The Literary Trump: Essay Edition

trump reading

Yes, yes.  I know.  Contradiction in terms.  Unless there’s another glitch in the Matrix, Trump will remain the most distinctly un-literary President ever to occupy the White House.  Even George W. Bush occasionally dipped into “My Pet Goat.” Trump can only read his own tweets.

And yet, one of the few (freezingly cold) comforts of this historical moment has been to witness the great outpouring of essays and commentary it has produced.  From George Packer’s “Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt” (a brilliant deconstruction of the myriad factors which led to the Trump Presidency) to Ta-Nahesi Coates’s unpacking of the Obama presidency and systemic racism in “My President Was Black” hundreds of great writers and thinkers have weighed in, given their take, and tried to make sense of the senseless.  If Donald “140-characters” Trump could appreciate irony he might giggle to find himself the impetus of an entire literary canon.

As I’ve stated elsewhere, I don’t believe that Trump’s rise has any one cause.  Rather, I believe it derives from a perfect storm of un-addressed income inequality, political backlash against a failed status quo, refutation of globalization and neoliberalism, and an upswell of racism, sexism, and moral/religious panic bred by economic inequality, endless war, and global warming (the last two factors of course, being the cause of the refugee crisis that has so many on the right worried about foreigners “invading” Western nations).  Buried somewhere in all of that is also the role of social media where fake news, echo-chambering, and the medium’s fostering of short attention spans (Tweet!  Like!  Unfriend!)  has divided and dumbed-down the populace into tribal enclaves unwilling to see one another as human.  In particular, I believe social media has paved the way for the singularly unhealthy mental space we now occupy—one that makes it virtually impossible for us to come together to navigate the dangers (global warming, anyone?) already knocking on our door.  Anyway, isn’t Trump the ultimate social media figure? He’s less a man than a comments-section come to life.

In order to combat the erosion of critical thought I have, pre and post-Trumpocalypse, found myself searching out the best “long reads.”  (Welcome to the Trump Era, where the ability to engage in sustained concentration with a single subject is an official superpower.) Once found, I have binge read them five and six at a time and then looked around for more like a lab-rat on cocaine. There is something in the dreary idiocy of Trump that makes the simple act of reading at an adult level an act of political defiance.   Donald Trump claims to have “the best words.” Here are some of the best words I’ve found to make sense of the unimaginable.  To set the tone, let me offer two quotes.

“Donald Trump, on the other hand, has no record of public service and no qualifications for public office. His affect is that of an infomercial huckster; he traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritariatendencies himself. He is easily goaded, a poor quality for someone seeking control of America’s nuclear arsenal. He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.”

-The editors of The Atlantic (in their historic endorsement of Hillary Clinton.)

“I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”

-Phillip Roth (in The New Yorker)

Part One: Trump and Mythmaking

In these days of darkness and fury, I have fund particular comfort in the writings of the members of the Dark Mountain Project: a collective of writers and artists who “have stopped believing the stories our civilization tells itself.”  The group, which focuses on issues of societal and ecological collapse is co-helmed by English writer and “lapsed environmentalist” Paul Kingsnorth, author of extraordinary novel The Wake At end of 2016, the group’s other co-founder Dougald Hine compiled a seven-part series of year-end essays by American and European writers commenting not only on our planet’s increasingly unstable political situation, but examining it from several unexpected and intellectually refreshing angles.

2016: The Year Magic Broke into Politics” examines current politics through the lens of myth and ritual, comparing the incantatory nature of the Trump movement (“Make America Great Again!”) to Native American Ghost Dancers, Christian millenarian movements, trickster legends, and scary clowns.  Has a trickster spirit invaded our politics?  The scope of this article (encompassing everything from Gaelic faerie myth to Pepe the Frog memes) is breathtaking.

Even better is Kingsnorth’s own “2016: Year of the Serpent,” which, in his cutting and succinct prose finds a metaphor for the West’s current political dilemma in an ancient (and eerie!) northern-European folktale.  For the fantasists who may be reading this, the Dark Mountain Project understands better than most the necessity of ancient tales for helping to explain—and survive—the real world.  (They’ve also got a manifesto.  It’s about damn time someone had.)

If any of the above spark you fancy, I urge you to explore Dark Mountain at length.  The work there may be of particular interest to those of you who care about and celebrate the natural world.

Part Two: How Did We Get Here?

One can, or course, pour over the academics of myth and find rational conclusions for the heart’s succor—but irrationality is the current esprit d’temps and so, once you’ve massaged your brain you might seek out more hardcore fare.

America, America” by Jonathan Kirshner (The Los Angeles Review of Books) examines all the major factors that led to the Trump presidency and diagnoses the possible end of American civilization.

Having spent three-quarters of a century fretting about enemies abroad, we have never fully processed a lesson of history: that great civilizations almost invariably collapse from within.

–  “America, America.”

The Unnecessariat.” Anne Amnesia (More Crows Than Eagles).  In a blog-post that went viral, the pseudonymous Ms. Amnesia, Dark Mountain alumna and an activist at the height of the 1980s AIDS epidemic, draws parallels between that crisis and the current opioid crisis in the Mid-West—detailing some of her work in America’s autopsy rooms. With anger and passion, she refutes the “Trump voters are just racist” argument and provides compelling science-based evidence in support of why the “unnecessary” classes overwhelmingly voted for Trump.

We aren’t precarious, we’re unnecessary. The money has gone to the top. The wages have gone to the top. The recovery has gone to the top. And what’s worst of all, everybody who matters seems basically pretty okay with that.

“The Unnecessariat.”

American Psychosis: Trumpism and the Nightmare of History.” WJT Mitchell (Los Angeles Review of Books).  Mitchell’s thought provoking take on America’s collective political psychosis—then and now!—references observations by Freud, Aristotle, H.L. Mencken, Nietzsche, P.T. Barnum, James Joyce, Sartre, and a whole bunch of other folk whose names Trump would be hard pressed to spell.

When the world’s most powerful nation goes crazy, the consequences are global.

– “American Psychosis.”

It was the Democrats’ embrace of neoliberalism that won it for Trump.” Naomi Klein (The Guardian).  Ms. Klein’s typically barn-burning essay is both a refutation of neoliberalism and a call to arms all compassionate people should heed.

People have a right to be angry, and a powerful, intersectional left agenda can direct that anger where it belongs, while fighting for holistic solutions that will bring a frayed society together.

– “It was the Democrats’ embrace of neoliberalism…”

Trump and the Truth: The Viral Candidate,” and “Obama Reckons with a Trump Presidency.” Andrew Marantz and David Remnick (respectively in The New Yorker) provide some of the best analysis of how social media contributed to Trump’s rise.

“Until recently, religious institutions, academia, and media set out the parameters of acceptable discourse, and it ranged from the unthinkable to the radical to the acceptable to policy,” Simas said. “The continuum has changed. Had Donald Trump said the things he said during the campaign eight years ago—about banning Muslims, about Mexicans, about the disabled, about women—his Republican opponents, faith leaders, academia would have denounced him and there would be no way around those voices. Now, through Facebook and Twitter, you can get around them. There is social permission for this kind of discourse. Plus, through the same social media, you can find people who agree with you, who validate these thoughts and opinions. This creates a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once thought unthinkable. This is a foundational change.”

“Obama Reckons with a Trump Presidency.”

There are more great articles out there—and you’ll notice that I haven’t listed any articles that address just the racial and sexual politics of Trumpism.  I may do so in time. Meanwhile, if you’re interested, the New Yorker’s “Sixteen Writers on Trump’s America” has (unsurprisingly superb) commentary by Junot Diaz, Toni Morrison, and Hillary Mantel (among other powerhouses) on race and identity issues and the Los Angeles Review of Books also posts frequent and brilliant essays concerning feminism and racial justice. I highly recommend both publications if you aren’t already familiar with them.

About hsmartin

I'm a writer in Northern California.
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