It has been a fascinating year, I must say.
Back in July of 2015 I was sitting on a sailboat off the shoreline of Chicago with a friend from out of town and another friend—the owner of the boat. It was a beautiful blue and breezy summer day, and we were drifting blissfully along overlooking the shimmering, sun-bathed skyline. I was playing tour guide.
“So that’s the Sears Tower—AKA the Willis Tower. That one over there is the John Hancock. The glassy one right in the middle? That one’s the Trump Tower.” I paused. Then added with a grin, “You know? Our next president.”
My visiting friend smiled back knowingly. “Well. You never know.”
I’m sure I said something along the lines of, “Wayeell… some-times ya do.” And so we drifted along. I had no idea the strange saga I was about to watch our nation undergo.
Now I’ll ask you to hold your groans or gloats, because it’s not what you think. Truth be told, I’m a basically non-political fellow. That is to say, I put scant trust or emotional capital into our decidedly dysfunctional political system. More than that, I bereave the acrimony of our current national politico-centric hysteria. Nor am I prone to sarcasm. Those who know me might furrow their brows at that, but hear me out. Sarcasm is caustic and mean-spirited. (Its etymology is, after all, “to tear the flesh.”) I am prone to nonsense, that much is true, but I would prefer to label it “absurdity.” I wasn’t being sarcastic; a Trump presidency seemed to me the quintessence of absurdity. I wasn’t alone. (I’m not so sure Trump himself wouldn’t have felt the same way at that point.)
No, I’ve come to realize Trump to be a non-political creature; a kraken really, summoned by capricious gods we’re all loath to acknowledge.
Only weeks before said sail, Trump had ascended that gilded escalator to announce his presidential intentions. I recall watching Ivanka introduce her father with glowing praise, thinking, She is really staying in character! I wasn’t alone.
I recalled with incredulity an interview I’d watched years earlier in which Trump assured us (as is his custom) that some nameless multitude were all waiting to readily throw their support behind him should he run. His delusions of grandeur! I had marveled. How can he keep a straight face? I wasn’t alone.
I’ll admit to chuckling along during Obama’s devastating roast of “The Donald” during the 2011 White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Didn’t he have it coming? What with all that birther ridiculousness? Surely he was in on the joke. Weren’t we all in on a joke? I wasn’t alone.
As the months went by, my sense of absurdity gave way to true puzzlement. Explanations cascaded like twigs and leaves over the falls of my rationality, plunging into the rocky and roaring cauldrons of misty oblivion. He’s just an oddity, it’ll wear off. Nope. These polls are just a ratings grab. Nope. It’s just a matter of the GOP putting out a viable option. Maybe. It’s just that no one has any idea what to make of this guy. Actually…
What to make of this bombastic, orange cartoon character of a man with indescribable hair, who inhabits a world of fool’s gold? Wasn’t it all an absurd circus?
It was as though a portal to an alternate universe had opened before my very eyes, and I was now glimpsing a land where none of our physical laws held true. How timely to be gifted such an apt image by the popular culture in those days: it was the Upside Down, and a Demogorgon was at large. These were the stranger things.
If Trump was at first outrageous, heaven knows he was just warming up! He had seemingly no designs on “being presidential”. (Something he would later concede.)
And the Trump brand was far from static. His brash public persona and noxious rhetoric seemed a case-study on how to commit political harakiri. With each subsequent gaffe and gall, I would conclude, Now that’s the kiss of death! Inferring that Mexican immigrants are all thugs and criminals—bad hombres—before tweeting a Cinco de Mayo selfie with a taco bowl (“The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!”)? Kiss of death! Mocking a news reporter with a disability? Kiss of death! A Muslim ban, extreme vetting and suggesting the reinstitution of internment—inferring that the masses of displaced and imperiled Syrian refugees were only snakes waiting to bite their would-be rescuers. Kiss of death? A return to ominous “law and order” rhetoric responsible for unthinkable levels of mass-incarceration of blacks, and a demeaning, sloppy stereotyping toward this community. Kiss of death? He implied a female GOP hopeful was too ugly to be elected, inferred a female reporter who questioned him about it was compromised by PMS and was recorded self-reporting a history of sexual assault. He even said that he could “stand in the middle of 5th avenue and shoot somebody” without losing the loyalty of his voters. He offered to pay the legal fees of those who physically harmed protesters at his campaign events. (Something which happened with regularity.) Pretty soon he and death just seemed to be making out, and I was starting to worry for death’s well-being! We were witnessing an anti-miracle! Get a room!
He was promising to “Make America Great Again”, what with his loud and questionable red caps dotting rallies like little pools of blood. But, not unlike his tax returns, he never ultimately released the version of America for which he was so savagely nostalgic. Even Trump’s own heritage bore the marring of ugly xenophobia. Why else change your name from Drumpf to Trump; except to re-brand; except to un-brand; except to de-brand? How great is an America with such initiation rites? But he was relentlessly brutal toward the present version our nation, in all its varied and sundry malignancy; each bearing a striking resemblance to swaths of its varied and sundry populace.
As a fairly non-partisan observer, I was bewildered by the sheer efficiency with which he alienated whole segments of the electorate: Mexican Americans, African Americans, Muslim Americans, disabled Americans, Asian Americans, gay Americans and, one would have assumed, female Americans—certainly, Christian Americans, right? Right? (He was was an improbable amalgam of every trait Christian voters deemed reprehensible.) So shamelessly undeterred was Trump’s courtship of a constituency the existence of which I could scarcely imagine, that he seemed all-but-content to forfeit every population I actually assumed to exist. His opponent called them a “basket of deplorables”; an unfortunate generalization she would come to rue. Yet I must admit that he seemed so utterly indifferent not only to whole classes of my countrymen but to any shred of decorum whatsoever with which I presumed we comported ourselves toward others in a civilized society. How, in his wanton pursuit of those adulated by such barbarism, could he not be hemorrhaging vast preponderances of the Americans whom I thought I knew? Trump seemed (and still seems) so ravenous for adulation, no matter the source, that it was incomprehensible it wouldn’t prove his downfall. He was winning primaries, sure, but all that meant was that somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% of Americans were… what? My vocabulary of disbelief had become a bare cupboard.
I assuaged myself, Well, one good thing that may come of this is that he sure is exposing the vacuousness of the political breed. Oh, he was exposing far more than that!
By the time every major national publication across the political spectrum had not only endorsed his opponent, but run whole issues denouncing him (liberal and conservative alike), we knew the script was written. Watching a Republican National Convention where Ted Cruz was booed off stage for withholding an endorsement, Marco Rubio appeared via Skype, Melania Trump gave a re-baked Michelle Obama speech and Ben Carson did whatever you call that, was like watching a train-wreck from which we couldn’t wrest our fixation. Still there was a moment caught my notice toward the end of Trump’s “American Carnage” address (right after an odd growling acclaim for Melania and Ivanka),
My dad, Fred Trump, was the smartest and hardest working man I ever knew. I wonder sometimes what he’d say if he were here to see this and to see me tonight?
Maybe I’m the only one, but this was a pinprick of light or at least humanity that flashed from an otherwise opaque and un-human being. A last flick of luminosity escaping, as it were, from a voracious black-hole. Why did this feel like a clue; a piece of evidence?
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Convention had the palpable inertia of a team overlooking its upcoming opponent, or else prematurely celebrating a foregone victory. But who could blame them?
Weeks before the election, my family made a trip to Washington DC. We walked the Mall and paddle-boated the Tidal Basin just off the Potomac. We toured the Capitol, and were shown an unfinished marble sculpture depicting 3 leaders in the women’s suffrage movement. We were told the fourth-and-final figure was reserved for the first female president. My wife and I nodded. We knew who that was going to be.
We returned to a city, abuzz with the mounting frenzy of a possible historic Cubs World Series win, and were not disappointed. I hung a W flag off the back of my house. Took my kids to join 5-million others along the parade rout. That was November 4.
We tried to vote early, but failed. Even on election day, we were nearly turned back. We used the rest of the afternoon to do the Lagunitas Brewery Tour (highly recommend), grabbed our kids from school and headed home to watch what we thought would be the end, however unsatisfying, of this bizarre national fugue! Little did we know how very fugue-ish this night was to become! As we sat down, I chortled to my anxious wife, “This may very well be the first time a candidate does not win a single state.” Again, I don’t share this because I’m some flaming liberal. I actually withheld my presidential vote out of protest. I, and many, many others, were still simply incapable of comprehending a world in which this man could be elected president.
And so we watched, dumbfounded. Actually, many of us mumbled incoherently to ourselves like grasping lunatics. I’m not gonna lie, it was like something out of the Twilight Zone. It was a dissociative event. Major presuppositions were crumbling beneath my feat. I couldn’t have said it at the time, but I now know the question I was feeling: America, what have you done?
I went out the next morning and took down my W flag. This did not feel like a W in any way. I wore black. My kids were flabbergasted. I didn’t know what all it meant, but I knew it wasn’t good. The next day our local publication, The Hyde Park Herald, released our neighborhood returns. Of 12,600 votes, Trump had received, I kid you not, 450. Put away your calculator, it’s 3%. This felt like a hostile takeover. Only a glance at a general election map by precinct tells so much; our nation is stunningly and starkly divided. It is no matter of mere disagreement, however strong, but enormous populations of Americans (roughly equal parts) who can scarcely comprehend one another. We’d become something like Babel. You know, the story about a nation who, through unhinged aspirations for greatness, completely lost their common language?
I must say that I was sickened with sorrow watching the Obamas welcome Trump into the White House; though heartened by their courage through crestfallenness. What an awful way for the first black presidency to conclude: surrendering your home and office to a man dog-whistling white supremacists and throwing civil rights into disarray. I’ll mention once more that I am non-partisan, so I have never understood the distain so vehemently held by many toward this man and his family. Call it the other side of the coin of my perturbation toward seeing Trump as anything other than alarming, I guess. The Obamas are good people—great people—and a great American story. They still own a home down the street from me, and those who knew them personally only respect and admire them. Disagree with their politics and ideologies (I know I have), but whence such hatred; such revulsion? More than that, the Obama presidency was nationally restorative epoch, or should have been. For a nation with so racially nefarious a legacy as ours, this should never have been denigrated.
I vividly remember watching a street reporter interviewing a middle-aged black man outside his church in November of 2008, “What does the election of Barack Obama mean?” the reporter asked the man, who, without hesitation replied, “It means there is a God in heaven.” This was sacred for the black community and also for our nation. But we threw our pearls before swine. That will never sit well with me. America, what have you done?
Trump was inaugurated that Friday, January 20. The next day my wife joined the millions of women across the country on the streets for the Women’s March. (This is a very out of character thing for my wife, but we both considered it a matter of civic responsibility.)
Our perception of America had undergone a quantum change, but had America itself changed? I don’t think so. Though unpleasant, disillusionment ought to ultimately be preferable to illusionment. America, what have you done?
Now if you’ll permit me, I’d like to put this Millennium Falcon into hyperdrive. For what served as blazing quasars of astonishment in Trump’s inconceivable ascendency, became a sort of commonplace constellational spectacle zooming by in innumerable volume over the course of his first year in office. I’ve heard this described as “crisis fatigue”; an inability to maintain perpetual outrage or disgust, let alone conjure meaningful responses.
Trump’s America was to be, it would seem, crisis in perpetuity. A erratic and temperamental toddler was at the helm, and we couldn’t afford to muster level 10 responses. And so there would be Sean Spicer berating the press corps with the petty insistence that inauguration numbers were under-reported—marshaling out a huffy mash of guesstimations. Then there would be Trump’s bizarre “do you want to set up that meeting?” to a black reporter asking about his intentions to reach out to the Black Caucus. (Don’t tell me he knew what the Black Caucus was.) There were Twitter feuds with John Lewis, SNL, British PM Teresa May, every news outlet (except one), LaVar Ball and countless others. All such episodes betrayed the fragile psyche of a man who oughtn’t be given important assignments—maybe even a mentally unstable individual, as many have pointed out. He even threatened nuclear war multiple times on Twitter toward a nation with its own unstable leader with his own burgeoning nuclear arsenal. But, to many, this wasn’t deemed beyond the pale.
He fired the director of the FBI… while being investigated by the FBI, and began a Twitter feud with said former director. His top advisors were dropping like flies for failing to acknowledge secret meetings with Russian officials (“Oh, you meant that Russia?”). In fact his high-level positions seemed either un-fillable or a revolving door of cuckoo personalities—revolving door is actually too charitable, because they typically came in the front door and left out through the back—Flynn, Spicer, Bannon, Scaramucci. (Nothing to see here.)
He barraged the us with failed executive orders, sought to hastily deconstruct international trade agreements, made a Native American racist joke while honoring Native American war heroes! (You’re point is?)
There’s an old snowball-fight trick where you loft one snowball up in the air as a decoy, then, while the other person traces its path, peg them with a humming second one. It felt like that with Trump, only you couldn’t keep track of which were the decoys or which were the hummers; you just felt on your heels. It reminded me of the famous sequence from the Princess Bride in which Vizzini keeps exclaiming, “Incon-theivable!” at Wesley’s astounding feats. Eventually Inigo Montoya observes, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” Like I said, my cupboard of vocabulary had gone bare.
On his 100th day in office, Trump himself noted, “I thought it would be easier.” You can say that again. America, what have you done?
As much as I might want to believe this was a “plug your nose” election, my circle spans too broad to accept such a fiction. Granted, most people with whom I talk recognize that both nominees were far from ideal. Yet when I venture far outside my confines, I do not hear the language of cognitive dissonance. It’s more the language of resignation and entrenchment—an unapologetic and astigmatic tribal loyalty.
Few would admit to ever liking the music of Creed, but someone bought those 50-million albums. So too, Trump did not exert himself on a helpless or hapless American electorate, nor did he elect himself—63-million American voters pulled 63-million levers. Trump’s message found habitation in countless, non-deplorable Americans. Trump’s version of America, however nebulous and boorish, spun for them a compelling yarn. It was a tale jibed with the America of their imaginings; a type of Hail Mary pass, I suppose—not your finest play, but desperate times, right?
This was not a “plug your nose” vote or presidency; more like “plug your soul”. Jesus once asked, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” And do we forget that Jesus himself was offered the whole world, albeit in a premature and sinister fashion? “Worship me, and I’ll give it all to you,” said Evil. Jesus could have made the world pro-life, pro-Israel, pro-Merry-Christmas and anti-whatever right then and there; just a minor inconvenience of worshipping Satan. But what is worship, really? It is a valuation: the old English variant of worth-ship. It was an expediency Jesus could in no way abide, regardless of any promise for good. So plug our souls we did, but for what object of worship? Trump? Hardly. America? Yes.
Scoff, if you will, at the un-braggadocio-ed Drumpf, but you’ll be scoffing at America. Trump is a Frankensetinian assemblage of our shadowy national verity; a place which would remake us in its malformed image, before deigning to hand over any of its keys. A place where Drumpfs must become Trumps, hard-bake themselves into its dark mythology, and latch on for dear life. That it is the land of opportunity conveniently overlooks that opportunities seized are generally opportunities snatched and stolen. So it is that the American Dream might also be the American Nightmare, and it has found an embodiment in this transactional Midas of a Man; a man who mortally transactifies all he touches.
Look back over your own heritage and notice how it has been deconstructed by America. This is easy if you are African American and were converted, as it were, into property by America. This is easy if you are Native American, and were nearly exterminated for your inconvenience upon its alters. Are you Irish or Italian, German or Jewish? How about Mexican or Indian, Chinese or Korean? Weren’t your ancestors forced to contort to its version of what you were supposed to be? Didn’t your Drumpf become Trump? (Did your Sung Min became Sammy, your Rosenberg, Rose, or your namelessness, Jackson then Freeman?) Trump chanted along with packed rallies, “Build! That! Wall! Build! That! Wall!” He even recommended a “see-through wall” to prevent people from throwing illicit stuff over, but America has always had an invisible wall—a portal through which all must pass, and be purged of our illicit. What disembodiments have your people endured? Some are obvious, other’s not. There is obviously a racial component to all this—we’ve become color-coded, because America insists upon it—but there are many other such degradations resultant from the social Darwinism thumping in our national ribcage. Eat or be eaten.
America, what have you done? Exactly!
Trump did not so much reveal the frailty of the GOP or the two-party system or electoral college nor even the fragmented media landscape. He didn’t ultimately reveal our susceptibility to foreign interference or even nationalistic demagoguery. The marvel is not that America is a nation capable of electing a Trump, but rather that America is a nation capable of creating one. Trump’s fierce nostalgia is for the America of his very genesis; which his family conquered by mastering its terms—two men enter, one man leaves! The exploits of his huckstering immigrant grandfather and opportunist, mogulkin father are Trump’s twin paragon-progenitors—a seedier and more unseemly take on America than we prefer. This may delight or disgust us for any number of reasons, but surely among them is that of besting or being bested. So you may smirk a ghoulish grin or be aghast as a sheet (Trump’s America has made us largely a nation of ghouls and ghosts), but you’ve only mistook the graveyard—what with its stately statuary—for a pantheon. The American necropolis is populated with those who have coopted its raw material into cruel and magnificent devises. Trump is a name, but it is also a verb meaning “overcome all others.” In a game of cards, it’s the one you’d scarcely suspect. Trump is an unspoken American virtue.
Yes, Trump is a kraken summoned from our American mythology, and we must remember that all mythology is ultimately idolatry—powerful gods fabricated in our own image, which, as such, engender both deference and dread. Powerful gods, whose partiality to nation is only outstripped by their partiality to self. Powerful gods that kill their parents and devour their children. In these burnished idols we behold appalling, warped refractions of our selves and, to quote the psalmist, “those who make them will become like them, as will all who trust in them.”
The question, therefore, is not so much to which type of people Trump’s message appealed, but what part of people? Could it be called a “deplorable” part? A part that licks its lips and grabs whatever it wants to grab for whatever reasons? Trump’s American edifice is sided in shimmering gold, but constructed largely of rot—this is the American story we do not tell, Trump being but one bone of the skeleton in our closet.
The British writer WW Jacobs wrote a memorably chilling tale called The Monkey’s Paw. It tells of a discharged British soldier’s return home from India. He regales his friends with a tale about a bewitched monkey paw that he acquired during his travels—one with the power to grant three wishes to three separate people—and of its accursed way of demonstrating the fearsome folly of toying with fate. (The first man to wish upon it used his third wish to end his life.) The soldier attempts to throw it into the fire, but his friends, Mr and Mrs White (oh the inferences to make!), prevail upon him to leave it in their possession, which he reluctantly does. They light-heartedly wish upon the paw for £ 200, and are greeted that afternoon by the devastating news of their son’s grisly factory death—he was sucked into industrial machinery—along with the survivor’s payout of £ 200. For many nights they grieve this loss, until, in a frenzied fit of desperation, the wife seizes the monkey paw and wishes their son back alive. Minutes go by while the couple argue over the madness of this wish. What would their maimed son even look like?
Then there is a hard knock on the door. The wife runs up the stairs to unbolt the door. The husband grabs the paw and wishes their son away.
I can’t help but see this ominous and undead visiter as archetypical of Trump; the arrival of one whom fear and desperation foolishly bade back from the grave; a threatening presence produced through some black magic (or maybe orange magic). But each person who might come into possession of that monkey paw must heed its portentous history. We would do well to surrender it to the flames.
Trump’s America is, foremostly, America’s Trump, that is to say an American manifestation we might like to wish away. Trump’s America would seek to be made great without fretting the inconvenient nag of, “how so?” In Trump’s America, ends dismiss means altogether. Trump’s America has a head of gold and feet of clay.
We might call to mind that episode from Hebrew history in which, while Moses convened with God atop Mount Sinai, Israel became impatient and produced a gaudy gold idol. When Moses descended the mountain, he was incensed. He had this nation grind the golden thing up, scatter its dust over the water, and drink it down. Our own gilded apparition may need to be ground up year-by-year and drunk to the dregs like some Horcrux potion. Hopefully it sours our guts. This (this!) is patently what America is capable of, but it needn’t be deemed an inevitability.
Or it might be to us a sort of house of mirrors with glass tinted gold; mirrors accentuating all our worst features, bending our reflection into something we ourselves deplore. (Even if we are, sometimes, tempted to admire them: “This does make me look quite bronze and tall!” Try orange and awkward.) And it has been good, I think, for America to look itself in this undulated mirror of Trump and the mirror-house of Trump’s America. It ought to disquiet. It ought to remind us of what we’d rather not be. Relish the victory or bemoan the loss, Trump’s America is also a two-way mirror. Look intently enough through its panes and pains and you’ll see many a sad demise; pray not your own.
I’ve often thought that by cataloging Trump’s varied munitions of insults we might identify clues into his own pathology and self-concept: one who esteems himself a sad, stupid, failing, loser. It would explain his preternatural touchiness, and un-checked retaliatory instincts. He is a man incapable of transcending slights. But if those of us in our nation cannot find our way to higher ground, we have only ourselves to blame. Trump’s America would bear and beget Trumps of many stripes, but we needn’t accept its parentage. We might cite irreconcilable differences, and adopt our own American heritage. But this will, of necessity, occasion a reckoning with our own American mythicism. There is greatness, yes, within the American experiment—much to celebrate and preserve—nonetheless there is great brutality. There is no making America “great again”, but only making her great despite herself—shedding much along the way.
America’s Trump, in all his irksome repute, might be a repudiation of America’s foulest foibles; a chance to come to our senses. Our better angels might yet guide us forward, having escaped a flirtation with our worst. If we could be disabused of our American idolatry, we might recognize her for who she really is: flawed fundamentally (maybe fatally), but deserving our fair fight. If she is to become actually great, then we’ve been paid a cautionary providential visitation by an untrustworthy guide. And caution is well taken, for we might decommission the ways down which he would have us travel. Let us unlearn his folly that it not become or remain our own.
Let us strain in this moment toward the future interrogatory: America, what have you done? May we take pains herein to reply therein with dignified mirth; to gladly recount not only that America has become far greater, but also the greatness by which it became.
Wouldn’t that be tremendous?