On Writing about Trump and the Regime
A short while back I gave way to an impulse that may not have been my best when I went off on a rant about the tyrant Trump and his running-dog lackeys. I had second thoughts even as I wrote because I am wary of opening up a debate about whether or not there are grounds for saying Trump is a tyrant or is unhinged or should be impeached. This ends up being a distraction from substantive issues. Besides, if I am going to toss around epithets like "tyrant," "running dog," and "lackey," I should try to be clever about it, witty if that is not beyond me.
It can be fun to write in this vein. There is satisfaction to be had in getting off a witty riposte or a piquant bon mot on the rare occasions they come my way. This sort of thing has a venerable tradition. Think Samuel Johnson, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Molly Ivins, and Hunter S. Thompson. This gem from Mencken seems prescient: "On some glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." From Thompson in his prime comes his trenchant description of Hubert Humphrey in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72: "Hubert Humphrey is a treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler who should be put in a goddamn bottle and sent out with the Japanese current." This may not be altogether fair to Humphrey, but it is fine invective.
As a general principle, verbal abuse is best reserved for the powerful. It tends to be more effective and certainly more enjoyable when couched in humor. The poet Gregory Corso was fond of saying that humor is the great butcher. It cuts through a lot of garbage. The jibes may be sharp and barbed, or gentler as Ivins was when she routinely referred to George Bush the Younger as Shrub. She was less generous toward Newt Gingrich: "Am I the only person covering politics who ever noticed that Newt Gingrich is actually a nincompoop?" Donald Trump thinks he gets a raw deal from the press. Imagine if Ivins and her confreres were on the scene to have at him, as no doubt they would with gusto.
So is the occupant of the White House in some sense a tyrant?
tyrant 1 a : an absolute ruler unrestrained by law or constitution b : a usurper of sovereignty 2 a : a ruler who exercises absolute power oppressively or brutally b : one resembling an oppressive ruler in the harsh use of authority or power (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition)
tyrant n.s. [τυραννος; tyrannus, Latin. Rowland contends that this word, with the correspondent Greek and Latin, is derived from tir, Welch and Erse, land, and rhanner, Welch, to share, q.d. tirbanner, a sharer, or divider of and among his vassals.] 1. An absolute monarch governing imperiously 2. A cruel despotick and severe master; an oppressor. (Samuel Johnson's Dictionary)
Aha, you might say, but Trump was elected in accordance with the Constitution and the laws. And as president he finds himself constrained by the Constitution, the laws, and to some degree by the judiciary, Congress, and state and local government. Aha, I might respond, but precedent for designating a ruler as a tyrant even under these circumstances can be found in Aristotle, who delineated a form of tyranny where there are elected monarchs who exercise a despotic power. These monarchies are royal "in so far as the monarch rules according to law over willing subjects; but they are tyrannical in so far as he is despotic and rules according to his own fancy" (Politics, Book IV, Ch 9).
Trump is by temperament and inclination authoritarian. This is reflected in words, actions, and an affinity for other authoritarian rulers, the likes of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, the Saudi royal family, and Rodrigo Duterte. It does not seem to me to be a leap to surmise that he sincerely believes that as president he should be allowed to govern imperiously and rule according to his fancy. He chafes at constraints on his actions and endeavors to undermine and weaken them.
Routine calls for political adversaries to be prosecuted and jailed accompany a campaign to discredit and delegitimize the FBI, the CIA, and the Mueller investigation. Congressional Republicans call for a purge of the FBI, CIA, and other agencies to oust individuals deemed not to be sufficiently loyal and devoted to the president. And yes, they use the word "purge" with its evocation of Stalin and Soviet show trials of the 1930s. From the day of his confirmation Scott Pruitt moved to rid the Environmental Protection Agency of scientists whose research leads them to conclude that climate change is happening and that human activity plays a part in it. The State Department has been decimated. The president claims that he has an absolute right to do whatever he would like with the Justice Department and believes that his attorney general has a responsibility to protect him. Last week the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) called for the arrest of public officials in "sanctuary" cities and states. The litany could go on.
Assaults on constitutional government and rule of law go fist in spiked glove with a crusade to weaken and undermine institutions, principles, customs, and habits that are the foundation of our form of government. News reports that the administration considers negative or critical are "fake news." Claims of widespread voter fraud and charges that the system is rigged are floated blithely with no pretense at the presentation of evidence. Concepts of objective truth, rational discourse, and scientific expertise are rejected. Again, the litany could go on.
This is the stuff of tyranny. By words and deeds Trump demonstrates his belief that the office of president carries with it the right and the power to rule despotically. If Trump is not yet a full-fledged tyrant, it is not for want of trying.
Cooler heads argue with some plausibility that we must choose our battles. It behooves us to cherry-pick the most significant, the ones that really matter, and focus on them. There are too many provocations and too much windbaggery and bluster to challenge each instance indiscriminately. We will be left with sound and fury signifying nothing, our protests and arguments lost in an indeterminate, cacophonous muddle. As for name-calling, insults, and other verbal abuse, we are at a disadvantage when we get down into the muck where Trump is most at home. Arguments about whether Trump is or is not a tyrant or fascist or unhinged are distractions we cannot afford. It is about policy.
Contra cooler heads is Molly Ivins's admonition to "[r]aise hell—big time. I want y'all to get out there and raise hell about damned near everything. My word, there's a world out there that needs fixing. Get out there and get after it." If this is not a time to raise hell big time, to get out there and get after it, it surely will do until one comes along. But. There always seems to be some "but" or other niggling at me. Before weighing in on affairs of the day it seems prudent to reflect on the purpose of it all, and consider what rhetorical and stylistic approaches best serve that purpose, before hacking away at it. Raising hell is not an end in itself. There are many ways to go about it. Some are less likely to be effective than others.
Where does this leave me? In my own muddle, with which I am all too familiar. Citizenship carries with it obligation that goes beyond casting a vote in periodic elections. Intellectuals have a responsibility to speak truth to power, whether power listens or not. Conscience dictates that I use whatever forums I have at my disposal to speak out and take a public stand. In our era of "fake news" and alternative facts, it behooves those of us who care about these things to try to cut through the manufactured fog of distortion, dissimulation, and outright sloppy thinking instead of adding to it. I try to be well informed, to expose myself at least somewhat to views and opinions that differ from mine, and to think critically about my own ideas and principles. I contact my representatives in Congress on a regular basis, usually by email these days. I vote. None of it feels like enough.
A man given to reflection will surely ask himself what is the point. Sometimes I wonder. It is not as if I harbor any illusion about the impact of these scribbles on affairs of the day. There is no prospect of payment, as to which I have quoted Samuel Johnson before: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." We know where that puts me.
Maybe I am talking to myself. Maybe I am attempting to justify myself to myself as I continue at this late date to try to make something of my life. Maybe this all has more to do with that sense of who I am and the person I should be than with the dismal state of the nation and highfalutin talk of conscience, integrity, and responsibilities of citizenship. Maybe it is in some way tied into that dream of being a poet that takes me back to lines written thirty or forty years ago to revise, revamp, and launch poems off into the internet aether in search of publication and a sympathetic reader or several. Being a poet was always only part of it.
Presumably I aim at something more than talking to myself. Am I out to rouse the rabble? To express solidarity with kindred spirits and comrades? Is my goal to prompt individuals of the moderate center who somehow remain on the fence about Trump to consider the possibility that the clear and present danger he poses outweighs their reservations about the opposition's agenda? Is it conceivable that there are such people? Is that moderate center anything more than phantasm anyway?
Ah, I ramble on in search of a conclusion where there is none. The day truly is dark, the times grim. Our best efforts are not assured of success. It is not always clear what those efforts should be. We forge ahead anyway because that is how we choose who we will be. Yes, I confess, I never got over the existentialist tracts I read in college. We may not have the luxury known by enthusiasts of the French Revolution at its commencement, when "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!" (William Wordsworth, "French Revolution"), yet still we find ourselves
...called upon to exercise [our] skill, Not in Utopia, subterranean fields, Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where! But in the very world, which is the world Of all of us,—the place where in the end We find our happiness, or not at all!
So vote for candidates who work to promote the general welfare and common good. Urge your friends and neighbors and acquaintances to vote. Write your representatives in Congress and your state legislature and your local government. Do your best to think critically about your views and express them in whatever forum is at your disposal. Support organizations that share your values (for me, that includes Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Carter Center). It is what we can do. Keep the faith.
Related Reading that May Be of Interest
Ezra Klein strikes me as among our most astute and sober political commentators. Of late he has argued that Trump is not fit to be president and made a case for impeachment with sufficient persuasiveness to bring me to reflect on my wariness about bringing up these topics at this stage of the Trump presidency. What he has gleaned from people who have contact with Trump is consistent with what has been reported elsewhere:
Over the course of reporting on the Trump White House, I have spoken to people who brief Trump and people who have been briefed by him. I’ve talked to policy experts who have sat in the Oval Office explaining their ideas to the president and to members of Congress who have listened. to the president sell his ideas to them. I’ve talked to both Democrats and Republicans who have occupied these roles. In all cases, their judgment of Trump is identical: He is not just notably uninformed but also notably difficult to inform — his attention span is thin, he hears what he wants to hear, he wanders off topic, he has trouble following complex arguments. Trump has trouble following his briefings or even correctly repeating what he has heard.
For a full exposition of Klein's thinking on impeachment and Trump's unfitness for office:
The case for normalizing impeachment, Vox, December 6, 2017
Incoherent, authoritarian, uninformed: Trump’s New York Times interview is a scary read, Vox, December 29, 2017
Susan B. Glasser, Donald Trump’s Year of Living Dangerously, Politico Magazine, January/February 2018
James Mann, Damage Bigly, The New York Review of Books, January 18, 2018
Josh Marshall, Did Trump Ever Have a Chance?, Talking Points Memo, January 5, 2018
Josh Marshall, Is President Trump Mentally Ill? It Doesn’t Matter, Talking Points Memo, January 6, 2018