When the young Bismarck left St. Petersburg after his four-year stint at the Prussian embassy, he had the following verdict engraved on a ring: LA RUSSIE, C'EST LE NÉANT. Sterile, sclerotic, and fatally introverted, the czarist autocracy was “nothingness,” a vacuum, a void. Donald Trump is le néant. There’s nothing there. No shame, no honor, no conscience, no knowledge, no curiosity, no decorum, no imagination, no wit, no grip, and no nous. Into this spotlessly empty vessel, certain Americans contrive to pour their anger, their resentments, their ambitions, and their hopes. How is it done?
In midsummer, I journeyed from Manhattan to Youngstown, Ohio, to see the process in action at a rally held, or thrown (no entrance fee), by the U. S. president. Would I feel at home among my fellow attendees? On the way, I silently rehearsed the Barry Manilow Law, as promulgated by the poet-critic Clive James: Everyone you know thinks Barry Manilow is absolutely terrible; but everyone you don’t know thinks he’s great. The Covelli Centre had attained its full capacity: seventy-five hundred. And there I stood, surrounded by everyone I didn’t know.
And there stood Donald Trump, fifty yards away, clapping his hands as he greeted the audience, and running through his repertoire of false smiles. False smiles are the only kind of smiles at his command, because whatever “sense of humor” he might once have laid claim to has long since evaporated, together with its fraternal twin - balance of mind.
There are only three false smiles: the golf-pro smirk, revealing the golf-champ teeth; the one in which he bites down on his sucked-in lower lip (this isn’t a smile so much as an imitation of a regular guy); and, arguably the most dreadful of all, the flat sneer of Ozymandian hauteur that widens out almost from ear to ear, like a comic mask. The eyes, meanwhile, remain utterly unamused.
Yes, and Eric and Lara were there, and Rick Perry was there, and Anthony Scaramucci was there (judging by his outward form, you could imagine the Mooch on the books of a high-end gigolo agency, along with Don Jr.), and Melania was there. Trump’s wife, Melania Knauss: My wife, a keen observer of body language, says there’s no doubt at all that Melania hates Donald’s guts. So maybe POTUS brings FLOTUS along to get a kiss and a hug and a feel of her hand, which, by now, is probably the extent of his wants. Some people (including me) believe that Trump’s libido has been ridiculously overblown (not least by the germophobe himself, as self-publicist and locker-room braggart). All we know more or less for sure is that he has done it five times.
Even at $12,000 per suit, or whatever it is, the tailor’s art can do very little with the stubborn slab of DJT. Still, despite his mirthless beams and grins, he was clearly very happy at the Covelli Centre. Here he would get no “mixed reviews,” as he did in the swamp and in the fake-news media. By watching Trump rallies on TV, the crowd had mastered a quartet of trisyllabic chants, which are “BUILD THAT WALL,” “LOCK HER UP,” and “U-S-A”; the fourth is “WE LOVE TRUMP,” as in “WE LOVE TRUMP, WE LOVE TRUMP, WE LOVE TRUMP.”. . . His “strongly approve” numbers had recently plunged, from around 30 percent to around 20 percent. But they had risen again, thanks to his slanging match with Kim Jong Un. Trump’s “base” is said to be hovering around 35 percent. So in Youngstown, let us say, we were seeing how the other third lives - and how it loves.
Journalists are a rough-and- ready crowd; but how are historians going to address the phenomenon known as “President Trump”? Only an extraordinary concatenation of events, they will no doubt begin, could result in the ascendance of a figure so manifestly . . . We blush for historians, we blush for history, and we blush for Clio, its muse.
Hillary Clinton has talked for years of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” This is a contradiction in terms - though not quite as absurd as Trump’s reference to a “global conspiracy” behind the Paris Accord (where the wire-pullers were intent on swindling the United States). A “conspiracy” is by definition secret. Therefore any talk of a conspiracy that involves more than a handful of actors - say, a single dedicated cadre - should be dismissed out of hand. This makes extra-obvious nonsense of the idea of a self-inflicted September 11, with its controlled-demolition crews, Tomahawk-missile operatives, among hundreds of others. Beyond a certain point, human nature being what it is, a secret will be a secret no longer.
The vast right-wing conspiracy does not exist. What does exist, as Joshua Green vigorously demonstrates in Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, is a broadly dispersed and uncoordinated effort aimed without precision at an unevenly shared goal: defeating the globalist and multiculturalist Hillary Clinton and then (much, much later) promoting the nationalist and white supremacist Donald Trump. The dramatis personae range from peddlers of anti-Hillary knickknacks (Clinton nutcrackers, bumper stickers saying LIFE'S A BITCH. DON'T VOTE FOR ONE) to a galère of ultrarich and ultraperverse donors (some of whom are also ultratalented), backed up by a cast of clever quacks and charlatans - most notably Steve Bannon.
Take Robert Mercer. A self-made billionaire who collects machine guns and loves fancy dress, Mercer was gullible enough to promote the congressional candidacy of a certain Arthur Robinson, an Oregon “research chemist” who, in his quest for the key to human longevity, amassed “thousands upon thousands of urine samples,” writes Green, “which he froze in vials and stored in massive refrigerators.” Robinson lost, narrowly. After Trump’s election, Mercer’s middle daughter, the very committed Rebekah, pushed to have Robinson appointed as “national science advisor.” That campaign failed, too - and by a landslide, one would like to hope.
Gullible Mercer may be, but he was also sufficiently brilliant to revolutionize computer translation. In the early-middle 1990s, this field was in the hands of linguists and grammarians. Mercer and his IBM colleague Peter Brown took an entirely different tack, “relying on a tool called an ‘expectation maximization algorithm’ - a tool code breakers would use to find patterns.” The lexicographer scientists scoffed at Mercer’s efforts, but “statistical machine translation” worked - and for every language known to man. It is the basis of Google Translate.
Reading Devil’s Bargain, you nurse the following suspicion: For every Bill and Melinda Gates, there is, in the stratosphere of the 1 percent, a Robert and Rebekah Mercer, looking for trouble and looking for someone like Trump. None of this would’ve mattered much in the days before that judicial masterpiece Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee (2010). Citizens United is a fringe Republican group of Clinton haters; its president is David Bossie, another busybody and nutter who was taken up by Bannon - and then by Trump, just as he began his “birther” rampage.
We now go forward to mid-August 2016, with the election twelve weeks away. At this point Clinton’s lead was close to double figures, and Trump was nearing what Douglas Brinkley memorably called his “sick meltdown.” So Rebekah Mercer flew by helicopter to the East Hampton estate of Woody Johnson (owner of the New York Jets) for a face-to-face with the Republican nominee. Here is Joshua Green’s version of what happened next:
Her own family was into Trump for $3.4 million, more if you counted ancillary support such as Breitbart. The RNC, she told him, was days away from cutting him loose and turning its focus to saving the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.
“It’s bad,” Trump admitted.
“No, it’s not bad - it’s over,” she shot back. “Unless you make a change.”
. . . Mercer told Trump that he needed to get rid of Paul Manafort, whose ill-conceived attempt to moderate him into someone acceptable to swing voters had plainly failed. Furthermore, growing attention to Manafort’s ties to pro-Kremlin autocrats was hurting Trump’s campaign. “Bring in Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway,” Mercer told him.
“I’ve talked to them; they’ll do it.”
Bannon and Conway did it, and Trump did it, the American electorate did it, and the rest, embarrassingly, is history.
If Christopher Hitchens were alive today, he would be the leading voice (along with Bernie Sanders) of the Resistance. And I don’t think Christopher, in this role, would waste much ammunition on the barn door of Donald Trump; he would go straight for the man responsible for America’s disgrace and distaste: Stephen Kevin Bannon. After a “kaleidoscopic career” - naval officer, Goldman Sachs banker, earth-science researcher, Hollywood producer, online-gaming mogul, editor of Breitbart News - Bannon looked for a political instrument to help reify his “vision.” At first he was drawn to Sarah Palin (which to some extent gives you the measure of the man); then he saw Trump.
As Steve Bannon might put it, “How much shit can they eat?”
Green characterizes Bannon as “a Falstaff in flip-flops,” which is physically vivid but in all other respects inapt. (In the bluster-and-cowardice department, you could as well call Trump a Falstaff in Brioni threads.) Bannon is a recognizable type: the high-IQ cretin, or the Mensa moron. He is very smart and very energetic; what he lacks is even a trace of moral intelligence. And Falstaff had plenty of that: See his great satire on martial “honor.” (“He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it?”) Although I’m familiar with the Bannon genus, I must admit that his brand of hip, gonzo nihilism strikes me as something quite new. “When she comes into your life,” he said in unalloyed praise of Julia Hahn (one of his underling “Valkyries”), “shit gets fucked up.”
Despite his studied profanities, Bannon is intellectually pretentious, even grandiose. His supposedly all-consuming autodidacticism hasn’t brought him close to full literacy (“Every morning, President Trump tells Reince and I to . . .”); he is also a cerebral flibbertigibbet - Zen Buddhism, the writings of the French occultist René Guénon and the Italian racial theorist Julius Evola (the latter a Mussolini ally whose ideas gained currency in Nazi Germany). Similarly, his “systematic study of the world’s religions” hasn’t shifted him from the Tridentine Catholicism of his origins.
The “Tridentine” tag refers to the Latin eucharistic liturgy used by popery from 1570 to 1964. Both dates are central to the Bannon calendar: The 1960s was when secular liberalism got out of hand (with its promiscuous dope-fueled iconoclasm); correspondingly, Bannon swooned over the policies mooted by Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (niece of Marine), saying that her program was “practically French medieval,” and adding, “She’s the future of France.” The Middle Ages lie ahead of us: That’s Bannon. Also featured in this mess are the familiar platitudes about the “clash of civilizations” with Islam. It is not a clash of civilizations; it is a clash of one civilization against a mélange of religious gangsters (very many of them converts). Since September 11, murders committed, on American soil, by right-wing vigilantes have more or less kept pace with murders committed by Islamists (the figures are 106 and 119).
Clearly, Bannon was potentially a very dangerous figure: Trump’s Cheney. For a time, it seemed the surest way to marginalize the threat was to put his face on every available magazine cover until Trump showed him the door. But that won’t be necessary, as we now know. Bannon skillfully maneuvered his vaudevillian dunce into the White House; lacking moral imagination, he didn’t see, or didn’t care, that as soon as he gained power, Trump would be instantly corrupted and deranged by it, declaring himself to be “my own strategist” (on top of being “the greatest person in the world”), and would stop listening to anybody at all. Everywhere you look now, Trump is being called “stupid,” “idiotic,” “unhinged,” and “crazy,” and Paul Krugman is not the only one plainly suggesting that Trump is in the early stages of senile dementia. Imagine his second term. . . .
Let’s be clear. The GOP’s psychotic break began on Election Night in 2008 (and the Tea Party coalesced immediately after Obama’s inauguration). Horribile dictu, but about one in three Americans cannot bear to have a black man in the White House. The hysterical blond who occupies it now is the direct consequence of that atavism. As for his tenure, this has always been the question, from day one: When would enough Republicans start putting patrie before party? As Steve Bannon might put it, “How much shit can they eat?”
That night in Youngstown, early on, the president rhetorically asked, “Is there anyplace that’s more fun, more exciting, and safer than a Trump rally?” One of the three propositions was true - an astonishing veracity rate for Donald J. (“Donald J,” incidentally, was an earlier trisyllabic chant, and one that handily rhymed with “U-S-A.”) I found this Trump rally inexpressibly tedious; it stimulated nothing but a leaden incredulity; but it was perfectly safe. There weren’t any people dressed as storm troopers or Imperial Wizards. And during the warm-up, as the Pledge of Allegiance was solemnly intoned and everyone in the stadium got to their feet (most though not all placing a hand on the heart), I remained seated, up in the stands, and continued to write away in a highly suspicious Moleskine notebook. Nobody gave me a first glance, let alone a second.
During Trump’s speech, there were a few small-scale protests (inarticulate bawling), and the dissidents were quietly led to the exit. Trump has by no means lost his taste for vicarious violence (see his recent incitement to police brutality), but he greeted the ejections with a mild nondrollery and even alluded to the First Amendment: There was no hot talk of stretchers and bloody noses. The other significant change in his MO concerns the beautiful wall on the southern border. Usually, when the chants of “BUILD THAT WALL” have at last died down, he asks, “And who’s going to pay for it?” while theatrically cocking an ear. Well, he doesn’t anymore. Because the rejoinder now would not be the triumphalist “MEXICO!” or “THEY ARE!” but the rather more muted “AMERICA” or “WE ARE” (and estimates go as high as $25 billion). Otherwise, Donald was a good boy and never strayed from his prompter - neglecting to say, for example, that he was going to fire Jeff Sessions and replace him with someone who would fire Robert Mueller.
There were the standard untruths (Americans are the most highly taxed people on earth) and some grotesque distortions (if increased insurance premiums in Alaska were proof that Obamacare was a “nightmare,” why would its senior senator cast one of the deciding votes against repeal?). Apart from that, though, if you tuned out the content, you would have to say that he seemed occasionally and fleetingly near-presidential. But what’s a president doing at a rally after barely six months in the White House?
He comes to these things, they say, for the validation. And he gets it. Validation, and a loyalty that is as wholly impervious to reality as the NRA. About a third of the billion or so guns on the planet (including all the armies’) are in America: So that’s about one each. Gun deaths average ninety-three per day. I reckon the trigger-and-bullet community would live with 930; but not with 9,300, which would slash the U. S. census by 25 percent in a single generation.
To lose his base, Trump would need to preside over something almost as cataclysmic. Turning the office served by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and LBJ into a morbidly obese cash cow hasn’t done it. A financial crash (unlikely) could be scapegoated and wouldn’t do it; a fresh sex scandal (barely conceivable) wouldn’t do it. The Hood Robin health-care plan that passed the House of Representatives might have done it if introduced before 2018. If the chemistry between the “fat kid that’s running North Korea” (John McCain) and the fat crock that’s running America results in the vaporization of, say, Los Angeles, and if this is followed by an arsenal-clearing response (with all its sequelae): That would do it. Trump is clearly praying for an excuse to wipe North Korea off the map, thereby winning the plaudits of a grateful planet. I hope he’s listening when someone tells him the truth - that the U. S. would be a pariah for the rest of the century.
Trump’s 35 percent is otherwise pretty sound. George W. Bush’s base, as he told fellow diners at some million-a-plate fundraiser, consisted of the superrich. What does Trump’s base consist of?
Intel engineers did a rough calculation of what would happen had a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle improved at the same rate as microchips. . . . These are the numbers: Today, that Beetle would be able to go about three hundred thousand miles per hour. It would get two million miles per gallon of gas, and it would cost four cents. . . .
- Thomas L. Friedman, Thank You for Being Late
The world is accelerating, and the Trump loyalists are idling in neutral and in constant danger of slipping into reverse gear. Why and how does Trump give them hope? He gives them hope because - sotto voce - he is saying:
Elite media types tell you you’re stupid and don’t know anything. Well, look at me. I’m stupid, too, and I don’t know anything, either. I think Frederick Douglass [1818–95] is still alive - and doing a great job, by the way. I think my hero and presidential model Andrew Jackson [1767–1845] was “really angry” about the Civil War [1861–65]. People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? My advisors tell me it was to do with slavery. Why could that one not have been worked out? You know what I say? “Live and let live.” I came up with that phrase a couple of days ago. I thought it was good.
A guy who worked for me, Steve Bannon, once said, “You’re a student of military history,” and when he came to mention it, I realized it was true. Take Napoleon. Now, you know Napoleon finished a little bit bad. [He lost at least half a million troops in 1812.] And his one problem was he didn’t go to Russia that night because he was screwing some chick in the City of Lights - and they froze to death. [Napoleon was in Russia for six months. Unencumbered by his army, he needed thirteen days to race back to Paris from Smorgoniye.] Maybe I should’ve said that Napoleon needed to start out for Russia that night. Because there was no Air France in those days. And he didn’t have his own jet with NAPOLEAN painted on it.
The citified snobs say you live in a bubble. What’s wrong with that? Bubbles are great. Me, I’m so out of it that I only see the little folder they hand me every morning, mostly stuff from Breitbart and the Drudge Report. As far as I’m concerned, my speech to the Boy Scouts met with universal acclaim. There was no “mixed,” okay?
To tell you the truth, I’m the least racist person there’s ever been in the history of the world, and I say that with great surety. I just don’t like Muslims, and I don’t like Mexicans coming here and taking our jobs and living off our welfare. Plus, I support - I spearhead - voter suppression. Look at that new commission I’ve formed to deal with “election integrity.” And you can’t really do something like that without believing, deep down, as you do, folks, that “people of color,” as the PC pointy heads call them, shouldn’t vote. Or shouldn’t vote so often and in such huge numbers.
Steve Bannon said I was the greatest American orator since Brian William Jennings, whoever the hell he may be. But Steve was joking, right? This evening I talked on a teleprompter, but anyone who’s read my interviews knows full well I can barely scrap my way out of a five-word sentence. I’m like you. And we’re the really smart ones.
All this. But still I’m up there with the .01 percent. And you aren’t - or not yet! It’s true that I’m no longer the leader of the Free World. I unloaded that one on Angela Merkel, and I wish her lots of luck with it. But I’m still President of the United States of America. I’m the multibillionaire Commander in Chief. Okay?
So draw your own conclusions. . . . I don’t know why I even bother to say that. Because you already have.
The Trump transfusion, the way the utterly callous plutocrat gives heart to the stranded proletariat, was on lavish display in Youngstown. And it is a hauntingly desperate spectacle.
Some sensitive souls - Nabokov was among them - are repelled by circuses and zoos and other settings where animals are “trained” by humans. What they find unwatchable is the insult visited on animal dignity. The audience in Youngstown was human; but the humans had surrendered their individuality to the crowd. So it is hard to say what kind of animal they had reduced themselves to. A millipedal hydra, perhaps - and the size of a leviathan. And at the direction of its tamer, this colossal beast performed its party tricks, its chants, its boos and hisses, its cheers and whoops; and for this it will be given no sugar lump.
The boos are elicited by references to Democrats, gun control, Obamacare, immigration (“We want them the hell out of our country! . . . We’re sending them the hell back where they came from!”), and anything at all to do with political correctness; the whoops are elicited by references to law enforcement, the armed forces, the Second Amendment, jobs, putting America first, defending our borders, family, fidelity, and faith in God.
The Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh recently observed that impulsive, leap-in-the-dark populism is turning out to be a purely Anglo-American phenomenon (now watched with pity by the other developed nations). Plebiscitary frivolousness, Ganesh argued, is the result not of hardship but of relative ease - and decades of internal stability. France and Germany (though not Italy: think of Berlusconi) have been successfully inoculated by the experience of deep historical tragedy, and deep guilt (the Third Reich, Vichy), which still presides over their living memory. What “nightmare,” apart from Obamacare, was the American working class struggling to awake from? Flat wages, a feeling of national ostracism, the dominance of elite expertise, and the shackles of political correctness.
No one ever claims to be politically correct, but every day we are being reminded how much we owe to that modest and no longer particularly erratic or repressive ideology. Its civilizing effects have strengthened evolutionary progress, much to the benefit of women, minorities, and society as a whole, very much including heterosexual Wasps. In other words, the status quo wasn’t the terminal carnage pictured by the yahoo with the microphone. The electorate nonetheless wanted change, and at any price. Donald Trump might give us nuclear war, the feeling was, but “anything’s better than Hillary.”
President Trump is not quite le néant. He is, for one thing, a truly gigantic category mistake - a category mistake made by the American people. When he said in mid-campaign that he could shoot somebody down on Fifth Avenue without losing any votes, Trump subliminally blundered on a central truth.
Because the electorate wasn’t fully persuaded that he was “real”: He was real only in the sense that reality TV was real. Well, Trump is real now, all right, and his sick meltdown is happening in the Oval Office.
Last November Steve Bannon somehow induced a plurality of citizens to vote in direct defiance of their own interests (as did Nigel Farage in the UK). It may be invidious to single out a particular constituency, but how can one avoid focusing on the huge “minority” whose interests are already in shreds?
There were plenty of women in the Covelli Centre (some of them sitting under placards that read WOMEN FOR TRUMP); there were a few black and brown faces; there was even a black grandmother. Now that Roe v. Wade itself is under threat (from Justice Neil Gorsuch), and now that the attacks on Planned Parenthood, plus the notorious “gag order,” are destroying female lives all over the world, I would like to address these closing words to the 53 percent of white women who, on November 8, 2016, voted not for a proactive feminist but for a relentlessly coarse and compulsive gynophobe. By making a considerable imaginative effort (all right, you’re autonomous citizens, and don’t want your vote merely to reflect your gender), I can roughly understand how you felt then. But how do you feel now? And one additional question, which all freshly horrified Trumpists might care to answer: What on earth did you expect?
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