The Earth itself is rejoicing at the prospect of Dumping Trump. How could over 70,000,000 people still vote for such ignorant scum after four years of vapid hateful and puerile rhetoric! – A fellow Santa Monica resident on Nextdoor.com
This Chronicle presupposes that Donald Trump’s challenges to the election results, whether or not well founded, will not succeed.
There is something called force majeure that supersedes all rules of procedure. When Kennedy won in 1960, it was known at the time or soon after that the Illinois electoral votes that decided the election were fixed by Chicago’s legendary Mayor Daley—that is, that in objective terms, it was Nixon who won the election. Just as we can be pretty sure that Jeffrey Epstein did not hang himself in his cell; that Harry Reid’s 2015 “accident” was not a fall from his exercise bike; or that Hillary Clinton committed a felony by using a personal mail server that no doubt helped her to conceal, among other things, the conspiracy against Trump. But to these and other “slips” we can only say, c’est la vie. There’s nothing to do about them. Somehow the welfare of the state depends, if not on their consequences, then on the consequences of not raising questions about them in such a way as to produce embarrassing answers.
Assuming this is also the case for the allegations of voter fraud to explain all these states switching from one column to the other after the election-day votes had been counted, I will therefore assume that, whether or not his challenges are legitimate, Donald Trump will not begin a second term in 2021.
In defeat, Donald Trump embodies the original role of the tragic protagonist in such a way as to teach us more about tragedy than we can learn from the usual readings of Shakespeare or Sophocles.
We are accustomed to seeing tragedy as either a literary form or a vision of the human condition, as in Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life. But in such literary and/or anthropological generalizations, the importance of tragedy as a critical interaction between leader and community is lost.
Tragedy is compatible neither with acephalous tribal society, nor with the archaic empires in which the godlike pharaoh cannot be conceived in dialogue with others. It is a product of the post-theocratic society of Athens and other city-states, one in which kings and tyrants interact with their subjects as fellow humans, not as sacred beings.
Aristotle defined tragedy as “an imitation of persons above the common level,” in Greek “better than ourselves” (beltionon hemas). But in Aristotle’s vocabulary, these are not merely relative terms. The tragic protagonist is not “better” because he is smarter or richer than the anonymous citizens watching the play, but because his role is central to the welfare of the state. He is in a position of sacred centrality, yet ontologically, merely a human being among others. Thus he is forced to function, as Barack Obama once put it, “above my pay grade,” solving transcendental problems on the fallible basis of individual intuition.
If any modern political role fits the original description of a potential tragic protagonist, it is that of the American president, who combines the roles of monarch/head of state and parliamentary leader/prime minister, which remain separated in most other liberal democracies. Our republic has its roots in the Athenian agon, and it is no coincidence that its most agonistic recent moment has produced its most tragic political figure.
No president in the entire history of the American republic has been so unsparingly vilified as Donald Trump, throughout the 2016 nomination process and campaign, and the nearly four years of his presidency. His tenure in office has been marked by an unprecedented degree of virulent hostility from all corners of the federal establishment, as well as from members of the public who, habituated since Reagan to Republican “derangement syndromes,” have surpassed themselves in his case.
To have sustained a “Resistance” that began with his election and denied his legitimacy throughout his entire tenure in office, to have been impeached on trivial evidence after sustaining nearly three years of congressionally approved investigation on the absurd charge of “complicity” with Russia, while meeting with hostile silence from many in his own party who abstained from actual abuse, is far from the normal status of a political figure even in a pugnacious democracy.
What then was the key to Trump’s anomalous success? As I have pointed out since the beginning, Trump was the sole candidate, other than the impressive but insufficiently political Dr. Ben Carson, who was truly invulnerable to “PC,” as victimary thinking was then called before it graduated to “wokeness.”
This resistance has in fact been Trump’s most significant distinction, although neither his detractors nor his supporters tend to refer to it. It was not a product of theoretical reflection, but of his faithfulness to the attitudes which reigned in his youth—attitudes which I largely share. That the current “woke” generation is capable of tearing down or defacing statues of virtually all the great men of American history is viscerally offensive to both of us, yet none of Trump’s rivals for the nomination presented any real resistance to the perspective that anticipated these actions.
Were we to seek an embodiment of our timeless model of the ideal president, wise and forbearing, Trump would hardly qualify. Trump is not a political thinker, but a man of action, and as his detractors in both camps never fail to insist, he is not afraid to exaggerate, to bluster, to repeat quite dubious ideas.
Trump was able to beat out his many primary competitors and win the 2016 election because, more even than his ability to make “deals,” his show-business experience gave him supreme confidence in his “instincts,” whether as entertainer or president, for occupying the center of the stage. And these instincts, these political intuitions, were hostile to victimary thinking, not because Trump is obsessed with it, but simply because Trump is untouched by it.
But what mattered in 2016 and still matters today has been Trump’s consistency in resisting the mimetic pressure that drives the respectable members of Charles Murray’s “Belmont” class (Coming Apart, Crown Forum, 2012; see, e.g., Chronicles 424, 449) to symbolically flagellate themselves in penance for their “white privilege”—all the while feathering the nests of the most privileged members of society, including themselves.
No doubt there are more sophisticated ways than Trump’s of resisting the power of White Guilt. But its virtually total domination of the academic world and of those formed by it, such as the elementary school teachers whose antipatriotic lessons are diametrically opposed to the ones I learned in these classes, has made virtually the entire educated class incapable of firm resistance to this tendency, the product of our enforced “awokening” to the model of originary moral equality to the exclusion of all other social considerations (see Chronicle 674).
Only someone whose social instincts had been developed before the current constitution of the Belmont world could credibly oppose this configuration, and only someone with considerable personal—rather than institutional—resources would have the freedom to do so. At the start of his campaign in 2015, Trump’s chief source of popular visibility was his presence in the Reality TV show The Apprentice (see Chronicle 493), highly popular among the “deplorable” lower-middle-class audience that would put him in office in the face of the open contempt of establishment politicians in his own party as well as the Democrats.
After his 2016 election victory, many hoped that Trump’s bull-in-the-china-shop tweeting and expostulating would disappear, or at least diminish. And indeed, whenever he makes the effort, Trump has shown himself perfectly capable of delivering a cogent address in a perfectly dignified manner. Yet he has continued with the behavior that, even if effective as “trolling” in enraging his enemies, has done nothing to repair his estrangement from the Belmont class.
I think for Trump this is a matter of principle, even if the principle is not articulated as a proposition. What makes it tragic is that, although this behavior may well have cost him reelection, it is inseparable from his sense of self. It seems clear that someone who had viewed these antics merely as a political stratagem would not have had the chutzpah to flaunt from the very beginning his disdain for victimary thinking in the face of the respectable majority.
The grain of truth in the calumnious accusations of “white supremacy” and even “antisemitism” is that, alone among the politicians of his generation, Trump viscerally understood that the prior censorship exercised by White Guilt is the real culprit that must be cast out. Thus even when in 2016 Trump scandalously denounced US-born judge Gonzalo Curiel as a “Mexican” by way of attacking his impartiality in the matter of the “Wall,” his very sense that this did not damn him as indelibly “racist” affirmed in his own mind his frequently repeated contention that he “is the least racist person in the room.” And indeed, the one incidence of “racism” unceasingly cited by his political enemies has been his statement about “good people on both sides” at Charlottesville in reference to the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee, as proof, despite his explicit statements to the contrary, of his endorsing neo-Nazis.
Yet the fact remains that many of those unmoved by these spurious accusations have been put off by Trump’s “unpresidential” behavior. And so Trump lost an election that he might well have won, even in the face of the Covid19 pandemic. No one can claim to know what formula he should have followed. But what makes him a tragic figure is the fact that he would no longer have been Trump had he sought any other formula than just being Trump.
What lesson does this teach us about tragedy, not as a “literary form,” but as a category of cultural acts?
What we call the “tragic flaw” (hamartia) should not be understood, as does Aristotle, as a characterological imperfection in one who might otherwise have been perfect. It is the mark of the protagonist’s ineluctable individuality, the non-identity between his own scene of representation and that of his community, whose welfare, in classical tragedy as in the American presidency, he is charged to uphold, yet which could only be grasped in its totality by a mind that transcended the human sphere.
The tragic protagonist assumes leadership in a crisis in which he is obliged to make decisions that cannot be deduced from prior social norms. Once a human being comes to occupy the social center originally reserved for the sacred, he is tasked with a responsibility both necessary and impossible to fulfill en connaissance de cause.
Hence every leader is potentially a tragic figure: Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. But real-life and even legendary tragic figures are few. Classical tragedy’s dramatis personae, even taking into account the many lost plays, were quite limited; the same figures constantly reappeared. The “serious actions” that tragedies “imitate” are not fictions open to the author’s invention; in principle they must have a basis in their potential spectators’ knowledge prior to the play itself, whether in history (the oldest extant tragedy is Aeschylus’ The Persians) or myth. La tragédie ne s’invente pas.
Tragedy depends on crisis. And although, objectively speaking, the United States has traversed many far more serious crises—wars and economic depressions—we are currently witnessing the most serious breakdown of our political system since the Civil War, one that the current election, whatever its outcome, is most unlikely to fully resolve.
Recently Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin gave an appreciation of Trump that should be heeded by the “respectable” members of both parties:
It’s not just that he eats cheeseburgers at a big celebratory dinner. It’s not just that he does things that the common man can kind of appreciate. And it’s not even because he uses kind of simplistic language—he doesn’t use complicated, wonky language, the way a lot of Democrats do. . . .
We sometimes make people feel like they aren’t conscientious enough. They aren’t thoughtful enough. They aren’t “woke” enough. They aren’t smart enough or educated enough to just understand what’s good for them. . . . It’s talking down to people. It’s alienating them. And there’s just certain voters who feel so distant from the political process—it’s not their life, it’s not their world. They hate it. They don’t like all that politics stuff. Trump speaks to them, because he includes them.
Slotkin’s point is that, like old Harry Truman, but unlike today’s Democrats, Trump speaks to ordinary people. It might seem peculiar for the party that has always presumed to represent the “common man” to be accused by one of its own of “talking down” to its constituency, while the Republicans, supposedly the party of plutocracy, field a candidate whose refusal of a lofty register wins her esteem despite her presumed disagreement with his policies. But what Slotkin means by “talking down” is not so much affecting an intellectual (“wonky”) but a moral (“woke”) superiority. It is less treating people as stupid than as morally obtuse, un-woke. In a word, it is telling “deplorable” white voters to exhibit, to virtue-signal, their White Guilt.
Which leads us back to our point of departure. As the only candidate in 2016 who was able to resist the victimary pressure that dominates the Left but also paralyses the Right, Trump rightly saw his candidacy as a mission, one figured by descending the escalator in Trump Tower (now faced by the “mural” of Black Lives Matter painted on the street).
Trump had a mission and, Wall or no Wall, he has largely carried it out. Even if he fails to obtain a second term, his example will have a lasting effect on American politics. And I hope it will one day receive the historical respect it deserves.
That the mediocre Biden was able to call Trump “clown,” “racist,” “worst president ever” demonstrates the tragic vulnerability of the latter’s denial of PC. And those on the Right who persist in seeing Trump as a vulgarian, judging him by what they call his “character” rather than his achievements, are if anything less excusable.
It was Trump who revived the American economy, reduced unemployment to its long-term minimum, and raised the salaries of minorities despite their (diminishing!) fidelity to the Democrats. It is Trump who got rid of Soleimani and Al Baghdadi, moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem, and has begun building a coalition of Arab states along with Israel to counter Iran’s influence.
If Trump still refuses to concede—and we need not deny a priori the claims of his lawyer Sidney Powell, whose recent statements: “We’re getting ready to overturn election results in multiple states,” and “I don’t make comments without having the evidence to back it up” (see https://www.ntd.com/trump-lawyer-sidney-powell-were-getting-ready-to-overturn-election-results-in-multiple-states_528748.html) at least express confidence—this is but one more manifestation of the pertinacity without which he would never have been elected in the first place.
May at least the members of his own party have the good grace to recognize that Trump achieved what none of them could have, and, whatever their own personal style, seek to learn from the healthy core of Trump’s “instincts.”
Donald Trump saw more clearly than anyone the danger that Rep. Slotkin recognizes in the “woke” faith in resentment that has been building since the 1960s. A virus far more virulent than SARS-CoV-2, this victimary faith has infested our educational, informational, entertainment, and governmental institutions, and unless promptly and firmly checked, risks handing our hard-won democracy to the barbarians.