Gone rogue

Gone rogue: Demagogues, dystopia, and democracy's descent to a deep, dark place 

A few weeks ago, in what now seems like another era, a question came across social media: What fictional character does Trump resemble? Easy, I thought. The classic mountebank, the patent swindler, a W.C. Fields character or the Wizard of Oz. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

We've always liked the rogues. The Duke and the Dauphin make entertaining company for Huck and Jim, at least until they steal Jim and sell him into slavery. The card sharps in The Lady Eve are, in their own way, more honest than the society crowd they hoodwink. We've never really trusted the self-righteous, the earnest, the prim. If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying, as they say in football.

In the cold light of morning, things look a little different. Now that we have flipped him the keys and buckled ourselves in for the ride, some of us are wondering how this happened, and why.

The how seems easier to answer. "Let them call me a racist. It don't make any difference. Whole heap of folks in this country feel the same way I do. Race is what's going to win this thing for me." That's George Wallace, running for president in 1968, as quoted in Marshall Frady's wonderful biography Wallace. It's the populist playbook as it developed in the South with Huey Long and Big Jim Folsom: Split off the white vote, keep everybody mad at each other, pick their pockets while they're fighting. Sing the praises of the common man and run the liberals down. "When the liberals and the intellectuals say the people don't have any sense, they're talking about us people," Wallace said. "The fellow on the street has got a better mind and instincts than these sissy-britches intellectual morons like the editor of the Birmingham News."

Does this start to sound familiar? It ought to; a toned-down version of this same program was adopted by the Nixon campaign and renamed the "Southern strategy." It's been the heart of the Republican playbook ever since. That's why so many of Trump's euphemisms seem to have a kind of old-fashioned quality, like "inner city" as a code for "black." Our imaginary crime wave is a leftover from Nixon, too—keep the people scared, keep them separate. Trump recycles these old codes to remind his voters of the good white days, like a wedding band playing "Brown-Eyed Girl." It gives the old people something to dance to.

These divisive tactics have been working for 50 years. It's a disappointment to find that they still work. It seems possible that the 9/11 attacks gave us a sense of solidarity, a notion of ourselves as one people that led to our first black president. We're over that now. We're back to us and them. What comes next is a mountain of debt, a series of big showy public works enterprises, and a renewed call for "law and order," by which the administration will mean a militarized repression of dissent.

click to enlarge James Todd’s “The New Idol” inspired by Friedrich Nietzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.
  • James Todd’s “The New Idol” inspired by Friedrich Nietzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.

The "why" in this case seems more mysterious. This is a massive case of self-harm; the first six months of a Trump administration will find our country at its weakest and most vulnerable point in my lifetime, as Trump attempts to figure out what a president does and how he does it, as he scrambles to fill his administration with the dregs of Washington. Nearly every member of the Republican policy team begged us not to do this, and as a result they are his enemies. The loyalists he has drafted to run the country are as inept a bunch of bunglers as you could find. The one enterprise that will be undertaken with drive and determination is the corporate looting spree that Ryan and McConnell are preparing.

So: Why? Maybe just for the same reasons a teenager takes a razor blade to his arm. Do some damage, get people to pay attention to you, even if it hurts for a minute. (Even if it means that you won't have health care anymore.) White people ask: What about me? What about my needs? Look at me!

Some of this, probably. But also something darker, something deeper. We've spent the last couple of decades psychically preparing for catastrophe, from The Road and the Mockingjay series to Station Eleven and Oryx and Crake. Young adult fiction in particular seems to be dominated by post-apocalyptic visions. And what's strange and bothersome about this is that the things we imagine tend to come true, maybe because we already know them in some deep place but don't want to acknowledge them. I had thought that these dark imaginings came from our anticipation of ecological collapse, the knowledge that we carry on with our everyday lives while the planet's ability to sustain human life at this scale is coming rapidly to an end.

But maybe not. Maybe there was always some deep longing to find out what comes after the end. Some impatience with the placid, settled life, with trivialities like civil life and civil liberties. I don't know; my suspicion is that this national choice can't be explained in the daylight. This is an eruption of dark forces, a message from the unconscious. Trump is a thing from the shadows. There's a novel somewhere that might explain it, if there's time to write one.

But it doesn't matter why. We need to start from where we are and do what we can. We need to take care of ourselves and our people. We need to stop underestimating our opponent; he's no fool, though he plays one on television. We need to stop taking the bait, stop talking about the musical and start talking about the assault on retirement, health care and dissent. In the immortal words of Erik "Fingers" Ray of Conrad, Montana, "Don't poke a steaming turd."

Meanwhile, the Arctic this week is 36 degrees above its historical average.

We have elected a person who says that climate change is a Chinese hoax.

Our children will curse our names, long after we are dead.

____

The original print version of this article was headlined "Gone rogue"

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