The Grand Ah-whoom: Reflections on Trump and Trumpism Informed by Kurt Vonnegut
Cat’s Cradle was my introduction to the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut. As is characteristic of Vonnegut’s work, Cat’s Cradle is an uproariously funny novel about a human catastrophe – in this case, the end of the world. Vonnegut usually disarms you by portraying tragedy with a tearful shrug. Slaughterhouse Five is the paradigm case of this ironizing technique: Billy Pilgrim’s wife Vanessa dies while he is hospitalized due to a plane crash, Billy is present at the firebombing of Dresden and is witness to mass carnage carried out in the name of freedom and justice, Billy’s fellow prisoner Edgar Derby is summarily executed by the Germans for merely stealing a teapot – all met with “So it goes.” So it goes.
Cat’s Cradle is different. The book is filled with unease, because you know from its start that something world-historically awful is going to happen. The pivotal scene, toward the end of the book, is where the dramatic tension is unbearable, indeed terrifying. You know what is going to happen, you see the disaster coming, yet neither the book’s characters nor you, the reader, can do anything about it. A plane has crashed into the building where the dictator of San Lorenzo has killed himself by ingesting Ice-Nine, a synthetic form of water that freezes at room temperature. His body, in a coffin shaped like a boat, is about to fall into the ocean, contaminating it, turning it into solid matter. Here is the horrifying, sickening passage:
[S]omewhere in that room below, out of sight, something mightily reluctant to move was beginning to move.
Down the chute it crept. At last it showed its golden bow. It was the boat in which dead “Papa” lay.
It reached the end of the chute. Its bow nodded. Down it tipped. Down it fell, end over end.
“Papa” was thrown clear, and he fell separately.
I closed my eyes.
There was a sound like that of the gentle closing of a portal as big as the sky, the great door of heaven being closed softly. It was a grand AH-WHOOM.
I opened my eyes—and all the sea was ice-nine. The moist green earth was a blue-white pearl.
The sky darkened. Borasisi, the sun, became a sickly yellow ball, tiny and cruel.
The sky was filled with worms. The worms were tornadoes.
Having gone to sleep early last night (while reading Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions of all things), I missed the RNC’s final session, and presidential nominee Donald J. Trump’s acceptance speech. I read about it, and excerpts from it, this morning. This experience struck me as the none-too-gentle closing of a portal as big as the sky. A grand ah-whoom.
Something ended last night in The United States of America. A form of political ice-nine has done its damage. The sky is filled with worms.
I consider myself to be something of a Deweyan Pragmatist when it comes to the potential of American democracy, and as such I embrace the practical fallibilism Dewey shared with his predecessors William James and Charles Sanders Peirce. So I admit I could be wrong. I hope I am. But it seems to me a door has indeed closed. The idea of a democratic citizenry in a republic of laws can no longer be taken for granted in this country, nor can the institutions that sustain that idea. The sound of the door closing, of the grand ah-whoom, was apparent in the demagogic rhetoric of Trump’s acceptance speech. “I am your voice”, “only I can make America great again.” This is not an invitation for the polity to participate in citizenship, resting, as Hannah Arendt might put it, on debate, civic equality, and natality. This is an invitation to worship the all-powerful leader.
Democracy isn’t quite dead yet here, but the United States has just awakened and found a loaded gun and a bottle of Xanax on its night table. What it does next is up for grabs.
Trump’s speech was puerile, relentlessly self-aggrandizing, fear-mongering, and propelled by anger untempered by reason. A number of pundits have opined that the speech has effectively made Hillary Clinton the 46th President of the United States. My feeling is the opposite: Trump has suddenly tightened the race. The speech was nauseating, terrifying, but in a sick sense brilliant and riveting. By positioning himself as a political savior, Trump has drawn his existing base – what Marx might have called a white, mostly male, aging rust-belt lumpen-proletariat and lumpen-bourgeoisie – even closer to his vision, and has probably widened its scope. I suspect he will still lose the election, but even if he loses it, he has won, in a way. Autocratic dictatorship is now on the table, a permanent option in American politics in a way that it never was before.
Over the past few months I have read many analyses of the Trump phenomenon along the lines of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? Trump’s base, left behind in the post-80’s Reagan revolution and the 90’s Clintonite neoliberal restoration, is angry and justifiably so, since they have not shared in the economic windfalls brought about by technological development. But his followers have been misled into believing that the problems lie with “the Other”, the Mexicans and Muslims and Chinese and Blacks, rather than with the plutocracy that has been fixing the game all along. False consciousness rears its ugly head again.
There is much that is true in this analysis. It is true as far as it goes. But it does not go all the way, to the heart of the matter.
A lot of urbane liberal analysts have viewed Trumpites as simply a bunch of stupid yokels from the Deep South or fly-over country. This is condescending. They may not be well-informed, but they are not stupid, at least in the way it matters politically. But it is at least equally condescending to claim that, since they are not “dumb rednecks” but victims of a con game, they are therefore not responsible for swooning over a demagogue like Trump, on the grounds of their economic or socio-cultural or educational disadvantage. This is just snobbery with a patina of sympathy, which is perhaps worse than plain old snobbery.
I for one am not about to let Trump supporters off the hook for their support of a charlatan – one whose announced policies will place them more than anyone else in stark economic peril as well as make them far less secure and safe – simply because they understandably have had enough with “the establishment.” They may not be stupid, but they fail to think, in the key sense that Arendt outlined in Eichmann in Jerusalem. That is: thoughtlessness can be a kind of culpable, willed ignorance of the consequences of the program they signed up for. The antidemocratic tenor of “I will let your voices be heard”, and “Only I can make America great again”, is not stirring their minds in the least.
Plain racism and xenophobia has a lot to do with this, and keep in mind that one can be a racist or a xenophobe without being a foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic. But racism and xenophobia is not in itself the entire story. The incongruence between Trump, born into wealth and ostentatiously flaunting it, and his fan base is striking – yet he is viewed as “one of us” and “on our side” by them. Like Trump, and like a lot of Americans, they think in terms of the binary opposition of “winners” and “losers”. “Everyone loves a winner” because “everyone wants to be a winner.” Through a pseudo-syllogistic form of warped reasoning it is tempting to conclude: “This winner can make me a winner.” The old bromide that “It is not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game that counts” has all but been forgotten.
The ideas that the boundless accumulation of wealth might be as much a problem as the dire lack of it, that “winning” is not the same thing as human flourishing, is not seriously entertained. Trump’s entire existence has centered on a form of acquisitive individualism: a philosophy of “He who dies with the most toys wins.” I surmise that many of his followers, though far from billionaires and highly unlikely to become billionaires themselves, seem to share this philosophy – or, more accurately, wish they could share it, and resent those whom they falsely think stand in their way. They miss the point that acquisitive individualism is itself the disease they mistake for a cure.
George Bush the elder once waxed skeptical about “the vision thing.” It torpedoed his presidency, and for a good reason: without vision democracy is empty. It may also sink Hillary Clinton’s ambitions as well. Unlike Bernie Sanders, Clinton has no serious vision of what American democracy can and in fact must become if it is to survive. It is more of the same, a regression back beyond even the very modest achievements of Barack Obama to the neoliberal Pablum of the DLC. If she wins, she will win because she is the far lesser of two evils. That alone is a good reason to pull the lever for her in November. But do not kid yourself: an evil she is. You will not so much be voting for a self-serving neoliberal mediocrity as you will be voting against a narcissistic sociopath.
Trump’s supporters are hungry for a vision, and he is giving them one: himself. Heaven help us.
Postscript: As I write this, David Duke, former wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, has declared that he is running for Senator from the state of Louisiana. The sky is filled with worms. So it goes…