Movie and television moments. The X-Files episode where a gray alien locked up in a jail cell, smoking a cigarette, says, “This can’t be happening...this can’t be happening”. The moment in Man on the Moon where Jim Carrey, realizing that the woo-woo cancer cure which was his last hope is a sleight of hand, begins to laugh. The terrible ending of Arlington Road, when Jeff Bridges and his FBI friend have an epiphany that there is a bomb about to go off in the trunk of Bridge’s car, and there is nothing either of them can do about it. The moment in Night Moves when the Inca monster statue for which everyone has been trying to kill one another floats to the ocean surface. Any monster movie in which the creature that seems to have been thoroughly destroyed twitches a little as the ending credits roll. Moments of horror and surprise and irony.
What is Donald Trump? How did he happen? Who is responsible for him? What does he mean for us?
Donald Trump is not weather, nor an Act of God: he is not a random eruption from some sort of chthonic underworld, nor a Lovecraftian Yog-Sothoth from beyond the universe, not something helplessly happening to us. Human agency, our behavior, produced Donald Trump; we own him.
(I can’t resist however quoting the following, which I found this morning as I searched for a metaphor for Donald Trump: “ It was perhaps that which certain secret cults of earth have whispered of as YOG-SOTHOTH, and which has been a deity under other names; that which the crustaceans of Yuggoth worship as the Beyond-One, and which the vaporous brains of the spiral nebulae know by an untranslatable Sign…” As an afterthought,I did a Google search on “Donald Trump rough beast” and found a lot of comparisons, by private posters and pundits from across the political spectrum, of Trump to Yeats’ “rough beast, its hour come round at last”, slouching “ towards Bethlehem to be born.” )
Donald Trump is a product of a number of American and human trends which I have struggled to describe in the Spectacle for twenty years.
Last month, I wrote that the Republican party created the Trump-monster, by destroying all the gates which would have kept him out: “Anyone who breaks down everything in sight, expecting to balance securely on the last remaining granite pedestal, should not be very surprised when a stronger outsider, not part of the usual tired power-gang, rides in on horseback to take it all.”
Donald Trump also emerges from the ongoing degradation of language. In the 2009 essay Language Lies and Power, I wrote that the Republican Party “ is deliberately warping language, denuding the words they use of their meaning, so they are converted into mere labels denoting horror or disapproval. These labels are then used to marginalize and weaken adversaries.” And I quoted the German philologist Victor Klemperer, who said of the Nazi degradation of the formerly beautiful and nuanced German language: “Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously. . . language does not simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it.
“And what happens if the cultivated language is made up of poisonous elements or has been made the bearer of poisons? Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.”
I also quoted Arthur Cohen, who wrote in 1981: “one notes in advanced capitalist societies that the command of nuanced and subtle language in public discourse has all but disappeared. The debasement of language, the stripping of its shading and moral intensity began in the West long before Hitler and continues after he is gone.”
If elected, Trump will be Don Rickles, Andrew Dice Clay or Triumph the Insult Comic Dog as President--figures that we thought lived off to one side, in some funny transgressive space, that the degradation of language is fast making mainstream, expressive of our only discourse. We never imagined a campaign in which the candidates would be talking about each other’s sweat and urine, but why not?
Donald Trump is what Newt Gingrich aspired to be. Through-out the 1990’s, Gingrich was my personal bete noire about whom I wrote more angry articles than anyone else but Stephen Spielberg (whom I hold responsible for the degradation of movies). In 2012, when he was attempting to surge back up from Chthonos backed by billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s dollars, I wrote: “Newt's big contribution to the GOP, which has led to the destruction of American politics, was the insight that to win the war, you must begin by capturing the language and therefore defining the debate, as the Nazis did in repositioning the German language in their twelve years of domination.” And I quoted his 1990 playbook for defeating Democrats, “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control”, in which he recommended the use of the following language in campaigns: “decay, failure (fail) collapse(ing) deeper, crisis, urgent(cy), destructive, destroy, sick, pathetic, lie, liberal….”
In a 1996 essay, one of many I wrote on Newt’s rhetorical style, I listed as some elements demonization, avoidance, pre-emption and non-sequiturs.
Trump is simultaneously a manifestation of something I called “billionairism” in a 2011 essay, describing it as “ an ideological movement with significant moral implications in which people, bolstered by their own great wealth, feel entitled both to disregard any legal strictures the nations in which they live and work attempt to apply to them, and to use their great financial power actually to transform, to warp out of shape, those nations.”
Trump is anomalous only in the limited sense that the insult comedian leading in the 2016 primaries did not have to be a billionaire; he could have been a person of ordinary means and background like Ted Cruz. Trump’s money in that sense is only a magnifier or accelerant. It permitted him to make his name a television brand for twenty or thirty years, which he is now exploiting for a presidential run. His money also gives him the independence to be rude, to avoid tailoring his campaign to playbooks suggested by other billionaires such as the Koch brothers or Adelson. Finally, Trump is also an anomaly in that, so far, other billionaires have mainly attempted to transform American democracy by spending their money, not by running for President. The last super-rich presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, with a net worth of about a quarter billion dollars, came from a family which had mostly chosen to live within democracy, play by the rules, not to use its wealth to corrode or degrade in the way of the Kochs. But a society which counts on its billionaires to behave themselves is one in terrible danger. In the 2011 essay cited above, I wrote of this “good billionaire” phenomenon: “While a man foregoing the opportunity to steal unguarded gold from Fort Knox is highly laudable, the smooth continuation of society, based on an accurate understanding of human nature, demands that we guard Fort Knox. And we aren't.”
Trump is the product of a world in which actual factual outcomes (that was a deliberate choice, which I am enjoying, “actual factual”) no longer matter, and victory is declared based on rhetoric alone, regardless of what is happening on the ground, in the real world. I wrote about this in a 2006 essay which concluded: “That was why Hurricane Katrina was such an interesting object lesson. The people running the Federal Emergency Management Agency were completely blindsided because, in a world of rhetoric, they had only ever expected to have to deal with rhetorical emergencies. The intervention of actual wind and water stunned them.”
I have over the years traced the trend in which we disclaim human agency for terrible outcomes such as the millions of people evicted from their homes in the mortgage “crisis”. I wrote in 2009: “ I think ultimately the adroit diffusion of risk and responsibility represented by the securitization of subprime mortgages fools many into treating a crisis born of human greed as an act of God.” Today it seems evident to me that most current disasters--the mortgage bubble, the high cost of health care, decline of the middle class, the millions of illegal migrants--are all described in the press as if they were such acts of God, merely some persistent bad weather we are experiencing. And yet, as most of us now admit, even the weather is not random any more, but is itself influenced by human actions.
Trump epitomizes that world in which we have lost sight of cause and effect, of human agency, in which mere words are equated with outcomes, where people win by declaring victory. If you examine Trump’s actual career objectively, based on easily available facts, he has failed a lot, declared bankruptcies and closed businesses. Ordinary people have lost their entire savings buying apartments in failed condos to which he licensed his name, in Mexico and Florida. Worse, he ran from his own offices the predatory Trump University business whose salespeople persuaded ordinary Americans desperate to stay afloat to max out their credit cards to buy useless $20,000 courses in real estate. Thus, ordinary people voting for Trump are choosing to believe his boasts over visible facts.
This too is a form of human agency. In a loose but real sense, even quite despotic governments depend on the “consent of the governed”. The population of China is almost 1.4 billion people; if a mere million of them walked into Beijing together, the government would fall in a heartbeat. A vote for Trump may be seen as the outcome of a con, as I suggested in the last paragraph, but it is also a defiant and rather nihilistic choice, a message of exasperation to the existing political parties, and primarily to the Republicans, to go fuck themselves. I can think of at least two modern examples of voters wilfully ending democracy, Germans in 1932 and Algerians in 1991.
In any event, Trump is not inevitable, not Yog-Sogoth, not weather. He is a choice: an abyss over which we are leaning. Don’t jump into Trump.