This isn’t about… yeah, it is about me, I guess, when you think about it.
Donald Trump, November 2, 2020
In October, President Donald Trump suggested he might leave the country if he lost the election. Now, he’s lost. He won’t go, but I like to imagine him in Greenland. You might remember that only last year, there was a brief scandal when Trump suggested buying the island from Denmark. The Danes stuck their chests out and refused the deal, and everyone pretended to ignore the fact that the island is functionally an American colony anyway, dotted with US military bases and only barely, vaguely, fictionally under Danish sovereignty. Maybe that was why the sale never went through: so Trump would have somewhere to flee.
Imagine Trump in Nuuk, scraggly-bearded and swaddled in a parka, trudging through the snow with his rod to fish. A quiet man, a teetotaller on an island full of broken violent drunks. He has his own way of being broken. Imagine Trump in the island’s lonely hinterlands, a hermit. Greenland is a haunted country, numinous and cold, whispering; one of the last places that’s still truly wild. Reindeer nuzzle the close dark moss, seals bask on their floes, glaciers creak and there are monsters in the deep. Imagine Trump alone, watching the northern lights spin gorgeous threads across the sky, alone. What would happen to the man if he had nobody to watch him, nobody paying attention? If he had to be a person, a living subject, rather than an image and a symbol and a name? Would he develop a conscience? Would he become wise? Or would he just dissolve into motes, and drift away in the Arctic wind?
The Greenlanders know. Their monsters are the qivittok, spirits of the strange or unworthy people exiled from the community. No human can survive alone in this cold and beautiful place, and so the qivittok become something other than human: furry or antlered, gruesome mongrel forms. Some of them can fly. They live in the mountains and attack travellers, leaving piles of gnawed red bones in the snow.
In a way, the qivittok is what Trump has always been. Trump’s rhetoric centre around the community, the flag, the symbols of belonging, because this is what he’s always lacked. He’s never had relationships, only transactions, and even those are few. In his businesses, he avoids partnerships, shareholders, or joint enterprises. He grew up lonely, the son of an indifferent father, insulated from the world by his wealth. It takes a lonely man to plaster his own name over tall buildings. It takes a lonely man to need this kind of concrete proof that he really exists.
What it comes down to is this: Donald Trump is simply not like other people. He is something different, an alien walking among us. A creature from a haunted land. In his own way, a genius. Something bright and rare and strange.
Donald Trump doesn’t hold himself like an ordinary person. He isn’t straight and he doesn’t slouch; he bends. Creasing at the waist, torso angled forward to hide his incredible fatness, which means that his big round damp coquettish arse is constantly sticking out behind him. Most people acquire their bad posture from a lifetime of bad habits, but Donald Trump’s stance is deliberate. He came up with a terrible new way of standing on his feet, all by himself.
Donald Trump doesn’t look like an ordinary person. He is orange; the man is visibly orange. White around the eyes, like a painted clown. A soft, moist, puckered mouth. Everything about him is soft; you could spread one of his teeth on a slice of toast. His hair is an elaborate combover, extremely long on one side, folded back and forth over his scalp. In the old patriarchal schema, men were seeing subjects and women were visible objects, but Donald Trump is a thoroughly feminised man. He has to appear a certain way, with a full head of hair, because he dreams of being the reservoir of someone else’s desire. Sometimes, in high winds, the whole structure of his hair opens up, and you can see his shockingly white and crusted pate. You think that’s upsetting? Just imagine how Donald Trump’s hair looks when wet.
Donald Trump doesn’t talk like an ordinary person. Usually, when someone speaks in a non-standard form, it’s because they’re part of a language community that’s developed its own grammars and vocabulary. There is nobody on earth that speaks like Donald Trump. He is a language community of one. What he speaks isn’t even a jargon, it’s just bizarre. On the one hand, his speech is utterly impoverished. It’s incapable of conveying almost any of the major human experience. Everything he says is somehow integrally inappropriate. Here is a man who once described Frederick Douglass as ‘an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognised more and more.’ Like something out of Gertrude Stein: the black sludge of words, the sticky deposits left once language and communication have gone. But at the same time, his speech is incredibly fecund. The rolling rhythmic intensifiers that turn it into something like music, the way things are always very nice, very special, very good, or very, very, very… bad. Trump’s language never exhausts itself; he can fit a potentially infinite number of words between one concept and the next. This language really is a virus; a blob from outer space, breeding. Everyone I know has tried, at some point, to imitate it, and we all think we’re very clever. (Watching the chickens peck around the garden, I sometimes imagine them in his voice. We love mealworms, folks, don’t we love mealworms? Very wonderful mealworms, very nice and very delicious to eat. We love laying an egg.) But Trump invented this virus; he cooked it up in the strange secret lab inside his head. We just copy and pass it on. Infected. Transfixed.
How did a country as conservative as the United States ever manage to elect a man as utterly weird as Donald Trump? For decades, politicians have tried to sell themselves to ordinary people by pretending to be normal. Look at me eat a hot dog at a diner, just like all of you gurning rubes! Cramming wobbly tubes of pork into their mouths: aren’t I relatable? Aren’t I your abuela? But Donald Trump eats pizza with a knife and fork. You could not get a beer with him. He would not shake your hand. You are nothing alike. And still it doesn’t matter. Who ever said that people want to be governed by someone just like them? That’s what the ruling classes think, because they’re all covetous narcissists who want political power to wear a human face: their human face. They want their little daughters to grow up believing that one day they, too, could maintain an extrajudicial kill list. But the great mass of the people know better. They know that political power is something distant and strange that comes down from the white northern wastes.
It’s the sheer strangeness of the man that made him so intolerable, far more than any of the evil things he’s actually done. Even before he was elected, a vast conceptual production system was churning, trying to produce The Meaning of Donald Trump. Reduce him down to a single concept, something we know and can understand, something assimilable. So, for instance: Trump is just a cipher for race. Reterritorialise him on the stark terrain of white and black; people voted for him because they’re racists and they wanted to do racism; white people have a congenital sickness and its name is Trump. They’re still saying this, even after he increased his vote share among every demographic group except straight white men. If Trump really is making racial dogwhistles, his actual supporters don’t seem to hear them. The only creatures pricking up their ears are the racially-fixated media classes.
Another: Trump is a fascist, and his Presidency was a fascist regime. We all have an idea of what fascism is and what it looks like, so let’s just stuff this strange new creature into an already existing box. This theory has lost some credibility since Trump failed to suspend democracy or invade Poland, but I think there’s actually something to it – so long as it’s understood that Trump is fascist in the Theodor Adorno sense; the way that, say, the Marvel cinematic universe is fascist, rather than the way in which Adolf Hitler was a fascist. He’s a fascist because we live in an age of irrationality and unfreedom, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are fascists too. (Especially Kamala.) In other words, it’s true, but it tells us nothing at all.
A weaker version says that Trump is simply an authoritarian. He’s like those gaudy dictators in countries with unpronounceable names, the ones who build giant gold statues of themselves and rename the months of the year after their horses. Country-scale interior decorators with the power of life and death. Which is fine, but you don’t need to go trekking out to the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert to find a model of authoritarianism. Trump was a businessman, and he promised to run the country like a business. Every beloved small mom-and-pop business is a dictatorship in miniature, helmed by some grubby little Napoleon who leches on the employees, issues memos on acceptable hairstyles, or forces them to listen to his favourite conspiracy YouTubes while they work. But while they might admire him, none of these people will ever be Donald Trump.
What all these interpretations miss is that Donald Trump is the only person to have ever become President of the United States by accident. He never really wanted power, and he didn’t know what to do with the thing once he had it. He had no programme and no politics. His whole period in office was an aimless meander: sometimes he borrowed some policies from the people closest to him, sometimes he made them up as he went along. He spent most of those four years complaining that dishwashers don’t give you the kind of shine that they used to. If he was actually a right-wing populist, he would have given out multiple $1,200 stimulus cheques during the pandemic, and then handily won re-election. But he didn’t. None of this was part of the plan. He simply wanted to win rather than lose – so people would pay attention to him, so he could continue to exist. That’s all. And around this tiny, dense, irrational core, millions of people built their own explanations, their own private reasons to love him or hate him and everything they wanted him to represent.
Trump has managed to form the passive centre for two personality cults: the one that loves him, and the one that’s no less of a cult for wanting him gone. To be honest, I prefer the first cult. They make better music. ¡Ay, ay, ay, ay, por Dios, yo voy a votar por Donald Trump! The negative cult thought they were resisting the man, but everything they did reeked of complicity. Obsessing over his every movement, freaking out under every one of his tweets. They ate up his turds one by one, greedily, smacking their lips, and then proclaimed: this shit is awful, it tastes disgusting, it’s poisoning us, and may I have some more? Rather than actually countering his worst actions, they were fixated on the idea that they could make him feel a certain way: mocking him, humiliating him. That stupid balloon of Trump as a baby that cost £16,000 – for what? To hurt his feelings? Why bother? All it did was charge him with subjectivity and substance – in other words, give him exactly what he’s always wanted. Even now, liberals aren’t satisfied with defeating Trump in the election, they want him to admit defeat. They want him duly chastened. They’re still trying to give the man a soul.
There are things that led to Trump. The millions consigned to surplus population, the hollow promise of the Obama years, the general social decay, the culture of fame and attention and narcissism in which he grew. All these conditions are necessary, but none of them are sufficient. Just like the world itself, Donald Trump has no singular meaning. He is an empty, misshapen container for others to fill with fantasy and desire.
Franz Kafka – the only man in human history to truly get it – tells a story about a crossbreed, a creature ‘half kitten, half lamb,’ inherited from his father. This thing also has no reason to exist. It should not exist. But against all reason, it does.
Sunday morning is the visiting hour. I sit with the little beast on my knees, and the children of the whole neighbourhood stand around me. Then the strangest questions are asked, which no human being could answer: Why there is only one such animal, why I rather than anybody else should own it, whether there was ever an animal like it before and what would happen if it died, whether it feels lonely, why it has no children, what it is called, etc.
They’re asking what the animal means, but Kafka doesn’t know. His creature seems to be happy. It likes to play, to dance, to purr, to run and skip around outside. In the proper order of things, something so unnatural ought to die. Watching his creature, Kafka decides that ‘the knife of the butcher would be a release for this animal,’ but that knife will never come. This monster was a legacy; a gift. So he looks at his crossbreed, and the crossbreed looks back, ‘challenging me to do the thing of which both of us are thinking.’
Today, we’ve beaten Donald Trump. We’ve banished the nightmare. We, the ungrateful of the earth, have done what Kafka couldn’t bear: we slaughtered the crossbreed. This is your victory. Enjoy it if you can.
PS: This really ought to be an entirely separate essay, but we’re all here now, so I might as well press ahead. About a week before the election, the New York Times published an opinion piece titled Why Leftists Should Vote for Biden in Droves. The actual argument is contained in a few sentences:
Mr Trump’s re-election would mean four more years of scrambling to shield the already insufficient Affordable Care Act, but a win by Mr Biden would allow socialists to go on the offence and push for a Medicare-for-all system. Mr Trump’s re-election would deal irreversible damage to the planet, but there are signs that Mr Biden could be pressured to adopt the ambition of the Green New Deal… These policies would not constitute the realisation of socialism, but they would help lay the foundation for liberating workers… Socialists should fight like hell to get Mr Biden into office – and then fight him like hell the day that he becomes president.
I disagree. I’m not saying there aren’t some upsides: the next regime will probably rejoin the Paris Climate Accords and ease sanctions on Iran, either of which could be worth the price of admission. But it will not create a more favourable terrain for socialism. Let me put forward another perspective: Joe Biden is going to eat you whole. Not aggressively, not deliberately, not with those white chomping teeth. He will consume you like a basking shark, trawling the seas with his mouth wide open, and you have already drifted right into his maw. His victory marks the end of the road for the American left as a significant political force. There will still be people with opinions, but they will never come close to forming policy. Joe Biden will do to the socialist left what Donald Trump did to the evangelical right.
Not so long ago, the evangelical right were genuinely terrifying. Under the George W Bush administration, they waged eight years of insane culture war, not to mention the actual war to reshape the Middle East. Abstinence and creationism in schools; the Ten Commandments outside courthouses, a curtain to cover the Spirit of Justice’s naked tits. Preachers screaming that Obama was the Antichrist. Gay marriage bans. Christofascism. And where are they now? Some of the churches those preachers screamed in are boarded up, and some have been converted into condos. Plenty are still going, but the parishioners are more likely to believe in some QAnon dribble than any imminent Rapture. Nothing collective and congregational; everything is scattered now, networked. It might come back – there are always revivals – but for now, organised Protestantism has lost its claws in American political life.
This is why. In 2016, the leadership of the religious right banded together to stop Trump winning the Republican primary. They were appalled by him, and for good reason. Donald Trump is, at heart, a New York liberal, a proud and open moral degenerate. How many abortions do you think he’s paid for? But when it came to the general, everything changed. What were they supposed to do – vote for Hillary Clinton? Don’t you know she eats fetuses? So they made their moral compromises, took whatever sops they were offered, and lined up behind Donald Trump. He’ll pander to them a little, when prodded. That’s enough.
Now, the Democrats have learned that this new revitalised socialist left can be cheated, backstabbed, connived against, offered absolutely no concessions whatsoever – and they will still vote for you. Not just that: the poor cretins will dance in the streets to celebrate your victory. So why give them anything now? The left has used up its last weapon, and they used it against Trump. Now they’re supposed to go on the offence for Medicare For All – but how? Pressure Biden for a Green New Deal – but how? Fight him like hell? But with what weapons?
One of the ugliest features of the Trump years was the way liberals suddenly found it in their hearts to forgive George W Bush. You can understand why they forgot his murder of one million Iraqis – they all voted for it, after all – but this was the president of Jesusland, the man whose mutant Christian army tried to get rid of their nice French cheeses and their nice French wine. In this context, though, it starts to make sense. Liberals could embrace the figurehead of the evangelical right because the evangelical right had become toothless; it was no longer the enemy. In the same vein, you can expect the right wing to start making similar overtures to what remains of the Bernie camp. In fact, it’s already happening. For instance, outlets like Quillette have started pointing out that class, rather than identity, is what really divides people. They’re right, of course, but why are they saying it? It’s not as if class analysis, even class analysis for babies, really gels with their ideology. Leftists can write for right-wing magazines if they want (I do), appear on their TV shows, spread the message; we all need to eat. I’m not here to pass judgement. But don’t ever imagine that some broad populist alliance is in the offing. The right will embrace you only because you are not a threat to them. You’re a legitimising trinket. They will wear you around their neck. This amulet that was your bones.
Of course, the Trump camp have been instrumentalising the left in other, subtler ways too. Over the summer, watching the political violence, the shootings, the militia on the streets, the revolutionaries seizing whole neighbourhoods, quite a few people I know decided that the United States was close to collapse or civil war. It wasn’t, of course. (One thing that never once occurred through all those months was an actual exchange of fire.) Instead, the state had strategically voided its authority over certain small areas, like the area that would become the CHAZ in Seattle. This was an obvious election ploy on Trump’s part: create pockets of instability to frighten his suburban base into voting for a stronger, more brutal, more repressive state. He was counting on the left to dramatically fuck up with whatever wisp of power he gave them, and even if it didn’t win him the election, they did exactly what he wanted.
On June 29th, self-appointed security forces in the CHAZ murdered Antonio Mays Jr, a sixteen-year-old black boy. On July 4th, armed protesters in Atlanta, occupying the Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was killed by police, opened fire on a passing car. They murdered Secoriea Turner, an eight-year-old black girl. Both crime scenes were heavily tampered with by protesters; the murderers of Antonio Mays and Secoriea Turner will probably never face justice. These names ought to be as famous as George Floyd or Tamir Rice. Why aren’t they? This is a genuine question: why? It’s fine for the left to turn itself into a circular firing squad over pronouns or microaggressions or awkward interactions – but not murder? After all, the scenario is very familiar: an armed authority claiming police powers indifferently destroys the lives of the same people it’s supposed to protect. But it turns out that these wonderful anti-racist abolish-the-police community defence units are actually far more sadistic and far less accountable than ordinary cops.
These killings ought to pose a major theoretical crisis for the insurrectionary left. These dead children should haunt your sleep. How is it that a movement against the police murder of black people ended up committing police murders of black people? What went wrong in your analysis of power, violence, and the state? How did this movement so quickly lose its moral right to complain? Because that right has absolutely been lost. It shouldn’t be hard to decry murder without hypocrisy, but here we are.
I don’t want to agree with him, but René Girard has an answer:
As soon as the essential quality of transcendence – religious, humanistic, or whatever – is lost, there are no longer any terms by which to define the legitimate form of violence and to recognise it among the multitude of illicit forms… The act of demystification retains a sacrificial quality and remains essentially religious in character as long as it fails to come to a conclusion – as long, that is, as the process purports to be nonviolent, or less violent than the system itself. In fact, demystification leads to constantly increasing violence, a violence perhaps less ‘hypocritical’ than the violence it seeks to oppose, but more energetic, more virulent, and the harbinger of something far worse – a violence that knows no bounds.
I would like the left to take power. But this left, the one we have, the one that systematically misuses whatever power it gains, the one that says nothing when children are gunned down in the street, does not deserve it. We blew it, and I don’t know how to fix this. But if you’re looking for a left case for Joe Biden, there it is.