Tuesday, October 4, 2016

No Basis in Reality

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, October 8-9, 2016 - i.e., a month before Trump was elected as America's 45th President

In front of me are three books about Donald Trump, along with a book-shaped object purporting to have issued from the mind and pen of Trump himself. Before we talk about these publications, we might as well acknowledge that discussion of the printed word, in the age of Trump, has become a laughably pointless endeavour. Clearly, we have moved well beyond the point at which a book – let alone a newspaper article – can alter the course of world events. The asteroid is bearing down on us now, fringed by its raging orange mane. Either it will miss us narrowly or it will hit us. Talking about it will do us no more good than staring at it in mute horror. Then again, there is no subject we want to talk about more. So we might as well proceed to do that, as long as we all know we’re wasting our breath.

If words still mattered, the words that emerge from Trump’s own mouth would have sunk him long ago. The point is proved by The World According to Trump, a slender but damning selection of his most asinine utterances. The book is billed as a work of humour. Whether you find it funny will depend on how dark you like your comedy. Speaking for myself, I feel it’s a bit early to find Trump funny at this point in history, as well as a bit late. “Heidi Klum,” Trump says. “Sadly, she’s no longer a 10.” No doubt it is hilarious, in theory, that a man who goes around saying such things, proudly and on the record, should consider himself a plausible successor to Jefferson, Lincoln, or even Richard Nixon. But if we want to laugh about that with a whole heart, maybe we’d better wait until he’s been denied access to the White House. Trump is a joke, all right. But it remains entirely possible, at the moment, that the joke will be on us.

It’s hard to know what to do about the man. If he was merely a gaffe-prone duffer – if he was Dan Quayle, or George W. Bush – then publishing a compilation of his most idiotic utterances would embarrass him. But putting together a selection of Trump's most puerile sayings does the man an accidental favour, since it permits the conclusion that he spends a certain amount of the rest of his time saying things that are not puerile. This inference is to be resisted. This is not a book of blunders. This is what Trump talks like all the time. He wants to sound like this. His whole personality consists of sounding like this. Even on the evidence of his own book – especially on the evidence of it – Trump seems to have no core at all; he is a fundamentally unserious human being. When we quote a mere bushel of his verbal outrages, we distract ourselves from the forest of his total fatuity. Also we risk descending into the realm of debate, as if Trump’s radical, colossal unfitness for the office of the presidency still needs to be demonstrated by means of reasoned argument.

If it still does, it never will be. A recent newspaper article tells me that Trump has just been subjected to “weeks of scrutiny over his credentials for higher office.” Do the presidential claims of a figure like Trump really require anything so exalted as our “scrutiny”? Surely a mere glance in his general direction is enough. Except in a fairy tale, one doesn’t scrutinise a toad to check whether it’s a prince.

Toads, however, suddenly appear to be in fashion. One is forced to absorb the information that a lot of people, when they look at Trump, really like what they see. He is watchable – the supreme asset in post-modern politics. He is watchable because he is unpredictable, like a child without the charm, or a high-wire performer without all the boring expertise and training. You never know what he's going to say next. There is a terrible reason for that. He doesn’t know either. Listen to this:

I’ve known Paris Hilton from the time she was twelve. Her parents are friends of mine, and, you know, the first time I saw her, she walked into the room and I said, ‘Who the hell is that?’… Well, at twelve, I wasn’t interested. I’ve never been into that.

Clearly, Trump has no idea where his mouth is taking him here. Two topics are in play that should never, ever, have been brought into public apposition: his own rank libido, and Paris Hilton at the age of twelve. Haphazardly, Trump pushes these live wires towards each other. Will they touch? He doesn’t even seem to care. The point is that he is talking, and you are listening to him.

There would be less call for panic, if Trump confined his slapdash recklessness to the verbal realm. But shambling improvisation appears to be the hallmark of everything he does. The launch of the presidential campaign precedes the having of a policy; the signing of the book deal precedes the hiring of the hack who will dream up the text; the affection for the crying baby at the public rally mutates, with insane speed, into a demand for its ejection from the hall.

With Trump, we finally seem to have left the concept of sincerity behind. “In business,” he flaccidly asserts in his book, “I don’t actively make decisions based on my religious beliefs, but those beliefs are there—big-time.” Does that sound like a man sincerely affirming his religious faith? It doesn’t even sound like a man faking it. But for an alarming proportion of Americans, Trump’s eerie lack of human content is not a concern. At his rallies, some of his fans don’t even stay to hear his stump speech. They soak up a bit of atmosphere, take some selfies, then split. There are other Trump boosters who, more oddly still, know that his policies are ad-libbed fantasies, but don’t care. It doesn’t matter, in their view, whether he will end up building his fabled wall; what matters is that he wants to.

If there is anything of substance at the bottom of the heap, it is supposed to be Trump’s business acumen. He will, we are assured, run America like one of his companies. His bottom line is the bottom line. In The Making of Donald Trump, the journalist David Cay Johnston, who has won a Pulitzer Prize for his financial reporting, shows that all this stuff is a fantasy too. As Johnston tells it, the story of Trump’s adventures in capitalism, far from adding lustre to the prospect of a Trump presidency, makes it even scarier than it already seemed.

Admittedly, not many of us possess the savvy or acumen to have had a tremendously rich father. Trump’s dad was a real-estate mogul so notorious, in his time, that Woody Guthrie wrote a protest song about him, called “Old Man Trump.” Had Guthrie lived to witness the capitalistic offences of Young Man Trump, he might have smashed his guitar in despair. Before building the mighty Trump Tower, Donald was obliged to knock down the lesser erection that stood in its way. To do so he hired a crew of undocumented Polish workers who lived and slept on the site. They worked without hard-hats or goggles, while breathing asbestos dust without the benefit of face masks. But perhaps such items strike Trump as examples of the “endless red tape” that must be slashed in order to restore America’s greatness. 

Reading Johnston on Trump’s business activities, one begins to understand how the man acquired his fluid sense of reality. He inhabits a world in which a given property can be valued at either $1 million or $50 million, depending on the needs of the moment and the ingenuity of his accountants. When he sued a journalist for allegedly under-reporting his wealth, Trump testified that “my net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings.” The lawsuit was dismissed. It had, Johnston says, “no basis in reality.”

If one episode typifies the way Trump proposes to do business in Washington, let’s hope it isn’t the story of his involvement in the now-defunct United States Football League. The USFL was founded in the early eighties, with the aim of challenging the dominance of the NFL in a prudent, slow-burn way. It had a tight salary cap; it played its games out of season, in the spring. Enter Trump, in an explosion of bad faith. Lacking the coin to invest in the real-deal NFL, but incapable of seeing himself as a second-tier player, Trump bought the USFL’s New Jersey team, then proceeded to impose his ego, not to say his id, on the whole fragile league. He violated the salary cap; he pooh-poohed the idea that football should be played in the spring. Finally, like a kamikaze Oedipus, he initiated an all-or-nothing lawsuit against the NFL, alleging monopolistic practices. Trump’s side won the case, but the victory was pyrrhic; the jury registered its disgust by awarding a single dollar in damages. “The USFL promptly folded,” Johnston says, “and what could have been a successful long-term enterprise turned to dust.” Or, as Trump phrased it: “It was fun. We had a great lawsuit.”

What has American democracy come to, if a man like that is now viable candidate for the presidency? In the must-read new Quarterly Essay, Don Watson addresses that question with his usual elegance. In several ways Watson is the ideal person to survey Trump’s America. As an outsider, he can do so with a measure of detachment. But he’s a lover of the country too, and a student of its traditions. The very tone of his voice – civilised, sympathetic, informed – is an antidote to the raging philistinism of Trump.

Nor is Watson politically one-eyed. If America has become “a concatenation of sulky tribes,” then the Democrats, in Watson’s view, can’t be absolved from blame for that; their indulgence of identity politics has helped create the mess. Having acknowledged that, he sounds all the more authoritative when he says what is surely true: the Republicans are much, much more culpable. These days they are “more like an apocalyptic cult,” he quotes a former Republican staffer as saying, than a “traditional political party.”

Does this mean that Donald Trump is a fascist? The question must be posed. Watson answers it in a typically careful way. His answer is, yes and no. Yes, some of Trump’s methods and posturing reek of fascism; if he wins the election, he will have done so using a style “resembling Hitler’s or Mussolini’s”. On the other hand, Watson finds it “inconceivable that Trump’s next steps,” after getting into office, “would resemble theirs.” America’s democratic traditions are, Watson believes, too strong for that; and its economy is nothing like as bad as the basket cases of 1930s Europe. Still, Trump “doesn’t need to be an actual fascist for the day after election day to be a worrying prospect.”

As its title suggests, Watson’s essay is more about Trump’s America than about Trump himself. He leaves aside the question of what makes Trump tick. But Trump’s own book, Crippled America, throws a surprising amount of light on that question, considering that he plainly didn’t write it himself. The person who actually did write it receives no formal credit. But Trump's ghost, whoever he or she was, has an uncanny knack for getting Trump’s personality on to paper. If the book makes him sound like a fictional character, a pantomime fatcat dreamed up by Dickens on a bad day, that only confirms one’s sense that Trump really is like that.

If Trump didn’t exist, it would have been impossible to invent him. If you did, people would charge you with being grossly unsubtle, as well as crassly anti-American. He doesn’t just repeatedly refer to himself in the third person (“I was in full Trump mode.”) Nor does he stop at the additionally risible measure of invoking the “Trump brand.” No: more often than not, he throws in a self-puffing adjective or two for good measure, as in “the Trump quality brand,” or “the award-winning 52-story Trump International Hotel and Tower.” Trump’s book is a Freudian’s paradise. His inferiority issues, and his obsession with the tallness of his buildings, are so flagrantly displayed here that they scarcely need decoding. At one point he complains that the disclosure forms he had to sign, when formalising his presidential candidacy, “weren’t designed for people like me.” Apparently he was reduced, in too many places, to ticking boxes that valued his assets at a mere “$50,000,000 or more.” This denied him the opportunity – which he now embraces – to record that one of his buildings is worth, according to him, 1.5 billion.

It is hard to over-state how nakedly needy and assertive Trump’s language is, and how surreally starved of irony or nuance. When he wants to find some way of reminding you he’s rich, he just says it: “I’m rich. I mean, I’m really rich.” (His italics, of course.) Why don’t enough people find this stuff ridiculous? Why, on the contrary, does Trump’s brutally literal, Cat-in-the-Hat style of rhetoric strike some people as deeply compelling? The depressing truth is that Trump occupies the sharp edge of a culture that no longer really cares about words. It still knows what they mean; but it is fast losing its ability to hear when they are absurd or laughable or sinister.

Trump embodies this near-illiteracy, as well as profiting from it. Presumably he can read, in a technical sense. But he has famously declared himself too busy to read actual books. If we didn’t already know this, we could deduce it from his prose. “We have an amazing history. America is the greatest country that has ever existed on the Earth.” Trump does not say this as a prelude to discussing his full vision of American history. This is his full vision of American history. Admittedly, he throws in a few mandatory mentions of “the Founding Fathers.” But if he knows exactly who they were, he doesn’t let on. His notion of what made America amazing, back there in the days of yore, doesn't really reach farther back than the presidency of Ronald Reagan. And it goes without saying, although it shouldn’t, that Trump knows nothing much about all the other nations that have “ever existed on the Earth,” except that America is greater than them. His worldview is just a scaled-up version of his rampant solipsism.

This means we can look forward to a foreign policy that projects the paranoid vindictiveness of Trump’s business style into the diplomatic arena. “Every deal I make will have one objective: America wins.” America will stop getting “beaten in trade agreements.” It will be America versus its enemies, which means everyone else. “Does anybody reading this believe that I’m concerned about making other countries feel good?” Unlikely, champ.

A couple of times Trump has the temerity to quote Mark Twain, as if the plain-speaking Twain can be posthumously enlisted as a friend of the Trump project. This will not do. We can guess what Twain would have said about Trump, because he said it a hundred years ago about Teddy Roosevelt: “Mr. Roosevelt is the Tom Sawyer of the political world of the twentieth century; always showing off; always hunting for a chance to show off; in his frenzied imagination the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for audience.”

Then again, Mark Twain might simply have given up, if confronted by a target as barn-sized as Trump. There is something about Trump that defeats language, which was in bad enough shape already, even before he came along. Here is a man who really is a bigot and a racist and a misogynist – a man whose response, when he is outwitted by a female journalist, is to announce that she must have been menstruating. But just when we really need them, words like “misogynist” turn out to have lost all power. The culture's fearless detectors of microaggression have worn these words down to meaningless nubs. So now we have no sharp words left to level at Trump, the maestro of the macroaggression. You can see why Trump might look like an attractive proposition, to people who have had a gutful of political correctness. But if your house is infested by mice, buying a pet leopard is perhaps not the wisest response.

I wish that Trump’s demagogic candidacy didn't keep making me think of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, in which Roth imagines how ugly America would have turned, in 1940, if the anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh had run for President and won. “It starts with the White House,” says Roth’s imagined father, when his family falls victim to the casual bigotry that President Lindbergh legitimises. Trump isn’t an anti-Semite, but in various other ways he has made reality start feeling like a piece of dystopian fiction. “I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail,” George Saunders wrote recently in The New Yorker. “But I imagine it that way now.”

Perhaps the sober Don Watson is right: perhaps the American experiment has already put down solid enough roots to survive a Trump presidency. Then again, a Trump presidency would be a kind of experiment in itself. How it would or will turn out we can’t know. All we can say with confidence is that Trump doesn’t know either. In several alarming respects he recalls the career of Evel Knievel, who was a master of hype and showmanship, but was notoriously bad at completing his jumps without breaking his bones. Only when Knievel was in mid-air did he begin to think about the logistics of landing without dying. Say this much for Evel Knievel, though: he never forced the rest of America get on the bike with him. 

In the whole of his new book, Trump says almost nothing that an intelligent person could possibly agree with. Indeed, he says almost nothing that isn’t appalling, in one way or another. But let's try to end on a note of consensus. The book's title, Crippled America, is hard to quarrel with. America is crippled, all right. It just isn’t crippled in the way Trump thinks it is. Thoroughly self-obsessed, but thoroughly lacking in self-knowledge, he is the last man equipped to see that the direst symptom of America’s decline is his own squinting, ludicrous presence at the centre of the national stage.