This Nihilistic Debauch

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut’s second masterpiece, after Slaughterhouse Five, the protagonist, Jonah, leaves on a business trip of two weeks and loans his New York City apartment to Krebbs, a poet acquaintance. Jonah’s act of generosity turns out to be a mistake.

When he returns, his apartment has been defiled, transformed into an object of scatological, Weimaresque performance art. Specifically,

. . . Krebbs was gone; but, before leaving, he had run up three-hundred-dollars’ worth of long-distance calls, set my couch on fire in five places, killed my cat and my avocado tree, and torn the door off my medicine cabinet.

He wrote this poem, in what proved to be excrement, on the yellow linoleum floor of my kitchen:

“I have a kitchen.
But it is not a complete kitchen.
I will not be truly gay
Until I have a
Dispose-all.”

There was another message, written in lipstick in a feminine hand on the wallpaper over my bed. It said: “No, no, no, said Chicken-licken.”

There was a sign hung around my dead cat’s neck. It said, “Meow.”

Jonah summarizes: his home has been “wrecked by a nihilistic debauch.” This is surely one of Vonnegut’s immortal phrases.

Despite his reputation as an anti-establishment figure, Vonnegut was a man of deeply conventional morals, and he puts the dark hilarity of this episode to work for them. Jonah was a writer, an observer of life’s full panoply. He teetered, as writers do, on the edge of surrendering to nihilism. All writers in one way or another take seriously Dostoevsky’s idea that without God, all is permitted, and that any one human choice, therefore, is “as good as” another.

But the highly inventive wreckage wrought by Jonah’s fellow artist shocks him out of his lassitude. He draws a moral:

[A]fter I saw what Krebbs had done, in particular what he had done to my sweet cat, nihilism was not for me.

Somebody or something did not wish me to be a nihilist. It was Krebbs’s mission, whether he knew it or not, to disenchant me with that philosophy. Well, done, Mr. Krebbs, well done.

I’ll come straight to the point. If the United States is able to recover the main elements of its democracy and reform a workable mode of governance, I believe we will look back some day on the nihilistic debauch that festered in the White House from 2017 and say of it, “Well done, Mr. Trump, well done.” Trump’s demented, malevolent yokelism could prove to be the spur that turns us back toward liberal, informed democracy.

Trump is, by his own design, the star of the uncouth reality show that today stands in for the executive branch of our government. He made himself the wretch he is. This is important to bear in mind as we account for why we like him.

In seeking cheap fame, gaudy wealth and bought-off sex, Trump has visited on himself every affliction that can deform the human person from something wondrous into something slipshod and contemptible. This feels like a crime to me. We have worked so hard to become human. Although we are all born with the normal biological apportionments of greed and lust, Trump has artfully malformed his instincts into a nihilist parody of humanity. His self-aggrandizing, shallowness, ignorance, petulance and blind braggadocio render him a monument to how not to be human.

That Trump’s mind is every bit as deranged as the pageant of onanistic destruction Jonah encounters in his ruined apartment brings me back to a point I try to make regularly–that literature is useful. Vonnegut acquaints us, in the episode of Jonah’s defiled home, with the idea of the nadir, the point from which we can sink no lower. Addicts call it rock bottom. The nadir invites chastened, serious thinking. I hope that’s where we are. If we are to torture children in for-profit prison camps as a matter of national policy, let us learn from our artful cruelty.

U.S. Border Patrol Houses Unaccompanied Minors In Detention Center
In Trump’s for-profit concentration camps, interned children are not allowed to touch one another even if they are family members. This measure is taken “for their own safety.” All mammals need the touch of their fellows, and the Nazis demonstrated in their own concentration camps that human children would suffer and die (more quickly) without human contact. Any sane person brave enough to dwell on this outrage for a moment can reason out the consequences of torturing children in this way, but in case your imagination fails you, here is the testimony of a Holocaust survivor on this point

To be sure, though, our low point does not consist in the horrific void of Trump himself. There will always be unmotivated assholery and even sociopathic malice abroad in the land, and someone will occasionally achieve a Trump-like mastery of it. So it goes. Our real nadir lies in the electrified connection Trump has made with so many of us Americans. He has tapped into a source of power which deserves our analysis.

Had you told Americans of my parents’ generation that an Archie Bunker could rise to become president, they would have scoffed. The whole point of Archie Bunker’s character was to illustrate the cultural and political weakness of the yokel by thoroughly airing its ignorance. Uninformed bigots, the audience was assured, could talk at the television, but the forces of polite society would always ensure their voices never broke out into the real world.

How appropriate that the man who would puncture this illusion would do so as a TV star. Did we not pay attention when Neil Postman warned in 1985, with the publication of Amusing Ourselves to Death, that cheap entertainment was gathering horrible political force? Sadly, it hardly matters now. The internet and especially social media did what TV only threatened to do–they enabled the mass replacement of reality with a collective fantasy.¹ That the triumphant vision happens to be a yokel nationalist fantasy, as opposed to an elitist cosmopolitan one, makes it especially rebarbative to anyone who liked the rules of polite society, but it is too late to go wringing our hands over details now. It was going to be a fantasy of some kind, and that is the point.

Fast forward to 2016, and indeed to 2019. We are now living out the Archie Bunker fantasy, and more. Good citizens with far coarser sentiments and less educating experience than Bunker’s (he at least had been to war) suddenly find themselves within spitting distance of the president’s temperament and intelligence level. This is remarkable, and empowering. The election of a self-made reactionary oaf is a powerful revival of the myth than any American can be president, even those left far outside the halls of power.

Just to get our bearings, consider this: Had the denizens of Ruby Ridge lived to fight another day, they would have found themselves not out in the Idaho cold beholden to some prepper messiah or other obscure high priest of the Second Amendment , but, miraculously, in warm sympathy with our law-and-order, hairspray addict-in-chief, the owner, we are told, of a  golden toilet. Our country truly does contain multitudes, and Trump has succeeded in enlisting and unifying some unlikely bedfellows. This year he has sorely tested the loyalty of allies who could hardly be less like him, farmers, whom he is bankrupting through a trade war. Many stick it out because they like Trump for his toughness–a quality they know well but which he surely fakes.

I have opined at length on the scale of the lies that sustain our unlikely oligarchy and the tawdriness of the mass credulity that protects it. I won’t drone on here on those points. Marx said it better than it has been said since: If you want poor people to drop their illusions, you’ll have to abandon the whole ingeniously exploitative system that requires them to have illusions.

But try to appreciate this: America has achieved something so remarkable that Orwell said in a 1947 essay it had only been imagined in dystopian literature up till then. Namely, we have solidified a system “in which the special political problems of capitalism [have] been solved without bringing liberty, equality or true happiness any nearer.”

Although Orwell is making a vital point in this sentence, he is uncharacteristically abstract. Let me bring him down to earth. If you make less than one million dollars a year, as you file your higher taxes this spring, bear this mind: you are in fact paying off  the oligarchy and helping the rich solve one of the “special political problems” to which Orwell alludes above. To be precise, you are paying your share of taxes plus the taxes that the rich do not wish to pay. They leave you to scrounge for your own schools, sidewalks and healthcare even as you pay for their next financial bailout.

If you pay these bribes with resignation, or perhaps in loving support of our Dear Leader, you are betraying the principle on which we rebelled against Britain. We said then, and some of us still believe, that the ruling class should not force us to pay both our taxes and theirs (and to feel heroic about it). To mix revolutions, we will not just eat cake.

I am pessimistic about the power of policy arguments like this one to dent Trump. As I noted, many farmers still like the president even as he manipulates them into sacrificing income and taking desperate loans to enrich big bankers. Trump’s powers of fabulism and his base’s deep fund of credulity will short circuit any attempt to counter their views with logic. Trump brays, in the face of multitudinous contrary facts, that he is the most accomplished president in modern U.S. history, and we must take seriously the prospect that a non-negligible group of Americans, somewhere out there, believes him. They won’t fire him for being P.T. Barnum; they will hold him closer because he stokes their desire to defy “the system.”

And so I offer as a mere token of my criticism an openly ad hominem attack on Trump. Consider, not Trump’s foolish policy “ideas,” but his uniquely slanderous treatment of the late Senator John McCain, conduct which I believe serves to exile him beyond the pale of polite society. Trump is a president whose mere presence is indigestible to a great swathe of the public. Trump’s self-inflicted parody on the human persona is unwelcome almost everywhere outside his Nürnberg-style rallies.

I am not the only one who believes this. In fact, it was McCain’s daughter Meghan who broke openly with the idea that Trump was to be tolerated among decent folk. After Trump’s daughter and son-in-law appeared uninvited at John McCain’s funeral, Meghan reflected, “I thought that my family had made it clear, or at least I had, that the Trumps are unwelcome around me, and that my father had been sort of very clear about the line between the McCains and the Trumps.”

The line dividing the Trumps from the McCains is the same one that more generally divides the decent from the indecent. It is the line that Vonnegut illustrates with such inventiveness and verve in the apartment passage I quoted above.

I recently watched the Ken Burns film on the Vietnam war, and I saw footage of McCain in Hanoi in 1967. He was freshly wounded from being shot down, and he was being rolled before TV cameras on a gurney into the prison where he would be kept for five years and tortured many times. Caught up in the present moment, I was flooded with revulsion at Trump’s cheap, ongoing contempt for McCain. Can anyone imagine Trump making one-one thousandth the sacrifice McCain made in war, or evincing one iota of McCain’s courage? Trump has built a personal brand that deliberately mocks those values and evades the kind of duty McCain stoically performed.

Consider further the magnanimity and diplomatic wisdom McCain showed in reconciling with his wartime captors and writing legislation to help improve relations with Vietnam in the 1990s. He did so in cooperation with John Kerry, a political opponent, in the service of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy. I need hardly remind you that Clinton, a Vietnam war protester, was and remains regarded by some as a draft dodger. McCain’s level of statesmanship in pursuing rapprochement with Vietnam, as pragmatic as it was idealistic, is far beyond the ken of someone like Trump. As recently as February 2019 Trump was still vocalizing scorn for the late McCain.

The dispute between Meghan McCain and Trump is as old as Sophocles’s Antigone, with only slight adjustments. A sister is outraged by an overweening king’s desecration of her (soldier) brother’s body. Although the king has the political power to do as he likes, the aggrieved sister cannot accept his defilement of the honors due a fallen soldier. In a sense, Trump is too pathetic a figure to be entertained as a stand-in for the king in this allegory. But his inability to stop defiling McCain’s memory invites just the kind of Antigone-like protest Meghan McCain has raised. She is making a stand for certain conventional morals, the validity of which our country had accepted for some 240 years before Trump came along.

Trump has made his own bed. His treatment of McCain is just one conspicuous symptom of a comprehensive failure of character so basic it is indistinguishable from his personal brand–what for most people would be called a self. He belongs in those low places of huckster celebrity where he worked out his pact with the yokel mob–in the WWF ring, on the Howard Stern Show, on the Apprentice set, in the Access Hollywood bus. He does not belong with adults in polite society.

My own convictions on this point are, like Vonnegut’s, deeply conventional; Trump is an outlandish creep who thoroughly deserves the exile he has fashioned for himself. I believe we will look back someday on the wasteland of his outrages on truth, honor and decency–a Hieronymus Bosch nightmare landscape to which Trump leeringly invited us–and, like Vonnegut’s Jonah, thank him for jolting us awake.


  1. If you think we are not temperamentally primed for accepting wholesale fantasy as a replacement reality, consider the two most prominent uses of the internet. The first is pornography, which encourages the fantasy of unrestricted sexual access. The second is gambling, which lures the everyman to believe he can join the nouveau riche. Both scams deprive the seeker of what he seeks. This self-defeating fantasy land is what made Trump president.
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3 thoughts on “This Nihilistic Debauch

  1. “He belongs in those low places of huckster celebrity where he worked out his pact with the yokel mob–in the WWF ring, on the Howard Stern Show, on the Apprentice set, in the Access Hollywood bus.” Sadly, those low places paved the road to the White House. Elizabeth Warren said: “The man in the White House is not the cause of what is broken, he is just the latest and most extreme symptom of what has gone wrong in America, a product of a rigged system that props up the rich and powerful and kicks dirt on everyone else.” (It’s interesting that she uses the same terms -rigged system- that Trump used during the 2016 campaign…). Trump created this wretched image of himself, marketed and sold it knowing there was mob of consumers willing to buy his product. He’ll eventually leave office but who knows how long it’s going to take to recover from his signature wreckage.
    So, my question is how do we avoid this kind of situation from happening again? Is there a chance we can change this market of naïve consumers?

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