Tuesday, January 19, 2021

What Donald Trump Means To Me

I have followed Trump's career for decades. As anyone who has been paying attention knows, and as some folks insist on being shocked and surprised to discover on a regular basis, he really is that bad, and has always been that bad. I cannot think of a single human virtue that the man has ever displayed, and he is not even particularly good at many of the human vices that he wields like a toddler with a twisted light saber. He is a shambling mountain of human awfulness. The closest thing to an excuse that might be offered in his defense may also be simply the capper of his awfulness--unlike other odious politicians like Mitch McConnell or Mike Pence, he is incapable of being any better. 

He has always been that bad. In writing, conversation, casual discussion, Trump has always been my go-to example of the personification of the worst in humans.

So nothing in his Presidency has shocked or surprised me. In fact, I've sometimes lost patience with people who clutch their pearls and declare, "Oh my goodness! How could he do such a thing?!" Likewise, the repeated insistence that "this time he's pivoting to a new style" and "this time he's made the mistake that will really sink him" have gotten no sympathy from me. If you are doing such a bad job of paying attention, you deserve to be alternately surprised and disappointed, because one of the human vices that Trump enacts poorly is guile and sneakiness. This is what his worshippers call his "tell it like it is" quality-- he tells you he's going to punch you in the face, and then while you're engaged in a huge debate about whether or not he really means that, he punches you in the face. 

But Trump has mattered to me personally. Trump has been an ongoing challenge to my conception of a just universe and the decency of human nature. Yes, I'm all snark and crankiness here, but I'm a fundamentally optimistic person, a believer in the value of humans, a believer in the human spirit's ability to rise and advance, a believer that people, mostly, try to do what's right as they understand it. Sure, sometimes people get stuck because of fear or comfort. Sometimes life breaks them and it's hard for them to come back from it. Sometimes we screw up and we carry the consequences on our backs (some more quietly than others) like weighty, decomposing carcasses. We are a mix of strong and weak, good and bad, fear and courage. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, but we have the tools and the opportunity to make it better. But when good things happen to bad people...?

Trump activates the human desire to see a comeuppance, but of course he has never in his life experienced such a thing. He's barely ever suffered consequences. But as humans, because it's reinforced either by our consumed narratives or our human nature, we want to see more than consequences. We want a comeuppance. We don't just want the bad guy to lose--we want him to show that face, that shocked awareness that he's been beaten, that sad realization that he's in trouble, even hear a shamefaced admission of guilt. We want to see not just that he's lost, but that he knows it. 

We're never getting that from Trump. I've watched for years to see if he was capable of such a thing, but as with all narcissists, it's just not in his tool box. His opponents are never going to get that satisfaction. And his allies are always just a step behind.

Trump's a toxic person who spreads poison wherever he walks. One of the great Trumpian mysteries is why, for decades, people have walked smilingly into this buzzsaw of a man. You would think that nobody would ever, for instance, agree to work for him without being paid up front. But Trump has that kind of feral charm that gets people thinking, "Yes, he's an amoral thug, but he will never stab ME in the back, because he and I have a real bond." Congratulations, Rudy Guiliani, on all that pro bono work you've been doing. 

And the racism and the misogyny, which metastasize in both unusual and pure form, because I'm not sure that anybody else is actually real to Trump, who lives in a world in which anyone who's not directly attached to him is an Other. But boy has that emboldened and empowered folks who hate Others of their own.

Does that mean there's no justice for Trump? Well, I've long believed that the biggest punishment for being Trump is that he has to be Trump. Here's a man who gets no joy from anything, who has no love of music or art, who spends his whole life trying to scratch the phantom itch that lives within the gaping open chasm inside him. Here's a man who managed to become the President of the United States, and he's still unhappy, perpetually pissed off, and still cut off from love, companionship, respect, connections of any real sort with other human beings. It's easy to say, "Boy, I'd love to have his money" (or at the illusion of money that he's built), but if you had to give up every pleasant aspect of your life, everything that gives you joy? That's the deal. The man suffers every day of his life, exerts all of his energy into erecting a shield between himself and reality. He will die miserable and alone, and he won't even realize that his life didn't have to be like that.

Trump would be a pitiable figure if he did not exert such a toxic force on the world around him. He ruins people, strips them of money and honor, and as someone who embodies the worst in humanity, instinctively calls out to those same qualities in others. He is not, by any means, the only awful person to occupy the office, but he comes along at a time in which the office has unprecedented power and reach. And he has not injected new evils or failings into our political system; he's simply stripped them of artifice, not because he's noble and honest, but because he's clumsy and because a consequence-free lifetime has taught him that the artifice is pointless and simply blunts the power that you want to exercise. It's not "polite" to say the quiet parts out loud? Who gives a shit? 

I've wrestled my whole life with the concept of evil. I believe in God; Satan, not so much. I just don't see much bad in the world that can't be explained by foolishness and fear. I believe that almost all people act as they believe they are supposed to, that they arrange to bring into their own lives what they believe they deserve. I believe that, almost all the time, when you think someone is doing what they do because they are evil and/or stupid, that means you are failing to understand what the world looks like through their eyes. That doesn't mean they're any less destructive or dangerous or deserving of being stopped;  just that you don't understand where they're coming from (which, with dangerous and destructive people, can be useful to see). Even when they are, in the final analysis, simply stupid and evil, it's useful to understand how they see the world. Maybe especially when they're stupid and evil.

The Trump presidency, and the 2020 vote, expanded the challenge. I get transactional politics--"I'll put up with his bullshit because he'll load up the courts with lots of anti-abortion judges." I don't agree with the goals, but I understand it. But I was surprised by other things. I was surprised by the speed with which the Republican Party tossed principle and country for some party power. And like many Americans, I was shocked and surprised and disheartened by how many neighbors and friends and people I have generally loved and respected have stuck with him to the very end, have gone all in on devotion to an authoritarian leader who, it turns out, was pretty much correct when he said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose support from his base. That has been rough to take. 

Trump, it turns out, is a window into the abyss. He's the picture of lawlessness (it's only a rule if someone can actually force him to follow it and it turns out that mostly they can't, because civilization). He's the avatar of a great mountain of frustration and anger. And he's the personification of the human urge to be lead by a totalitarian god-emperor. None of this is pretty, but it's good for us to see it, to understand however briefly the thin membrane between us and that abyss. It is easy to imagine that the structures and mores and understandings that make up civilized life are so strong, so resilient, that individuals can abuse and kick and twist them for personal desires, that we can beat the system to get our own gain without any fear that the system will actually be hurt. We can steal a brick out of the foundation of society, we think, and the building will still stand, and our abdication of our responsibility and debt to the larger community that preserves us--well, that won't really hurt anything. Will it?

I can't hate Trump. He is what he is, what he's been his whole life, broken and twisted and empty and certain that he lives in a world that is all hostile, all the time. As I said, if he weren't so destructive and dangerous, he'd be pitiable. I'm far angrier at the elected figures and thought leaders and political operatives who know better and help him light the molotov cocktail anyway, because they think they'll get something out of it or just because they want to watch the world burn. It may be the teacher in me, but plain old ignorance doesn't bother me nearly as much as willful ignorance, the deliberate choice to turn away from understanding. That's what I find inexcusable, and Trump has been awash in a sea of it. I hate that.

So tomorrow he leaves the White House worse than he found it, defending the Big Lie till the end, a lie that I suspect is destined to live on just like the lies surrounding the defeat of the traitors of the Confederacy. The Trump flag will keep flying here and there just as the confederate flag does. And the giant churning machine that has learned how to churn profit and power out of Trumpism will keep on doing so, eternally to punch you in the face if you identify Dear Leader as the lying feral grifter he has always been. 

Thirty, forty years ago I started using Trump as placeholder in writing, a specific placeholder for "worst kind of human being." Today, that's still what he means to me, but he's enlarged my understanding of just how much damage a giant toxic creature such a man can be, how he can empower truly terrible people with evil intent, how he can destabilize a community, how he can warp people's very sense of right and wrong. More than that, how imagining any human being is some sort of icon of transcendent greatness simply opens to the door to bad, foolish things. 

And what did he, Trump, personally get out of this peak of his infamy? Some money, a bunch of people sucking up to him, some trappings of power, some undivided attention--and none of  it made him feel any better, even though, paradoxically, the loss of it will make him feel worse. All those people devoted to him because his anger somehow seems to rhyme with their own, and yet somehow the warmth of human connection and support escapes him. All this wreckage, for nothing.

Tomorrow Trump leaves the office, but he won't disappear quietly, nor will the millions of Americans conned into believing the election was stolen, nor the leaders who thought overthrowing an election would be fun. I look forward to having a boring guy in the White House, but I am anxious about seeing what the country is going to look like. Too many illusions shattered, too many dark things have shown their face. Walk carefully while we wait to see how strong the earth is beneath our feet. 


  1. You're always the most eloquent when you're impassioned. It's a joy to read even when you're talking about negative things. The biggest insight I got from this post: "It is easy to imagine that the structures and mores and understandings that make up civilized life are so strong, so resilient, that individuals can abuse and kick and twist them for personal desires, that we can beat the system to get our own gain without any fear that the system will actually be hurt."

    But I'm feeling such a lightness of spirit now that we have a government full of competent, caring professionals who are working to be constructive, instead of selfish, mean-spirited, grifting nihilists who want to destroy.

  2. Thanks for this. I've read other, similar, reflections on the Trump phenomenon and its meaning for America's self-image, but it never seems like we can be done with them. And do these essays simply reflect our own horror and introspection, or do they ever reach the collaborators that you indict at the end - the people who can still love and can show signs of humanity, but who inexplicably (or so you imply) also jump willingly into the abyss?

    Sorry to be so morbid. As you know and imply, the 70-odd million voters for Trump cannot all be Trumps, with his peculiar lack of any soul at all. But how many are mini-Trumps? and how many who are not have learned nonetheless to park their souls in Hell for whatever reason?