NORTH CHATHAM, New York – U.S.A.
Red-faced and sweaty, Donald Trump was greatly worried on the night of September 29. His chances for reelection as president were slim and growing slimmer, thanks to a cascade of scandals. Yet there he was in the city of Cleveland for the first of three scheduled televised debates with his opponent, Joe Biden. Mr. Trump conducted himself accordingly: One commentator compared his behavior to that of an agitated, feces-flinging chimpanzee in the primates section of a zoo.
Viewers expected no less a performance from the blustering fat man with “that weird yellow hair,” as my grandson Enzo puts it. The president’s oratorical schtick is as reliable as “Old Faithful,” the enormous and frequently erupting geyser at Yellowstone National Park out West. Thus and ever so, Mr. Trump gushed forth in a loud geyser of lies, self-praise, fevered fantasies, racist taunts, rude interruptions, misogyny, personal insults, astounding ignorance, personal grievances, xenophobia—and calculated disinformation he was pleased to pass along from his comrades at Kremlin-financed social media troll farms in St. Petersburg.
Members of Mr. Trump’s inelegant cult of admirers were thrilled—all the more so when “radical socialist Democrats” (i.e. anyone taking exception to the president or his Republican Party sycophants) flooded “fake news” outlets with howls of disgust and yet more complaints about an accidental president seen as a vulgar sociopath at best.
For most in the viewing audience—seventy-three million sets of eyeballs, according to Nielson Media Research—the end of the evening came as a blessing, and with search for comic relief. Jokes about the hot mess of Debate #1 were bountiful, including this from my brother in-law Keith: “Just confirmed: Debate #2 is a fist fight in a Chili’s parking lot.”
Indeed, Donald Trump inspires amusement that some will understand to be a camouflage of dark malevolence below the preposterous mien. So it was, too, with another preposterous man who set the world agog—a man of the past whose appearance was unremarkable, save for a small scrub brush moustache and a lank of hair perpetually flopped over his forehead; a man who inspired the sharp-eyed American newspaper essayist and radio personality Dorothy Celene Thompson (1893-1961). She wrote of him, in 1931:
“He is inconsequent and voluble, ill-poised, insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man. …[His eyes] have the peculiar shine [that] often distinguishes…alcoholics, and hysterics. He speaks as though he were addressing a mass meeting. …In every question, he seeks for a theme that will set him off. Then a hysterical note creeps into his voice, which rises almost to a scream. He gives the impression of a man in a trance. He bangs the table.”
I suspect that a solid majority of my countrymen now find the parallels between these two men evident, and threatening: the ham-fisted slogans, the crude racism, the lurid nationalism, the concentration camps, the physical cruelties dealt to non-Aryans. Add to this the Trump administration’s venal corruption and its criminal neglect of suffering and death due to the coronavirus pandemic, and must now call our home the United States of Anxiety.
As I write, on the second day of the month, angst-ridden America has begun to realize that this time in modern-day presidential election cycles there will come a day quite more dramatic than the traditional “October surprise” of some late-breaking scandal that could sandbag either of the candidates—Messrs. Trump or Biden.
—FLASH! This month’s surprise comes early: Legendary liar and confidence man Donald Trump, along with his wife, Melania, are said to be infected with covid-19! The very fatal virus Mr. Trump has dismissed as a “hoax” on several occasions, despite America’s whopping lead in global covid-19 deaths (212,660) and infection rates (7,494,671), according to Worldometer’s highly respected daily tracking. The president himself was first to report the diagnoses, and the Trumps’ indefinite quarantine period in the White House. He did so at one hour past midnight, prime time for his famous “poop tweets” from the bathroom adjoining the bedchamber unshared by his wife. Mr. Trump’s reputational distance from truth begs the question: fake news?
If the presidential scoop proves true—after all, we have only his dodgy word, affirmed by a medical flunky—then “karma-19” would be the proper diagnosis term. At present, cynicism is reasonable: Might this news be a bid for political sympathy, or a gambit to somehow elude electoral humiliation?
But wait, there’s more! A “November surprise” looms.
Come Election Day on the third of next month, Donald Trump will surely go down to defeat, perhaps on a landslide scale. Mr. Trump knows the inevitable next chapter of his life, when the page turns and law enforcement authorities are freed from the prohibition against prosecuting a sitting president. Mr. Trump knows he will no longer be of use to oligarchs in Moscow, Riyadh, Ankara and elsewhere, and therefore no longer worthy of their hush-hush welfare payments; he knows that the sham of his “business empire” will quickly crash due to personal indebtedness of $421 million (€358.48 million), according to a New York Times account based on having obtained long-sought Trump tax documents.
Donald Trump understands that he may go to prison, as others in his regime have gone for their crimes in lying about or participating in his felonious activities. Like any third world autocrat, Mr. Trump knows that remaining as head of state—duly elected or not—is his only hope of living in freedom, and in the gilded manner to which he is accustomed.
The most horrible moment of Debate #1 was a flicker of twisted integrity, in which candidate Trump ducked the question of whether he would accept the people’s choice come November 3 and leave the White House voluntarily. He could have lied and responded in the affirmative. Instead, he thrilled his cult anew by threatening a coup d’etat, in effect—one that would destroy U.S. democracy, the world’s oldest such governmental form.
America’s oldest weekly magazine—The Nation—suggested exactly that with its September 21 issue. The cover story recounts a recent day in the life of Harvard Law School Professor Charles Fried, whose family fled the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. A lifelong Republican distressed by the prostitution of his party by Donald Trump, Mr. Fried was U.S. solicitor general in the Ronald Reagan administration.
Consider the professor’s analysis of a traumatic day:
“This summer, shortly after scores of camo-wearing, heavily armed federal agents descended on Portland, Oregon to attack protesters [against police brutality], Charles Fried…pondered the implications of what he was seeing on the streets. What he saw scared him; he remembered the use of paramilitaries of fascist leaders in 1930s Europe, where he was born, and he feared he was now witnessing a slide into paramilitarism in the United States. Fried felt that President Trump was using [government agencies] in a way that was ‘very menacing. You might as well put brown shirts on them.’ “…Trump could, Fried fears, utilize ‘agents provocateurs, getting rightwing people to infiltrate left-oriented and by-and-large peaceful demonstrations to turn them violent to thereby justify intervention.’
“Fried, a student of history who chooses his words carefully, has concluded that Trump and his team are ‘certainly racist, contemptuous of ordinary democratic and constitutional norms, and they believe their cause, their interests, are really the interests of the nation and therefore anything that keeps them in power is in the national interest. Does that make you a fascist? It kind of looks that way, doesn’t it?’”
At the Cleveland debate, the president was pressed to disavow support by white nationalist organizations such as Proud Boys, a traveling gang of fascist street brawlers. Mr. Trump declined the opportunity. Instead, he issued an unsubtle command for assistance in the cause of keeping his seat upon what he thinks his rightful throne: “Proud Boys,” the president declared, “stand back and stand by.”
Naturally, the gang eagerly accepted the call—to arms? Hastily, they adorned themselves in freshly printed T-shirt language à la Trump.
Hastily, Mr. Trump claimed zero awareness of Proud Boys.
Typically, politicians will publicly distance themselves from their more extreme supporters. But Donald Trump, who has poop-tweeted pass-along posts from Twitter accounts associated with rabid rightwing outfits, has habitually stumbled, prevaricated, pleaded ignorance, or shifted blame to rabid leftwing groups. In 2016, after re-tweeting a quote by Italian Fascist Party leader Benito Mussolini, Mr. Trump excused himself with this: “Look, Mussolini was Mussolini…[It was] a very good quote, an interesting quote.”
Asked in 2016 to disavow support from Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, candidate Trump answered a reporter with, “I don’t know anything about David Duke. I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know.”
Meanwhile, video clips of Proud Boy actions from around the country emerged last week featuring sentiments of the gang’s führer, Gavin McInnes: “Choke a motherfucker, choke a bitch, choke a tranny” and “We need more violence from the Trump people” and “We will kill you.” Hastily, the gang adopted Mr. Trump’s command for its spiffy new logo.
Beyond the Proud Boys ilk, Donald Trump looks to so-called civilians among his cult for voter intimidation work. Or as the president said, “I am urging my supporters to go to the polls and watch very carefully.” To that end, Trump campaign operatives report that they’ve rounded up some fifty thousand civilian Trumpers to loiter at polling places, where they are certain to growl at those they suspect will cast their votes for the Democrat, Mr. Biden—and where, per laws in some states, they will carry guns openly.
Such intimidation strategy by Republicans was outlawed forty years ago by federal court order. To the delight of Trump campaign officials, the order expired in 2018.
Since Mr. Trump’s dubious victory in the 2016 presidential contest, America has been embroiled in what could fairly be called a cold civil war of class- and race-based cultural division. The question at hand: In a nation with a greater population of guns than people, when might the shooting begin? Susan Rice, secretary of state under President Barack Obama, offers scary thoughts on the topic. In a September 23 essay for the Times, she wrote:
“[Our] divisions provide kindling for conflict in an election year when President Trump daily tosses gasoline and matches on the bone dry tinder of American politics.
Whether reprising discredited eugenics theories of white racial superiority, stoking fears of ‘low income’ people invading white suburbs, demanding ‘patriotic education’ in public schools that whitewashes slavery and institutional racism, falsely declaring mail-in voting corrupt, or expressing contempt for [Democrats], Mr. Trump seeks to perpetuate himself in power at great cost to our national cohesion.
No wonder Russian state media and politicians are gleefully predicting an imminent [hot] civil war in the U.S.”
Key to Donald Trump’s desperate hope of hanging on to power by any means necessary is the loyalty of his cult, a powerful minority of white America low on objective information, high on racism, and handicapped by a virtual absence of critical thought. As their yellow-haired idol correctly observed, “I could shot someone on Fifth Avenue and I still wouldn’t lose any votes.” This despite current and future harm to them arising from presidential neglect of their personal interests.
The mordant New York writer Fran Lebowitz wrote on her Facebook page how “it’s a shocking thing to realize that [Trump voters] love their hatred more than they care about their own actual lives.”
Nevertheless, as the saying goes, Trumpers persist in believing and/or echoing whatever demonstrably false crackpot thing Dear Leader cares to spout. They persist to the point of giving their names to Times reporters Jeremy Peters and Hank Stephenson, for quotes in a September 30 article headlined “Many Trump Voters Back His Refusal to Commit to Transferring Power.”
On the topic of Election Day next month behold the thoughts of two Trumpers, each of whom in calmer times could easily be confused as salt-of-the-earth types:
• Sylvia Rhodes Blakey, 73, of Green Valley, Arizona: “There’s going to be massive fraud. There are so many illegals that have the names of dead people, and they’re voting on those ballots.”
• Jim Tienel, 73, of Waterford, Michigan: “[I]f the election is filled with fraud, which I believe it’s going to be, do you walk out on your role as the president of the United States simply because the Democrats cheated?”
Mr. Tienel wins the prize for the most frightening thing I know of what may come of us in these profoundly disunited states of America: “I just spent three and a half hours in gun training today because I’m concerned.”
Kudos to the country’s most important newspaper for publishing such painful revelation. In the past eras of upheaval, the New York Times has not been as perceptive. On New Year’s Day of 1933, for instance, the Times ran a long piece on the European political situation on the cover of its foreign news section. Readers then were told that “all of Italy is happy with Mussolini” and that “Hitlerism is on the wane.”
—Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag
Thomas Adcock writes every month for us, his latest essays here.