…Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
– Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato,
knock the crap out of ’em, would you? Seriously. Okay?
Just knock the hell…I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.
I promise. I promise. – Donald Trump
July 20th, 2017 – half a year since the inauguration. I don’t need to remind you how stunningly weird our public life – and for many of us, our dreams – have been, these six months. Or perhaps I do: Consider Rolling Stone’s compilation of “100 WTF Moments From Trump’s First 100 Days”.
Of course, Trump’s arrival in the White House is an arbitrary point in time. If you have read my book or many of my articles, I’m sure you’ll agree that life in the United States has been straight-out, uncompromisingly, bat-shit crazy for a very long time. And yet, it seems to be in our nature as Americans (at least as middle-class, white Americans) to swing back, like elastic bands, into our familiar mode of denial. It can’t happen here.
So in the course of this blog series I am going to itemize for you, in rather detailed fashion, what’s been going on, if you’re willing to stay with me. I could suggest that you skip the meat of these articles and just head toward my conclusions. But that would be to treat you like a child who can’t tolerate your necessary and inevitable confrontation with reality.
Coming to consciousness often – perhaps always – involves dropping or being forced to drop our sense of specialness or uniqueness and privilege, our naiveté, and/or our innocence, and painfully accepting the reality of the darkness that surrounds us – as well as our own dark potential. This process is almost always necessary before we can fully accept that other reality: the light that both surrounds us and is within us. No dark, no light. The brightest lights cast the darkest shadows.
To go into the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark, go without sight.
And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings
And is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
– Wendell Berry
There’s no doubt that the current version of our national madness began before the election. Perhaps it began when Trump entered the Republican primary and immediately proceeded to debase that lofty tradition.
Or was it when you realized that he was openly articulating the racism and demonization of people of color that the other candidates had only been addressing in euphemisms? Clearly, plenty of these things were already being said long before the election season. They had been happening (depending on your degree of privilege) forever. Let’s be clear about this: nothing he said was new. His rivals and his predecessors had been articulating the same hatred and intolerance for decades. The only difference was that they had been limited by some vague consensus about good taste, so they (at least as far back as Ronald Reagan) had been forced to use the coded language of implication, which had always provided them with “plausible deniability” and allowed them to say that they had not been saying what everyone knew they were saying.
But in 2016 countless white people were thrilled that Trump could “speak his mind,” without concern for “political correctness.” The phrase, writes Moira Weigel,
…conjured powerful forces determined to suppress inconvenient truths by policing language…The term is what Ancient Greek rhetoricians would have called an “exonym”: a term for another group, which signals that the speaker does not belong to it. Nobody ever describes themselves as “politically correct”. The phrase is only ever an accusation.
Or was it when it dawned on you that our political system (even Trump bragged about this) is so broken that the Democratic establishment really did steal the primaries from Bernie Sanders?
Perhaps it was a few years earlier, when you heard Hillary Clinton chortle about Muammar Gaddafi’s death: “We came, we saw, he died!” Or when Obama wept about gun deaths in America while raining death all over the Mid-East. Or the insanity of Bush’s wars, or the election of 2000, or…I could go on indefinitely.
In book talks I often ask members of the audience: When did you lose your innocence? The answers often go to the events of 9-11, or with older folks, the Kennedy assassinations. Then I ask, when did you lose your innocence the second time, and the third time, etc… The point I then have to make is that in our demythologized culture, in which true initiation rites have long been lost, the default mode that we all lurch back to at every opportunity is the denial and the desperate desire to remain innocent – in both senses, childlike and untainted by guilt. Once again, we have permission to ignore what is right in front of us. So the next time our innocence is punctured, it feels like the first time.
In a (very) different context, I could also ask: When did you get radicalized? When did it feel OK to hate? When did you feel permitted to act? When did your sense of (pick one or more) loneliness, alienation, anger, entitlement, privilege, etc, rise to the point that released your inhibitions about inappropriate speech or action? Or: When did your Dionysian moment happen?
I don’t think I need to refer to the surface level. You already know about the 3:00 AM tweet wars with Arnold Schwarzenegger; the misogynistic insults; the juvenile bragging and veiled threats; the three million fake voters; the golf weekends; the smarmy, fake religiosity; the casual statements about missile attacks; the appointment of corporate toadies to destroy the regulatory and protective federal agencies; Sean Spicer’s and Kellyanne Conway’s surrealistic interviews; the ghoulish Stevens (Miller and Bannon); the vampire Trump siblings and Jared Kushner; the scandals; the refusal to address global warming, the attacks on Syria (nothing new there), the allegations of fake news, the actual fake news; certainly not the new Cold War and harping about evil Russians (did you notice when Democrats and the media began to refer to “the Russians” as “our adversaries?”). Even if you avoid the news altogether, you still get much of this from Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show or Facebook in easily digestible form.
No, infuriating or depressing as it is, that’s all on the surface level. But it – and especially Trump himself – have been expressing a certain mythic role that I’ll have to take some time to unpack. And that time will be filled with the list of what else has been going on. But for now, I’ll think of this surface level as the most obvious expression of permission – letting the dogs out, or what some have called the “Trump effect.” My list has four categories: prominent hate statements; specific acts of hate; government policy; and local police actions. The list is neither perfectly chronological nor complete; indeed, I fully expect to add plenty of items before I complete it. But I have to start somewhere. Eventually, I’ll try to put all this into a mythic context.
Next: “Free Speech”, Provocations, Threats and Hate Statements