As Trump ran for president I deliberatley withheld the term fascist from my comments. He was clearly sexist, racist, jingoist, solipsist, deluded, dangerously impulsive, and willfully ignorant of common facts, but I felt it would be a good idea to save the F-bomb for a culminating moment, when these characteristics coalesced with the open will to totalitarian power.
And I still believe we await that moment. But I also believe he signs of fascism are gathering too fast for liberal democrats to feel optimistic. Trump pretty obviously intends to use the state to enrich himself. The implicit idea that the state is an extension of his private property is deeply worrisome. Trump holds it in common with all other authoritarians of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Trump’s willingness to vest the mass stigmatization of minorites with the force of law is another deeply worrying sign. The “Muslim registry” would do just this.
And then there is the rally of November 19th, the Hitler salutes, the Nazi declamations. Those seem bad. Yes, yes, I hear and understand the objection that Trump can’t be blamed for all the deplorable things said and done in his name. Some fanatics will always slip through the cracks of raucous democratic discourse. And yet I must ask: who bears the main burden of protecting democratic discourse once it has been hectored in the national capital by Nazi louts? Is it up to us liberal democrats to wait and see if this pro-Trump group of Brown Shirts is a real thing, or might Trump feel obligated to take, shall we say, the nuclear option of obliterating the link between his agenda and these fascist wannabes?
Trump and his team also make no secret of their wish to control the press. The distance between aspiration and action in this area can be surprisingly short. Six years ago, when I started studying Turkey, it had a free and vibrant press. It was one of the things that made Turkish affairs interesting to me: there was such a variety of voices to take in. Then Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, started suing journalists who “insulted” him. Next he had his associates buy and tame as many media outlets as they could. Last year, in the coupe de grace, Erdogan simply declared what was left of the free press to be an ally of a movement to topple him (made up of ordinary-seeming Muslims who were actually disloyal Islamists–you can bet they’re on a registry in Ankara) and used his executive power to close their outlets, confiscate their assets and, in many cases, jail their employees. And in the space of six years, the free press in Turkey was dead, murdered in fact.
I’m not saying all this will come to fruition in Trump’s America, but let us not ignore the Munich-like goings on that seem to indicate Trump is acting on his worst instincts.
Here are two useful thoughts for the near future, as the fascism we feared becomes the fascism we can see.
First, for Trump to fulfill the biggest dreams of facsism, he must have handlers in the political establishment, and perhaps the military, who pave the way. The late Christopher Hitchens explains the value of elite patronage in a 1999 review of a book about Hitler’s rise:
“Do you recall the moment in The Silence of the Lambs when a moth chrysalis is discovered in the throat of a mutilated woman, and taken for examination? The entomologists at the Smithsonian lose no time in establishing that this sinister insect was present by design and had been carefully nurtured. “Somebody,” says the man with the tweezers, “grew this guy. Fed him honey and nightshade. Kept him warm. Somebody loved him.” The roach Hitler was just a drifter and a loser and a fantasist, but he was incubated all right, and shoved down the throats of the German people at the perfect psychological moment. . . . [and] Hitler found his patrons. A cabal of extreme nationalist and conservative officers in the army hired him as a spy, gave him some walking-around money, and noticed his talent for demagoguery. The leader of this group, Captain Karl Mayr, wrote a year or so later to one of his Fascist-minded civilian friends: “I’ve set up very capable young people. A Herr Hitler, for example, has become a motive force, a popular speaker of the first rank.”
In one sense, the cat is already out of the bag in our case: Trump is our president. But I think the important thing to watch now is how his closest advisors and more importantly, the gatekeepers of the government’s legislative and judicial branches will deal with him. Will they be able to curb his authoritarian appetite? Or will they try to use his “talent for demagoguery”? Will there be–Heaven prevent it–someone on the inside to “grow this guy”?
Second, there is the matter of Trump’s grassroots popularity among proto-fascists and his ability to control or cultivate their sentiment. In several of his essays, Martin Amis writes of the ability of ordinary people to achieve “escape velocity” from prevailing fact-laden opinion. Once they have become convinced of a handful of key grievances, which require no empirical credentials beyond subjective appeal, they can escape Earth’s gravity and loft their beliefs into glorious, frictionless orbit above the fray of “lower” opinions. I wrote somewhat spitefully about this mental switch and its significance for totalitarian rule last week.
I would also contend that one of the main purposes of Hitler’s large rallies was to harness the power of collective spectacle to achieve just the effect Amis had in mind, to override rational constraint on one’s political views. A human wave of fist-pumping neo-Nazis needs no evidence they are under threat of minorities’ wily machinations; they’re beyond all that.
So make no mistake about this: the Trump-Hitler fans at Saturday’s rally in the Reagan Building have achieved escape velocity. It would be banal to point out we must now watch to see how many people follow them. The crucial thing, I believe is to watch out for media that preach a mass conversion to this madness. I’ll bet Breitbart, for one, gets harnessed with no leash from the White House.
Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy is obviously meant to be a masterpiece. To say this is is not (quite) to offer faint praise. A former professor of mine used to tell us, “If you’re going to write a paper, write one that wins the Nobel Prize in literature.” Despite the patent grandiosity of this advice, I think he really meant it. He was always telling us we should strive to be more than footnotes to Plato.
In the best of American traditions, Dreiser, too, swung for the fences. The high, dry wind of An American Tragedy sweeps from Denver through Kansas City and Chicago, up through America’s coal and steel cities, to the lakes, forests and factories of upstate New York, where the main action takes place. Its 800-page scope is continental, Tolstoyan.
The main character, Clyde Griffiths, is, fittingly, an American archetype—a lone, rough-hewn individual undistinguished by high birth who struggles to slip his parental bonds, chases a vague dream of riches, and tests himself against life’s deepest moral challenges.
Spoiler alert: Clyde fails, in the most abysmal way. And America fails too, which unveils the deeper level of tragedy I think Dreiser had in mind when he wrote the book. Despite its flaws, which I will come to in a moment, An American Tragedy is a novel of great narrative magnitude and introspective power. Any serious student of American literature should read it.
Clyde is born to an uneducated family of evangelical street preachers. He moves too much to attend school steadily. His parents are poor as dirt but buoyed up by the spiritual nobility of their rags and hunger and the prospect of a better life after death. Dreiser’s socialist sympathies show through pretty clearly as he has the 16-year old Clyde slip this trap and start surprisingly lucrative work as a bell hop in a flashy Kansas City hotel.
Clyde’s first taste of economic independence—which Americans get about 10 years earlier than Europeans—brings tragedy and a minor downfall. On a lark with friends who have taught him to booze and whore, Clyde is a passenger in a car that hits and kills and 11-year old girl. He just evades arrest, changes his name and jumps town for Chicago, where he learns to temper his lusts. For five years he labors through a series of low-skilled, hard-knocks jobs. All the while, he continues to love women intensely, and like Saint Paul, seems to regard this is as a problem of potentially tragic depth.
Having mastered himself through hard, steady work, Clyde is seized one day by main chance. His rich uncle from Lycurgus, New York, an upstate manufacturing town on the Mohawk River, happens to attend a convention at the gentlemen’s club where Clyde works. Impressed with the boy’s manners and untapped intelligence, the uncle offers Clyde a job in his shirt-and-collar factory.
As a floor manager, Clyde falls in love with Roberta, a pretty, industrious collar-stamper from a nearby farming town. His love for her breaks two fateful rules. First, he crosses an inviolable class line by consorting with a menial worker (a practice his uncle forbids), and second, he makes Roberta pregnant after trammeling the barricade of her Christian virtue. It is a classic case of young love tested by the barely-known facts of life: Roberta sleeps with Clyde, but only on the vague promise of monogamy that “should” lead to marriage.
Except that won’t happen. Just as Clyde has bedded Roberta, Sondra, the beautiful, galivanting daughter of a local tycoon, takes it on herself, as a lark, to draw Clyde into Lycurgus’s set of young, playful elites, a group to which he belongs by dent of family connections but not by wealth, upbringing or worldliness. Clyde falls hard for Sondra, and eventually she requites. He sees her as the goddess who will transport his plebeian life to the stratosphere of ease and pleasure; she just falls for his unflagging charm (by far the weakest part of an otherwise strong plot).
Long before the story line develops to the point of Clyde’s dreadful dilemma, between commitments made and hopes tempted, Dreiser repeatedly clarifies the book’s moral theme: small moral corruptions are the gateway to larger ones. Clyde left home in Kansas City just to make enough money to buy a cheap but presentable suit of clothes. Six years later he has wandered and struggled, an uncultured Oddysseus, to the unlikely point where finds himself on the cusp of joining an American aristocracy. Roberta, good simple Roberta who has no idea how she fits into this Greek tragedy, will have to go. And so Clyde plots to drown her on a boat trip.
I think most readers will find the denouement of An American Tragedy the most morally absorbing part. Clyde has been convicted of murder by a local jury who make no attempt to hide the haste and zeal with which they wish to send him to hell. They give him the chair. Clyde’s mother, in the meantime removed to a new street “mission” in Denver, hurries to his aid, assuring him Jesus will provide an escape, if he is guiltless in his heart.
The arduous final 100 pages reveal what I believe to be Dreiser’s deeper message, about America’s share in Clyde’s tragedy. Must children fly the family coop in America to test themselves so severely, years before their moral compass is attuned to real life? As Clyde awaits his execution, he is pulled piteously between his desire to accept responsibilty for his crime and his instinct to reframe it as the conscionable act of a stunted persona. Meanwhile the machinery of capital punishment grinds inexorably forward. In the end the state kills a man who has just become capable of taking himself morally seriously. This is Dreiser’s bottom line.
To me, though, the emotional nadir of the novel, which hit me with a shudder, comes before the climactic murder, as Clyde is waiting for the five-month pregnant Roberta to rendezvous with him at a train station en route to their boat trip. To steel his nerves Clyde has been thinking of Sondra in all her finery. Roberta arrrives, done up in her best but in fact looking shabby and threadbare. At this moment it becomes savagely clear why Clyde will murder her: because she is poor, because she is a woman, and because she is in the way. It is the novel’s most horrible moment, but I’m not sure Dreiser meant it as such.
An American Tragedy is a good but not great novel. Dreiser never escapes his journalistic compulsion to tell absolutely everything of narrative importance, rather than letting dialogue, scenery or characterization carry the load by showing crucial developments. This is no mere technicality. Had Dreiser written Huckleberry Finn, for example, he would have constantly harped on how Huck and Jim were exploring a human boundary between freedom and bondage as they traveled down the Mississippi. The text of The Brothers Karamozov would have declaimed at regular intervals that it was an argument about the existence of God. A truly great novel does very little telling and a great deal more showing.
A great novel must also contain only perfect sentences. They need not be the peak of excellence, but they must avoid jarring, as these do not:
“At the same time, the natural coquetry of her nature would not permit her to relinquish him.”
“She must be on her guard in regard to him.”
Period language can be a distraction in any work of literature, but the idiom in An American Tragedy grates very sharply in places. Several times, just as Clyde is working his way up (or down) to a particularly trying question, about work or sex or religion, he exclaims, “Gee whiz!” It is a deflating experience.
The value of An American Tragedy is, of course, in its narrative scope and high themes. It also provides durable commetary on a hundred and one aspects of making it in America. It is a novel you should read just because Dreiser swung for the fences. Try not to let the minors errors bother you.
In 1948 the communist government of Czechoslovakia produced a famous propaganda poster. Milan Kundera tells of its origin in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The Communist Party leader, Gottwald, stands on a Prague balcony. It is a snowy winter day. Gottwald gives a thunderclap speech that sweeps away the old burgeois order and hails the advent of the communist revolution. It is a day Czechs would remember for a generation.
Standing at Gottwald’s side in the cold is Clementis, a senior party official. “Bursting with solicitude” for his boss, Kundera writes, Clementis removes his own fur hat and places it on Gottwald’s bare head. The small act of brotherly solidarity produces a scene that goes on to grace school textbooks and hundreds of thousands of propaganda posters.
Then, in 1952, Clementis commits an ideological heresy and is hanged for treason. Government agents remove his face from the famous propaganda picture; the only thing remaining of his person, Kundera says, is the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.
We recognizes the lineaments of this story even if we know nothing of Gottwald, Czechoslovakia or its successor states (Czechia and Slovakia; they split in 1993). It is foretold by Orwell, first in Animal Farm, then in 1984.
In Animal Farm, the leading revolutionary pig Napoleon, a cutout of Stalin, forces his comrades to debase and then expunge the memory of Snowball, a stand-in for Leon Trotsky. At first Snowball is a hero who fought bravely at the animals’ battle of liberation from their human masters; but in very short order, he is discovered, through Napoleon’s revision of recent historical facts, to have been an enemy agent all along.
In 1984, Winston Smith is employed at the Ministry of Truth, where he literally does for a living what Czech officials did to Clementis after his heresy—he deliberately alters the factual record to fit the ruling party’s historical narrative. His job is to make it impossible for the masses to remember the past with any accuracy.
In America we have the smug feeling that Orwellian alterations of the historical record could never happen. The media is biased toward its paymasters, sure, but it’s impossible for us to be that deceived. Hold that thought for a moment as we discuss a deeply interesting new book.
In his revelatory One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse disquiets us with the observation that facts can be airbrushed into the historical record as well as out of it. The “facts” in this case are a handful of pious rituals trumped up between 1952 and 1972 which big business boosters and conservative politicians promoted as indelible signs of our permanently Christian political culture. It is as plain as day why this is an argument that is important for the reactionary right to win: an unbroken Christian narrative would mean “our” religion is in some sense organic—it will always be a part of us. What is far more interesting is the less-examined question why big business was (and is) so desirous of Christianized masses.
Although Kruse’s focus is on religion, he ultimately poses a question of broader political urgency: why does it seem the established powers must force their version of the country’s historical narrative on the masses? Why is the power elite tempted time after time to go back and imprint its fabrications on the past to “prove” its version has always been the case, when it plainly has not?
Americans love religion, or at least we love Christianity. Right after the truths we hold to be self-evident, we believe our nation is genetically Christian. George Washington prayed for victory. The founders wrote of a sovereign Creator. The line of faith, we say, runs unbroken all the way back to our country’s founding institutions.
Indeed the “faith of our fathers” has become a kind of gauzy formulation of this idea. Although we officially respect the wall between church and state, many Americans believe it was put up with a wink and a nod that meant it would freely admit the passage of Christian ideas and values. As a caller on a news show once put it, “We have the separation of church and state, technically, but not really.” Don’t our very national symbols and political culture attest to the privileged, foundational status of Christianity?
Without looking it up, ask yourself when a U.S. president first placed his hand on a Bible as he was sworn in. Held a prayer breakfast? Led his staff in prayer? I will not presume to put words in your mouths, but these rituals are meant to come across as things all our presidents have done, all the way back. Indeed they are so de regiuer today, it is hard to imagine any president doing without them.
But the hand-on-the-Bible ritual started with Eisenhower in 1952. While it is true that George Washington also placed his left hand on a (Masonic) Bible to take his oath, it was a personal gesture that set no precedent and gained little traction. No more than three other presidents before Eisenhower did the same. After Eisenhower took it up in 1952, though, it became a required part of the inaugural ceremony. It would be impossible today for a president to quit the Bible ritual without touching off a culture war.
Take a moment and digest this thought: if the idea that a president could skip the Bible on inauguration day gives you serious pause, your patters are at least in part caused by the belief that the ritual is sacred, and sacred because it is enduring. In fact, Kruse shows, the historical narrative behind this piece of totemism, and all the other “enduring” Christian accoutrements to our political life, has been deliberately engineered.
The spade work began, Kruse recounts, in the 1930s. Big businesses had formed “councils” to tell the attractive side of their story to an American populace newly impoverished by failed commercial speculation and thus skeptical of any fat cats’ good social intentions. Roosevelt’s New Deal had begun to reverse the tide of depression, but it also eroded public faith in big business’s core ideals—low taxes, free markets and strict property rights. America was turning pink with socialism under FDR.
In reaction, the business councils promoted less regulation, greater protection for property rights, and an abstract but potent belief in free enterprise. What they wanted and needed was a new generation of politicians that would restore the anything-goes conditions of the Roaring Twenties. And for this, they needed voters.
For the most part, the boosters of big business sputtered along without much resonance with the public, until 1940. Meeting that year in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the National Association of Manufacturers, whose leaders for years had been stung by FDR’s use of religious language to promote the New Deal, decided to try turning the tables. NAM’s president that year proposed that the best antitdote to collectivism would be a “revival of American patriotism and religious faith.” The formula worked like a charm.
One of the reasons it did was because a charismatic Christian spokesman emerged at the Waldorf-Astoria to assume a burden the industrialists had not been able to carry themselves. NAM’s biggest PR problem all along had been that it appeared too self-serving. But in 1940, the Congregationalist minister James W. Fifield gave a speech to NAM that thunderously denounced the New Deal’s creeping authoritarianism and praised the potential of the gathered titans to beat back big government and restore the uniquely American, Christian pursuit of happiness.
As the applause broke in waves over NAM’s leaders, it became crystal clear to them how their crusade would go forward. Clergymen like Fifield would teach the masses to worship the very idols capitalists cherished—the cult of hard work, the allure of consumption, respect for property, and loyalty to the established authorities. This re-baptism of Christianity as a permanent lobbyist for capital was a defining moment in U.S. history. Read Kruse, if for no other reason than to witness the fateful train of events that followed it.
One of the main accomplishments of the alliance between commercial and religious ideologues was to produce a handful of simple but highly symbolic rituals binding religion and politics at the national level. In 1954 the U.S. Congress voted to add the phrase “under God” to the “Pledge of Allegiance,” originally penned in 1892 by a Christian socialist who deliberately left God out. In 1956 Congress adopted the national motto, “In God We Trust,” which the Treasury then imprinted on all our paper money (it had only been on coins before). In 1953 President Eisenhower attended the first-ever “National Prayer Breakfast,” an annual meeting of clergymen, business elites, politicians, and, which today includes lobbyists. Every president has participated since Eisenhower. (Since the 1980s the meeting has been hosted—very genially, one gathers—by the billionaire Hilton family at their Washington hotel.)
Indeed Eisenhower set several benchmarks of public piety that caught on with such force that they have become politically indispensable for all the presidents who have followed him. Although Eisenhower apparently thought of his pious gestures as a kind of Cold War theater to fortify the American soul against the Godless communists, his choices had much deeper consequences.
Eisenhower ended up insitutonalizing a religious cult of personality in the office of the presidency. This was the second major consequence of the indidious sacralizing of American politics starting in 1952. Among Eisenhower’s actions that seemed merely politically expedient at the time but which bore cultural fruit: he asked his staffers to attend church with him; he led the nation in prayer in his inaugural speech; he was baptized while in office; and, he was the guest of honor at the first-ever National Prayer Breakfast and National Day of Prayer.
As America’s religious layman-in-chief, Eisenhower also bequeathed the nation with a fateful cultural meme tht has now replicated downward and outward to all levels of society. As president-elect in 1952 Eisenhower famously proclaimed religious faith—any kind of it—to be essential for liberal democracy. While he was explicitly making a (somewhat arcane, argumentative) claim that only a supernatural God could act as guarantor of humans’ essential worth and equality, the implicit “meaning” we have inherited from Eisenhower is that religious faith of any kind is good in and of itself; it gives privileged access to life’s most valuable truths. This is no small thing. Since imbibing these words, Americans have increasingly come to believe it not just permissable but positively good to disable their own critical, reasoning faculties when it comes to life’s most trying questions.
Eisenhower also began the mawkish consorting of presidents with oily, charismatic clergymen, an affair which transformed Billy Graham into a national phenomenon and created the institution of a religious valet to the president.
It cannot go unmentioned that the post-Eisenhower wave of calculated faith boosting reached its conspicuous peak in a swaggering prayer by Graham at the presidential inauguration of the Christian gentleman Richard Nixon in 1972. Graham had campaigned hard for Nixon, exhorting the nation to follow Jesus’s commandment to submit meekly their political masters. (I have to admit this was the most delicious part of Kruse’s book for me. I had no idea Graham was so thick with Nixon, widely and justifiably regarded as the most Machievellian, indeed wicked presidents in our history, until I read Kruse.) For his faith Graham got an extended moment in the sun, albeit on a cold, windy day. Time magazine called Graham‘s prayer his “mini-inaugural address.” It ran in part:
“Our Father and our God, we recognize on this historical occasion that we are ‘a nation under God.’ We thank thee for this torch of faith handed to us by our forefathers. May we never let it be extinguished. Thou alone has given us our prosperity, our freedom and our power. This faith in God is our heritage and our foundation!”
It seems so bland now, but there, consolidated very neatly in Graham’s prayer, were all of Wall Street’s and the White House’s fundamental talking points. Prosperity came from God, not labor. Ditto for freedom. It sprang not from the military-industrial complex, but from a divine dispensation. And most importantly, our Christian superstructure has always been with us. We have been a nation under God since our forefathers.
If you think, as I do that Graham’s prayer protests slightly too much at the idea that faith might only be a grace note to our otherwise secular politics, take a moment to roll Big Brother’s best known news bulletin over your tongue and see if it resonates: Oceana has always been at war with Eastasia.
Why the always? To return to what I earlier called Kruse’s underlying question, why do regimes with the slightest bent for authoritarianism find it necessary to airbrush the historical record with an eye to sanctifying the policy of the day? Why must they make it appear that our most recent decisions and machinations are consecrated with a long history suggesting permanence?
Kruse has written a wonderful book, and one of its virtues is that it does not go deep enough to address such questions. It stops just at the point where the curious reader may judge for herself how much gene-splicing has gone into the understanding of our Christian political culture as something “organic.”
If you wish to explore a level deeper than Kruse, you cannot miss Upton Sinclair’s little known 1917 book The Profits of Religion. With a poet’s verve and a historian’s sweeping comprehension of events, Sinclair probes the question, “What are we to say when we see asceticism preached to the poor by fat and comfortable retainers of the rich?” Almost invariably, we see the collusion between state and commerce to drum meek fatalism into the working, Christianized masses. The Bible teaches people to be slaves for Christ; governments and capitalists teach them, with uncanny success, to muffle the last part.
Can the masses’ willingness to be hearded onto the production line (or into the food court, call center, warehouse) while the presidents of investment banks recoup their billion-dollar bonuses from government handouts be explained? How does this difference in entitlement avoid leaping off the front page of each day’s newspaper as a shocking crime?
Probably a hundred writers compete to enlighten on this point. I find the strongest meat in Mikhail Bakunin’s 1871 God and the State. There, the Russian anarchist declaims that, if there is indeed anything organic in humankind’s political philosophy it is man’s unremitting will to debase himself morally, to see himself as unworthy of doing the one thing he so patently does and must do for himself: dictate moral law.
“Christianity,” Bakunin writes, “is precisely the religion par excellence, because it exhibits and manifests, to the fullest extent, the very nature and essence of every religious system, which is the impoverishment, enslavement, and annihilation of humanity for the benefit of divinity.” And once you have ceded your moral authority to God’s master class on Earth, you accept their all-too-human terms for your enslavement. This, Bakunin says–and I say with him–is why it is crucial for you to believe the airbrushing of history. To keep your chains you must believe that our politics have always been based on religion.
In the terrifying final pages of 1984, Winston Smith has graduated the torture chamber of Room 101 and is undergoing a friendlier kind of cognitive therapy, led by his now kinder interrogator O’Brien. Under O’Brien’s gentler tutelage, Smith has accepted the general beliefs demanded by loyalty to Big Brother and now faces one more task. He must assent to the proposition that two plus two equals five. He cannot just mouth the words. He must really believe them, and he must believe them because they are vouchsafed by Big Brother. Once he breaks through the barrier of incredulity, Smith finds that all is possible: he really loves Big Brother.
The final, fatal scenes of 1984 were no spur-of-the moment creation for Orwell. He rehearsed their main elements in several essays throughout his career. If a leader could sway his people to deny plain, demonstrable facts, Orwell wrote, he would have destroyed the last, crucial barrier to instituting a totalitarian regime.
I have been doing a kind of therapy on myself over the last week. I can now say, in a clear, unbroken voice, “Donald J. Trump is my president.” (It’s not quite the case yet, but I believe in staying ahead of the game.) It feels good, in a way, to state the obvious truth.
I should explain how I started the week. I was more or less of one mind with David Remnick of the New Yorker, who reacted to Trump’s win with this bit of Sturm und Drang:
“The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American President—a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit—and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.”
Liberal or conservative, left or right, I thought Trump’s personality–his politically undefined core–made him deeply, egregiously unqualified to be president. Although I haven’t been to a cry-in, I did find earlier in the week that the revulsion produced by mentally placing Trump alongside Jefferson or Lincoln nearly did draw hot, angry tears. I had to stop thinking about it.
Well, that was a week ago; it was my Room 101, if you like. (It is worth recalling what is in Room 101: the worst thing in the world.) Now I am back out in the light of day and almost enjoying the ease with which I am coming to love and accept the new truth. As reform is such a cheery business, and as I occasionally bubble over with generosity, I thought I would play the genial O’Brien for a few minutes and try to help anyone still feeling any pangs of Remnick-like “profound anxiety.”
Let’s not waste time. We might as well get straight to the plainest of facts we must learn to deny. Trump believes climate change is a hoax. The scientists are just wrong, and the political activists are trying to foist their lie on to the public. What is Trump’s evidence for this position? There is a wealth of secondary literature on the topic, which any high schooler can understand. Has Trump read any of it? Have you? No need, as it turns out. For Trump, a smirk does the job of overturning the work of science; his top advisor calls the literature on climate change “silly” and a “waste of time.”
Prepare yourself for the boldness that will be required of you. Businessman, lawyer, bureaucrat, builder, you must be prepared to burst into the science lab and declare it all wrong with a sneer. It’s wrong because you and Trump know it’s wrong. You just know it. (Is two plus two starting to look like five yet?)
It is essential for you to believe in Trump’s private genius. He has the best words, the best thoughts, the best policies. They are so refined, it is understandable that we cannot always trace the linkages he sees between goal and means, cause and effect. In fact we need not ask after the inner workings of Trump’s genius. His insight takes him into the realm of the recondite; his ways are too wonderous for us to know. But he has his ways; it is vital for you to know that.
Trump only wants what is best for you–better security, more jobs, higher pay, lower taxes. When you connect the desireability of these goals with the assurance of Trump’s political genius–so deep it requires nothing as pathetic as an explanation–you see in outline the full scope of Trump’s benevolence. It is starting to look like love, isn’t it? Surely you would love Trump in return. Surely you do love Trump.
The poet Omar Khayyam faced down zealots in his time, men who thought they knew the mind of God. In a not-quite poetic moment, he chided them that once they thought they saw the secrets of God’s mind, they were free to believe any nonsense they wished to attribute Him. Pick whatever crassly wrongheaded proposition you like, and “believe that too,” he spat.
And Khayyam was right. Once you have accepted that two plus two equals five, it’s off to the races. Pick whatever repellant, unevidenced, self-serving proposition you like and believe that too. Here are a few to try on for size: Trump respects women. He can bring jobs back. Trump has a plan. He can defeat ISIS. He is beautiful because he is rich. Trump will drain the swamp of Washington. He is a bold reformer ingeniously disguised as a reactionary tycoon. He is a Christian, a man of the people. He will make America great again.
The great English novelist Kingsley Amis was antisemitic around the edges. His son, Martin, says he would watch the credits of TV shows, looking out for the names of Jews.
“There’s one,” he would say. “There’s another.”
In a moment of pique once, the younger Amis asked his dad what it was like to be “mildly antisemitic.”
I must confess to my own version of Amis’s Jew monitoring.
In my 20s, as I began to become persuaded that humanity’s most valuable lessons are to be found in great books, I couldn’t help but notice how many gays and bisexuals were knocking about in the top ranks of the belles lettres.
At first, it was a minor cultural inconvenience. Although I was not raised deliberately to be a bigot, I was, inescapably, I suppose, a product of straitened middle America where as recently as 20 years ago, homosexuality was considered a shameful lifestyle choice, which must at all costs be confined to the Closet.
I should emphasize that no one taught me to hate gays. It was an ambient attitude, much closer to a dull ignorance than active, focused animosity. We had our Bible verses that condemned “unnatural” acts, which—unlike so many atrocities endorsed by the Bible, such as the commandment to kill apostates—hadn’t yet been extinguished by more enlightened thought. “Fag” was the insult of choice for years. And, in our official silence about the existence of homosexuals, we helped form the great national coverup that condemned gays to shameful secrecy. It was a safe world, complacently satisfied that gay love dare not speak its name.
So, at college, when I found out Socrates, my new hero, attended Athens’s wrestling matches to scout out the most promising beauties or that he flirted with lovestruck youths at his lectures, I could not quite square his louche-seeming diversions with his towering philosophical wisdom. Didn’t his love life make him reprehensible? So I more or less looked the other way and concentrated on Socrates’ metaphysics, which was what I came to college to study anyway.
The “problem” came up again in grad school, when I wrote my thesis on Kant and Wittgenstein. The two men evinced fascinating parallels in their semantic approach to understanding basic knowledge claims (what me mean when we utter statements that seem true as much because they are linguistically indispensibile as because they are well evidenced). Simple mathematical propositions are paradigms of the case.
Although my paper addressed only philosophical technicalities, I came to know both men’s biographies. Kant was a lifelong bachelor who kept a close circle of male friends and lived with his manservant, whom he may have fired for having an affair. Historians are cagey about calling Kant’s sexuality, but he fits the profile of a highly repressed homosexual. And in his day, the late 18th century, there were not many other kinds of homosexual.
Wittgenstein was more or less openly gay, and miserable. While I am not suggesting his gayness made him miserable, it was one of several facets of his identity that put him at odds with the world around him, even at liberal Cambridge, where he studied.
Wittgenstein was an aristocrat among middle class students, a Jew among Christians (he longed to convert, but couldn’t quite), and most significantly, a genius who wrecked the very system of philosophical thought that sustained his climb to greatness and the career-making work of his less enlightened peers. In fact, he had no peers. When Bertrand Russell, perhaps the greatest mathematical genius of the 20th century, tried to draw the young Wittgenstein out in defense of his (Wittgenstein’s) doctoral thesis on mathematical logic, the young Austrian waved Russell off with the “explanation” that no one on the board would understand his argument. And he got away with it! And so half the philosophers of the 20th century literally set up Wittgenstein shops and made their livings trying to do what Wittgenstein himself would not—explain himself.
But I digress. My point is that my own philosophical obsessions had come to focus intently on the works of two more geniuses who happened to be gay (ok, one and a half, if we may allow for Kant’s ambiguity in this way). At that point in my life, when I wished to become a professor of philosophy, I had sound reasons to believe that my path was more or less destined to follow these two men. Things began to get personal. Anyone who has taken their studies toward the doctoral level (I was in a PhD program at the time) knows that this intensity of scholarship is indistinguishable from devotion. One commits, at this point, to a lifelong partnership.
And so I found myself at what would later appear to be an inflection point. While Kant’s and Wittgenstein’s gayness had nothing to do with my understanding of their philosophical significance, I couldn’t shake the idea that their dual status as geniuses and gays might be saying something of moral significance for my life.
The dissonnance caused a few years earlier by my encounter with Socrates’ gayness transmuted to open curiosity about “gay” genius and open skepticism about society’s received idea of the Closet. If it was so natural and so justified to expect gays to maintain a lifelong, polite silence, why had the realm of genius produced such accomplished gay champions of the human spirit? Why had it given us such giants who showed us our best part—our desire to know the world, to sift evidence and follow the line of reason even to its highest, most aetherial reaches?
The story of my liberation from ordinary homophobia is long but conventional. It needs no recounting. Suffice it to say that today, 20 years after my troubles with Socrates, I am a staunch ally of the Pride movement. I believe that one of my generation’s greatest, albeit unfinished, accomplishments has been the abolition of the Closet and all the suffering and alienation it entailed.
But there remains this curious fact. Even now, as I locate myself on the right side of humanity’s conscience, I still take special note of the gay writers who have inspired me and who continue to inspire me. I am still, so to speak, Kingsley Amis in the TV armchair, watching for their names: “There’s one. There’s another.” Why?
On one level, I know this is not the attitude of the bien pensant. Great writing should be appreciated independently of the sex lives of those who produced it. I know this. I subtract nothing, for example, from Martin Luther King Junior’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” because of his occasional (heterosexual) debauches. Should I not keep the same critical distance between gay writers’ biographies and their texts? Should I even “notice” their gayness?
Still, I think of it like this: I spent so long benighted by bigotry, something tells me it is morally instructive for me as a recovering homophobe to pay particular attention to gay writers who have enlightened me. They helped bring me out of a contemptible mess, and now they are stuck with their status as heroes. It may be an awkward pose, but there it is.
I take refuge in the following defense: My attitude is only a waypoint, not an endpoint. My children will grow up—are growing up—in a different mental climate where no fuss is made over thinkers’ sex lives. If my kids ever read these words some day, they will likely be horrified at my cloddish adaption of the old, self-betraying canard, “Some of my best friends are . . . .” Good. But I am stuck with it. Confessions are no good if they bend the truth.
So it is with too much introduction and with no intent of paralyzing my gay comrades in cringes that I offer a short list of gay writers who have opened my eyes, nourished my soul, and helped me improve my pursuit of happiness.
At the top of the list is an author I would not and could not do without, E.M. Forster. While his whole catalog rewards study, two of his novels have made indelible impressions on me and are, in my opinion, among the most morally educating novels in the English language. In Howard’s End Forster gives a blistering, true-to-life picture of conventional moral callousness toward the poor, which I believe no reader can put down without serious self-reflection. A Room With A View splashes sunlight against this dark view and shows the reader just how available numinous happiness is, once we take seriously the mortal horizon and our capacity to offset it with love.
Gore Vidal has come to dominate and fill out my untutored view of politics over the last 10 years. He has also deepened my love of America. He stands very much alone as a self-taught man of letters.
Given the rolling capaciousness of his exquisite prose—I can spend hours at a time “catching up” on the leftist critique of power at almost any phase of American history thanks to his seven-book “novels-of-empire” series—Vidal’s most arresting insights are surprisingly succinct. The most memorable is that a politician’s main job is “never to give the game away.”
By the late part of his career Vidal delivered this quip with such a wink it could easily be dismissed as a mere slogan or partisan piffle. Far from it, though. If you scan the whole sordid spectrum of what politicians actually do, you can fill in all the horrific details of what Vidal meant by his observation: politicians do not govern or even debate governance with one another; they meet in private with fundraisers, lobbyists and regulators, where they arrange the barely-legal siphoning away of our wealth and the sharing of it among one another. Their job is to mask this defilement of politics with smiles, diversions and dissimulation. This deplorable, open secret is the game they must never give away. By the time I read Vidal in my forties, I knew instinctively that I could never be a politician. His words helped me understand why not: because I was allergic to the dishonesty and predation required by the job.
Sommerset Maugham wrote the Bildungsroman, Of Human Bondage, that was definitive of my own coming of age, as well as his. As it happens, I broke upon the world—or perhaps vice versa—of sexual independence, free thought, stimulating friendships, professional discovery, and the overpowering experience of physical, earthly beauty—in Heidelberg, the same place it all happened to Maugham (and his proxy, Phillip Carey, the main character in Of Human Bondage). Heidelberg’s glowing greens and ruby reds still bewitch me and leave me vacant of the words to express their beauties, many of them blurred but not decreased by the tear-streaked lens of time. Unable to come up with my own words to vivify the springtime of my life in Heidelberg, I return again and again to Maugham’s.
Walt Whitman made gayness American, as he did with so many things. What can I possibly mean by this? Very briefly, Whitman put the cause of gay liberation in the unique context of our country’s founding project, to advance the individual’s pursuit of happiness. It is not a message we are quite yet comfortable with. Since our institutions no longer permit the imprisonment, torture or execution of gays, we have built the next best thing, the Closet, the place where gays can be peacefully interred in the plain light of day. And what is the Closet if not the most systematic constraint on the pursuit of happiness?
Whitman was first a nurse in the civil war, staunching the wounds of soldiers on the field. Then he was a deeply conscientious journalist, telling the unattractive truths of a fast-industrializing America. By the time he burst forth in song about the body electric, he had so clearly made himself into one of the better angels of our nature, it was nearly impossible to resist the force of his message. Through his prose and then his poetry, Whitman opened up a uniquely American perspective on the unspoken law that gays and straights could not enjoy full communion as equal citizens in a free nation. Were we not, Whitman insisted, the best country in the world at the principle of live-and- let-live? Did we not contain multitudes?
Whitman was truly a poetic force in the full, Socratic sense of the term. (Socrates believed poets were sometimes the recepients of direct infusions of wisdom, which philosophers and scientists had to acquire through slower, more deliberate means.) His Leaves of Grass beams atinic light on the receptive American soul. Who can refuse his invitation to look on poetc inspiration at its root:
“Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin
of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions
of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.”
The sunlight is so bright in Whitman’s America that, utlimately, no one can be closed off in a closet of any kind. All the walls of shame are bound to dissolve in a free society.
I shoud point out that not all my gay heroes hail from the realm of giants. Many are “ordinary” public intellectuals. They do the journeyman’s labor of speaking truth to power and illuminating contemporary problems from new angles, fighting the war against cliche, as Martin Amis once phrased it. There are too many to mention here conveniently, but two come readily to mind. Andrew Solomon wrote one of the most enlightening, and discomfiting books I have read in the last ten years, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. In it, he trains an unblinking gaze on a wide range of childhood conditions so “abnormal”—deafness, genius, schizophrenia—as to threaten to rupture the most durable, natural bond in the animal kingdom–the one between parent and child. Reading Solomon is a moving, intellectually enlightening experience that I don’t think could leave any parent unaffected.
Andrew Sullivan is a political scientist trained at Oxford and Harvard who, instead of choosing to wander the pleasant, chummy world of academia, where disagreements mean nothing but the promise of a new book or article, joined the knife-fight world of real political journalism. His 2009 article for The Atlantic Monthly in which he implores then-President Bush to stimulate national healing by taking responsibility for the worst misconduct of U.S. interrogators in the Iraq war, is a paradigm of clear thought, patriotism and intellectual courage.
My list is rather painfully incomplete. It leaves out, among others, Oscar Wilde, the last gay martyr in the liberal, democratic West. In a way, one’s attitude toward Wilde’s conviction and punishment is a clear indicator of which century one’s mind instinctively belongs in. But, life is short and reading is long, as Kundera says. I leave my awkward hymn as it stands for today.