I have spent many anguished hours pondering how it is that a man of such low character and dubious qualifications occupies the Oval Office. I’ve spent even longer trying to understand his presidency. I’ve pored over polls and research papers, absorbed an ocean of think pieces. None has solved the mystery.
In fact, I’ve gleaned the most insight not from the realms of journalism or academia, but from literature. Only by rereading certain American classics have I been able to make sense of Trump’s chaotic reign.
My quest began, fittingly enough, with “Moby-Dick,” specifically the scene in which Ahab appears on deck to announce the true nature of his mission: revenge against the whale that unmanned him. He exhorts his crew with a soliloquy Trumpian in pitch if not diction.
“All visible objects are but pasteboard masks,” the captain roars. “If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.” He goes on: “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”
It is this volcanic grievance that fuels Melville’s saga, that binds the crew of the Pequod to their leader. “Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine,” Ishmael tells us.
Melville is offering a mythic account of how one man’s virile bombast ensnares everyone and everything it encounters.
Melville is offering a mythic account of how one man’s virile bombast ensnares everyone and everything it encounters. The setting is nautical, the language epic. But the tale, stripped to its ribs, is about the seductive power of the wounded male ego, how naturally a ship steered by men might tack to its vengeful course.
Trump’s presidency has been, in its way, a retelling of this epic. Whether we cast him as agent or principal hardly matters. What matters is that Americans have joined the quest. In rapture or disgust, we’ve turned away from the compass of self-governance and toward the mesmerizing drama of aggression on display, the masculine id unchained and all that it unchains within us. With every vitriolic tweet storm and demeaning comment, Trump strikes through the mask.
A similar sense of revelation accompanied my rereading of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian classic, “Fahrenheit 451.” The book is generally misunderstood as a tale about censorship, but Bradbury’s central concern wasn’t the tyranny of the State. It was the self-induced triviality of the people.
The scene most vital to understanding the novel is triggered not by a book burning but a failed book group. Guy Montag, a fireman charged with burning the possessions of those caught reading, secretly becomes enthralled by books. He returns home one evening to find his wife Mildred and her friends sitting before the Parlor Walls, huge screens that provide insipid, round-the-clock entertainment.
Montag unplugs the Walls and tries to talk with them about their lives: an impending war, the death of friends, even (gasp) politics. The women are horrified when Montag fetches a hidden book of poetry and reads Matthew Arnold’s lyric poem “Dover Beach,” which ends with an image of “ignorant armies” clashing by night. Mildred is so shaken that she locks herself in the bathroom and downs sleeping pills.
This scene rattled me. I so often feel a mild version of this dynamic when I try to talk with friends and relatives about the manifest cruelty of Trump’s policies. It’s nearly impossible to have a serious discussion about the crises facing our country, such as climate change or income inequality, when all we focus on are his lies and insults.
Americans have become habituated to consuming the presidency as a kind of freewheeling entertainment product beamed onto our own Parlor Walls — half reality TV show, half cage match — while the executives of our vaunted Fourth Estate collect checks from the sponsors.
Eighteen months after the election, Trump is still holding campaign-style rallies in his strongholds. My literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut, didn’t live long enough to witness these orgies of self-congratulation. But Vonnegut was exquisitely attuned to the class dynamics that prevail when plutocrats preach populism.
“It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor,” he observed in “Slaughterhouse Five.” “This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.”
Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel “Song of Solomon” helped me understand why so many white Americans continue to embrace a politics of racial resentment over one of economic uplift. As one character observes, “the cards are stacked against us and just trying to stay in the game, stay alive and in the game, makes us do funny things. Things we can’t help. Things that make us hurt one another. We don’t even know why.”
Trump sows doubt and discord because he profits by a loss of faith in our democratic institutions. He tells a fraudulent story about America — that we are a nation under siege by the dark other — to distract his base from the sad truth that he’s imperiled their healthcare and mortgaged their future for massive corporate tax cuts.
“It was all very careless and confused,” as Gatsby’s pal Nick Carraway might say. As any student of literature can tell you, it won’t end well.
Steven Almond is the author, most recently, of “Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country.”