Category Archives: wingnuttery

Don’t Ruin My TV With Politics! … and other absurdities.

Nikki and I will have this week’s Game of Thrones recap and review up in a day or two, but in the meantime I want to share my newfound Twitter celebrity.

Well … Twitter celebrity by my standards, which is to say the standards of someone whose blog posts top out at maybe one hundred page views and who tweets about once a millennium.

It’s my turn to lead off our Thrones discussion this week, so I wanted to get my first pass done before going to bed. I was in the middle of talking about Varys’ amazing speech defending his ostensibly flexible loyalties when a thought occurred to me. Quickly finding that scene on TMN Go, I took a screen cap of Varys and memed it. I posted it to Facebook and then—as an afterthought, because I hardly ever use Twitter—I tweeted it.

main tweet

Within a few minutes, my phone was buzzing every few seconds to tell me someone liked it and/or retweeted it (as I write this the next day, my phone is still going off with alarming regularity). I woke this morning to see that I had over a thousand likes, which by my standard makes me want to don a Garbo-esque scarf and seek solitude. I mentioned this to my girlfriend as we had coffee, and she immediately called it up on her phone. “Oh my god,” she said. “Have you read any of the replies?”

I had honestly forgotten than people can reply to tweets, mainly because I’ve had so few replies in the past. But now that I had a tweet being fairly broadly disseminated, it was inspiring responses beyond just likes and retweets—and many of the responses were, shall we say, less than enthused. To put it briefly: I’m apparently a lunatic libtard intent on destroying a great TV show by bringing politics into it. Case(s) in point:

justatvshow

politics

lib-lunatic

OK. So, I’m going to talk about the political content of Game of Thrones later in this post, but for now can I just say: Wha? Getting your nose out of joint because someone “brings politics” into Thrones is like getting upset with someone for suggesting that The Wire has a lot to do with race. The show is about politics, as a few respondents pointed out …

realvsfantasy

And here, a classic misapprehension of precisely what fantasy—and fabulation, fiction, and imaginative invention more broadly—is about. Perhaps you watch Game of Thrones to distract yourself from the world, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t, in some variety of ways, about the world.

But again, more on that below.

First, here’s a few of my favourite responses. It is taking ALL MY WILLPOWER not to respond to them individually on Twitter, but as my girlfriend reminded me this morning, it isn’t worth it to feed the trolls. As Jayne Cobb would say, there ain’t no percentage in it. Instead I’ll respond to them here for the benefit of my tens of readers.

swampMAGA

And how’s that working out for you?

At least one person granted that the show might have an allegorical dimension:

hilary

Then there was this one, a variation on the Trump-wrestling-CNN gif:

OK, so with this one I just have to ask: you do know that Euron is the bad guy, right? He’s a despot and rapist, and his attack on these key female characters is …

Sigh. Never mind.

democratsheep

By what metric? Obama was worse than Hoover, Filmore, or Pierce? Or Bush Jr.? Look, even if you think everything Obama did was disastrous, the key question here is competence. Hate what he did all you want, but dude at least got shit done.

Here’s someone who apparently took the few seconds to read my profile:

associateprof

Two things: one, what “associate professor” actually means is that I have tenure. Two, that’s the lawyers’ business what they call themselves. “Counselor” is a pretty cool title, so perhaps they’re happy with that. And for what it’s worth, the title “doctor” was employed by doctors of philosophy for centuries before physicians adopted it.

This one makes me wonder if the guy knows me:

jackass

That seems a wee bit personal. But as it happens, I’m in good company. There are plenty of jackasses who see real world politics in GoT (and over 1500 of them have liked my tweet so far).

entitlement

I’m just going to assume this one is a knee-jerk response this person tweets to anything resembling liberal/lefty sentiment, given that I really don’t see what it has to do with my tweet.

Speaking of WTF tweets:

republicans

I … what? I suppose I would be … if I had been. I mean, I am Canadian, and I suppose the balance of my bosses might have been card-carrying Tories, but …

Yeah. Really don’t get this one.

libtard

Dear Americans: fix that electoral college already, wouldya?

workday

Well, except for those who obviously watched the show and made a special point to take the time to call me an idiot.

sopolitically

I think my Twitter handle confused this poor fellow.

And my favourite thus far (as the hits keep coming):

butthurt

Yes. Yes. It’s true. I cannot hold more than one thought in my head. Trump is the only thing there is any more, and he has ruined every pleasure I might otherwise have. Samwell in the Citadel Library? All I can think of is Betsy DeVos. Ser Jorah’s greyscale? OMG, Medicaid cuts! I wonder if Melissandre is plagiarizing Michelle Obama. What bathroom would Grey Worm use in South Carolina? Is Cersei going to build a wall? Are all Dornishmen bringing drugs? Are they rapists? Littlefinger? Little hands! Ahhhhhhhhh!!!!!!

Idiot.

***

So, back to the question of Thrones and politics.

Is Game of Thrones about politics? Of course it is. It’s a show all about individuals and groups jockeying for power, and striving to maintain what power they have. It’s somewhat amusing that people would question this with regard to this episode in particular, considering that three out of the five principal storylines have to do with political maneuvering: Tyrion counseling Daenerys to proceed in a manner that will win her the support of the major houses, Cersei attempting to frighten other houses into falling in line behind the throne (and Jaime making an extra effort to recruit Randyll Tarly), and Jon Snow considering the risk vs. reward scenario of allying with Daenerys. The episode might have given us a thrilling sea-battle, and might have distracted us with the sexual shenanigans of Grey Worm and Missandei, and Yara and Ellaria, but ultimately this episode—like so many episodes preceding it—was a meditation on what it means to attain, retain, and exercise power.

And the show depicts the contestations of power and politics in a manner far more consonant with other HBO offerings like The Wire and Deadwood than with The Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia. To the dude above who tells us “Don’t compare real and fantasy,” I say don’t confuse fantasy with “fantasy.” Game of Thrones might have magic and dragons and take place in an alternative reality, but it is an eminently political show.

But then, The Lord of the Rings is also political—just not in the same manner as Thrones. Power is treated in markedly different ways in the two works, but both make political statements. Tolkien’s masterpiece is an expression of nostalgia for a premodern world governed by extrinsic, spiritual laws and a rigid religious hierarchy, and was written in part as a vehement reaction against what he saw as the depredations of modernity, secularism, and technology. Is that not a political statement? Daenerys’ challenge to Varys in this week’s episode articulates a tension in GRRM’s work between an essentially progressive sensibility embedded in an essentially conservative genre—Varys’ impassioned speech is populist and democratic, but reflects the difficulty of finding a vehicle for such beliefs in a monarchical, undemocratic world.

As it is, sadly, in our own at the moment.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Game of Thrones, wingnuttery

Well, That was Just Super

We interrupt our regularly scheduled post on genres to bring you this dispatch from the edge of despair.

electoral-map

For the past several days I’ve been making notes toward a post-election post, the title of which was to be something like “Now, the Long Slog Back From Trumpism.” I meant to talk about the radical divisiveness in America that Trump’s campaign made glaringly obvious, and the painful fact that the opposing sides in this divide might well prove to be incommensurable—but that it was the primary task of a Clinton presidency to try and heal that rift.

Well. That would have been nice.

I woke up this morning in a world where “President Trump” isn’t merely a terrifying prospect, but a reality … and it is taking a long while for that reality to sink in. Possibly it won’t—possibly while Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office, I will still be investigating the backs of wardrobes, searching for a way back to the reality I left when I went to sleep last night.

I cannot recall a time in recent memory when I have been so relieved to be Canadian, though even that relief is marred by my fear that Trump’s victory will be a gust of oxygen for the revanchist embers smoldering in this country.

For the last few months, I have been reading a lot in an effort to wrap my head around the Trump phenomenon—more specifically, to try and understand his appeal to what has turned out to be a plurality of the U.S. electorate. I’ve read a number of books and a lot of articles; possibly the most interesting one, and the one I would most recommend, was Alexander Zaitchik’s The Gilded Rage. In it, he follows around the Trump campaign and speaks to his supporters—basically, just letting them talk and listening. Most striking in the stories he records is a remarkable cognitive dissonance. To be clear, Zaitchik did not sit down with any of Trump’s most rabid and nativist supporters, but people who have felt left behind by Washington and by the economy, and who see in Trump an outsider not beholden to a broken system. But then, after preambles venting about Washington elites and Obama’s “disastrous” presidency, more often than not they complain about the erosion of the social safety net, about income inequality, and health care. To a person, all who mention it deem Obamacare a massive failure, but then voice a desire for a single-payer system. They want better educational opportunities and to improve the schools we have; and while many echo Trump’s sentiments about immigration, all of the people who live by the border articulate a much more nuanced reality, expressing compassion for the Mexicans who suffer at the hands of the drug cartels and who come seeking a better life, and disdain for border agents who behave, in the words of one rancher, as little better than thugs.

That they would put their faith in Trump as someone who would address any or all of these problems is frankly baffling, but is likely a measure of their alienation from the “establishment”—they want to throw a bomb at the government, and Trump is the grenade most ready to hand.

The biggest problem with Zaitchik’s book is its brevity: at 125 pages, it necessarily provides a highly selective sample, presumably chosen for how compelling their accounts are. And however reasonable they sound, I could not shake an oft-recounted experience of Trump rallies, at which attendees are often described as affable until the shouting starts—and then the venom and hatred emerges, given voice and license by Trump and his lackeys.

It is this very vitriol that defeats an attempt at a rational understanding. Most recently, I read Thomas Frank’s book Listen, Liberal!, which is a concise and lacerating critique of the Democrats’ shift from being the party of the working class to neoliberal boosters of the professional class. As I read it, it felt like one half of an explanation for Trump’s popularity: though Frank never puts it in racial terms, what he describes is the Democrats’ abandonment of White middle America. The second half of the story, of course, is the Republicans’ successful courting of southern and Midwestern voters, appealing to their social conservatism and their racial anxiety, soliciting and getting their votes while slashing the social safety net and implementing policies that facilitated the concentration of wealth at the top at the expense of the middle class (a process, Frank points out, that was not hindered by Bill Clinton but accelerated).

This erosion of social programs, it needs to be noted for a point I will make momentarily, was itself racially coded: as Heather McGhee of the Demos Institute points out, middle- and lower-class Whites accepted these depredations more often than not because they were sold as cuts to programs that disproportionately benefitted inner-city Blacks (think, for example, of Reagan railing against “welfare queens”).

Meanwhile, both parties oversaw the busting of unions, trade agreements that sent jobs overseas and denuded the country’s manufacturing base, and fiscal policies that increasingly benefited corporations and the wealthy.

One way to understand Trump’s appeal to this cross-section of White America is to see them as an economically dispossessed group who woke up to the Republican long con of appealing to their social conservatism, either because they no longer cared about those issues, or because they saw jobs as the more important consideration, or (most likely) because they saw the long con for what it was, a bait-and-switch perpetrated by hypocritical political elites with more in common with their fellows across the aisle than the people whose votes they court.

Enter Trump: a swaggering bully who spoke intemperately, gleefully slapped around the Republican establishment, and confirmed all their politically incorrect suspicions about Mexicans and Muslims. And promised to restore what they had lost.

But again, as much as laying it out in socio-historical terms provides an attractive narrative, it falls short. Indeed, while for a time I was most of the way to believing it, I now call bullshit. Back in March, Thomas Frank wrote an article in The Guardian in which he offers his own explanation for Trumpism, which is more or less consonant with what I outlined above. He writes:

[T]o judge by how much time he spent talking about it, trade may be his single biggest concern—not white supremacy. Not even his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, the issue that first won him political fame. He did it again during the debate on 3 March: asked about his political excommunication by Mitt Romney, he chose to pivot and talk about … trade.

It seems to obsess him: the destructive free-trade deals our leaders have made, the many companies that have moved their production facilities to other lands, the phone calls he will make to those companies’ CEOs in order to threaten them with steep tariffs unless they move back to the US.

This much is impossible to deny: Trump is obsessed with the U.S.’s various trade deals, invariably referring to NAFTA as disastrous, and frequently banging on about how China and Mexico take advantage of America. Frank continues:

Now, I have no special reason to doubt the suspicion that Donald Trump is a racist. Either he is one, or (as the comedian John Oliver puts it) he is pretending to be one, which amounts to the same thing.

But there is another way to interpret the Trump phenomenon. A map of his support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America.

Again, as with Listen, Liberal!, I don’t think Frank is wrong, per se—just that the economic narrative is deficient in and of itself. One reason it loses traction is because the tacit media perception that Trump supporters are disenfranchised blue-collar workers is basically wrong: Trump voters have a median income of $72,000, which is ten thousand more than the U.S. national average. Which isn’t to say that you can’t be earning a comfortable income and not feel disenfranchised, but the reasons for that feeling are also where the economic narrative runs into problems.

Simply put, Trump’s insurgency is—to quote Danielle Moodie-Mills on CBC last night—“white supremacy’s last stand in America.” The economic narrative is attractive—and has been adopted by many in the media—not least because it helps paper over the discomforting racist dimension of his popularity. Thomas Frank’s argument about trade elides the fact that Trump’s preoccupation with trade and trade deals is not somehow a separate issue from his racism. Rather, he consistently conflates the two. Free trade is not something he abhors solely because of economic reasons, but because it entails a conception of an America with open borders. The rhetoric is of a piece with his signature policy items, the building of a wall and the banning of Muslims. Anyone identified as Other must be either removed or barred from entry. Those Others inconveniently in possession of American citizenship must be policed with more rigor. Since he first rode down that escalator to announce his candidacy, Trump has consistently advocated for a Fortress America, one that would somehow restore its “greatness.”

“Make America Great Again.” As I have written previously, Trump’s slogan is rank nostalgia, and I mean “rank” in the sense of the odor it emits. He of course does not specify when America was great—he lets his followers fill in the blanks. But his rhetoric of jobs and manufacturing, of bringing companies back to the States and punishing those that leave, speaks very obviously to the few decades after WWII when the U.S. was ascendant—when there was little economic competition because the rest of the world was rebuilding in the aftermath of a war that never touched continental America. When there were high-paying jobs available to men without college degrees, and a family could flourish on a single income.

But to again quote a professor I once TA’d for, “The problem with ‘the good old days’ is that they were invariably bad for someone.” The America Trump evokes is a White America, one in which all of the opportunities enumerated above were predominantly available only to Whites. Thomas Frank is not wrong when he outlines the ways in which both the Democrats and Republicans have dealt in bad faith with working-class Americans, but the rage and resentment, the vitriol and virulence of the Trumpistas, is rooted in that cultural shift of the late 1960s when Nixon recruited former Democrats with the Southern Strategy. Well, to be certain, it’s rooted in a much longer tradition of racism in America, but the voters who gave us President Trump last night are the scions of Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater.

As the saying goes, “to someone with privilege, equality feels like a loss.” A section of a speech by President Obama keeps rattling around in my head today. Remember when he was in the midst of a bitter primary fight with Hilary Clinton eight years ago, and for a brief time it looked like his candidacy was over because of intemperate words spoken by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright? Obama turned everything around, and ultimately won the nomination, by delivering a speech that is—to my mind—one of the greatest pieces of American political oration. At one point in the speech, he said:

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

It’s a sad thing to realize that the election of Obama did not do much—or anything, perhaps—to salve this resentment. Instead, it has only grown. While live-blogging the Republican National Convention, Andrew Sullivan wrote hopefully that perhaps Obama has functioned as a poultice, “bringing so much pus to the surface of American life,” which would allow for the cleansing and sanitization of America’s racial wounds. I’ve long harboured the same hope, which rested to a large extent on this election and the possibility that a Clinton victory would have provided a space in the aftermath to address the ugliness that had arisen.

Instead, America has embraced the ugliness.

Leave a comment

Filed under politics, wingnuttery

The Trumpocalypse Fallacy

We interrupt the planned blog post on the zombie apocalypse for the following rant about the Trumpocalypse (and why it won’t happen).

I watched the highlights of the vice-presidential debate this morning, expecting to be amused by the spectacle of (as one person in my Facebook feed put it) watching your homophobic uncle argue with your nerdy science teacher. Or the epic fight between mayonnaise and margarine. Or … well, choose your own analogy for bland vs. blank.

Instead, I find myself deeply disturbed.

Part of this discomfiture proceeds from other thoughts that have been rattling about in my head. If you’ve been reading this blog lately, you’ll know my last few posts have been preoccupied with apocalypse: most specifically of the zombie variety, but I also had an extended riff in my Pop Culture class last week on disaster films apropos of Independence Day. One of my recurrent points, which I made in my last post, was that narratives of apocalypse reflect a desire for radical change, coupled with an inability to imagine that change short of wholesale destruction. And I reflected parenthetically that this might account, in part, for the rise of Donald Trump.

Why? Because while there is a certain, deeply deluded segment of his supporters who seem to believe that he is a genius businessman who will use his deal-making acumen to fix the country, and another segment who embrace his racial politics to the exclusion of everything else, there are also those who are just so disgusted with the current U.S. government on all levels that they just want to burn it to the ground (to be certain, these are not three mutually exclusive categories—a Venn diagram would show massive overlap).

I had been mulling over a possible blog post exploring this idea: that a large part of people’s desire to see Trump elected proceeds from what Susan Sontag called “the imagination of disaster,” but which many ostensible Trump supporters have likened to a Heath-Ledger-as-Joker desire to “watch the world burn.” Which is itself not nihilistic, but apocalyptic in the true sense of the word: a purgation that would destroy a broken system and open space to erect a new one. Indeed, the most common mantra of Trump supporters is the assertion that “the system is broken” or “Washington is broken.” Thinking in these terms, it becomes easier to see why Trump’s many egregious enormities, his lies and erraticism, and his obvious incompetence, do not count against him—in this scenario, in which he is a bomb thrown by voters, his incompetence is his greatest asset.

Among his supporters, the sense is that he would eradicate the edifices of the smug elites, the politically correct, the “establishment.” And in some sectors of the left, Hilary Clinton is seen as anathema because she would just be a continuation of a broken and corrupt system, whereas—as Susan Sarandon said to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes—“Some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately, if he gets in. Then things will really, you know, explode.” I make no claims for Sarandon’s credentials as a political expert, but she does give voice to a not-insignificant number of disaffected Bernie Sanders’ supporters, for whom Hilary is unacceptable specifically because she will not tear down the system as they believe Bernie would have (which is its own quaint delusion, but that’s a post for another day).

Ever since Trump became the nominee—well, since he first descended that escalator a year and a half ago, but more intently since his nomination—I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this phenomenon. More specifically, I’ve been trying to understand the mindset of people who would vote for him. One thing I’ve settled on is that the only rational reason to prefer him over Hilary (if competence and rationality factor into your decision at all) is if you embrace this nuclear option: that you think he’ll actually explode the system. I understand that line of thinking. I find it morally indefensible, but at least it has a basis in logic.

But here’s the problem: it won’t happen.

This was my realization upon watching Mike Pence’s debate performance. There will be no Trumpocalypse, for the simple reason that for all Trump’s incompetence, bluster, attention deficit disorder, and inability to absorb even the most basic elements of American civics, he doesn’t have the wherewithal to wreak the kind of havoc the apocalypticists desire.

John Kasich’s campaign performed a great service when it revealed that Trump’s people had offered to make him the most powerful vice president in history, giving him oversight of foreign and domestic policy. What would President Trump concern himself with? they asked. “Making America great again.” This offer was a confirmation of something Trump critics had suspected from the start: that he’s uninterested in the actual business of governance.

Whether Mike Pence was made a comparable offer remains unknown, but there seems to be near-unanimity among the punditry that last night Pence looked and sounded more “presidential” than Trump ever has. Indeed, one piece of wisdom that has been floating around is that Pence’s performance was good for Pence, bad for Trump—namely because, probably for the first time ever, we watched a vice-presidential candidate demur from endorsing any of his running mate’s policies, and indeed seemed to inhabit an alternative reality from Trump as he simply denied a host of things Trump has said and done in recent months (and then had the audacity to suggest Tim Kaine was the one in an alternative reality for “imagining” these things).

Conversely, I don’t see Pence’s performance as bad for Trump at all. Trump’s supporters won’t care one way or another, but I can easily imagine Republicans leery of Trump being reassured: Pence’s entire shtick was about suggesting there will be an adult in the White House, and that while Trump is out and about making America great again, he will take care of the important stuff.

Of course, it is impossible to accurately predict what a Trump White House will be like. It may be that he is so bored by the day-to-day details of governance that he essentially abdicates to Pence. On the other hand, it is just as easy to imagine him getting his hackles up at the suggestion that his VP is the one in charge, and capriciously throwing spanners and executive orders into the gears. Certainly, the biggest and most exhausting task in a Trump administration would be damage control every time he holds a press conference or inadvertently insults a foreign dignitary.

But what we need to remember is that the American ship of state is not a sprightly frigate, but a massive and fully-laden oil tanker. It does not change course except by slow increments. I’m not speaking here of policy decisions, but of the deep structure of the federal government, which employs nearly 2.8 million people; there is a huge apparatus of civil servants carrying out the business of government on a daily basis, to say nothing of juggernauts like the Department of Defense and U.S. industry more broadly, none of which would be subject to revolutionary change—certainly not by way of anything Trump (or for that matter any president) could effect.

All of which is by way of saying that Trump’s histrionics in the west wing would wreak havoc, but not with the Republic’s elemental structures. They would adversely affect the most vulnerable: the poor, immigrants, people of colour, Muslims, women; and as for what Trump didn’t inflict, it’s a good bet that Mike Pence, working in concert with Paul Ryan, would pick up the slack, dismantling Planned Parenthood, eviscerating Obamacare, rolling back gay rights, facilitating more draconian law enforcement, slashing taxes on the 1%, doing away with environmental and financial regulations, denuding access to abortion and birth control—enough of which would be consonant with President Trump’s platform that it’s hard to imagine a complaint emanating from the Oval Office (presumably redecorated in gold leaf and Roman statuary).

To say nothing of the fact that everyone standing politically to the left of Attila the Hun would spend four years offering up novenas for the longevity of Justices Ginsburg, Kennedy, and Breyer.

I have little illusion that when I share my political perspectives, I’m doing little more than preaching to the choir of the forty-odd people who read my posts. And given that most of them are Canadians, this makes my editorializing that much more futile. Still: if you know an American, left or right, who sees the Trumpocalypse as a revolutionary possibility, please feel free to share my rant with them.

***

We will return to our regularly scheduled blog posts soon.

Leave a comment

Filed under politics, wingnuttery

From the Decay of Lying to the Velocity of Mendacity, or, The Fiction that is Donald J. Trump

C YRIL. Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.
V IVIAN. I assure you that they do not. They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just as well speak the truth at once.
—Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”

oscar_wilde_portraitLike most people, as I have watched the U.S. election, I have frequently wondered what Oscar Wilde would make of it. And more specifically, what he would make of Donald Trump.

Wilde published his elegant essay “The Decay of Lying” in 1889, and then again with significant revisions in 1891. He composed it as a dialogue between aesthete Vivian and skeptic Cyril, and argues (through Vivian) that a preoccupation with reality and realism has corrupted and denuded art. What, he asks, has happened to the beautiful lie? He laments,

Facts are not merely finding a footing-place in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of Romance. Their chilling touch is over everything. They are vulgarising mankind. The crude commercialism of America, its materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals, are entirely due to that country having adopted for its national hero a man, who according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a lie, and it is not too much to say that the story of George Washington and the cherry-tree has done more harm, and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature.

Like much of Wilde’s writing, the apparent frivolity of his tone and glib assertions of his narrators are just window-dressing for profound insight into our relationship to and with art and literature. What is fiction and poetry, he basically asks, if not a series of beautiful lies? Lies which, Vivian is careful to observe, transform reality itself: it is in this essay that Wilde formed his famous axiom that “life imitates art.” A superficial reading of this aphorism suggests the ways in which people chase after the latest trends in fashion as created by popular culture. Wilde’s point is however more nuanced, and makes a semiotic argument decades before semiotics was all the rage in English departments: namely, that art and literature facilitate and expand a vocabulary of expression that potentially transforms the way we perceive the world. Challenged by Cyril to prove his point, Vivian responds,

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to this particular school of Art.

Again, we have the distinct impression of a tongue stuck firmly in a cheek, but Wilde’s argument—lurking subtly underneath Vivian’s high-handed and ostensibly absurd assertion—troubles the assumption of art as straightforward representation, of Hamlet’s pompous direction to the players that the purpose of art “both at the / first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the / mirror up to nature.” Hamlet comes in for some excoriation from Vivian for this line, as do those who quote it unironically, not understanding “that this unfortunate aphorism is deliberately said by Hamlet in order to convince the bystanders of his absolute insanity in all art-matters.”

But what does this have to do with Donald Trump? Well, that goes to my musing about what Wilde (or his mouthpiece Vivian) would make of this moment’s most magnificent liar. I think we might be operating now outside of Wilde’s wheelhouse, for it isn’t so much that Trump lies as that he embodies untruth. Wilde, I suspect, would be less concerned with the decay of lying than with the sheer velocity of Trump’s mendacity.

donald-trump-flashes-the-thumbs-up-jpg-crop_-promo-xlarge2-667x476

Donald Trump Did Not Take Place

One of the greatest frustrations supporters of Hillary Clinton and those with an affection for Civilization As We Know It have had in this campaign is the double standard for honesty being applied to her and Trump. By any objective measure, as was observed by Ruth Marcus on Slate magazine’s most recent Political Gabfest, “Hillary wins the transparency Olympics.” Which isn’t to say she hasn’t prevaricated, embellished or downplayed the truth, or outright lied—just that when you tally up her untruths and juxtapose them with Trump’s, it’s a molehill dwarfed by a mountain. For a long time it seemed to me as if the media was grading the respective candidates’ honesty on a curve, with Trump benefiting and Clinton suffering from different standards applied across the board.

I’m no longer convinced by that analogy, however, because it suggests that Trump and Clinton exist on the same epistemic continuum, one in which truth and falsity are givens. To be certain, that’s where Clinton is. Trump, however, is no longer there, and it’s doubtful whether he ever was. Rather, he has come to be the embodiment of the postmodernist moment when a fictional character steps off the page or screen into reality, and in so doing troubles “reality” as stable category. As the saying goes, if Donald Trump didn’t exist, we would have to invent him. Except—and here’s the rub—we did.

Donald Trump is a fictional character, and this is why the normal epistemic rules we apply to presidential candidates have been more or less irrelevant to his candidacy. I want to be clear: when I call Trump fictional, I am being wholly unironic. I’m not questioning his empirical, physical reality—he is a person with a history, a body, a passport and (we assume—he’s never showed us) a birth certificate—but asserting that his candidacy, and the frighteningly real possibility that he may be elected, can only be properly understood in terms of fiction.

It’s not that Hillary Clinton is being held to a different standard of truth so much as inhabiting a different epistemic paradigm entirely. She traffics in reality, and is preoccupied with policy and the quotidian details of governance, preoccupied with politics in its classic definition as the “art of the possible.” The experience she has accrued as First Lady, Senator for New York, and Secretary of State is matched by a comparable accrual of secrets, lies, gaffes, scandals (real and imagined), half-truths and embellishments, enmities and connections, losses and victories—in other words, the baggage that anyone of her prominence with so long a tenure in public life amasses. The arguments made about her dishonesty, or her cozy relationship with the 1%, or any of the other issues arising from her life spent in politics are however different in kind from the most basic principle animating Trump’s rump: that it is precisely this experience, which tars her as “establishment,” that is her disqualifying quality. Trump will fix things because he says he will. Nothing factual pertaining to his history of bankruptcies, grifting, shafting contractors and investors and banks, his mob ties, or to the very real likelihood that his net worth is nowhere near what he claims, gains any traction with his supporters, because in the end he is a fictional character.

To help explain what I mean, it’s worth remembering that Hillary and Bill Clinton have a fictional dimension themselves, but one that ultimately serves to solidify their place in the world of truth and falsity. The Clintons have provided fodder for a host of filmic and televisual depictions of the presidency, from direct fictionalizations like Primary Colors and Political Animals, to shows that have been more obliquely informed by the Clinton political saga like The West Wing and House of Cards. Such parallels don’t make Hillary Clinton herself a fiction in the same way as I’m characterizing Trump, however. Indeed, they provide a contrast to reality in the way they idealize (The West Wing), satirize (Veep), or dystopianize (House of Cards) the political life (no, “dystopianize” wasn’t a word, but it is now. Use it in good health). This contrast serves to reinforce the distinction between fiction and reality: these narratives are by turns fantasies of what we wish the Clintons could be, or what we suspect they really are.

Trump, on the other hand, emerges on the political stage fully fictional, built out of the many mendacities of his life-long self-fashioning: posing, over the phone, as his own publicist in order to mythologize his supposed playboy lifestyle; his transformation from builder to brand; his serial marriages to women whose beauty flatters his image; his emergence as a reality TV star. Trump as a human being is about as real as his hair. His persona is a carefully wrought bit of artifice that employs extant, popular American tropes that serve to paper over the inconvenient truth of his silver-spoon upbringing. He’s Horatio Alger and P.T. Barnum, and about as honest as both of them combined. But like Alger and Barnum, he has the innate ability to enthrall an audience, even those who might actively loathe the spectacle. Let’s be honest: we can’t discount the fact that at least part of Trump’s success resides in the same horrified fascination that fuels the box office numbers for disaster films. Even those of us objectively appalled at the prospect of him in the Oval Office kind of want him to win in November, just to see what happens. But that’s because we’re narrative junkies, and that’s one of the reasons for his success: he’s a fictional juggernaut now, writing a story as he goes that none of us—Doonesbury and The Simpsons excepted—could have predicted, but which continues its postmodern encroachment of fiction into reality every day.

I won’t be the first person to ascribe Trump’s candidacy to the pernicious effects of reality TV, and it’s safe to say that his ascendancy is a perfect storm of historical and cultural factors (something made risibly clear by Andrew Coyne in his recent National Post op-ed, in which he literally blames everyone). But it is painfully obvious that Trump is the embodiment of the dissolution of entertainment into reality, something reality TV has been priming us for since it first declared that it wasn’t here to make friends. Every reality TV competition has a villain and a blowhard—those characters that drive up the ratings—and Trump is both. He operates according to those rules, which have nothing to do (ironically, I suppose) with reality, and everything to do with besting the other contestants. The problem in this election cycle is the mind-numbing number of voters who are more than willing to give credence to this logic.

But why? In part because, more than anything else, Trump’s ongoing reality TV candidacy speaks to what people feel is reality rather than any empirical knowledge.

 

GOP 2016 Trump Echoes of Wallace

Make America Great White Trump Again

One can argue endlessly about whether elections have always been more about emotion than thought, truthiness rather than truth, but it is hard to deny that Trump is the ultimate candidate for feelings over facts. The entirety of the 2016 Republican National Convention was given over to how America “feels”—the speeches by the Republican not-so-luminaries who deigned to participate did not cite statistics about a crumbling economy or rampant crime, but asserted instead that Americans feel the economy is tanking, and how they feel threatened by rising crime rates. When confronted in an interview with the objective fact that crime rates are at a thirty-year low, Newt Gingrich doubled down, saying, “As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel, and you can go with the theoreticians.”

And when the people delivering speeches weren’t saying that people felt afraid, they went out of their way to scare the shit out of them. “The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe,” Rudy Giuliani thundered at the start of his speech, and then went on to suggest that Obama’s tenure emboldened terrorists and criminals, and that Clinton would, if elected, blithely allow terrorists to enter along with a massive flood of Syrian refugees. “The cost of Hillary’s dishonesty,” declared Newt Gingrich, “could be the loss of America as we know it.”

“America as we know it” is an instructive phrase. It is of a piece with the “America” of Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” The America that people “know” is invariably different from the America that is, for the simple fact that it is too big, too complex, too disparate in every category from income to ideology, for any one person to have an objectively true perspective. But the closest one can come requires empathy, an open mind, and a grasp of history, something actually demonstrated by the current president when he addressed the blinkered nostalgia animating Trump’s slogan:

Here, President Obama puts into historical context the nostalgic idea of America evoked by Trump: the ascendant, dominant America, with a thriving manufacturing sector in which his aggrieved white supporters would have found well-paying blue-collar jobs. The problem with nostalgizing this Golden Age is twofold: first, it represents a fleeting moment in U.S. history, about thirty years—or 12.5% of America’s lifetime. The suggestion that it was some sort of prelapsarian moment ignores all of the historical factors enumerated by President Obama: that the U.S. emerged from WWII unscathed, with all of its manufacturing capabilities intact, while the other major powers in the world lay devastated by the war. (If you want to talk about American Exceptionalism, this was a time when the U.S. was genuinely exceptional, for the simple reason that its cities had not been pounded into dust). There was an economic vacuum into which the U.S. stepped, overturning its prior inclination to isolationism and embracing and facilitating the expansion of globalization. And in so doing, it prospered hugely—but sooner or later, its dominance would inevitably by challenged as other world powers dug themselves out of their postwar holes. Or in Trump parlance, they started “winning.”

Secondly, the tacit idealization of this period ignores one crucial factor, something a former professor of mine pithily summed up in the axiom “the ‘good old days’ were inevitably bad for someone.” Yes, the postwar years comprised a time of great opportunity and prosperity, provided you were white and male. Even if you ignore the blatantly racist drivel that has dropped from Trump’s mouth, his supporters have embraced a nostalgia for white America.

All that being said, Trump has been entirely vague on what version of America was “great” compared to his depiction of a fallen, postlapsarian nation that has forgotten how to “win.” Again, it’s all about the feelings: the historical facts and the contemporary reality of lower crime and a growing economy are irrelevant to a narrative of decline and fall requiring a strong man to turn the nation around. All of Trump’s critics who modify his slogan to “Make America White Again” aren’t wrong, at least not where his supporters are concerned; but for Trump himself, the slogan should really be “Make America Trump Again,” and the fact that it never was is entirely beside the point.

trump-apprentice

A Probable Impossibility

I keep coming back to Aristotle’s principle than a writer of fiction “should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities” (Poetics XXIV). By which he means it is better to have something unreal behaving logically (a faster-than-lightspeed spaceship, for example, inhabited by believable characters) than something real behaving in unlikely fashion (an everyday Joe winning the lottery three times in as many days). Readers and audiences accept impossibilities, provided they obey the laws of story and narrative.

For some time now I’ve viewed Trump’s success as an improbably possibility: all the way along it has been technically possible for him to rise to the top of the Republican ticket and have a realistic shot at the White House, but possible in the same way that if I started training tomorrow I could win the Boston Marathon in five years. Possible, but infinitesimally unlikely.

I have now changed my thinking. A Trump presidency—or for that matter an America in which 40% of its voters think a mendacious, self-aggrandizing businessman with four bankruptcies and the attention span of a goldfish is qualified to be president—should be impossible. And indeed, the very prospect of his nomination was almost universally considered absurd on the face of it by the media’s brain trust. Those few people, like Rep. Keith Ellison, who warned that it could happen were literally laughed at.

But in the present moment, Trump’s rise has all the implacable inevitability of a disaster film. For a candidacy that privileges feeling over thought, “President Trump” feels probable, as impossible as it should be. It is tempting to joke that “he’s not the president America needs, but he is the president America deserves,” but there would be too much collateral damage in that eventuality. Whether the electorate deserves it or not, American popular political culture has been laying the groundwork for years. Keith Ellison defends his warning by citing the fact that in Minnesota, they elected Jesse Ventura in defiance of all common sense; he could just as well have pointed to the nomination of Sarah Palin as a VP candidate, the two-term reign of the Governator in California, and of course that time the country elected a former B-movie actor as president—twice.

Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” allegorizes what happens when fiction becomes all-consuming and persuasive. When the imaginary world of Tlön captures the world’s imagination, its fiction trespasses into reality:

Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly plant? It is useless to answer that reality is also orderly.

Donald Trump, as I have argued in this post, is wholly fictional. He does not merely lie, he is a lie, one that operates according to the rules of the “reality” of reality television. With this in mind, however, there is one ray of hope: the villains and the blowhards of reality TV may get the most attention and drive up ratings, but statistically they rarely win. Most often, the winners are the innocuous contestants, the ones who stay off the radar while working hard to make themselves valuable without drawing attention. Blowhards and villains eventually piss too many people off, and find themselves voted off the island or out of the house … or fired.

Fingers crossed for that kind of narrative inevitability.

2 Comments

Filed under politics, wingnuttery

Winners and Losers

I watched all four nights of the Republican convention in Cleveland. All four. I did it in part so I could follow along as Andrew Sullivan liveblogged it: since he retired his epic blog The Dish, I’ve been in serious withdrawal from Sullivan’s incisive, insightful, and often entertainingly cantankerous perspective on politics, American and otherwise. But mostly I did it to bear witness to history in a way not available to those who watched the Reichstag burn down. They could not have known what was coming, that a comical Chaplinesque clown would use his influence over populist rage to vanquish the forces of the moderate establishment. The Junkers and the bourgeois conservatives assumed that Hitler would be malleable once in power, that he would be a useful cudgel to hammer the socialists, and that ultimately they could use him to their own ends.

Well, we know how that worked out.

Don’t go calling down Godwin’s Law on me. Smarter people than I have pointed out the similarities between Trumpism and fascism, including Adam Gopnik (twice) and the aforementioned Andrew Sullivan. Read them and come back to me with a denial on this point.

But that’s not my primary concern in this post. In this post, I want to talk about the idea of winners and losers, something near and dear to Donald Trump and his idiosyncratic rhetoric.

donald-trump-1080x608

After everything that went down over the four nights of the RNC, I find it interesting that one of the things that continues to rankle for me is his Beyonce-like entrance on the first night to the strains of Queen’s “We Are The Champions.” I’m not alone: there was a chorus of anger that the putative figurehead of the Republican Party would appropriate Freddie Mercury to his own ends. Trump’s brief shout-out to the LGBT community in his keynote speech on Thursday night does nothing to obviate the GOP’s systematic opposition to, and attempts to roll back, gay rights; it certainly does nothing to counter the fact that he chose one of the Republicans’ worst offenders to be his running mate. That he would use the music of a gay icon to accompany his entrance is tone-deaf at best, and actually obscene at worst.

queen

All that aside, it is utterly unsurprising that Trump would favour “We Are The Champions.” Taken entirely out of context, the song articulates what is quite obviously something close to Trump’s sense of self. If I had to guess what his favourite lyric is, I’d have to say “No time for losers!” Even if you ignore his biography to the point of his announcement on June 16th, 2015, there is no avoiding the fact that Donald Trump’s primary method of interacting with the world is to divide it into winners and losers. He, obviously, is a winner. Those people he likes and approves of are also winners (though this is a redundant observation, as one assumes being a winner is a prerequisite for the Donald’s approbation). His opponents and enemies, just as obviously, are losers. He chose to run for president because America is no longer a winner, and that is unacceptable. America has been losing for too long: to China, to Mexico, to Russia, to ISIS. His entire candidacy is about being a winner again. “We’re gonna win so much,” he famously declared at a rally, “we’re gonna win at every level, we’re gonna win economically, we’re gonna win with the economy, we’re gonna win with military, we’re gonna win with health care and for our veterans, we’re gonna win with every single facet, we’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning!”

The rhetoric is childish and risible, and has justifiably come in for a great deal of mockery, but we make a mistake to dismiss it out of hand. It is less Trump’s actual words than his world-view that resonates: there are winners and losers, and if you stand with me you’ll be a winner like I am. Trump is essentially the schoolyard bully writ large, who inevitably attracts a sniggering entourage of toadies eager for the bully’s approval, people who really are just desperate to not be the objects of bullying themselves. There is no sense that making common cause with the others being bullied is an option, because winners vs. losers is a zero-sum game: if you are to win, someone else must lose, so best to hitch your wagon to the hugest, most bombastic star in your firmament.

The irony of Trump’s use of “We Are The Champions” is that, in spite of its soaring anthemic chorus, the song contains a distinct measure of pathos in its slower, quieter moments. It speaks of paying dues and suffering, of making mistakes, and—that great mark of the loser!—having sand kicked in one’s face. And let us not forget that the struggle is ongoing: “We’ll keep on fighting till the end!” Mercury sings, suggesting that “champion” is less an achieved status than a state of mind, and that the struggle never ends—a sentiment made all the more poignant by his high-profile death at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Perhaps if Freddie Mercury was still alive, still touring with Queen and headlining shows alongside the Rolling Stones; perhaps if “The Show Must Go On,” which now indelibly inflects “Champions” with an elegiac quality, wasn’t the last song Mercury recorded before succumbing to his illness; perhaps if his career had not been a great, glorious, campy fuck-you to the voices of censure, of disapprobation, of authority; perhaps then “We Are The Champions” might fit a bit better into Donald Trump’s ethos.

freddie-mercury

But of course none of those things are true, and we can add Trump’s use of Queen to the long list of politicians completely misapprehending the nuances of songs they use while campaigning (the ultimate example of which is perhaps Ronald Reagan’s use of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” in 1984, though Paul Ryan’s professed love of Rage Against the Machine is even more cognitively dissonant). And in the long run, playing “Champions” to accompany his entrance on stage is small beer compared to his countless other outrages: fomenting anti-Islamic and anti-Hispanic sentiment, playing upon people’s fears and anxieties to further his personal brand, and basically reinventing the Gish gallop by an order of magnitude such that fact checkers quite simply can’t keep up with his mendacity, all of which have immediate and pernicious real-world effects.

But the rhetoric of winners and losers as a zero-sum game really should disqualify anyone seeking high office—or really, office at any level. If government has a responsibility, it is to the “losers.” This has been the guiding principle of all our great humanitarians and humanists, and is the central tenet of almost every single religion in history—including the Christian faith to which Trump pretends. I am an atheist, but was raised Catholic, and to this day the part of the Gospels that resonates most for me is Matthew 5:3-11, the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus celebrates the meek, the poor, the peacemakers, and so on. As a witness to American politics, I have yet to see the right wing square their devout Christianity with their dismissal of the people Christ specifically sought to elevate.

Despite his ultimate fame, Freddie Mercury was a loser: a shy young man born as Farrokh Bulsara in colonial Africa (in the British protectorate of Zanzibar) to Parsi parents, whose savant-like musical skills made themselves obvious at an early age. As his fame grew, his sexuality asserted itself more and more, becoming something akin to an open secret. But it was something he reveled in in his public persona, and he was as frequently vilified as he was celebrated. In the world of social conservatism, Mercury is doubly suspect: not just gay, but foreign. And not just foreign, but born in Africa to parents of Iranian extraction.

It is perhaps no wonder that the music of Queen speaks so frequently to the underdog. Not that this is unusual in the history of rock and roll, which has so often given voice to society’s losers, as has so much of rap and hip hop. And what is blues music, if not the cri de coeur of the downtrodden? It puts me in mind of the wonderful speech Jon Stewart delivered on the occasion of Bruce Springsteen receiving the Kennedy Center Honor. He talks about working in a bar in central New Jersey, hinting at his aimless and angst-ridden youth, but that when he listened to the music of Bruce Springsteen, “everything changed … and I never again felt like a loser.” When you listen to Bruce’s music, he says, “you aren’t a loser. You are a character in an epic poem … about losers.”

I have no pithy end to this post, no rhetorical flourish. At one point I thought I could end on something like “But if Trump wins, we’re all losers,” but I think if I wrote a sentence like that in earnest I might actually have to stab myself in the eye with a knitting needle.

I came relatively late to the music of Queen: they weren’t on my radar in high school for the simple fact that no one I knew listened to them (or admitted to it). I chalk this up in part to the fact that a Catholic high school in the 1980s is about as homophobic a place as you’re likely to find. I watched the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992 almost in its entirety, largely because of all the guest musicians, and ended up being transported by the Queen songbook.

After night four of the GOP convention, as I thought about going to bed, I felt I needed a life affirming anthem.

Leave a comment

Filed under politics, wingnuttery

Donald Trump, Mother Night

donald_trump_esclataor_sk_150616_16x9_992

Since June 16th, the day Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States, it’s safe to say that the goalposts of “conventional wisdom” have had to be moved so far, it’s entirely possible they’re currently in the next county. Comedians sent up hosannas for the rich veins of humour Trump would provide, but it was generally assumed that his campaign would be ignominiously short. When we arrived at the end of August with his poll numbers only going up, the conventional wisdom was that the end of summer would see the end of his fortunes—people would return from their vacations, start paying more attention to the news, and once that happened, Trump would inevitably fade.

Except that here we are in the middle of December, six months on from that day he rode that ridiculous escalator down to his podium to the strains of Neil Young, and the Donald ain’t going anywhere. If anything, he seems even more entrenched, a fact that is worrisome all across the political spectrum: people on the left blanch at how his outrageous, nativist bigotry has found such fecund soil, while establishment Republicans are terrified at the prospect of the lasting damage he might do the GOP (to be fair, I’m certain there are those on the right who are also appalled at his racist populism, but very few—certainly not those running against him—have been particularly aggressive in condemning him).

One of the theories that has been floated in an attempt to explain his candidacy is that he’s actually colluding with Hilary Clinton: that he’s actually a Democratic sleeper whose entire campaign is an elaborate scheme to destroy any possibility that the GOP could emerge in this election cycle looking accommodating and reasonable (as their postmortem on 2012 strongly encouraged). Those who endorse this theory—though in reality it is difficult to discern just how serious people are when they propose it—point to Trump’s previous associations with the Clintons, to the fact that they attended his (most recent) wedding, that Donald and Bill have been not-infrequent golf buddies, that Trump has made political contributions to both of them, and that in the past he has self-identified as a Democrat. And then there is the matter of the phone call between Donald and Bill in the weeks before his launched his campaign, in which, it has been reported, Bill strongly encouraged him to run for president.

To be clear, I do not buy this theory. At all. If Bill Clinton did in fact egg Trump on, to my mind all that demonstrates is that Bill is a wily old fuck who knew full well that, if Trump heeded his words, his candidacy would throw a massive spanner in the GOP gears (though just how massive a spanner, no one could have foreseen). I think it far more likely that Trump’s run is simply the product of his egoism and narcissism, the desire for a huger, more luxurious diamond-encrusted reality TV stage than The Apprentice. And however brain-dead and idiotic his policy suggestions have been, he’s shrewd enough to know that his brand of populism simply wouldn’t play with Democrats—something he himself noted in 1998, according to a new meme that’s been making the rounds of social media:

trump

The possibility that Trump’s campaign is all an act designed to sabotage Republican fortunes is an attractive idea on both sides of the political coin. On the left, it would give the lie to his egregious stances, and would further be a deeply satisfying thumb in the eye to all those who bought into his rhetoric. On the right—at least among those aghast at Trump’s insurgency—it would recuperate the Republican brand somewhat, to say nothing of confirming everyone’s worst suspicions about the perfidy of the Clintons.

Jeb!

As I say above: unlikely. But then, I’m reluctant to make pronouncements on the Republican campaign(s) anymore.

But let’s for a moment, just as an intellectual exercise, grant the premise. If for no other reason than it makes me think of my favourite novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night. If Trump’s campaign is in fact a massive ruse, it’s scarcely less horrifying than the more likely scenario that he is serious.

mother_night-largeMother Night is a novel about an American writer and playwright “of moderate reputation” named Howard W. Campbell, living in Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War. His family had moved there because of his father’s business when he was young, and so he grew up as facile in German as in English—and indeed, he works exclusively in German. He married a German actress named Helga, whose father is the Chief of Police in Berlin. Howard and Helga are studiously apolitical: as Germany descends into fascism around them, they withdraw into their “nation of two,” ignoring the political and social upheavals and living the privileged lives of the well-connected and moderately famous.

One day in 1938, Howard is approached in a park by a man from the U.S. War Department, who asks him if he would be willing to serve his country as a spy—to parlay his fame as a playwright into a position within Goebbels’ propaganda agency, broadcasting Nazi propaganda in English. He would be contacted anonymously by American agents in Germany and given instructions on certain words, phrases, and inflections to work into his scripts, which would be coded messages to Allied intelligence.

At first he is reluctant, but the American agent is confident he will cooperate—because, as he says, he has read all of Howard’s plays, and that he learned from them “that you admire pure hearts and heroes … That you love good and hate evil.” Except, Howard notes, his conspiratorial new friend is blind to the real reason this job appeals to him:

He didn’t mention the best reason for expecting me to go on and be a spy. The best reason was that I was a ham. As a spy of the sort he described, I would have an opportunity for some pretty grand acting. I would fool everyone with my brilliant interpretation of a Nazi, inside and out.

And I did fool everybody. I began to strut like Hitler’s right-hand man, and nobody saw the honest me I hid so deep inside.

And so Howard W. Campbell goes from studiously apolitical citizen of a “nation of two” to famous, fulminating American Nazi. Which is how he is known to history: as a traitor who turned his back on his birth nation to spew vile anti-Semitic propaganda for one of the most murderous regimes in history. The novel, incidentally, is presented as a confession and testament written in preparation for his trial for war crimes; he writes in a cell in Jerusalem in 1961, after he has been abducted from New York City by Israeli Nazi-hunters. The U.S. government, having facilitated his escape from Europe at the end of the war, will not confirm or deny his story.

He never knew what intelligence his broadcasts communicated; he never knew what effect he had for the Allied war effort. But he became a darling of the SS and the Nazis’ braintrust, and until the end proselytized their philosophy of hate. And at the end of the war, after his wife goes missing while performing for the soldiers in Crimea, he has one last encounter with his father-in-law Werner, the Berlin police chief and inveterate Nazi who had always hated the fact that his daughter had married an American writer rather than a German soldier. “Did you know,” he asks Howard, “that until this very moment, nothing would have delighted me more than to prove that you were a spy, to see you shot?” But no longer, he says: he no longer cares, because he has listened to every single one of Howard’s broadcasts, which he started doing out of hatred, wanting to study his loathed son-in-law. But he eventually came to a realization:

“You could never have served the enemy as well as you served us,” he said. “I realized that almost all the ideas that I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I might have felt or done as a Nazi, came not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler—but from you.” He shook my hand. “You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.”

Mother Night is an odd novel when considered in relation to Vonnegut’s other writing—odd because it is generally very low-key, lacking the verbal bombast and exuberance of such novels as Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse-Five, or Cat’s Cradle, to say nothing of its quiet realism, utterly unlike the others’ irruptions of the fantastic. There is no “So it goes” in Mother Night, no invitations to take a flying fuck at a rolling donut. And it has something rare in Vonnegut, something he acknowledges in a preface: it has a pretty straightforward moral. “We are what we pretend to be,” he writes, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

It is a striking variation on George Orwell’s famous observation that “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” The prospect that Donald Trump’s candidacy might be a charade is no comfort to me—not even close. In fact, I wonder if that wouldn’t in some ways be even worse. One way or another, it’s a reasonably good bet that his increasingly outrageous pronouncements aren’t sincerely held beliefs, but rhetoric designed to elicit roars of approval from the crowd to stoke the gaping maw of his ego. (Here’s a variation on the Clinton-Trump collusion narrative, Hollywood version: he started out as a Democrat sleeper, never expecting to last more than two or three months; but once he found himself on top in the polls, receiving the adoration of thousands of mouth-breathers, he embraced his new identity as conservative demagogue, and the increasingly frantic calls of Clinton staffers go unanswered). But whether his campaign is pretence, pandering, or deeply-held beliefs, its pernicious effects are the same: he has given voice to America’s id, and that’s a genie that won’t be going back into its bottle for a long time to come.

Several times in the lead-up to the Canadian federal election in October, I found myself jotting down notes toward a blog post on Stephen Harper and his increasingly noxious campaign. My principal theme was that it’s unfortunate that we have so often tended to misuse the terms “fascist” and “fascism,” throwing them at conservative figures so frequently that, when something actually approximating a fascist sensibility emerges, they have lost their power and meaning. I think the other reason Mother Night resonates when I think of Donald Trump is that his demagoguery—rallying an aggrieved nativist rump by vilifying certain ethnic and religious minorities through outright lies—has such clear analogues in the twentieth century. And, frankly, we do ourselves a disservice not to point them out.

2 Comments

Filed under wingnuttery

Paranoia’s White Privilege

At this point in my life, I can safely say that I’ve got conspiracy theory fatigue. Part of that is self-inflicted, as I spent five years writing my doctoral dissertation on conspiracy theory and paranoia in postwar American fiction and film; and having staked out that scholarly turf, I’ve kept myself apprised of the currents of paranoid wingnuttery in the eleven years since, from Trutherism to Birtherism and beyond. After a time it all becomes extremely repetitive: the pronouncements of those whom Richard Hofstadter dubbed “paranoid spokesmen” are about as formulaic and predictable as pornography.

I offer this preamble by way of saying that I very, very rarely feel compelled to write about this sort of thing any more.

What twigged my interest over the last few days is a report that a group of Texan Tea Partiers have raised concerns over a series of joint military exercises that will take place partially in the state, code-named Jade Helm 15. Now, concern over a large military exercise taking place in your backyard is understandable, but of course the conspiracists are proclaiming loudly that this is a “false flag” operation designed to provide cover for the invasion of Texas and establishment of martial law. Those making this claim point to the fact that several Wal-Marts have closed unexpectedly, and have suggested that the empty stores will be used as detention camps for anyone resisting the ensuing occupation.

wal-mart

There’s more, involving dark claims that tunnels have been built between the Wal-Marts and other points to better facilitate the invasion, but I think you get the idea. Yet another installment in the wingnut chronicles, right? Except that this time the conspiracy theory has received political endorsement: Governor Greg Abbott has responded to the wingnuts by mobilizing the Texas National Guard and ordering them to “monitor” the operations to make certain they don’t overstep their bounds. “It is important that Texans,” he said, “know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed upon.” And if that wasn’t enough, Senator Ted Cruz has promised his constituents that he will get answers from the Pentagon because “when the federal government has not demonstrated itself to be trustworthy in this administration, the natural consequence is that many citizens don’t trust what it is saying.” Though if Jade Helm 15 is in fact a false flag operation designed to turn Texas into Obama’s tinpot dictatorship, I’m not certain why Cruz seems to think the Pentagon would tell him that.

But then, wacko-bird is as wacko-bird does.

Senator Ted Cruz - Lynchburg, VA

Even here, with elected officials getting in on the paranoia, I can hardly colour myself surprised. Considering the accusations and charges thrown at Obama from the highest levels of the GOP, the invasion of Texas seems like small beer.

No, what’s gotten under my skin in reading this most recent conspiracist argle-bargle is the realization that this kind of paranoia proceeds from a position of privilege. “Paranoia,” let’s not forget, is a psychological designation and entails, among other things, a high degree of delusion and fantasy. Paranoia is by definition contingent upon context. To put it another way: a 1950s housewife living in Topeka who becomes convinced that the government has her under intense surveillance and will soon send the secret police to arrest her is almost certainly paranoid; by contrast, a mid-ranking member of Stalin’s Politburo in the 1930s who believes this is just exercising common sense.

In his excellent book Empire of Conspiracy, Timothy Melley marks out conspiracy-theory based paranoia from more pedestrian manifestations by identifying it with what he calls “agency panic.” The term is a deft little double entendre referring to the fear on one hand of “agencies” like the ATF, CIA, FBI, and so forth (or more classically, the Illuminati or the Freemasons); and on the other hand, the fear of losing one’s individual agency at the hands of a conspiratorial group or organization.

But let’s return to the Texas conspiracy and run down a checklist of fears it expresses that are common to most such conspiracy theories:

  • Agency panic
  • Military occupation and martial law
  • Constitutional abuses
  • Mass incarceration

As I said above, I don’t willingly return to my dissertation topic without significant motivation. But what inspired me to sit down with this topic was my sudden anger at just how obscene this kind of conspiracy theory is after a year that has seen the events of Ferguson and the current unrest in Baltimore, the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and the increasingly unavoidable fact that police forces across the U.S. are implacably and systemically set against urban black populations. I don’t mean this in the sense of “how dare you float a conspiracy theory when there’s racism you should be paying attention to,” but rather that all of those elements that comprise conspiracists’ paranoid fantasies are quotidian realities for African-Americans. Agency panic? Black agency has been systematically denuded by agencies from HUD to local police forces. Military occupation and martial law? From a strict legal perspective, no; but from any practical estimation, urban blacks are constantly subjected to a militarized police force, something that was on terrifying display in Ferguson last summer (as I wrote about in a blog post then). Randy Balko’s book Rise of the Warrior Cop is as damning an indictment of this fact as any I have encountered. Constitutional abuses? The War on Drugs, which has disproportionally hurt African-Americans, has all but dispensed with the Fourth Amendment. Mass incarceration? I don’t feel this one needs any explanation, as the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, again disproportionately affecting black Americans.

Outrage In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man

The paranoid fantasies emerging from the right wing of the American political spectrum have always had a disturbingly racist character, and while organizations like the John Birch Society are Exhibit A, the Birchers are by no means sui generis. If I have to point to the highest-profile paranoia on the American right, the NRA unavoidably takes the top spot, with Wayne LaPierre playing the mouth-frothing role of their paranoid spokesman. Everything in his many, many screeds is framed in terms of governmental intrusion and overreach—the slightest hint of a suggestion of a longer waiting period or a restriction on magazine capacity gets characterized as a plot to disarm Americans in order to pave the way for a totalitarian socialist government. Whether LaPierre actually believes his conspiracist bloviation or is just cynically playing on the credulity of his organization’s membership, it nevertheless feeds an insatiable appetite. When I earlier compared conspiracism to pornography, this was what I was thinking of.

But as any even casual observer of NRA rhetoric knows, second amendment fundamentalism is a whites-only club. When Cliven Bundy defied federal agents who wanted him to stop illegally grazing his cattle on government land, and was supported by heavily-armed “patriots,” he was the darling of Fox News in general and Sean Hannity in particular. When Bundy let his mouth run and revealed he was an unreconstructed racist, watching Hannity backpedal was amusing; but really, if he was being honest, he shouldn’t have. Everything about Bundy’s standoff, from Fox’s initial valorization of his bold defiance of government agents, to the fact that said agents responded peacefully when faced with armed citizens, screams white privilege. A counterfactual floated by any number of people at the time wondered how the situation would have been different if Bundy and his supporters had been black.

cliven

It would take a particularly torturous and disingenuous argument to suggest it would be no different. Fox News and Bundy’s other boosters in the right-wing media would have condemned it as armed revolt; the fact that Bundy was breaking the law in grazing his cattle on government land would have been repeated ad nauseam; and the “patriots” in the scenario would have been the agents of law enforcement. And had Bundy et al been black, it is highly doubtful the government agents would have backed down.

All of this is by way of saying that right-wing paranoia about government is just that—paranoia. The Cliven Bundy fiasco was not in itself a manifestation of conspiracism, it just shared its DNA—the Fox News crowd was quick to jump on board because it perfectly encapsulated the kernel of the conspiracist narrative, i.e. a dictatorial government seeking to run roughshod over a good old boy’s rights (rights which, in this case, he didn’t actually have—but whatever). The touchstone moments of right-wing conspiracism, most notably the catastrophe at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, are not cumulative indicators of systematic government aggression but examples of massive cock-ups. Meanwhile, the actual grist for the paranoiac mill, such as the NSA’s massive, and massively unprecedented, surveillance of digital communication does not seem to figure into the right-wing paranoid mentality. No one in those corners seems inclined to claim Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning as martyrs to the cause.

martial-law

Meanwhile, what this past year has continually showed us is that precisely the kind of governmental behavior that animates conspiracist fantasy has been deployed for decades against actual people. A right-wing website, apropos of Jade Helm 15, poses the hypothetical “What would happen if martial law was declared in America?” If actual martial law were declared, that would be shocking, and would go a certain distance to vindicating the paranoia of a vocal minority. But what is not shocking, or at least doesn’t make the news unless there’s a police killing and/or riot, is that a certain segment of America lives under de facto martial law, their rights of privacy and personal autonomy constantly contravened; and in every confrontation with law enforcement, whether it’s for a broken taillight or loitering, black Americans know they are under threat of deadly violence. That’s not paranoia: that’s everyday reality.

To be genuinely paranoid, you have to have the freedom to concoct imaginary enemies.

Leave a comment

Filed under wingnuttery