough to distinguish them. Their individual humanity recedes in favor of singular words that help him find purchase in a difficult mental landscape: ‘wops’, or ‘greasers’, or ‘Pancho’; much like the way we humans do not care to distinguish each individual garden creature, but rather give whole categories descriptive nicknames. (Dare I list some examples? ‘stink-bugs’; ‘pollywogs’; ‘slugs’….)
In one particular interaction with David the artist, he senses strong disapproval from David at his use of the word ‘greasers’ to describe the Spanish dancers, but David is too subtle to call him out directly. One senses that David’s disapproval is not merely a moral one, but the disdain of a cosmopolitan for a provincial. Their conversation is disjointed; Denny senses the disapproval, but thinks it is because the word ‘greaser’ is not quite the right word — so he offers up his list of nicknames to see if perhaps another one fits better.
The William Dennys of today have seized the term political correctness to describe the cosmopolitan notions that have lately come into their world to oppress them. Cosmopolitans call them racist for doing something that they have always done: identify the ethnicity a person belongs to by using everyday words. This makes them defensive and angry.
So when along comes Donald Trump, and throws out simple words that name ethnicities — ‘the blacks’, for instance — and never acknowledges the problem with that, nor ever backs down — he becomes their champion. In one particular interview with Trump supporter A.J. Delgado, she points to this quality as one of the things she finds particularly endearing about him.
3. Demagogues win because most people are sheep
In the Ship of Fools, having a seat at the Captain’s table is a high honor, reserved only for Germans, and only for respectable Germans, at that. Most of the people who sit at that table are anti-Semitic in a passive sort of way. Their anti-Semitism does not animate them, nor do they dwell on the fact that Freytag is married to a Jewish woman, for longer than the space of a dinner-time conversation.
Not so with Herr Rieber. His anti-Semitism is active, not passive; he agitates against sitting at the same table with Freytag, and he succeeds in having Freytag’s seat moved.
Even though most passengers think of Herr Rieber as a boorish, classless buffoon, and even though, left to their own devices, they would not have ostracized Freytag, they do not stand up to Herr Rieber. They are silent in the face of his pugnacity. They are sheep, including the Captain himself. Or perhaps they silently agree?
Herr Rieber is very much like our contemporary demagogue, Herr Drumpf himself. Some Republicans seem to have turned into sheep that go along and make excuses for him rather than calling him out. Perhaps it is because they see him as their best avenue to get power for themselves. Or perhaps they silently agree?
4. ‘Racism’ is an overused word
Absolutely everyone on this ship is racist in some form. The Germans put down the Swiss; everyone with light skin disdains the dusky Spanish dancers; no one can remember the Swede’s nationality, constantly mistaking him as some other kind of Scandinavian; everyone hates the Americans.
Absolutely everyone on the ship stereotypes everyone else. They are strangers to each other and their ethnicity is about all they have to go on. And yes, most of the time, the stereotypes are not flattering. Just like Donald Trump’s insults, ethnic stereotypes sometimes get to the most obvious blemishes.
But this is just a function of how human minds work. Implicit bias has been studied since the 1990s. Ever since computers became ubiquitous, they have been used to test subjects’ unconscious biases by testing minute differences in reaction times. Researchers have discovered that absolutely everyone stereotypes — sometimes even minorities against their own group. By this definition, everyone is racist; and if everyone is, there is no point in using that potent word.
But then we have Herr Rieber. What animates him is a different, more virulent feeling entirely.
Some time ago, Jeet Heer wrote in the New Republic that what really drives Trump and his supporters is not populism, but rather, a sense of aggrieved privilege. He writes,
“Trump is the voice of aggrieved privilege — those who already are doing well but feel threatened by social change from below, whether in the form of Hispanic immigrants or uppity women….Far from being a defender of the little people against the elites, Trump plays to the anxiety of those who fear that their status is being challenged by people they regard as their social inferiors.”
He could have been speaking of Herr Rieber and his attitude towards the Jews. Although he shares his cabin with Herr Lowenthal, he behaves as though he owns all the rights and space there. He pushes Lowenthal’s belongings away as though they are mere trash, once shattering a bottle of good shaving lotion. If he finds Lowenthal’s pajamas in their shared closet, he picks them between his thumb and forefinger and lets them drop to the floor with ‘confident insolence’.
The Contact Hypothesis states that interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice among groups. But with Herr Rieber, one imagines that this tactic would not work. This is because he is not merely convinced of the inferiority of other races, he is invested in the idea. His identity is tied up in his dominance.
It is this type of virulent racism, one that he shares with groups such as the KKK, that ought to be called out. Applying that word to the milder forms dilutes its power and blunts our tools.
5. Nothing ever changes
Perhaps it is a sign of my irredeemable distance from the American experience that I should look to a novel from the 1960s, written about the 1930s, to inform me about the country. But while the Ship of Fools is set in a time and a place, like the ship itself, it is unmoored from both. In it I saw not only the America of today but also shades of caste politics in India. This is because some of the human failings that Katherine Anne Porter so masterfully depicts are unfortunately, always with us.
What happens when taboos break?
Of course, there is one major difference. We have historical memories of the Holocaust while the passengers on the Ship of Fools were as yet innocent of it. We have seen the Civil Rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi’s struggles against the caste system in India. Reformers like them inspired generations of people to make racism one of the ugliest taboos. Frank racists like the KKK and the John Birch Society have been written out of polite society — this is why politicians who want to carry their message without paying the social cost of shame resort to dog whistles. In a 1981 interview Lee Atwater, the scrappy Republican campaign consultant, described how changing norms forced them to make their language more abstract:
“By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you, backfires […] so you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract….”
While dog-whistles are wretched, they are, at least, the tribute paid to a commonly held taboo.
But the ominous truth is that taboo-shaming only works with the consent of the shamed. What if there is a sufficiently strong leader, a demagogue, let’s say, who happens to lack the ordinary faculties of shame, who gives his followers consent to break this taboo, just like he does on a regular basis? What happens then?