Haven’t done one of these in a while and was thinking I need to get back into the habit of posting shorter things on a more regular basis, just to keep the pump primed her for the handful of people who actually read my blog (you few, you happy few).
Each of the items I’m mentioning here is worthy of a longer, deeper dive, and indeed I jotted notes in my journal to that end. But discretion being the better part of something or other, I acknowledged to myself that were I to attempt three ambitious posts I would almost certainly end up writing none, and the other more ambitious posts I have in the hopper would also probably fall by the wayside. So without further ado …
My dissertation is now old enough to vote, but it’s not gonna ‘cause it’s all RIGGED, man! I suddenly realized that this past Saturday was the eighteenth anniversary of my doctoral dissertation defense. That day remains one of my fondest memories of which I have little memory—the three hours of the defense itself is muddled in my mind because of the intellectual exhaustion that sets in after a certain point, which was then almost certainly compounded by the drinking that ensued.1
It is however a serendipitous bit of timing. My dissertation was titled “The Conspiratorial Imagination,” and was a study of conspiracy theory and paranoia as expressions of American postmodernity. This week we get into my fourth-year seminar on 21st century apocalypticism in earnest, and we’re diving into the novel Fight Club, the cultural earthquakes caused by 9/11, and the conspiracism endemic to both.
This class is a new iteration on a graduate class I taught in winter 2021; that class began mere days after the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, a concurrence that seemed uncannily appropriate. In one of my more inspired off-the-cuff classroom riffs, I drew a line between Jacob Chansley—aka the QAnon Shaman, aka the most bonkers and thus most indelible image to emerge from a day replete with bonkers and indelible images—and the 1990s-era “crisis of masculinity.” This putative crisis inspired some men, influenced by Robert Bly’s book Iron John (1990), to go on men’s retreats into the woods where they donned loincloths, painted their faces, banged drums, and otherwise attempted to get in touch with some sort of elemental, primal, “authentic” manhood that had been erased by a combination of apathy, an excess of civilization, feminism, and a culture in general that repressed or denigrated “traditional” masculinity.
Then as now, the first novel we did was Fight Club—then it was fortuitous, now it is deliberate. As much as I dislike the novel, it’s a little too apt to my topic not to cover.
That class I titled “The Specter of Catastrophe,” which referred to the post-9/11 shift in disaster narratives from the spectacle of apocalyptic destruction (e.g. the alien ships blowing up New York and L.A. in Independence Day) to a specter haunting the devasted and/or depopulated landscapes of The Road or The Walking Dead. The current version of the course is mostly unchanged, but my focus has shifted slightly. It is now titled “Hopeful Nihilism,” which is partly an inversion of Lauren Berlant’s conception of “cruel optimism,” and a way of characterizing the burn-it-all-down ethos of Trumpism: the inchoate rage at a system perceived as broken coupled with the vague sense that its destruction will bring about better circumstances.2
I was at a loss for what image to use for a course poster until it occurred to me to run an image of the QAnon Shaman through the Obama “Hope and Change” poster filter:
It seems appropriate to lean into the conspiracy theory dimension of these topics, especially considering …
Trump unequivocally embraces QAnon. Yup. At a rally in Ohio last week for Hillbilly Elegy author, Republican senate candidate, and shameless political panderer J.D. Vance, Trump delivered a somewhat more scripted speech than is his usual wont while portentous music played underneath his words and a clot of rallygoers saluted him with a gesture that looked as though a bunch of people sieg heiling were also saying “Over there!” That is, a bunch of people raised their arms at an angle with their index fingers pointed, which is apparently a salute that has been adopted by QAnon enthusiasts. The single raised finger is a reference to the Q slogan “Where we go one, we go all” (itself adopted, weirdly, from White Squall, Ridley Scott’s most forgettable film). The music playing beneath Trump’s speech is also, apparently, music specific to the QAnon movement, titled “WWG1WGA,” an acronym for the above slogan.
Trump has been flirting with QAnon for at least as long as journalists have been asking him about it. As with most things that fall into Trump’s orbit, it’s difficult to know whether he actually knows much about it, or whether he just automatically gloms onto it because the adoration of deranged people is impossible for him to resist (the true Q believers refer to Trump as their “God Emperor,” and you can be 100% certain he loves that). But he’s been coy about it—or as coy as someone as unsubtle as Trump can be, anyway—teasing it with his showman’s instincts, but never explicitly going all in with it.
Until now, that is. On Truth Social, his MAGA Twitter knockoff, he retweeted—sorry, “re-truthed”—a post featuring a stern and heroic-looking image of him overlaid with the words “the storm is coming.” For those less familiar with QAnon parlance, the “storm” is key to their mythology—referring to the long-deferred comeuppance for the Deep State and liberal elites (who are all, let’s not forget, human-trafficking pedophile cannibals) in which Trump will reveal his master plan by arresting all the malefactors and re-assuming his rightful place as President of the United States.3
To be clear, Trump isn’t openly accusing Biden and Hillary Clinton of being sex-trafficking pedophiles (yet), but it is notable that he’s now gone as far as he has. He is not a subtle thinker, to put it mildly, but he has a very canny instinct for running a con: he knows how to string his marks along, whether they be MAGA enthusiasts, Republican pols desperate to tap into his base’s enthusiasm, or deranged conspiracists like the Q people (there’s a Venn diagram for you!). Much of that entails not giving more away than you have to, so it’s interesting that he seems to be leaning into it now.
Part of me finds this new development vaguely hopeful, even as it presages worse to come in terms of possible violence and mayhem. The true believers will almost certainly be roused to action of one sort or another, but this also makes it more difficult for his apologists to ignore his worse excesses. It may all indicate that Trump is losing relevance: out of office, off Twitter, ensconced in his Florida retirement home, and subject to ever-escalating investigations over which he has no control, and with ambitious rivals like Florida governor Ron DeSantis (who stars in the third section of this post) smelling weakness, this might be him trying to regain traction. But part of the problem with being outrageous is that you need ever-larger displays of outrageousness to keep the focus on you, especially when others have learned your lessons and deploy them more deftly. And that brings us to …
The politics of cruelty. Though Terry Pratchett’s voluminous Discworld series of over forty novels articulates a sophisticated moral philosophy, one of its principal axioms is a simple premise. Though it is present throughout the novels, it is articulated most specifically by the curmudgeonly witch Granny Weatherwax: evil, she says, comes from treating people—oneself included—like objects. When the earnest young missionary with whom she’s speaking4 protests that surely there are worse crimes than that, she agrees, but points out that most such crimes start with treating people as objects.
Every so often I circle back around to wanting to write an article on the consonance between Pratchett’s philosophy and American pragmatism as defined by thinkers like John Dewey, Judith Shklar, and Richard Rorty. Granny Weatherwax’s assertion is of a piece with Shklar and Rorty’s premise that liberal thought proceeds from the understanding that cruelty is the worst thing we do. This premise informs much of Pratchett’s fiction, so it is perhaps unsurprising that I have taken enormous comfort in rereading his work at the various nadirs of the past several years.
The most dispiriting episodes of what I assume we must needs call the Trump Era have all been those instances that have demonstrated the appetite for cruelty not as an occasional gambit or the collateral damage of a given policy shift, but as a new normal in which cruelty is business as usual. One of the most astute insights on this front was Adam Serwer’s Atlantic essay that observed the cruelty of Trumpism isn’t incidental: the cruelty is the point. This recent idiocy in which Ron DeSantis put asylum seekers fleeing Venezuela on a chartered flight to Martha’s Vineyard is just the most recent iteration of a political ethos more concerned with disruption and “owning the libs” than with any coherent ideological project. The whole exercise was an effort to expose the hypocrisy of affluent liberals, who were supposed to react with horror at having migrants suddenly in their midst. The people of the Vineyard did react with horror, but at DeSantis’ callous use of the refugees (who, as refugees, were in fact in the U.S. legally) as pawns in his political stunt. (The refugees were themselves welcomed and treated well, given food and shelter). Whatever one’s position on the current fraught state of immigration in the U.S., the basic, irreducible humanity of migrants—be they legal or illegal immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers—should always be the central factor in any consideration. Instead, we’re treated once again to the spectacle of a cruel man treating people as objects in the name of scoring points with a rump of the populace mobilized by Trump’s performative cruelty, all in the hope that he might one day take Trump’s place as their venerated leader. All of which tells us that the Trump Era is far from over.
1. There was, conveniently, a departmental function that afternoon at the Grad Club, a meet & greet for new graduate students, current ones, and faculty. One of the few vivid memories I have of that day is the newest hire—a young Shakespearean I had become good friends with—come scurrying over with a pen to edit my nametag, putting “Dr.” in front of my name.
2. I proposed an article on this subject for The Conversation apropos of the first anniversary of January 6th. It was published, but the editorial process was laborious and I was profoundly unsatisfied with the finished product … but still, might be worth a read.
3. Depending on who you talk to, the malefactors will either be subjected to humiliating show trials and imprisoned or summarily executed. Like all mythologies, there are variant versions, many of which have been necessitated by the fact that “the storm” has now been promised for six or seven years and has yet to occur.
4. The novel in which this exchange occurs is Carpe Jugulum (1998), the twenty-third Discworld novel; and the missionary in question is named Mightily Oats—which is the short version of his full name, “The Quite Reverend Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exalteth-Om Oats.” There’s a book to be written just about Sir Terry’s character names.
Trump’s ongoing crusade to overturn the election has had a weird split-screen quality that would be hilarious if it weren’t so dystopian. On one hand, you have all the overblown rhetoric and accusations of fraud and election-rigging, elaborate conspiracy theories about voting machines being manipulated by China and Venezuela, dead people voting by the hundreds of thousands, and the active suppression of Republican poll-watchers. On the other hand, you have the fact that Trump et al have had, at this time of this writing, thirty-two of their legal challenges often literally laughed out of court, while they’ve only succeeded twice, on minor procedural questions. Notably, once in the courtroom, the allegations of fraud, never mind fraud on a massive conspiratorial scale, evaporate—because unlike one of Rudy Giuliani’s hysterically inchoate press conferences, the courts demand that evidence be presented.
You might think that this contradiction between what the Trump people allege and their inability to produce evidence in court, coupled with the glaring fact of their 2-32 win/loss record so far, would start to sink in and make Trump’s followers start to understand that there was no fraud and that Biden won what Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security called “the most secure election in American history.” But then, in order to think that, you’d probably have had to be in a coma these past four years. About a week ago I broke a personal rule and got into an argument with someone on social media who was convinced that election fraud had been perpetrated. When I pointed to the fact that the Trump people had not been able to produce any evidence of systematic wrongdoing, he repeatedly and sarcastically demanded, “Oh, are you a lawyer? Are you there in the courtroom? You don’t know what evidence they have!” I have since seen this line of argument repeated, most prominently by Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis, as if these court cases are black boxes and not publicly available … or that if Trump and Giuliani actually had any actual evidence, that they wouldn’t be putting it on public display 24/7. (My argument with the fraud-advocate ended when he told me he was “terrified” for my students, as it was “obvious” that I couldn’t be trusted to let them offer opposing perspectives in class).
Meanwhile, as his legal teams racks up losses like the New York Jets on Dramamine, Trump keeps tweeting his confidence that his re-election is all but a done deal, and his supporters continue to close ranks. Even Trump’s most voluble advocates aren’t safe from their wrath should they voice even the slightest doubt, as Tucker Carlson found when he made the rather glaringly obvious observation that such subtly orchestrated fraud on a vast scale—which leaves no trace—strains credulity: “What [Trump lawyer Sydney] Powell was describing would amount to the single greatest crime in American history,” Carlson said on his show this past Thursday. “Millions of votes stolen in a day. Democracy destroyed. The end of our centuries-old system of government.” The backlash from Trump supporters and other Trump-friendly media figures was immediate, with Rush Limbaugh’s producer asking (and betraying an ignorance of how evidence and the law works), “Where is the ‘evidence’ the election was fair?” With trenchant understatement, the NY Times Jeremy W. Peters observes that “The backlash against Mr. Carlson and Fox for daring to exert even a moment of independence underscores how little willingness exists among Republicans to challenge the president and his false narrative about the election he insists was stolen.”
It goes without saying that this state of affairs is deeply dangerous, and serves to obviate any kind of amusement or schadenfreude at the spectacle of Trump’s presidency figuratively—and Giuliani literally—melting down.
As I wrote in a recent post, the incoherence of the aggregate accusations being thrown around is a feature, not a bug, of conspiracism. All it all needs to do is cement in the minds of Trump voters—not all Trump voters, but a critical mass of them, to be certain—the illegitimacy of the Democrats and the impossibility that Biden could have won without cheating. It was always a given that Trump would not concede, but there was always the milder possibility that he’d resign with high dudgeon and Nixonian resentment (“You won’t have Donald Trump to kick around any more!”), claiming that he’d been cheated, accept a federal pardon from President Mike Pence, and retire to Mar-a-Lago to sulk and tweet and plan his comeback.
But no. It seems he’s determined to go all-in. Whether he actually believes he has a chance to steal the election with his scheme to have state electors overturn the results is something we’ll likely never know; but what seems more likely is that he wants to be forced from office. He wants to be seen going down fighting, a victim of Democratic malfeasance, the Deep State, interference from China, Venezuela, and Cuba, and whatever other fecal matter they want to fling at the wall. And while the prospect of seeing Trump literally frog-marched out of the White House by the Secret Service one minute after noon on January 20th is too delicious to contemplate, that is probably one of the worst scenarios. Why? Because all of those people who have gone all-in on Trump and the narrative of the election being stolen will look up from their phones on January 20th to see Biden taking the oath of office, and see the culmination of their present fears and convictions. And what happens then is anyone’s guess, though the one absolute certainty is that a not-insignificant proportion of the U.S. populace will believe it has been stabbed in the back by the rest of the country.
More than a few times I’ve seen the fantasy being built by Trump et al called the “stab in the back” narrative, and it never fails to chill. When Germany surrendered at the end of the First World War, it came as an utter shock to the soldiers and much of the civilian population. They had thought they were winning, due to a series of gains they had made in the spring of 1918, but in truth, there was nothing left with which to continue the war. The gains they had made were the result of the Kaiserschlacht, or “Kaiser’s Battle”—more commonly known as the “Spring Offensive,” that began in March 1918 and carried on for several months. The offensive was a gamble, and a risky one: the German High Command knew their resources were running low. The recent entry of the United States on the side of the Allies made the situation even more dire. So they went all-in on a massive series of attacks in the hopes of breaking the enemy lines and forcing them into a peace negotiation that would be favourable to Germany.
They failed, but they failed while looking as if they were winning. But the tank was empty. They could keep fighting, of course, with vastly denuded stocks of weapons and ammunition, with an ever-more demoralized army, and with starvation at home. They chose instead to surrender rather than put the military through the inevitable meat grinder.
But as is the nature or quasi-dictatorial monarchies, the German government wasn’t adept at messaging … the end came as a shock to the army and the civilian population because they had no idea how bad the situation actually was. And after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, unsurprisingly, people looked for whom to blame. One of the most persistent theories was the “stab in the back” narrative, which held that powerful business interests with an internationalist character and therefore disloyal to Germany—i.e., the Jews—were responsible for bringing about Germany’s cowardly capitulation. For stabbing Germany in the back.
Yes, yes, insert Godwin’s Law disclaimer here. But it is more than a little uncanny to consider that these events occurred almost precisely one century ago—and doubly uncanny to further consider that 1918-1919 was the last occurrence of a truly global pandemic.
As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Unlike most rhymes, however, these one can be discordant and jarring to the soul.
For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I’ve been thinking these past several days about mad kings, both fictional and historical.
It started with a Facebook post, alluding to George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire—which some will know better by the HBO adaptation Game of Thrones—in which I said “We could really use a young Jaime Lannister in the White House right about now.” The allusion, which anyone who has read the novels and/or watched the series, will know, is to a key backstory plot point in which the Mad King, Aerys II, was murdered by Jaime Lannister, a member of his sworn Kingsguard—clearing the way for the usurpation of the Iron Throne by Robert Baratheon.
Martin, a keen student of history, loosely based the conflict animating the first few novels on the Wars of the Roses, the English civil wars that convulsed the nation for the better part of the fifteenth century; indeed, the two principal warring families of his series, the Starks and the Lannisters, bear more than a passing resemblance (phonetically, at any rate) with the Yorks and the Lancasters. But the Mad King himself—glimpsed only secondhand in various characters’ accounts of Robert Baratheon’s rebellion—bears a closer resemblance to the handful of lunatic Roman emperors who populated the empire’s declining years: Caligula with his murderous licentiousness, Nero’s narcissistic self-regard, and so forth. Nero was declared a public enemy by the Senate and killed himself in exile; Caligula was murdered by the Praetorian Guard. Martin borrows from a raft of such histories, which also include the killing of England’s Edward II and Richard II.
The other figure Martin’s Mad King resembles is the more contemporary dictator, reduced to paranoid, delusional ranting, surrounded by toadies and sycophants because he has banished or killed everybody who dares voice the slightest dissent. It was only a matter of time (probably minutes) before somebody did a Trump version of the much-memed bunker scene from Downfall.
The mad king—or tyrant, or dictator—is a compelling character for much the same reason that car crashes are fascinating: whether it’s Hitler in his bunker or Lear on the heath, we’re witness to the unspooling of a formerly powerful, formerly charismatic person’s mind. What has been remarkable about the Trump presidency these past few weeks is how public the unspooling has been. Historically, infirmity in the highest of offices has been hidden, as much as possible, from the public view (the examples of certain Roman emperors notwithstanding). Only a handful of royal handlers were witness to the madness of George III. When Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke late into his second term, his wife and aides kept it quiet; ditto for Ronald Reagan’s latter-day dementia. We only found out about Richard Nixon’s drunken conversations with the portraits of former presidents in the final days before his resignation years after the fact.
But then again, Trump has arguably always been unhinged—that quality of mercurial unpredictability and volcanic temper is central to reality television, after all, and it was through The Apprentice that Trump was able to reforge his public persona in such a way as to delude a critical mass of Americans into believing that he was a brilliant and canny businessman and dealmaker. I’ve lost count of how many op-eds and think pieces have made the observation that his presidency has essentially unfolded like an exhausting four years (five, counting the campaign) of reality television conventions and tropes. He is himself not unaware of this fact; it is an open question of whether his tendency to do or say something outrageous when news unflattering to him breaks is a deliberate distraction strategy, or simply Trump being jealous of the spotlight.
But now we’re in the endgame. True to form, he’s playing a character, however inadvertently: sequestered in the White House, his general avoidance of the public eye speaks about as loudly as his all-caps tweets. Structurally, it is a bizarre situation, by which I mean the mad king in his labyrinth would normally be invisible to all but his closest advisors, some of whom would trot out to podiums every so often to offer anodyne updates. But of course this White House, as my mother would say, leaks like a chimney (as opposed to smoking like a sieve), and so we have frequent reports of Trump brooding, and details of the argument within his inner circle about whether to convince him to concede or keep fighting. But even without such leaks, we still have the logorrhea of Trump’s Twitter feed to keep us abreast of his downward spiral into increasingly deranged conspiracy theories about George Soros and Dominion Software voting machines. And of course we also have his devoted sycophants, like Rudy Giuliani and Lindsey Graham, taking every possible opportunity to go on television and propagate his paranoid maunderings.
The one bright spot in all of this is that at least there’s an expiration date: January 20, 2021, obviates the need for a Jaime Lannister or a Praetorian Guard. Which is fortunate for Trump.
In all of the drama and, well, chaos, of the ongoing U.S. election, I’ve found my thoughts returning again and again to that moment in the first presidential debate when Trump viciously attacked Hunter Biden—calling him a cocaine addict and falsely charging that he’d been dishonourably discharged from the military for drug use.
I’d like to think, and I really, really hope, that we’ll look back on that moment as the tipping point in Trump’s fortunes. I suspect that the debate as a whole will be a moment when Trump’s megalomaniacal, compulsive tendencies became too overt to be excused or explained away, but it was that specific unhinged verbal assault on Biden’s surviving son—when Biden had been memorializing his dead son Beau—that most horrifyingly distilled the President’s sociopathy.
As painful as it is, I’ve watched the exchange several times now, mainly because I wanted to make sure I was not misremembering it. There’s a lot to parse here: Trump castigating Hunter’s issues with addiction seems more than a little tone deaf, not least because the opioid crisis that has been tearing through the American Midwest disproportionately afflicts Trump’s principal voting demographic. Perhaps his base can disassociate the scourge of addiction in their communities from Trump’s cruel words; but I have to assume some people—addicts in recovery, family members struggling with their loved ones’ addiction, or else mourning those lost to overdoses—heard the callousness of Trump’s words clearly. And possibly they also heard Joe Biden’s response, which was to say, as he looked directly into the camera, “Like a lot of people you know at home, he had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”
The contours of Hunter Biden’s story are sadly obvious. His brother Beau was the son being groomed to follow in Dad’s footsteps, earning medals for his military service and then running for office before the tragedy of brain cancer felled him. Hunter was the fuckup, the drug user, the son who couldn’t quite get it right. Speaking about his questionable appointment to the board of Burisma, Hunter offered the not-quite-believable excuse that, with a father in public office and a brother set to run for public office, it fell to him to earn money “for the family.” I suppose it’s possible that the Biden clan was strapped for cash, but that doesn’t quite pass the smell test. More likely—as has been widely reported—Hunter was himself badly in debt, and took on the Burisma position (over strong recommendations that he not) for that reason.
One of the plot points I find most telling in this sad saga is that there were numerous people in the White House who thought Hunter’s relationship with Burisma inappropriate—and advised Joe Biden to that effect—but were rebuffed by Biden, who said that, as a rule, he did not interfere in Hunter’s personal business.
To be clear, we don’t know the details, and so much of this is mere speculation. But Biden’s refusal to ask Hunter “WTF are you doing?” and pressure him to walk away from Burisma reeks of a father’s reluctance to chastise a son who already sees himself as the lesser scion, the pale shadow of the golden child. As foolish as it was not to wave Hunter away from Burisma, there’s a germ of Biden’s empathy and kindness here: possibly, the understanding that his son was in pain, and had been for some time, and thus an unwillingness to hurt him further—even though it meant allowing him to make yet another poor choice.
This is manifestly not something Donald Trump understands. When Biden launched into an attack on Trump’s alleged characterization of American military dead as “saps” and “losers,” citing his dead son Beau, Trump evinced a momentary confusion. “Are you talking about Hunter?” he demanded, to which Biden said no, he was talking about Beau.
Trump’s answer, inadvertently, distilled his thinking on this and every issue. “I don’t know Beau, I know Hunter.”
Again, too much to parse: of course Trump doesn’t know Beau, as he has no understanding of someone who devotes himself to public service. Hunter, though? Who in Trump’s mind is corrupt, a grifter, and only interested in exploiting his political connections for personal gain? “I know Hunter,” he says, perfectly happy to smear his opponent’s son while his own corrupt spawn grin and leer from the audience.
Meanwhile, as Trump yells his invective, Biden repeats: “My son. My son. My son.” Asserting his filial connection. “I’m proud of my son,” he says when he gets a moment.
The cruel part of me wonders if Don Jr. and Eric felt a twinge of pain at that.
Hoo boy. Okay, so wrote this post in part as a failed effort at catharsis. I’ve been running election scenarios in my head, and none of them are happy. I don’t mean I think Joe Biden will lose—I mean I think Trump will render it all moot. I was not encouraged when I read about the “war games” played out by the Transition Integrity Project. Suffice to say, there were no scenarios that did not involve violence in the aftermath of election day.
I went back and forth about whether to post this, or relegate it to a lonely folder of forgotten musings on my desktop. But, well … misery loves company.
A truck from the pro-Trump “caravan” in Portland.
Two years ago, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote what I think has been the most incisive evaluation of Trump, his administration, and the phenomenon of Trumpism as a whole. It’s also one of those articles whose thesis is plainly stated in its very title: “The Cruelty is the Point.” I feel as though the “is” in that title should be italicized, in tacit response to the sort of punditry that affects bafflement or bemusement at Trump’s behaviour and that of his acolytes, and attempts the Sisyphean task of framing it in terms of everyday politics. What ideology exists in Trumpism is the ethos of resentment and revenge, in which the infliction of pain and suffering on one’s foes is not a bonus accrued in the process of political gamesmanship, it is the game. Serwer writes,
It is this cruelty, and the outrage it reliably incites, that bonds Trump to his base and makes his stubborn refusal to do anything that might disappoint them comprehensible. “Their shared laughter at the suffering of others,” Serwer says of Trump’s most loyal adherents, “is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump.”
Even now, pundits and columnists not employed by Fox News still wonder why Trump can’t seem to grasp the fairly basic political ramifications of not presenting at least a thin façade of statesmanship and condemning violence on all sides, of saying something tepid that gestures toward de-escalation. And this after he’d actually managed to be relatively disciplined for four days. The Republication National Convention somehow managed to keep the president on a tight leash and somehow convinced him to stick to the teleprompter during his speech, and presented a carefully stage-managed spectacle specifically designed to give disaffected or alienated Trump voters a permission structure to vote for him again: trotting out every Black Trump supporter they could find, staging a naturalization ceremony for conspicuously dark-skinned new citizens, parading a veritable cavalcade of women (the balance of whom were, true to Trump’s pageant-owning past, blonde and statuesque) attesting to Trump’s kindness behind the scenes and his equitable treatment of women; all of which was by way of soothing people’s misgivings about Trump’s racism and misogyny. Don’t believe the liberal liars and Fake News, and don’t believe everything you think you’ve seen and heard for more than four years—this is the REAL Donald J. Trump.
Cue the panicking of the Chicken Littles, suddenly terrified that the Republicans had been successful in snowing the public yet again.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m afraid the sky is falling, too. I’m just not quite so worried about electoral math. If that was the only problem now, I’d sleep a lot better.
I’ve had a lot of people asked me if I think Trump can win in November. I say no, I don’t. The worry creasing their faces eases for a moment as I break down my reasoning. As we’ve seen since the 2016 election, Trump has a strangely resilient approval of around forty percent. It goes up and it goes down, but never by too much. For any other president, never once cresting fifty percent in the polls during a first term would be catastrophic, something we tend to forget in the present moment, because, however egregious Trump’s behaviour, however monumental his incompetence, and however disastrous his mismanagement of the pandemic response, the economy, and race-based civil unrest, that forty percent remains durable. That is, of course, cause for concern, as that was more or less the number he had going into 2016. But there are a handful of factors at play in 2020 that make a key difference. First, Trump is no longer an unknown and untested quantity. In 2016, it seemed a lot more reasonable to some people to give the chamber a spin and play Russian roulette with a Trump vote. What’s the worst that could happen? was asked a lot—or, as Trump said in his plea to Black voters, “What have you got to lose?” (Which is one of the many, many reasons White liberals need to pay more attention to Black voters—they’re very keenly aware of what they have to lose). After almost four years of corruption and self-dealing, and of course an economy cratered by a pandemic and a death toll pushing two hundred thousand, we’re now living “the worst that could happen.” Second, for a critical mass of unwarranted reasons (and a handful of warranted ones), Hillary Clinton was a deeply unpopular candidate whose unfavourables were comparable to Trump’s. Couple that with the divisiveness caused by a bitter primary fight, and it exacerbates the problem of the third item—third party candidates, who provided safe haven for people who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton (but who also believed she would still win in a walk). A possible Kanye West candidacy notwithstanding, third party candidates aren’t a factor this time around. And even if they were, anyone who bought into Trump’s spiel in 2016 about deal-making and his promises to build infrastructure and tax the rich aren’t about to be fooled again (I sincerely hope).
All of that makes Trump’s chances quite dire, even with that static forty percent popularity, and I haven’t yet mentioned the name Joe Biden. To be clear, he was never near the top of my list during the primary (Team Warren all the way!), and in the present moment I think a ficus in a fedora would give Trump a run for his money, but I’m not unconvinced he’s the person for the moment—someone whose history of tragedy and heartbreak has gifted him with the humility and empathy needed to heal a suffering nation. That, and (touch wood) it looks as though the Democrats have their shit together this time around.
Remember, Trump lost the popular vote; he won the electoral college by eking out victories of less than one percent in three key states. I’m not saying that can’t happen again, just that the factors listed above make it far less likely, at least mathematically.
And this is the point, when I’ve eased my friend’s worry somewhat, that I make their face fall by saying, “But that probably won’t matter.” Because I’m not worried about electoral math: I’m worried about Trump’s capacity to foment chaos.
Which brings us back to the ostensible confusion among some of the pundit class about Trump’s apparent inability to help himself politically by, say, condemning the vigilantism of armed pro-Trump militias in the same breath as he attacks rioters. Or possibly disavowing the ludicrous QAnon conspiracy theories. On one hand, it shouldn’t be surprising—these are, after all, of a piece with his refusal to condemn neo-Nazis after Charlottesville. But this close to an election he looks poised to lose, shouldn’t he do the politically expedient thing?
Well, no. For one thing, as I’ve already pointed out, he loves the adoration of his base too much to ever do anything that might ameliorate their ardour. But he is also by nature a provocateur and an agent of chaos. It’s tempting to quote Littlefinger’s “chaos is a ladder” speech from Game of Thrones, except that would be entirely inappropriate to the example of Trump—Littlefinger is a character of comparable amorality, but one who sees five moves ahead and foments chaos to further his own plans.
Trump, by contrast, doesn’t plan. In the present moment, chaos isn’t a ladder—chaos is the point. Chaos is an end in itself.
As we’ve learned from innumerable articles and books about Trump, his “management style” has always been to pit people against each other and see what comes of it. His multiple bankruptcies speak to the fact that, however many times he refers to himself as a “builder,” he’s never really been interested in building (indeed, his entire election campaign isn’t so much asking voters to be amnesiac about the past few years as it is an attempt to declare Chapter Eleven and start from scratch in January 2021). And there’s a reason he was so adept at reality television, a form that privileges conflict for the sake of conflict, and rewards cruelty and betrayal.
This is my fear: for months now, Trump and his acolytes have been laying the groundwork for abject chaos in November. The pandemic—or rather, Trump &co.’s catastrophic mismanagement of the response—might be the principal torpedo in the hull of Trump’s re-election, but it is also providing him his best means to disrupt the process and the results. Trump and his people have been banging the drum for weeks now about widespread mail-in voting fraud. The fact that this claim is itself demonstrably fraudulent is immaterial—the point is to make the claim as loudly and often as possible. Couple that with the fact that a preponderance of mailed ballots will almost certainly mean that the election won’t be called on the night of, but will take days or even weeks to tally votes, and there is a wide window for Trump to make mischief. I fear that the “Brooks Brothers Riots” of the 2000 recount in Florida—when Republicans organized preppie mobs of lawyers and political operatives (something Roger Stone had a key hand in, let us not forget) to harass the poll workers—will come to seem a genteel exercise. Imagine instead mobs of Trump supporters, many armed, descending on polling locations to denounce the “rigged” election; imagine also counter-protesters, and imagine what side law enforcement will take in such confrontations.
We’re seeing the first glimmers of such a scenario now. Why on earth would Trump make any move to de-escalate the violence of this latest round of protests? Why, indeed, would he discourage wannabe militiamen like Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two people in Kenosha with his friend’s AR-15, or the “caravan” who went to Portland to shoot paintballs and pepper spray at Black Lives Matter protesters? As John Cassidy observes in The New Yorker,
By cheering on the members of the Portland caravan—“GREAT PATRIOTS,” he called them on Twitter—and defending Rittenhouse, despite the fact that he has been charged with two counts of first-degree homicide, the President has crossed a threshold. Faced with the prospect of losing an election, and power, he has gone beyond mere scaremongering and resorted to fomenting violent unrest from the White House.
It doesn’t help matters that Trump obviously sees chaos and disorder as helping his re-election prospects. In keeping with her boss’s habit of saying the quiet part out loud, Kellyanne Conway said on Fox and Friends, “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”
Trump thus has several reasons not just to abdicate any obligation to cool temperatures, but to actively raise them; but the central and unavoidable reason is that he knows no other way. As he has made painfully clear in everything he has ever done, his worldview is zero-sum. You’re either a winner or a loser, a predator or a mark; to be a loser is the worst fate, and so he has crafted his self-image with a single-minded determination to always be a winner, at least in his own eyes. While he obviously fears losing the presidency and, with it, legal immunity from the various investigations currently being pursued, it’s obvious that his greatest fear is being seen losing on the largest and most visible stage he’s ever been on.
And I think—I fear—he will do literally anything to avoid that.
So, given that we seem to be opening up—I’ve eaten at restaurants three times in the past two weeks, and after five months of isolation, each time felt like a revelation—I’ll be taking my blog out of “Isolated Thoughts” mode. Hopefully I won’t need to return to it.
I mean, it’s not a big deal, it’s just a way of titling my posts. But I won’t pretend it isn’t a relief, and touch wood hoping I didn’t just jinx it.
The article I’m currently working on is all about The Lord of the Rings, nostalgia, and the ways in which Tolkien imbues various conceptions of “home” with magic. To that end, I’ve been reading a lot of theory about nostalgia as a concept—not something new to me, but I’ve been finding a lot of cool stuff—and thinking as I go about how our own notions and thoughts about “home” inform us, especially in this moment of dislocation and uncertainty. “Home” during a period of self-quarantine and lockdown takes on a weightier significance, both when we are separated from family, and when we are contained with family. I am fortunate that I consider the house I live in with my partner home—but I also miss my family in Ontario, and there is a sense in which my parents’ house will always also be home. The other day my partner Stephanie’s mom visited us for the first time since the pandemic struck, and, because of the fact that St. John’s has loosened restrictions, we went for lunch on a brilliant summer day downtown. I have been many times now to Steph’s family’s house in Clarenville, and it is also now a home to me.
Home, ideally, is where we feel safe and secure. So it is perhaps not surprising that “nostalgia” literally means homesickness: the term was coined in 1688 by a Swiss physician named Johannes Hofer in his medical dissertation, in which he sought to diagnose puzzling illnesses experienced by Swiss people abroad. Reading his account today, it is easy to see that what he is talking about are the physical manifestations of depression and anxiety; what clued Hofer into his patients’ malaises was the fact that when they were told they were being sent home to Switzerland, they almost immediately recovered.
And so Hofer coined a term, a combination of the Greek word nostos (νόστος), meaning homecoming, and algos (άλγος), meaning longing. Or as Milan Kundera put it, “The Greek word for ‘return’ is nostos. Algos means ‘suffering.’ So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.” In the final episode of the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper gets this translation totally wrong in literal terms, but pretty much hits the nail on the head in spiritual terms:
“It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” Don Draper’s voice grows rough with emotion as he uses his own family pictures to make his pitch, inadvertently introducing his own emotional ambivalence about his recent separation from his wife. That much may be specific to him, but in terms of advertising, he is—as usual—intuitively shrewd, given that nostalgia’s “ache” isn’t necessarily tied to specific moments or events.
Nostalgia, indeed, can be collective and cultural. And it can be for things that never happened. I said as much in an earlier draft of the article on which I’m working, in a section I discarded, but which works well enough here:
Whenever I have the occasion to teach fantasy—or for that matter, to talk about fantasy in relation to whatever else might comprise the focus of a given class—I always make the assertion that fantasy is, or at least largely has been, an inherently nostalgic genre. In this, I suggest, it shares a sensibility with post-apocalyptic narratives that return survivors to a premodern existence in which moral choices tend to be more starkly delineated. The erasure of the confusions of modernity (or postmodernity, as the case may be) and the return to a more putatively authentic state of being is not substantively different from fantasy’s imagining of alternate, usually neo-medieval realities (the most crucial difference, it should go without saying, is the absence of magic from your average post-apocalyptic story). Usually when I make this assertion in my classes, the students nod along, either accepting my argument without question, or (more likely) not really paying attention. Every so often, however, I am fortunate enough to have a student who raises their hand to protest, “Wait, how can we be nostalgic for something that never happened?” And then we’re off to the races.
My instinctive, snarky response to the question is to say “Ask a Trump voter,” and press the class to speculate on just what moment or phase of American history the Trump campaign was alluding to with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”
I’ll come back to MAGA, but I do want to cite a section of Johannes Hofer’s treatise on nostalgia that resonated rather jarringly. I’m quoting it directly, but have put it into bullet points for clarity’s sake. When listing the ways one might see “the diagnostic signs which indicate an imminent nostalgia,” Hofer enumerates of possible sufferers that:
they frequently wander about sad
they scorn foreign manners
they are seized by a distaste of strange conversations
they incline by nature to melancholy
they bear jokes or the slightest injuries or other petty inconveniences in the most unhealthy frame of mind
they frequently make a show of the delights of the Fatherland and prefer them to all foreign things
While some of these “symptoms” are indicative of straightforward depression, the nativism Hofer hints at—the scorn of “foreign manners,” the distaste of “strange conversations”—is certainly symptomatic of the MAGA crowd. Also, the description of thin-skinned humourlessness so entirely describes Trump that it’s a little eerie. And I have to say, it is—perhaps serendipitously—disturbing that the nationalist jingoism suggested by the final indicator refers to the home country as the “Fatherland”–perhaps not a bad reminder that the fascist movements of the 20th century were themselves nostalgic in nature.
But to come back to my discarded passage—I decided against using this section in its original form—I have a shorter, more succinct edit that I still may cut—in part because it’s a bit glib, and it’s probably not the best form in an essay on J.R.R. Tolkien to snark at Donald Trump (though I’m also working on an article about Game of Thrones and The Wire, and I think such snark would be fair game there). That being said, one of the key points I always raise when discussing nostalgia is that it always necessarily entails a certain amount of fabulation: even when remembering a specific happy time or event, nostalgia sands down the edges, embellishes the pleasure, and elides any incidental unpleasantness. So, you remember a summer spent at a cottage in your youth as sunny and idyllic, but your memory leaves out the rainy days, the mosquitoes, and your rage when your little brother cheated at Monopoly. Or as Dylan Moran puts it:
(To be fair, I think I would actively repress memories of Japanese fighting spiders).
In and of itself, unconsciously burnishing happy memories is harmless, except for when your longing for happier days impedes your capacity for happiness in the present, or sabotages your ability to imagine a better future.
And what if you’re nostalgic not for a specific memory, but for something that never happened?
That brings us back to my student’s question: fantasy’s nostalgia isn’t for an actual Narnia or Middle-Earth, but rather a set of qualities evoked by the magical, neo-medieval setting—not least of which is a desire for (post)modernity’s erasure and a return to a simpler, cleaner, less confused world. And when I say “cleaner,” I mean less morally or ethically complex—in which there’s usually an unequivocal evil to be combatted, and a hero destined to do the combatting—but it’s worth thinking about how the larger portion of fantasy fiction does not, despite the usual medieval setting, tend to dwell on, or really even acknowledge the filth and unhygienic reality of a world without sanitation, nor the disease endemic to such contexts.
As it happens, there’s a word for this kind of nostalgia: “anemoia,” which the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrowsdefines as “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.” (To be clear: not an actual dictionary, but a “fictionary,” developed by writer John Koenig, that features words he coins to fill a lexical gap. It’s actually quite brilliant). And I cannot think of anything more anemoiac than the MAGA desire to return the United States to an imagined past. Though it’s a vanishingly rare thing to use the words “Trump” and “brilliant” in the same sentence, “Make America Great Again” is a genuinely brilliant—and genuinely pernicious—slogan, precisely because it evokes nostalgia for an imaginary past. Its elemental power is grievance, dissatisfaction with the present moment combined with an instinctive belief in America’s greatness; hence, if one is unhappy or disaffected now, it must be because that greatness has been eroded. So there is a powerful but vague sense of decline, but never during any of his campaigning before or after winning the presidency did Trump ever clarify when in American history the U.S. was great. We can infer from his putative concern for blue-collar workers and his preoccupation with factories and coal mines that he’s pointing to the 1950s and 60s, when a working-class job could support a family, but again, he’s never specific—and given the racial animus that stokes much of his rhetoric, one has to imagine that for some of his supporters it’s the 1850s that comes to mind.
But if, for the sake of argument, we assume that it is in fact the 1950s to which MAGA refers, we cannot escape the fact that this vision of America’s history is imaginary. I’d make the obvious point that this was a period of prosperity that solely benefited white men, while marginalizing Blacks and women, and criminalizing LGBTQ people, but it’s not as though that isn’t one of its principal selling points for Trump’s base. There’s also the inconvenient fact that the kind of jobs Trump promised to bring back were only possible then because of strong private sector unions. And then, of course, there’s the even more inconvenient fact that America’s mid-century prosperity was more or less sui generis, an ephemeral economic phase made possible by the fact that the U.S., unlike the rest of the world, emerged from WWII with its manufacturing base intact, and no global economic competition. But let me make you all nostalgic by letting someone else explain this particular historical reality:
Of course, even Trump has been cognizant of the fact that after one term in office, “Make America Great Again” is going to wear thin, hence the shift to the infinitely lamer “Keep America Great.” Unfortunately for him (and, well, everybody), now that his incomparable incompetence in the face of a pandemic and the largest protest movement since the 60s has turned the U.S. into a genuine dumpster fire, we haven’t heard that slogan in a while. Instead, the strategy now seems to be pointing to the current chaos and saying that this is what America will look like under a Biden presidency, and hoping people don’t recognize that this is the reality of the Trump presidency.
Ironically, if (when, please be when) Biden wins in November, part of what will carry him to the White House is nostalgia for Obama’s presidency.
I learned a new term this morning as I listened to the most recent episode of “Pod Save the World,” one of the many excellent podcasts by Crooked Media. It is hosted by Tommy Vietor and Ben Rhodes, both of whom worked for Barack Obama’s foreign policy team, Vietor as the National Security Spokesman, Rhodes as Obama’s head foreign policy speechwriter (Rhodes’ memoir of his time in the Obama Administration, The World as it Is, is an excellent read). Speaking of recent reporting that Trump and his lackeys are pressuring intelligence officials to find evidence that COVID-19 was produced in the oft-mentioned infectious diseases lab in Wuhan, China, Vietor called this “conclusion shopping,” which describes an effort find—or, ultimately, manufacture—evidence that will support an already-assumed conclusion. They offered the example of, say, the conclusion being that Iraq must be invaded … or in this case, the conclusion that the novel coronavirus was entirely China’s fault, and quite probably not accidental.
One of the things I find particularly depressing about the present moment generally, and about this issue specifically, is that Trump et al are making absolutely no pretense about this: Trump needs an enemy he can berate and point to and tell his base they’re the reason your life sucks, and he does it with all the subtlety of a carnival barker because he knows that Fox News and the rest of the conservative noise machine will take up the refrain and that a rump of the American population—his MAGA-hat wearing base—will unquestioningly believe him over anyone whose job it is to know better. Conclusion-shopping is easier when your supporters will accept your conclusion unquestioningly, and be indifferent to whatever evidence you present, except as talking-points to be shouted. The Bush Administration at least attempted subterfuge, using the trauma of 9/11 to paper over the inconsistencies in the charge that Saddam Hussein was involved, and planting stories that were picked up by useful idiots like Judith Miller at the New York Times, creating a narrative that did not hold together if you looked closely, but which was convincing enough that a plurality of Democrats in Congress—including Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden—voted in favour of invading Iraq.
It didn’t take long for the subterfuge to be exposed, but by then the die was cast, and Bush and his people were singularly unapologetic. At the time I was fond of being ironically nostalgic for Watergate and Iran-Contra, in which Nixon and Reagan’s elaborate cover-ups at least hinted at a measure of shame. Never in a million years could I have imagined a presidential administration that would be more shameless than Bush et al … but here we are.
(Also, as an aside: as much as I appreciate the sentiment of George W. Bush’s recent paean to solidarity in the face of adversity, let’s not get nostalgic for a president whose deliberate, calculated mendacity not only precipitated a disastrous and unnecessary war, but whose tactics in doing so laid the groundwork for where we are now. By all means, enjoy the schadenfreude of Trump’s unhinged Twitter response to Bush’s anodyne call for unity, but don’t for a second let Bush off the hook for being at least partially responsible for where we are now).
The problem Trump has now in bashing an enemy is that it is difficult to fit his usual suspects—the media, the elites, the Establishment, immigrants—with the black hat, because not only does a virus not discriminate in who it infects, its effects are plainly visible and cannot be spun. Nor, for that matter, can the incoherent ramblings of his press briefings and his painfully obvious lack of empathy. Until now, red states have been spared the worst of the pandemic, but that is changing as governors like Brian Kemp of Georgia and Ron DeSantis of Florida charge onward to re-open their states well ahead of the advice of medical experts.
So Trump needs a new enemy, and has signaled that it will be China. I don’t for a moment want to be an apologist for Xi Jinping and his dictatorial regime, nor do I want to downplay the unavoidable fact that the regime’s reflexively secretive and oppressive tendencies exacerbated an outbreak that more an honest and transparent response would have, at very least, ameliorated. But then, criticism of Xi’s regime isn’t the ultimate point of Trump’s current conclusion-shopping; if it was, we might have a more nuanced discussion about authoritarian versus democratic responses to such a crisis. The ultimate point isn’t to place blame on a system of governance, but a non-white ethnicity—which is why you’re likely to see a confusion of conspiracy theories about the collective malevolence of a technocratic dictatorship conflated with racist depictions of backward, bat-eating Chinese peasantry. The fact that these two elements are obviously at odds hasn’t mattered, nor will it going forward. The narrative, such as it is, given Trump &co.’s utter shamelessness, is painfully predictable: China is America’s implacable enemy, and ruthless, so the virus was almost certainly created in this Wuhan lab and released to cause a debilitating global pandemic; also, Chinese people are culturally other, and have backward social practices (they eat bats! At “wet markets” no less, and doesn’t that just sound disgusting?); then, Joe Biden will be hammered in ad after ad, and Fox News piece after Fox News piece, for being “soft” on China, and Hunter Biden’s questionable financial dealings in China will be held up as evidence of his and his father’s corruption. Ad nauseum.
Of course, this all isn’t a prediction: it had already happened, it is still happening, and it will continue to happen, with the only difference being the volume as we go forward.
As with any conspiracy theory, none of this needs corroboration or even a logical through-line. Already there have been countless conservative op-eds and think pieces attacking liberal objections to this narrative, characterizing the response as mealy-mouthed political correctness and identity politics more concerned with ostensible racism than the hard facts on the ground. Why shouldn’t Mike Pompeo insist on calling it the “Wuhan virus”? That is where it originated, after all! China has been the epicenter of many outbreaks! You libtards are more worried about offending people than with solving problems! … and so on.
One of the key reasons for objecting to designating COVID-19 as a “Wuhan” or “Chinese” virus isn’t because it didn’t originate there—because of course it manifestly did—but because such characterizations are (a) counterproductive in the diplomatic realm, where China, like it or not, is a key player—especially now, with a feckless and incompetent U.S. president who has effectively abdicated America from its usual role in global crisis management—and (b) because those making the objection are doing so in recognition that the designation is, more often than not, being made in bad faith by individuals more interested in assigning blame than finding solutions. Did the virus originate in China? Yes. Does that implicate Chinese (and thus by extension in the white imagination, all Asian) people? Of course not. But that is what happens, as we have seen in the uptick of anti-Asian hate crimes perpetrated in the U.S. and elsewhere.
One of the ironies at work here is that a scenario in which a tech at the Wuhan lab got infected, or there was an error made in the disposal of hazardous waste, is entirely plausible. (Trust me when I say you do not want to, even casually, look up info on human error in research labs, not if you want to sleep well). Thus far, intelligence officials and medical investigators have said this was unlikely, that the outbreak probably did occur because of zoonotic transmission. But if the outbreak did occur because of human error? Well, blame the error, and perhaps safety protocols. This is why medical research of this nature and pandemic prevention tends to be international in character—to have as many expert eyes on things as possible, something denuded by the Trump Administration’s firing of their representative in Beijing. The problem with Trump’s conclusion-shopping is that it is basically conspiracy-shopping—all he needs is the slightest hint that it may have been the lab’s fault for his enablers and supporters to go all in on the assumption that the virus was specifically manufactured as a bio-weapon.
And hey, did you hear? Joe Biden is in league with them.
Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Plot Against America, both the novel and the mini-series.
One of the most affecting scenes in HBO’s mini-series The Plot Against America, adapted by David Simon (The Wire, Treme) from the novel by Philip Roth, is also one of the most painful to watch. It comes at the end of the second episode, as the Levins, a Jewish family in the Weeqhahic neighbourhood of Newark, New Jersey, sit around the radio listening to the general election returns of 1940. Having successfully gained the Republican nomination, Charles Lindbergh—hero aviator, isolationist, avowed anti-Semite, and Nazi sympathizer—is, against all expectations, defeating the incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
It is an agonizing moment of narrative inevitability. We know Lindbergh will win, of course, as that is the basic premise of the story. But as the crackling voice on the radio calls states for Lindbergh, we see the incredulity on the face of father Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) and his wife Bess (Zoe Kazan). Up until this point, the impossibility of a Lindbergh victory has been a point of faith for Herman. Bess had her doubts, but took comfort in Herman’s certainty. Now, as the reality of a Lindbergh presidency sinks in, incredulity turns to fear.
It is a beautifully crafted bit of televisual art, and utterly painful to watch on three levels. First is the level of story, as we empathize with the fear and confusion of the Levins. Second is the level of history, as the moment punctures the safety and comfort of a certain idea of America and introduces into the Levin’s living room the dread and threat we normally associate with such households in 1930s Europe. And third is on the level of memory: it is impossible to watch this scene, as is by design, without remembering the same sense of incredulity and despair that came with watching Donald Trump eke out a victory in a handful of key states.
David Simon had first been approached about adapting Plot in 2013, but was preoccupied with other projects. After November 2016, however, a story about a barnstorming celebrity with racist views and sympathy for dictators winning an unlikely presidential election suddenly had new and frighteningly immediate relevance.
The Prophetic Plot
I first read Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America when it first came out in 2004. I was at that point on something of a year-long Philip Roth reading binge, having neglected his fiction prior to then, but realizing that if I meant to fashion myself as an academic specializing in 20th Century American literature, especially postwar fiction, then not having read any Roth comprised a significant lacuna in my reading (for those less familiar with Roth and his prolific output, I just counted: I have read eighteen Roth novels, which means I have left eleven works in his corpus unread).
Plot is an alternative history imagining a United States in which Charles Lindbergh runs for the Republican presidential nomination in 1940, and proceeds, against all odds and expectations, to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the general election. Lindbergh does so by exploiting his celebrity, which was at the time considerable; his campaign essentially comprises him flying from city to city and town to town in his iconic airplane, landing to cheering crowds who are often (at first) simply excited to see the national hero as opposed to being enthusiastic about his message. Lindbergh then delivers a short, rousing stump speech before climbing back in the cockpit and flying to his next campaign stop. He adopts the isolationist rhetoric of the day—“America First”—of which he was historically an enthusiastic proponent, and frames the electoral choice in stark terms of a vote for Lindbergh or a vote for war. Following his surprising victory, Lindbergh reverses all of FDR’s policies giving aid and support to Great Britain, and establishes America’s neutrality in no uncertain terms—all while making his admiration for Hitler and the Third Reich obvious, with a surprise diplomatic visit to Germany and hosting Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at a state dinner. And unsurprisingly, Lindbergh’s friendliness with the Nazis gives license for American racism and anti-Semitism to flourish.
When Plot first came out, it was at the height—or, if you like, the nadir—of George W. Bush’s tenure as president, little more than a month before his reelection. Common wisdom at the time was that the novel allegorized the Bush Administration’s divisive politics, the post-9/11 rollback of civil liberties, and the ramped-up racism against Muslims. Roth himself always denied in interviews that there was anything in his novel specifically attacking Bush et al, and many reviewers and critics assumed her was just being coy.
Personally, I was never sure. Plot always felt to me like Roth being Roth, offering a thought experiment not meant as allegory so much as broader historical critique. You could see Rumsfeld and Cheney in the novel’s pages if you squinted hard enough, but it was never a perfect fit.
And then twelve years later when Trump was elected, everybody realized: The Plot Against America wasn’t a political allegory. It was a goddammed prophecy.
I’ve taught The Plot Against America three times now. The first time was seven or eight years ago, and I was frustrated that my students seemed more or less indifferent to the novel. Nobody much wanted to engage with it, or had much to say in class discussion, and the energy in the room when we covered it was pretty flat. It was disappointing, as it always is when you teach a text you love and your students aren’t on board; but I chalked it up to the general lack of historical knowledge that has inevitably led to at least one rant in every class I teach to read more history!
Then after Trump was elected, I made the attempt two more times, thinking that of course the relevance of the novel to the present moment would inspire a more energized reaction among my students. But no—the same flat response. A colleague of mine has also attempted to teach Plot in his first-year classes, and has experienced a similar lack of interest.
My sense has always been that my students’ lack of deeper familiarity with the history in which the novel is steeped dilutes their interest in the obvious parallels to Trump and the present moment. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I wonder if the real issue is not a failure to educate recent generations about World War Two, but rather the overwhelming success of the American mythology machine. By which I mean: in the American popular imagination, as it has been primarily conditioned by Hollywood, the United States was always already the defiant enemy of Nazis and fascism. The ambivalence—and indeed, outright hostility—that a large proportion of U.S. had in the late 1930s to getting involved in another European war, while not lost to history, has been effectively erased by very nearly every single representation of World War Two to emerge from the American culture industry; so too has the fact that there was a not-insignificant number of Americans actively sympathetic to the Third Reich who advocated for an alliance with Hitler. In February of 1939, the German American Bund—an explicitly pro-Nazi organization founded in 1936—held a rally at Madison Square Gardens in New York City attended by 22,000 people. It was an event destined to go down the postwar memory hole (of everybody but historians), but it was resurrected in a seven-minute 2017 documentary titled A Night at the Garden. The film short is comprised entirely of archival footage from the event.
Notably, the HBO adaptation of The Plot Against America used an almost identical backdrop in Madison Square Gardens for the scene in which Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf—played with sublime, arrogant obliviousness by John Turturro—endorses Lindbergh for president.
All that’s missing from Plot’s set design is the swastikas that were present in the historical rally (and by “missing,” I mean deliberately omitted for obvious reasons).
I’ll come back to this scene in Plot momentarily. Otherwise, the point I’m trying to make is that the lack of enthusiasm for the novel when I have taught it (always allowing for the fact that a given number of students will always dislike some of the assigned reading, no matter how genuinely awesome it is) almost certainly has something to do with this particular lacuna in the popular imagination of WWII. A good friend of mine once observed that Stephen Spielberg realized early in his career that Nazis make the best villains—something that I laughed at in the moment, but which stuck with me afterward. Why do Nazis make the best villains? Because the storyteller has to expend no effort to explain why they’re villains. They are, to use Northrop Frye’s repurposed geometry, overdetermined. But the corollary of that in American popular culture has always been that they are thus the necessary antithesis of Americanness, and ergo that the United States was only ever the emphatic and unequivocal enemy of the Third Reich.
In spite of the fact that Roth’s novel, with its evocation of the isolationist sentiments and de rigueur anti-Semitism of the 1930s, works hard to disrupt the prevailing popular mythology, The Plot Against America nevertheless very weirdly reinscribes certain elements of that mythology. Not in terms of content, but narrative: for all of the virtuosity of the novel, the ending always felt to me like a bit of deus ex machina. To wit: in 1942, as things in the U.S. start to devolve toward more overt fascism, Lindbergh’s plane is lost on a return flight from Kentucky to D.C. Chaos momentarily ensues, and the newly elevated Vice President Burton Wheeler—historically, someone with even greater authoritarian tendencies than Lindbergh—seizes control of the government. But when the bereaved First Lady makes an impassioned plea on the radio for Congress to remove Wheeler, instate the next person in the line of succession, and legislate a special general election for November, 1942, order is restored. Roosevelt regains the presidency; when he reverses Lindbergh’s policy of neutrality, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor … and the history we know reasserts itself, albeit a year or so later. TL;DR, the Allies are victorious and the 20th century proceeds in familiar fashion.
While I’ve always been ambivalent about the tidy way Roth ties up what was otherwise a shattering alternative history, I also cannot deny how comforting it was to get the train back on the tracks after such a dislocating narrative experience—but then again, that comfort highlights the broader problem. That problem being that, ultimately, the novel presents an American flirtation with fascism as an historical aberration, a blip on destiny’s timeline: one emerges from the novel with the sense of American democracy’s historical inevitability intact. On reflection, this sense of inevitability perhaps gives the lie to the early interpretations of Plot as a trenchant critique of the Bush Administration, given that the neoconservative ethos informing Bush et al—and which led directly to the war in Iraq—was rooted in precisely this sensibility, the conviction that American-style, market-driven liberal democracy was the logical end-point of cultural and societal evolution, and that all it would take to bring it to the troubled Middle East was depose a dictator and say “you’re a democracy now!” to the grateful locals.
Well, we saw how that went.
To be fair to Roth, at the time when Plot was published, even as it was becoming evident that the Iraq War was turning into a quagmire, the sense of American inevitability was still difficult to escape—and indeed, four years later it would underwrite much of the rhetoric employed by Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency. I should clarify here that this formulation of “American inevitability” is more or less synonymous with the concept of American Exceptionalism, given that the latter tends to be constituted within a sense of destiny—codified over a century and a half ago in the Monroe Doctrine as “Manifest Destiny,” and after the collapse of the Soviet Union by Francis Fukuyama as “the end of history” in his book of that name—not “end” as in apocalypse, but culmination. The neoconservative ethos cited above found its intellectual armature in Fukuyama’s political philosophy, which in The End of History was the perfect distillation of post-Cold War American triumphalism that characterized the U.S. as, in Bill Clinton’s phrasing, “the one indispensable nation.”
I have, these past three years, read more than one think-piece arguing that our current mess is at least partially due to the complacency of those post-Cold War years, when liberal democracy was considered so inevitable that little attention was paid to the growing illiberal tendencies of nations like Russia or Brazil. It is difficult not to see some of that complacency at work in the fact that even as historically astute a novel as The Plot Against America ultimately hews to a tacit assumption of American inevitability.
As David Simon has said in interviews about his adaptation, however, that assumption is one that is more or less impossible to make in the present moment.
(Just as an aside, I think I might have to do a separate post that would just be a review of Plot. Given that this post has turned into more of a political-historical consideration of the novel and the series, I’m giving short shrift to the adaptation’s virtuosity. It is a genuinely brilliant piece of televisual art, possibly the best work David Simon has done since The Wire. The evocation of 1940s New Jersey is gorgeously rendered, the writing is subtle and nuanced, and the performances are bravura—Winona Ryder continues her career’s impressive second act, portraying the shallow and needy Aunt Evelyn, older sister to Bess Levin; John Turturro is at his smarmy best as the arrogant Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, who becomes a useful idiot for the Lindbergh campaign and then administration; Morgan Spector is heartbreaking as Herman, who watches all his bedrock beliefs about America exposed as illusory. But the heart of the series is Zoe Kazan as Bess, who does more with her facial expressions alone than most actors could do with a monologue. But hopefully I’ll have more to say about all that in a future post).
If a sense of American inevitability was still pervasive in 2004, and was perhaps somewhat bolstered by the Obama presidency’s unabashed embrace of American Exceptionalism (most perfectly distilled in Obama’s repeated assertion that “in no other country is my story possible”), Trump’s election and the years since have disabused us of the notion. David Simon has never been guilty of the starry-eyed vision of the U.S. informing, say, The West Wing or Hamilton. Indeed, in all of his television work, starting with Homicide: Life on the Street, through The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme, Show Me A Hero, and, most recently, The Deuce, has always been about depicting the dark side of the American Dream: the parallel and intersecting interests of the drug trade with licit American life in The Wire, for example, or the evolution of pornography into an economic juggernaut in the 1970s in The Deuce.
The consistent theme in his work has been how apathy and going along to get along corrupt institutions and leave them vulnerable to motivated and unscrupulous greed and graft. Which is not, as he says in practically every interview with him I’ve seen or read, an excuse to give up. The title of his blog, The Audacity of Despair, really kind of says it all: it’s an ironic nod to Obama’s soaring rhetoric, but not as cynical as it might seem at first glance. It contains a challenge to fight on:
[W]e were trying to figure out what the slogan was for the show, the tagline. We were struggling with it. Some things were too dead-on for the political moment, and some things weren’t on enough, and I came up with something my father said at every Passover Seder of my memory. If you opened his copy of the Haggadah, he would have it written in. And he said it: “Freedom can never be completely won, but it can be lost.” Then he would explain that, and in the explanation, I came to understand citizenship. What he would say is, self-governance is really hard. Churchill, no great liberal, nonetheless said that democracy was the worst form of government until you considered all the alternatives. It’s never perfect, it’s never perfected. There’s always someone who’s not being delivered the same promise of freedom as everyone else. There are some freedoms that get betrayed and have to be rescued. The work is never done. We will never get to the point of being able to dust off our hands and say, “Well, there it is, we finished our republic.”
Every day, you’ve gotta get up and kill snakes. Every fucking day. The day you think you’re done and you stop, or you assume that the freedoms there on the page are going to exist regardless of who’s in office, that’s the day you begin to lose it. The only way to self-govern is to say, “This is unwieldy, this is complicated, this requires perseverance, and tomorrow’s going to be the same as today.” It can often seem impossible. But what’s certain is that if you don’t do the work, you’ll lose it.
The enemy of democratic freedom, in other words—or, one of the big ones, at any rate—is complacency. In this respect, The Plot Against America is an almost uncannily perfect vehicle for Simon’s sensibility, as it offers source material specifically about how easily democracy as an institution can be corrupted by pre-existing prejudices and hatreds that need only official permission to transform from systemic to overt. In the first episode, the Levins drive to an upscale neighbourhood to look at houses—Herman has been offered a promotion that will necessitate moving. But Bess is nervous about leaving their majority-Jewish neighbourhood, and sees the suspicious glances from prospective neighbours to which Herman is oblivious. But the culminating moment, which convinces Herman to turn down the promotion and stay put, comes as they drive past a German-style beer garden where members of the Bund carouse and glare at the Jewish family as they drive past.
It is a moment that is at once eerily reminiscent of the faux-idyllic scene in Cabaret in which a Hitler Youth member sings “The Future Belongs to Me,” but also anticipates the fear and threat of the moment in the final episode when Herman watches a hooded Klansman pass in front of his car.
The seeds, in other words, of fascistic anti-Semitism are firmly planted at the outset; but what brings the more moderate swath of the population, who might not want Jews moving into their neighbourhood but would be horrified to be accused of anti-Semitism, to vote for an avowed anti-Semite? Lindbergh’s celebrity is one factor, as is his promise to avoid war. But more effective is to flatter those people’s sensibilities, which is why one of the most interesting (and repulsive and infuriating) characters is Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf. Bengelsdorf, in an oily admixture of self-importance, opportunism, and oblivious arrogance, becomes an enthusiastic apologist for Lindbergh. In a crucial moment shortly before the general election, he endorses Lindbergh at the aforementioned rally that visually echoes A Night at the Garden:
It is worth dwelling on Alvin’s words in this scene, as it is one of the points in Plot that most obviously resonates with the present moment:
HERMAN: Does any of you think one single Jew is going to go out and vote for this anti-Semite because of that stupid lying speech? What does he think he’s doing?
ALVIN: Koshering Lindbergh!
HERMAN: Koshering what?
ALVIN: They didn’t get him up there to talk to Jews! They didn’t buy him off for that. He’s up there talking to the goyim! He’s givin’ all the good Christian folks of this country their personal rabbi’s permission to vote for Lindy, and not to think themselves Nazis, or anti-Semites.
It was a source of some genuine bafflement to a handful of pundits when, at the most recent State of the Union, Donald Trump highlighted a handful of African-Americans. It has become a standard bit of political theatre at the SOTU for the president to point to specific guests in the audiences as exemplars of American virtue; that he would pack his deck with African-Americans seemed to some a transparent, but futile, bid for Black votes (especially futile considering the juxtaposition with giving Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom). But as some more astute observers pointed out, it had nothing to do with courting Black voters. It was rather a gesture aimed at white suburban voters, especially white women, who find Trump’s blatant racism distasteful but will vote for him if provided with a fig leaf. They need an excuse to vote for him, a subtlety almost certainly lost on Trump but not on his enablers.
What Philip Roth’s alternative history articulates is that hatred and authoritarian populism are easily roused with the right permission structure. What the novel papers over in its too-easy return to familiar history is that Pandora’s Box is not so easily closed: those forces unleashed by Lindbergh won’t be contained, any more than those to which Trump has given oxygen. My principal misgiving about Joe Biden’s candidacy from the start was not about his age or proclivity for gaffes, but that he campaigned on the premise that Trump is an aberration, and Biden’s election would return everything to normal.
There is no more prelapsarian “normal,” something Roth’s novel misses. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, David Simon had misgivings about the ending of The Plot Against America, which he tentatively brought to Philip Roth:
I’ll be honest, I didn’t have the courage to walk in and go, “This is what I’m going to do.” I pointed out where I thought we might have some problems with the ending and I asked him if he had any ideas. He went to that portion of the book, reread that page and a half two or three times. He kept going back and forth, and I was sitting across the coffee table from him, this great man of literature. The TV hack and the great man of literature. He’s rereading his work and he’s frowning and I’m waiting. It felt like an hour and a half, but it was probably about four minutes, and he closed the book and said, “It’s your problem now.”
Simon says he took this as tacit permission to change things. Unfortunately, that was the last time he was able to speak with Roth: the author died not too long after that meeting.
For the most part, the adaptation stays very true to the original. The major structural change is that the series has multiple perspectives, whereas the novel is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of a nine-year-old Philip Roth (for those unfamiliar with Roth’s fiction, deploying a quasi-fictional version of himself as the main character and narrator is something he has done in multiple novels; I can’t fault Simon for changing the family name to Levin, given that he’s already taken on the task of adapting the work of one of America’s preeminent novelists—depicting a nine-year-old Philip Roth would be a bridge too far for me, too). Because of this, the series can directly depict narrative sequences that, in the novel, come to us secondhand from Philip.
The most significant change Simon made, however, comes at the end. History as we know it does not reassert itself—instead, we end on election night, with Roosevelt’s election in question. The now-familiar image of Herman Levin sitting beside the radio is preceded by a montage scored to Frank Sinatra’s 1945 “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me),” a song specifically commissioned in 1945 to combat ant-Semitism:
What is America to me
A name, a map, or a flag I see
A certain word, democracy
What is America to me
The house I live in
A plot of earth, the street
The grocer and the butcher
Or the people that I meet
The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races and religions
That’s America to me
While Sinatra croons, we end the series with images of people being denied at the polls, of ballots being stolen and burned, and, in one case, a voting machine being carted away. “What’s wrong with it?” someone calls, and is curtly told, “It’s broken.” The voters featured in the sequence are predominantly African-American, or blue-collar Italian or Jewish, those most likely to vote for FDR. It’s an ending that works, much more than the original would have, in this present moment. The genius of Roth’s novel is to dredge up a history that the United States goes out of its way to forget, i.e. the profound ambivalence to getting involved in what many dismissed as “a Jewish war,” and tease out of that an entirely plausible alternative; its failure is to reassure the reader that this alternative would be easily quashed, suggesting the inevitability of the American 20th century as discussed above. Where Simon’s adaptation ends is with the reminder that the fascist sympathies excited by Lindbergh would not go gently into that good night, any more than Trump-inspired nativists will disappear if he’s voted out in November.
When Tom Lehrer was asked why he quit doing political satire, he famously quipped, “Because Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize.” Translation: where do you go from there? What kind of parody or satire can rise to the level of the architect of Pinochet’s coup in Chile and the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia being lauded as a peacemaker?
If the years since Lehrer’s quip have taught us anything, it’s that metaphors of bars being lowered and new depths being plumbed no longer work. There is no bottom, and new normals will always provide a basis for ironic, satirical critique—even if that critique comes to feel more and more like affectless laughter in the dark. Since Kissinger’s peace prize, a B-movie actor was elected president, a subsequent president was essentially impeached for getting a blowjob, and the Terminator was elected governor of California … and that only brings us up to 2003. The fact that a critical mass of liberals would probably be happy to swap Donald Trump for either Reagan or Schwarzenegger both speaks to the fact that they had depths belied by the prior entertainment careers, but also how far down the political slope arse-first we’ve slid.
(Just as an aside: I will maintain to my dying day that Saturday Night Live missed a golden comedic opportunity when, apropos of Schwarzenegger’s re-election campaign, they did not stage a skit in which the Governator debated political opponents Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude van Damme).
All of this is by way of saying that, if Kissinger’s peace prize was what drove Tom Lehrer out of political satire, I wonder what he makes of the spectacle of President Donald Trump, he of the bone spurs and dictator-envy, speaking solemn words on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The layers of irony are thicker than the Burgess Shale: a president whose slogan “America First” was originally used by isolationists and Nazi sympathizers like Charles Lindbergh, who wanted to keep the U.S. out of the war; a president who has consistently attacked NATO and the European Union, both of which were established with the express purpose of preventing another war in Europe; a president who has refused to condemn neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and whose presidency has indeed proved to be a clarion call emboldening the racist and anti-Semitic right; a president whose racist populism has been mirrored in the rise of comparable alt-right groups in France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and in the viler strains of Brexit rhetoric; a president who loves the idea of military thuggery but seems incapable of recognizing honour and sacrifice, who is so thin-skinned that his aides panicked at the thought of him seeing the name “John McCain” on a ship or its sailors’ uniforms; a president who is even now poised to pardon actual war criminals; a president who, sitting mere feet away from the graves of American war dead, petulantly smears the name of Robert Mueller, a decorated veteran; this president recites the prayer delivered on D-Day by Franklin Roosevelt—a president whose legacy is the antithesis of everything Trump embodies—and speaks some boilerplate platitudes before returning to his golf course in Ireland.
I used to get outraged at George W. Bush’s blithe ignorance, but that was before I knew what was coming: first Sarah Palin as a potential VP, but then Trump himself, someone not just ignorant but functionally illiterate. I’m hardly a monarchist, but I do admire Queen Elizabeth’s capacity to deliver a diplomatic fuck-you, as she did in her choice of gift for Trump: a first edition of Winston Churchill’s history of WWII, something entirely appropriate for the occasion, but also painfully discordant with this president’s aggressive, ahistorical ignorance. Back in the halcyon days of late 2016, such a gift might have encouraged the naively optimistic—those poor souls who fervently wanted to believe that assuming the office would transform Trump—to hope that Trump would read and learn. But that was then and this is now, and so the subtler insult of the gift—the Queen gave him the abridged edition—is lost in the mere fact that simply giving Trump a book, any book, is to draw attention not just to the fact that he doesn’t read, but to his arrogant incuriosity. The Queen could have given him a boxed set of the Harry Potter series and made the same point.
The Queen’s gift and the insult it delivers, sadly, is a potent symbol for the present moment, in which the felt history of WWII and its transformative effects on the 20th century have become abstract and mythologized. I teach a class on American literature after 1945, and I always begin with a lecture on the sea-change wrought by the Second World War. I ask my students: where do you think the U.S. military ranked, globally, in size and strength in 1939? My students are astute enough to recognize that, if I’m asking the question, there’s a trick in there somewhere. But they’ve also grown up in a world in which American military might is indomitable, and if they know anything about WWII, it’s probably through movies like Saving Private Ryan that depict the vastness of the U.S. war machine. So … Fourth? they say, tentatively. Fifth? A more audacious student might suggest tenth.
No, I reply. Nineteenth. And by 1945, a scant four years after Pearl Harbor, they were rivaled only by the Soviet Union. And then went the way of the rest of the century. Without a grasp of the war at mid-century, one cannot properly understand what came next, and indeed what is happening today.
D-Day occurred 75 years ago, which means that the youngest person who stormed those beaches or parachuted in behind German lines would be 93 years old today (assuming they didn’t lie about their age). We’re on the cusp of losing the last of the Greatest Generation, and when the last of those people die, so too does the generational memory they carry. We’re already seeing the effects: there’s an awful lot of reasons for the rise of the alt-right, but baked in there is a cultural amnesia, a collective forgetting that isn’t just about the passing of the generation that fought WWII, but an erosion of historical consciousness. Ask any student of mine and they’ll tell you (presumably with an eye roll) that I reliably harangue pretty much every class I teach at some point about the need to read history. The last few years I’ve taught Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America, an alternative history that imagines what would have happened if Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer, had run against FDR in 1940 and won. I taught the novel once before, when I first started my job at Memorial, but it didn’t get much traction with students. Now, however, I assumed it would grip them with its eerie prescience: a story about a populist celebrity with autocratic and racist tendencies upsetting an establishment politician with the message “America First.”
But no. It did resonate with a few students, but overall the reaction was meh. A colleague of mine has also taught the novel a few times in recent years, and he reports much the same response.
In my very first year here at Memorial, I taught Martin Amis’ novel Time’s Arrow in a first year fiction course—a Holocaust novel that takes place with time reversed, the conceit being that only when witnessed backwards can the Holocaust be understandable. Backwards, it becomes a story of German munificence, in which they call down smoke and ash from the sky to create inert bodies, into which they breathe life and send them on trains out into the world. My argument in lecture was that Amis works to defamiliarize the narrative of the Holocaust as a means of combatting the way in which repeatedly hearing a story inures us to it, and reawake the reader to the pure unthinkability of the atrocity. I cited Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus and Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful as texts that perform a similar function, but by that point the blank expressions on my students’ faces made it clear that defamiliarizing the Holocaust was a bridge too far when mere familiarity was lacking.
To be clear, I don’t blame my students. They have grown up in a culture that has de-emphasized history, both within the educational system and without, and terms like “Nazi” and “fascist” have more traction as online insults than as historical actualities. Millennials are understandably more preoccupied with the future, given that the realities of climate change mean they may not have one. But if the future is to be secured, it must needs be with global and internationalist solutions—we’re well past the point when nation-states can turn inward. The European Union was hardly a perfect construct, but it emerged from the recognition that the world would not survive another conflagration like WWII. Now that that memory has faded, the EU looks to be on a knife’s edge, and nativist autocracies have been making a comeback worldwide. We should of course honour the sacrifices made by those who fought and died 75 years ago, but more importantly we should remember the collective sacrifices of nations mobilized to large-scale action, and the ways in which alliances and cooperation made the defeat of Nazism possible.
The generational memory of WWII is fading. Let’s lose the platitudes about freedom and sacrifice and the why of it all, and honour the dead by not forgetting the how.
It strikes me as cruelly serendipitous that three instances of people publicly shaming significant figures of the Trump Administration in the past week took place at restaurants: Kirstjen Nielsen hounded out of a Mexican restaurant, Stephen Miller being heckled and called a fascist, also at a Mexican restaurant, and of course Sarah Huckabee Sanders being asked to leave The Red Hen, a farm-to-table establishment in Virginia. Why was this all serendipitous, and cruelly so? Because it came fairly closely on the heels of the death of Anthony Bourdain.
As may or may not have been obvious from my last post, the past two weeks or so have really gotten to me. Based on the responses I received, I’m not alone. Mostly I use this blog as a means of thinking out loud, but every so often I manage to strike a nerve. Most posts of mine get between fifty and sixty hits; in the forty-hours after I hit the “publish” button, I received over four hundred. Which is, to be certain, exceptionally modest for online writing, but deeply gratifying nonetheless.
In hindsight, it was Bourdain’s death that was something of a tipping-point for me emotionally, and which made everything that followed that much more unbearable to think about. There is comfort to be had in knowing there are rational, humane, deeply intelligent thinkers at large in the world to whom we can reliably turn to for wisdom. Bourdain was just such a person for me, and his loss, apparently, is something I’m still working through.
I have no doubt he’d have had something to say about Nielsen and Miller’s tone-deaf choice of eating establishments, as well as Sanders’ expulsion from the Red Hen. I don’t know whether he’d have agreed with the latter, but I’m confident he would have said his piece with his usual wit and moral acumen; and what’s more, I would have been surprised if he hadn’t reminded us of how the food services industry, more than almost any other, is reliant upon undocumented labour. At the end of Kitchen Confidential, he offers advice to any young person considering a career as a chef. One of the big ones, simply, is learn to speak Spanish: almost everyone working the shit jobs in professional kitchens, from dishwashers to prep cooks, will likely be a recent immigrant from Central or South America. If Slytherin acolyte Stephen Miller could in fact wave a wand and make all eleven million undocumented immigrants disappear, the restaurant industry in America would collapse (as it would anyway, as all the food it might otherwise serve would lie rotting in farmers’ fields around the country for lack of hands to harvest it).
The point here is not so much to make the case for the practical value of undocumented immigrants and their economic contributions, as to look at these incidents as emblematic of cultural divides contrasted with cultural fusions. Bourdain’s transformation from bad-boy chef to food tourist to thoughtful, nuanced cultural critic was not actually that far a trip. French gastronomist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s directive “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are”—perhaps most famously used as the epigraph for the original Japanese Iron Chef—articulates quite pithily the centrality of food to culture, and that was always the connection Bourdain made, whether he was eating his beloved noodles in Saigon or jig’s dinner in Newfoundland.
Remember when we had a president who didn’t tweet pictures of himself with fast food?
As Helen Rosner points out in The New Yorker, given the pervasiveness of Mexican cuisine in the U.S.—comprising an estimated nine percent of all restaurants, “more than the total number of pizzerias”—it “may have been pure statistical inevitability that caused Kirstjen Nielsen … to eat at a Mexican restaurant.” Rosner’s suggestion is made here, presumably, with her tongue in her cheek, but the larger point is more profound: namely, that U.S. culture on its most basic levels is inextricably multi-ethnic. Mexican food’s profusion is emblematic of this reality, especially considering one finds its influence everywhere, not just in Mexican restaurants. As Rosner observes,
… you can find fajitas at Chili’s, guacamole and chips at the Cheesecake Factory, churros at Disney World, quesadillas repurposed into burger buns at Applebee’s, margaritas at LongHorn Steakhouse, Baja-style fish tacos at hipster brunch spots, and nachos at every sports arena in America.
This is at once hopeful and troubling: hopeful, because it suggests a certain success of the American Idea, and thus the impossibility of the white nationalist project; troubling, because it also suggests a disconnection and appropriation. I can completely believe that Stephen Miller chose to dine at a Mexican restaurant specifically to troll people, but I can equally believe that Kirstjen Nielsen was completely oblivious to the idea that being seen at a Mexican restaurant while ICE tore children from families might be seen as being in poor taste. I can believe the latter because a lack of empathy for people can and often does go hand in hand with a callous disregard for people’s contributions to your quotidian reality. It can also tend to reduce those contributions to simplistic end empty signifiers, as when Trump tweeted a picture of himself eating a taco bowl with the caption “I love Hispanics!”—as if the act of eating Mexican-adjacent food gave the lie to his overt racism.
Indeed, it’s hard not to see in Trump’s love of fast food the distillation of many of his worst attributes: ignorance, selfish appetites and their need for instant gratification, self-destructiveness, and a profoundly incurious mind. Corporate fast food like McDonalds and KFC are an embodiment of empathy’s lack, as the entire business model is predicated on divorcing consumers from any sense of the food’s origins, both in terms of the plants and animals from which the food is made, but also its cultural origins, with companies like Taco Bell turning its products into simplistic caricatures that can be replicated quickly and efficiently with a minimum of skill for the lowest cost possible. Michael Pollan’s discussion of McDonald’s fries makes the point more eloquently than I can:
It’s thus easy to understand how the employees of The Red Hen would have found Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ presence in their establishment unbearable. Farm-to-table cuisine is philosophy as much as sustenance, rooted in an awareness of interconnectedness and community, and which advocates sustainable, humane, and organic farming practices. That kind of cuisine does not emerge without empathy and a social conscience, something that, at least in this one instance, proved incompatible with serving food to the unapologetic mouthpiece of an Administration with no empathy and no conscience.
If Nielsen, Miller, and Sanders are going to willingly work for an administration that vilifies cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, it seems only fair that they should be denied the enjoyment of the benefits of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism.
I’m reasonably certain Anthony Bourdain would have agreed.