Since June 16th, the day Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States, it’s safe to say that the goalposts of “conventional wisdom” have had to be moved so far, it’s entirely possible they’re currently in the next county. Comedians sent up hosannas for the rich veins of humour Trump would provide, but it was generally assumed that his campaign would be ignominiously short. When we arrived at the end of August with his poll numbers only going up, the conventional wisdom was that the end of summer would see the end of his fortunes—people would return from their vacations, start paying more attention to the news, and once that happened, Trump would inevitably fade.
Except that here we are in the middle of December, six months on from that day he rode that ridiculous escalator down to his podium to the strains of Neil Young, and the Donald ain’t going anywhere. If anything, he seems even more entrenched, a fact that is worrisome all across the political spectrum: people on the left blanch at how his outrageous, nativist bigotry has found such fecund soil, while establishment Republicans are terrified at the prospect of the lasting damage he might do the GOP (to be fair, I’m certain there are those on the right who are also appalled at his racist populism, but very few—certainly not those running against him—have been particularly aggressive in condemning him).
One of the theories that has been floated in an attempt to explain his candidacy is that he’s actually colluding with Hilary Clinton: that he’s actually a Democratic sleeper whose entire campaign is an elaborate scheme to destroy any possibility that the GOP could emerge in this election cycle looking accommodating and reasonable (as their postmortem on 2012 strongly encouraged). Those who endorse this theory—though in reality it is difficult to discern just how serious people are when they propose it—point to Trump’s previous associations with the Clintons, to the fact that they attended his (most recent) wedding, that Donald and Bill have been not-infrequent golf buddies, that Trump has made political contributions to both of them, and that in the past he has self-identified as a Democrat. And then there is the matter of the phone call between Donald and Bill in the weeks before his launched his campaign, in which, it has been reported, Bill strongly encouraged him to run for president.
To be clear, I do not buy this theory. At all. If Bill Clinton did in fact egg Trump on, to my mind all that demonstrates is that Bill is a wily old fuck who knew full well that, if Trump heeded his words, his candidacy would throw a massive spanner in the GOP gears (though just how massive a spanner, no one could have foreseen). I think it far more likely that Trump’s run is simply the product of his egoism and narcissism, the desire for a huger, more luxurious diamond-encrusted reality TV stage than The Apprentice. And however brain-dead and idiotic his policy suggestions have been, he’s shrewd enough to know that his brand of populism simply wouldn’t play with Democrats—something he himself noted in 1998, according to a new meme that’s been making the rounds of social media:
The possibility that Trump’s campaign is all an act designed to sabotage Republican fortunes is an attractive idea on both sides of the political coin. On the left, it would give the lie to his egregious stances, and would further be a deeply satisfying thumb in the eye to all those who bought into his rhetoric. On the right—at least among those aghast at Trump’s insurgency—it would recuperate the Republican brand somewhat, to say nothing of confirming everyone’s worst suspicions about the perfidy of the Clintons.
As I say above: unlikely. But then, I’m reluctant to make pronouncements on the Republican campaign(s) anymore.
But let’s for a moment, just as an intellectual exercise, grant the premise. If for no other reason than it makes me think of my favourite novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night. If Trump’s campaign is in fact a massive ruse, it’s scarcely less horrifying than the more likely scenario that he is serious.
Mother Night is a novel about an American writer and playwright “of moderate reputation” named Howard W. Campbell, living in Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War. His family had moved there because of his father’s business when he was young, and so he grew up as facile in German as in English—and indeed, he works exclusively in German. He married a German actress named Helga, whose father is the Chief of Police in Berlin. Howard and Helga are studiously apolitical: as Germany descends into fascism around them, they withdraw into their “nation of two,” ignoring the political and social upheavals and living the privileged lives of the well-connected and moderately famous.
One day in 1938, Howard is approached in a park by a man from the U.S. War Department, who asks him if he would be willing to serve his country as a spy—to parlay his fame as a playwright into a position within Goebbels’ propaganda agency, broadcasting Nazi propaganda in English. He would be contacted anonymously by American agents in Germany and given instructions on certain words, phrases, and inflections to work into his scripts, which would be coded messages to Allied intelligence.
At first he is reluctant, but the American agent is confident he will cooperate—because, as he says, he has read all of Howard’s plays, and that he learned from them “that you admire pure hearts and heroes … That you love good and hate evil.” Except, Howard notes, his conspiratorial new friend is blind to the real reason this job appeals to him:
He didn’t mention the best reason for expecting me to go on and be a spy. The best reason was that I was a ham. As a spy of the sort he described, I would have an opportunity for some pretty grand acting. I would fool everyone with my brilliant interpretation of a Nazi, inside and out.
And I did fool everybody. I began to strut like Hitler’s right-hand man, and nobody saw the honest me I hid so deep inside.
And so Howard W. Campbell goes from studiously apolitical citizen of a “nation of two” to famous, fulminating American Nazi. Which is how he is known to history: as a traitor who turned his back on his birth nation to spew vile anti-Semitic propaganda for one of the most murderous regimes in history. The novel, incidentally, is presented as a confession and testament written in preparation for his trial for war crimes; he writes in a cell in Jerusalem in 1961, after he has been abducted from New York City by Israeli Nazi-hunters. The U.S. government, having facilitated his escape from Europe at the end of the war, will not confirm or deny his story.
He never knew what intelligence his broadcasts communicated; he never knew what effect he had for the Allied war effort. But he became a darling of the SS and the Nazis’ braintrust, and until the end proselytized their philosophy of hate. And at the end of the war, after his wife goes missing while performing for the soldiers in Crimea, he has one last encounter with his father-in-law Werner, the Berlin police chief and inveterate Nazi who had always hated the fact that his daughter had married an American writer rather than a German soldier. “Did you know,” he asks Howard, “that until this very moment, nothing would have delighted me more than to prove that you were a spy, to see you shot?” But no longer, he says: he no longer cares, because he has listened to every single one of Howard’s broadcasts, which he started doing out of hatred, wanting to study his loathed son-in-law. But he eventually came to a realization:
“You could never have served the enemy as well as you served us,” he said. “I realized that almost all the ideas that I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I might have felt or done as a Nazi, came not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler—but from you.” He shook my hand. “You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.”
Mother Night is an odd novel when considered in relation to Vonnegut’s other writing—odd because it is generally very low-key, lacking the verbal bombast and exuberance of such novels as Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse-Five, or Cat’s Cradle, to say nothing of its quiet realism, utterly unlike the others’ irruptions of the fantastic. There is no “So it goes” in Mother Night, no invitations to take a flying fuck at a rolling donut. And it has something rare in Vonnegut, something he acknowledges in a preface: it has a pretty straightforward moral. “We are what we pretend to be,” he writes, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
It is a striking variation on George Orwell’s famous observation that “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” The prospect that Donald Trump’s candidacy might be a charade is no comfort to me—not even close. In fact, I wonder if that wouldn’t in some ways be even worse. One way or another, it’s a reasonably good bet that his increasingly outrageous pronouncements aren’t sincerely held beliefs, but rhetoric designed to elicit roars of approval from the crowd to stoke the gaping maw of his ego. (Here’s a variation on the Clinton-Trump collusion narrative, Hollywood version: he started out as a Democrat sleeper, never expecting to last more than two or three months; but once he found himself on top in the polls, receiving the adoration of thousands of mouth-breathers, he embraced his new identity as conservative demagogue, and the increasingly frantic calls of Clinton staffers go unanswered). But whether his campaign is pretence, pandering, or deeply-held beliefs, its pernicious effects are the same: he has given voice to America’s id, and that’s a genie that won’t be going back into its bottle for a long time to come.
Several times in the lead-up to the Canadian federal election in October, I found myself jotting down notes toward a blog post on Stephen Harper and his increasingly noxious campaign. My principal theme was that it’s unfortunate that we have so often tended to misuse the terms “fascist” and “fascism,” throwing them at conservative figures so frequently that, when something actually approximating a fascist sensibility emerges, they have lost their power and meaning. I think the other reason Mother Night resonates when I think of Donald Trump is that his demagoguery—rallying an aggrieved nativist rump by vilifying certain ethnic and religious minorities through outright lies—has such clear analogues in the twentieth century. And, frankly, we do ourselves a disservice not to point them out.