More than half a century ago, the sage William Seward Burroughs (noted novelist and Nike salesman) asked his fellow Americans the immortal question, "Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole to talk?"
Well, yes, Bill, you did--about halfway through Naked Lunch, as I recall. And that great monologue from the junksick Fifties perfectly prophesied the current front runner for the Republican party's presidential nomination. Donald Trump, talking asshole. We've been listening to his egomaniacal rectal soliloquies for so long now--since he was the poster boy for 1980s greed and one of the originals of Gordon Gekko and Patrick Bateman--that we've ceased to take his rantings seriously. We've become immune to the Trumpian rhetoric of narcissistic self-display, that turgid, sewer-ripe soup of verbiage in which everything Trump does is ''the greatest" and everything else is "the worst," in which the entire world is divided into two Manichean camps not of theological good and evil, but of Ayn Randian capitalist "winners" (Trump and his billionaire buddies) and "losers" (the rest of the human race); in which empty superlatives substitute for facts and ad hominem insults for argument; in which the entire world is likened to a single vast corporation with Donald J. Trump as its cantaloupe-haired CEO; in which the all-powerful 'Donald' can solve any problem, micro to macro, by uttering two magic syllables: you're fired. We've known this guy a long time: Donald Trump, bullshit artist. As long as he limited himself to reality TV (most of us have better things to watch) or New York real estate (most of us don't live there) or right-wing media (most of us have better things to do than spend our days Fox-watching and Limbaugh-listening), Trump was little more than a ridiculous self-inflating gasbag, a Barthelme balloon hovering like a sky-mirror over midtown Manhattan--potentially harmful to those unlucky enough to come within his orbit, but to the rest of us a harmlessly distant billionaire buffoon. Bozo the Superrich Clown. He was good for laughs, nothing more, certainly nothing dangerous...
But now that Bozo the Bullshitter, Don the Con, the New Sheriff of the Insane Clown Posse, prepares to stand one election away from the Oval Office and the nuclear trigger, it's time for the rest of us to start taking him seriously, to recognize the singular and terrifying danger he truly represents. For the first time in American history one of our major political parties is set to nominate-- albeit against the will of most of its elites--a perfectly cynical, unapologetic fascist demagogue. Trump as Republican nominee would be a frighteningly unprecedented event in our political history, something akin to George Wallace beating Nixon in the '68 primaries, or Lyndon Larouche grabbing the 1980 Republican nomination from Ronald Reagan. Democrats and leftists like me can continue to tell ourselves that the danger is still unreal, that even if Trump wins the nomination, Clinton will clean his clock in November, that a candidate Trump will mortally split the Republican Party, kill it as a national force, and usher in a new century of American liberalism. (This is certainly the unspoken fear that has Republican elites currently scrambling for some way, any way, to deny their own front runner the nomination.) I have my doubts about these rosy scenarios, and those doubts largely rest on the unprecedented nature of the Trump phenomenon. Yes, as a media celebrity turned politician, he can be understood as an especially moronic example of that aestheticization of politics that Walter Benjamin identified as one of the defining characteristics of fascism, but old European ideological models don't really capture the specifically 21st-century, specifically American aspects of the Trump problem. A few sentences ago, I called him a cynical unapologetic fascist demagogue, and in so doing I was not engaging in a feat of Trump-like empty verbiage. I chose those four words carefully, and I think we can better understand Trump and his danger if we think about them one at a time.
Cynical. Cynicism may be the most often misused word in current American cultural discourse. Deriving from the original Cynics, a rather attractively nonconformist and cosmopolitan philosophical tendency in the ancient world, the word has come to be commonly used as a generalized synonym for skepticism, pessimism and nihilism. Webster's Ninth tells us in a usage note that "cynical implies having a sneering disbelief in sincerity or integrity," and this is close to the (mis-)use of the word that best describes Trump (a meaning that is, interestingly, more applicable to another ancient philosophical tendency, Skepticism). Trumpian cynicism describes the gaping intellectual void between his orange-haired ears, the lack of any ideological foundation for his statements and his consequent ability to blatantly contradict himself, even in consecutive sentences, while exhibiting not a hint of cognitive dissonance. Trump can say one thing one moment, the opposite thing the next, and say them both with the same vapid grin, secure in the knowledge that either he is too powerful to be caught or his listeners too dumb to catch him. By importing this trait that has served him well in business (Trump will say anything to 'make a deal' regardless of its truth or falsity, regardless of whether or not he believes it) into mainstream politics, Trump demonstrates a contempt for his audience--and for the American people--that should be much more shocking than it apparently is. The fact that Trump can blithely succeed at this sort of bullshitting even while being interviewed by professional journalists reflects terribly on the state of political journalism in America.
Unapologetic. Trump is a legend in his own mind. He is the greatest, the best, the most wonderful, the most brilliant, the most successful, the most super-superlative superman ever to run for president. And did he mention that he's rich? Wait a few seconds, he'll get to that. And because he's the most honest businessman and the best human being on the planet, there's no need for Donald to ever apologize, for anything. Trump has taken to heart the old John Wayne ''never apologize, never explain" motto without noticing that in many of his movies John Wayne's characters were total dickheads: bullies, racists and murderers. (In The Searchers, by general consensus his greatest film, he's all three.) Or maybe Trump and his supporters did notice this--and they liked it. There may be a large amount of 'identification with the aggressor,' a kind of political 'Stockholm syndrome,' among Trump supporters. They're like a bunch of victimized children eagerly kissing the playground bully's ass so he won't kick theirs. This psychopathology might be the thing that makes Trump's support so solid: he appeals not to minds or even hearts but to nearly forgotten childhood traumas that determine adult behavior even more powerfully than conscious reason or emotion. Trump is the strong man who doesn't apologize. Apologies are for weaklings. Like all asshole revenants from the 1980s, Trump, despite a lifetime in the cutthroat business world, has absolutely no regrets. No regrets. Psychologists have a word for people who truly have no regrets: sociopaths. (Back in the '80s, that obscene decade that gave us the three-headed plague of Trump, Reagan and AIDS, there was even a brand of designer jeans called "No Regrets." If you could afford them, you could advertise your sociopathy on your ass.)
Fascist. In place of ideological commitment, Trump has a worldview, and that infantile weltanschauung (stupidly jingoistic, moronically militaristic, culturally kitschy, anti-intellectual, scapegoat-dependent, xenophobic, etc.) can best be described as fascist. The vision adumbrated in his public statements goes something like this. Trump sees the world as akin to a conglomeration of corporations. As president of the United States he will act as World CEO, ordering other countries around and 'firing them' (with missiles, perhaps) if they fail to obey his commands. It's a dark, Hitlerian vision, the stuff of bunker fantasies, the sort of thing sad, lonely white supremacists fantasize about in their mother's basements. When Trump is in somewhat less of an authoritarian mood, he speaks as if international politics consists entirely of businesslike deal-making, a view that might sound almost convincing until you ask yourself what kind of deal might have stopped the Rwandan genocide. Even the 'pragmatic,' deal-making side of Trump's worldview is deeply implicated in fascism, for it assumes that strongman Trump will be a magically efficacious dealmaker, always perfectly successful, a world-fuhrer to whose tune we can all smilingly goosestep. If Trump weren't so successful in electoral politics, this childish fantasy might be dismissed with a chuckle. The longer he keeps winning, the more frightened we should be. For Sylvia Plath was more right than she could know: millions of Americans, men and women, adore a fascist.
Demagogue. And that adoration is the self-destructive whirlwind the Republican Party has reaped. For fifty years, the Republicans have demonized liberals. (Liberals, for pete's sake! Next to democratic socialists and (maybe) Quakers, American liberals are probably the nicest, most ethical, most decent people on the planet. And when they were in power in America (1932-1980) America worked better than it had before or has since.) And for the past eight years, the party has worked overtime to convince millions of Americans that their country has been taken over by a Stalinist (or maybe fascist), Kenyan-born, illegitimate, secretly Muslim, terrorist-loving, anti-American antichrist. The hate campaign was hysterical, comic, laughable--and it worked. The Republicans used these asinine lies to motivate midterm voters who obediently delivered to their control first the House of Representatives and then the Senate. It was only a matter of time before there arose out of the ocean of rightwing media shite a shitemonster who personified the demagogic style of anti-Obama rhetoric. Beginning in the looney tunes land of birtherism, Trump leveraged his reality TV celebrity and Fox News commentating credentials (both being the media equivalent of junk bonds) into a political persona that has by now metastasized beyond Obama-hating to become a giant cancerous tumor on the brain of American politics. Rhetorically he has become an anti-Obama, appealing to all the 'darker angels' of his listeners' natures, their prejudices, paranoias, resentments, bigotries, their emotionally powerful, religion-fueled suspicions that they are living at the cusp of apocalypse and require not a president but a savior. As with all demagogues, Trump's appeal, like his rhetorical style, is profoundly irrational. Thus, it cannot be argued away. (You can't reason with a lunatic or, more to the point, a brainwashed cult-follower.) And Trump himself cannot really be debated; he can only be defeated. For the sake of America and the world, I hope November brings him a defeat, and I hope that defeat is crushing. Goldwater-level crushing; McGovern-level crushing. Antigone Bezzerides was right: "We deserve a better world."