Donald Trump’s presidency feels both unprecedented and oddly familiar
BY DON WATSON
It will be recognised with slavery and the Civil War. It will be recognised with World War One and the Great Depression. It will be recognised with World War Two. It will be recognised with the 1950s, and the red baiting and the witch hunting. It will be recognised with the tragedy of Vietnam, as a period of confusion and disaster.The election of Donald Trump – even the nomination of Donald Trump – and events since his inauguration are like nothing that has ever happened in the United States. It unseats the habit of our minds to believe that whatever happens had to happen. To borrow a word from Philip Roth, it “defatalizes” things. Donald Trump becomes president of the United States. As one commentator said, it sounds like the logline for a high-concept movie. One of the many reasons why he won is that millions of Americans could not take the concept seriously. Now they have to take the fact seriously.
– Paul Soglin, mayor of Madison, Wisconsin
And yet the uncanniest thing is the sense that Trump’s election is a simulacrum for all manner of events imagined or foretold that hover in the back rows of our consciousness – way back from the daily flow of news, spin, messaging and commentary. A scam artist, an ignoramus, a professional liar, a colossal and malignant narcissist, a vulgarian, a casino operator, a serial bankrupt – a Roy Cohn–mentored billionaire with deep Mob connections – is in the White House. Has there ever been a more American presidency? What took them so long?
For devotees of HL Mencken, these are days of vindication. In a presidential election, he declared around 1920, “all the odds were on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre”. It was the logic of democracy, he said, that the people would one day get their heart’s desire and put a “downright moron” in the White House. While understandable, the widespread belief that George W Bush fulfilled Mencken’s prophecy has proved premature. In the extent and depth of his deviousness and mediocrity – in the sheer grandeur of it – Donald Trump is to Dubya as Mighty Mouse is to Mickey. Dubya was just a shallow son of the political elite, one easily manipulated by tough guys like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. (Though his manifest inadequacy did not stand in the way of re-election, let us never forget.) But Trump is the King Kong of shallowness: the only deep things about him are his roots in the American psyche. He brings forth not just the pout, the hair and the ties, but the greed, indulgence and psychotic menace of the “indigenous American berserk” – to call on Roth again. The mistake of his opponents – including the satirists – has been to focus on his otherness: in truth he’s dredged straight from the brute material of American culture.
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