Fire, Fury, and all the Varieties of American Nihilism

“Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?”

-Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ‘72

Do you think that after the nuclear trigger is pulled that any of the survivors will be able to honestly say that on some level they didn’t always know that it was bound to happen this way? That the capricious, selfish, consumptive, greedy, individualistic, sociopathic tradition in American life wouldn’t lead, as if by providence, to that moment on August 8th, 2017 when a buffoonish, cretinish, hideous, ulcerated sphincter of a man who happened to be the President of the United States began to steer a course towards nuclear Armageddon because of his own vanity, incuriousness, impetuousness, and stupidity (and while on vacation at his golf course in Jersey nonetheless)? It’s as if all of our history had been ordained from that moment that Columbus landed on Hesperian shores, culminating a half millennia later with an orange idiot more flatulence than man who decided that he would act as Death, the destroyer of worlds. I suspect that if survivors are condemned to eke out a cursed existence in the embers of glowing fallout sprinkled around the debris of a once mighty empire that they’ll tell each other they all figured it would pretty much end like this. Some of them might even be telling the truth.

It’s impossible to watch Trump’s press conference the other day and not feel a deep loathing for the man, down to the goofy, faux-tough-guy grammatical construction where he says the North Koreans “best not” challenge him, as if he was a Dakota sheriff in 1885 (or his own German illegal immigrant great-grandfather who made his fortune out west) and not the pampered, almost unbelievably effete child of ridiculous New York privlege. Even if he is, and to his chagrin shall always remain, President Bridge-And-Tunnel. His certainty based on no actual knowledge, his security centered in his softness, and his arrogance justified by nothing he has ever done, only contribute to the revulsion I have at seeing somebody who became “leader of the free world” due to an electoral fluke born from an antiquated eighteenth-century document glibly threaten nuclear war while surrounded by his clearly horrified, if entirely sycophantic, committee of advisers. Of course empowering a man like that was idiotic, how long do we have to sit and pretend that the Emperor’s ill-fitting, poorly tailored, ugly suits are resplendent in their elegance? If I said that I despised Trump only for his reactionary policies, his demagogic personality, his authoritarian tendencies, than I’d be lying. I mostly hate him for those things. But I also despise him for his classlessness, his gaucheness without charm, his vulgarity without truth. If he was a Rabelaisian truth-teller there would be something in that, if he were an American Falstaff there would be something equally admirable there, but as it is, he’s none of those things. He is an unrepentant liar who convinced the third of this country who refuses to admit their profound mistake (or worse, is fine with maliciously burning it all down because “liberals”) that he’s a “truth teller.”  I despise Donald Trump because he goddamn is us, he is the cruel, nasty, disgusting, entitled, arrogant, stupid, selfish, spectacle-obsessed, small-minded, arrogant, narcissistic, incurious, belligerent, cowardly, loud-speaking, undignified, classless fuck-shit decadent nation we’ve become in the last generation. He is every shitty Jon McNaughton painting and every Kid Rock album. He is our lowest fucking aspirations, a nightmare which we generated out of our own demonic inclinations, and whom we somehow occultly projected into reality. I loathe him because I have to talk about him. I despise him because anyone takes him seriously. I am disgusted by him because I have to take him seriously. I am revolted by him because he is somehow real. He is the sort of beast Patmos wrote of. Do you think the hair qualifies as the anti-Christ’s predicted head-wound?

Does all of this make me a liberal, coastal elitist? Well of course it does. I also don’t care. Trump lives in a golden palace on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park; I’m from Pittsburgh (and goddamn proud of it), so I don’t care if the fact that I look down on a man who physically looks down on the rest of us makes me an elitist. It’s an empty slur these days, what with the nuclear Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads (Christ, with full-of-it references like that, maybe I am an elitist!). So yeah, his personality and his aesthetic do disgust me. His pretensions to “sophistication” needle at me. Trump trots out the word “classy” all the time, the signal of a man who has no idea what that word means. He brought a shitty gold-lame aesthetic to New York, basically Vegas chintz for America’s greatest city. But as elitist as my views might be, let’s not forget that Trump won high-income voters. Clinton won a majority of families whose income is under $50,000 a year. The “working class Trump voter” was so ingrained in the public imagination before the final votes had even been tallied that it has the stink of common sense received wisdom about it, but like any conventional narrative it’s there to be questioned. Donald Trump was not and is not a creature of some mythic, embattled, version of the white working class; his electoral strengths are in middle class and upper middle class white suburbs. His authoritarianism was born in the strip mall, not the trailer park (or certainly not empowered by support in the later alone).

Trump is president for several reasons – people who couldn’t be bothered to vote, or weren’t allowed to vote, or who bought into the simplistic, false equivalencies of Both-Sidesism and voted dangerously for Johnson or Stein while living in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin. Folks who thought it was inevitable that his opponent would win, so voted for Trump out of protest, or because they thought it was funny to have a guy in the WWE Hall of Fame be nominated for the office. Capitalist Republican absolutists for whom the only worry about giving such a manifestly unqualified, stupid, petty, small man the nuclear codes was that it could threaten the market. And then the “deplorables,” for whom how impolitic it might have been for Hilary Clinton to identify them as such was mostly inaccurate in greatly low balling the percentage of his supporters which constitute that designation. Nobody should allow the Republican Party off the hook for this travesty, he was their fault and remains their responsibility. For every northeastern GOP intellectual reading the National Review (which despite its new found respectability, I will remind people was anti-civil rights, and hell, anti-Beatles!) there were a dozen right-wingers listening to the paranoid, conspiratorial, mean-spirited bloviating money grubbers that are Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and so on. There is a direct line from the Roger Ailes Institute of Relativist Post-Modernism to our “post-truth” or whatever-the-fuck-it-is era today. But nuclear fission is one thing that is impervious to spin or accusations of “fake news,” so perhaps let’s have a moment of clarity and think about this precipice the nation has brought itself to.

The fact is that Trump is very much representative of a particular American archetype, a facet of our legend, myth, and history which is identifiable from the sixteenth-century colonial advocate safe in London all the way up to The Art of the Deal. Trump isn’t a rugged individualist, he’s not a self-made man, a bootstrapper, or a pioneer – he’s a confidence man. A huckster, a medicine man, a televangelist, a fake, a phony. In the immortal “Aw, shucks!” white bread words of Mitt Romney, before he prostituted himself for an over-priced French dinner at Trump Tower, the president is a “flim-flam man.” Roots are deep with this particular archetype, from the snake-oil medicinal cure-all advocates who flitted about the borders of revival meetings during the Second Great Awakening, through P.T. Barnum, and the Game Show Industrial Complex of the reality television era which birthed Trump. He pretends that he is Andrew Carnegie, but Trump was really a D-list celebrity who played a rich guy on television – what’s pathetic is that so many Americans fell for it. Or worse, they knew he was a fake but were fine with torching the whole fucker because, I don’t know, “her emails?” He pretends he is Thomas Edison, but he’s simply a “billionaire” whose Vincent Price-like father made his fortune gouging poor people. And getting rich off of Manhattan real estate is like getting rich off of selling beer to high school kids – the product sells itself. In that sense he is less Rockefeller and more Colonel Sanders. Jay-Z is more self-made and better at his job than Trump was, Trump’s only claim to his immense wealth was shifting imaginary numbers around, getting bailouts from shady Russian banks, and whoring himself out on a reality TV show, until a few voters in a few rural counties were able to tip the balance to him so that he could make his new fortune by violating the Emoluments clause.

What damages my patriotism is that there is a rich tradition of American culture and literature which is masterful at properly identifying the bullshit artist, and showing him for what he is. If confidence man is an American archetype than so is the no-nonsense Yankee who can see right through the charade. Herman Melville in 1857’s The Confidence Man: “‘with much communication he will tempt thee; he will smile upon thee, and speak thee fair, and say What wantest thou? If thou be for his profit he will use thee; he will make thee bear, and will not be sorry for it. Observe and take good heed. When thou hearest these things, awake in thy sleep.” Mark Twain at a lecture in Hartford, Connecticut, 1887 (seemingly speaking to congressional Republicans in 2017): “When the doctrine of allegiance to party can utterly up-end a man’s moral constitution and make a temporary fool of him besides, what excuse are you going to offer for preaching it, teaching it, extending it, perpetuating it? Shall you say, the best good of the country demands allegiance to party? Shall you also say it demands that a man kick his truth and his conscience into the gutter, and become a mouthing lunatic, besides?” Sinclair Lewis in 1935’s It Can’t Happen Here: “He was an actor of genius. There was no more overwhelming actor on the stage, in the motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts—figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.” And of course, our most American of mythic cycles, the one most original to these shores and fields and which most fully expresses the thought of the American people: L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which has as its titular character the small, tiny, insignificant man who tricks and befuddles with the magic of projection and screen, who in the film version implores us to “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

That is one of the most heartbreaking tragedies of the whole thing: that the veritable syllabus of American culture should have prepared us for one like Trump, but that it fell short when we needed it most. Or maybe we were never worthy of such an inheritance. I cannot respect that so many were able to hear what Trump said, see what he did, act as he does, and to say to themselves “Here is an honest man, here is a hard-working man, a family man, a Christian man.” Beyond politics, beyond ideology, or partisanship, this is what offends me, that so many could look and see clearly as I do and believe that in Trump there was an advocate for something better, when he’s not an advocate for anything other than himself. Christ knows that I am not promoting the Democratic Party in this, like Will Rogers I belong to no organized party (though of course I’m a registered Democrat). Leave it to the DNC to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. No, I acknowledge that there are those that hate Democrats, hate liberals, hate leftists, and that’s fine (though many of those same people couldn’t enumerate the differences between those three). Democracy thrives in opposition. That’s not what bothers me. Somebody who would normally refuse to vote for Clinton, or a Democrat, that’s comprehensible to me. What bothers me is that people could hear such unmitigated bullshit as spouted by Trump and for a second believe it. It bothers me because it’s so disappointing. You sort of expect better from your fellow countrymen.

Or there are those who saw Trump for precisely what he is, but supported him nonetheless. And that’s the segment of people you really need to worry about – the active American nihilists. For them, nuclear apocalypse is simply a campaign promise. Europeans are notoriously bad at reading Americans, they don’t get the cheeriness, the extroversion. It’s a surprisingly common feature of the American personality. Next to an Englishman even a New Englander might as well be from the Midwest. But the cult of positivity, the fetishizing of progress and change, the can-do attitude and the pluck is too often misinterpreted as dumb dog friendliness, as a type of stupidity. It masks the deep malevolence that has always existed at the American core, a nation that was indeed founded in fire and fury, based on the burning of these pristine lands as we thought we’d found them, from sea to shining sea. No doubt a strain of anti-intellectualism is at the core of some of American culture, and no doubt that contributed to our current predicament. But even anti-intellectualism in its lack of pretension and its pragmatism can have its virtues, what I’m speaking of is a darker stain on the psyche. The incomparable Oscar Wilde once said that “America is a large friendly dog in a very small room. Every time it wags its tail it knocks over a chair,” but he was wrong. America is Cujo. Or at least is some of the time. Europe, keep your affected and studied fashionably existentialist ennui for the Left Bank, a deeply ambivalent nihilism is an American birth-right. There is more philosophical pessimism in the brilliant lyric “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” than in all of Arthur Schopenhauer. Country music gets to the core of the darkest elements of human thought better than the entirety of German idealism. Of course it does, it’s an American product after all.

So where does that leave us? If our very American tools of analysis could not prevent a very American tragedy happening on very American terms? There is of course that counter-tradition, the utopian one, which our national civil religion insists on pretending is dominant even though it’s at best residual. That tradition which confers upon this land-mass the desire for equality, the hope for liberty, the aspiration for freedom. One part Jefferson, one part Whitman, and three parts the sheer magnificent poetry of our geography itself. The tradition of Dickinson and King and Dorothy Day and Sacco and Vanzetti and John Brown. The tradition of Woody Guthrie and of James Baldwin. The tradition which can squarely see the nation with its imperfections and yet hold it to that higher calling. An adage has it that pessimism is a luxury best saved for eras better than our own, let’s hold a little hope that that old doctrine of equality, liberty, and freedom might still save us yet. And that sanity and rationality somehow, someway staves off the nightmares of war.

Ed Simon is the associate editor at The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, he holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University. He can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

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