November 14, 2016

DAVIES | Donald Trump and the Fading of a Cultural Archetype

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Before Tuesday night I had expected the gnashing teeth of a poll-drowned American electorate to soon take my most ugly of muses. The moment when the Trump well would run dry was close at hand. Alas, it was not to be. The Donald shall be enthroned in the seat of power, like a lascivious Jabba the Hutt, for a period of no less than four years (barring impeachment or some act by the “Second Amendment people”). America will replace its first black president with the orange zealot who built his political career on questioning his predecessor’s citizenship. Still, at least one can take heart in the power dynamic between the two — in a particularly satisfying photograph, Trump was unable to meet Obama’s eyes as they shook hands in the White House.

But first, a brief autopsy of the Clinton campaign’s corpse. Why did the first female major party nominee lose to the most famous sexual predator in the country? (Sorry, most famous alleged sexual predator. We wouldn’t want to be libellous in Trump’s America, now would we?) Clinton’s downfall, briefly: complacency, misogyny and James Comey. Clinton played for states like Arizona and Georgia — normally beyond Democrats’ grasp but seemingly on the table this year — while neglecting her “blue wall” states, most significantly Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. A vehement distrust of such a “nasty woman” among many on the losing side of America’s culture wars stimulated Trump’s base to turn out. And the FBI director’s letter, which lacked anything more than a thread of legal implication, was spun into a political silver bullet that saw victory snatch Trump from the jaws of defeat.

But enough. In the words of our new Leader, now is the “time to bind the wounds of division.” Doesn’t that just sound wonderfully 1930s, my dear reader? Trump’s words imply that there will be no healing, only a constriction, the fastening of a tourniquet to choke off the blood rushing out. The myriad components of America — racial, economic, cultural — will be trussed and lashed to the axe of Donald Trump, dull in mind but crushing in might, like 50 rods into a fasces. “Believe me.” If Trump were a little more eloquent, his first presidential tweet, responding to widespread protests against his victory and reminding us of just how petty he is, would have read something like the following: “America is weakened by these backstabbing elements, diese Novemberverbrecher, protesting my victory. I alone can fix it.”

“But Alex,” you protest, “you’re just one of those young whippersnappers who barely knows the world, arrogantly wielding naught but a liberal arts education and a penchant for heavy-handed political metaphor.” To which I reply yes, I am that, but I must retort that we had better consider the possibilities of what Trump might do, however unlikely they may seem in this moment. Will Congress check his legislative agenda? Maybe, if GOP factions realise that it is in their interest to balance against the Trumpites. Will the courts strike down unconstitutional actions? Probably, but only after damage has occurred. And the Tweet Commander-in-Chief has sufficient latitude in areas like foreign policy to do quite terrible things without infringing upon the U.S. Constitution. Blue jeans won America the Cold War. Maybe things a “hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” can win the war against bad hombres and the en vogue crusade against political correctness.

Likely the best check on Trump will be a commitment by the political elite, both Democrats and Republicans, to reintegrate his supporters and offer them a better way. However much I may attack Trump in this column, however vehemently you and I may oppose what Trump stands for, America must understand and address the sentiments that tilled the fields for his success (though I’m a columnist, so solutions aren’t really in my playbook).

Much has been written about the economic trends and social changes that slowly boiled the frog in the American cauldron. Equally important has been the blue-collar worker’s fall from cultural primacy. The 20th century was the era of the everyman, both in the capitalist West and the communist Soviet Union. The assembly line American economy instilled a national pride in the daily efforts of the little people. The Soviet Union, with its pantheon of Stakhanovs and Gagarins, was even more explicit in its glorification of the worker and his hammer and sickle. Trump, with all his tantrums about “draining the swamp” and systematically decimating the bourgeois classes (did I tweet that? Or just think it?), promises a return to an everyman ideal enforced by a strong, paternalist figure à la Iosef Vissarianovich (to think, how far Man has progressed. In year 2016 oddly youthful hairpiece, tanning like teenage girl and mole-pink eyes are new totalitarian moustache!).

Now, our culture, in this celebrity century, prizes individualistic success. The West’s deindustrialisation has removed careers that allowed ordinary citizens to take pride in producing tangible goods. As unfulfilling service sector jobs comprise a growing proportion of blue-collar employment, Americans’ chances of attaining a career from which they can derive significant meaning are increasingly dependent on intelligence and a privileged upbringing. “Make America Great Again” evokes a nostalgia for “Made in the USA.” Trump’s sales pitch is a lie but the picture he paints of America is many people’s truth in the interior. After all, not all steel will rust.

It seems we have the diagnosis but the cure may yet prove elusive (what’d I say about columnists and solutions?). Though I can offer some bittersweet light at the end of the tunnel. As if in despair at Trump’s victory, the world lost Leonard Cohen this week. When I was young, before I developed any trace of arrogance in my thinking, my father would often play Cohen’s music. The lyrics of “Suzanne” — her tea and oranges, her mystical, melodious beauty — were engraved in a small corner of my mind long before I could appreciate their depth and grace. Now I know, perhaps arrogantly, that Cohen’s words and music remind us that our lives do, must and will encompass things of greater importance and sincerity than politics. When our public life becomes riven with lies we must seek truths from elsewhere. It is men like Leonard Cohen who, in his words, show us “where to look among the garbage and the flowers.” But I’m just a whippersnapper, so what do I know?

Alex Davies is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at ajd253@cornell.edu. Have I Got News For You? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.