Trump keeps falling through trap doors while speaking to the press. The door flies open, he is whisked away into the darkness with his gold hair rising like a flame, and his hands out to steady himself as he plunges feet first down into Dante's imagination. The rings of hell gape wide and poor Mr. Trump, his barrel chest and heavy paunch fading into some shade of murky purple as he smells the sulfur of the pit, hopes his satanic cabinet will come to his aid and slow his fall. The task of saving this man grows more arduous with the days. He is tetchy, his belly roils with stomach acid from the greasy food he prefers to White House cookery, his skin breaks out into hives of annoyance each time someone counters his pronouncements as too extreme. He was never cut out for governing; he's all about self-enrichment, and the needs of others are foreign to his nature. So there he looms in his midnight blue suit and blistering red tie, raising his plump hands to flail like a duck caught in oily water, and feels his feet giving way from terra firma for another descent powered by his vile tongue.
Someone didn't reach him early enough in his childhood to warn him that his father was raising him to be a pit bull in the family. The son who could outsmart, outduel, outshine, and undo his brothers would win the prize, the Trump Organization. That was the gold doubloon nailed to the mast of the Pequod by a demonic father, which Donald and his brothers saw the glint of each day of their youth. Real estate is not an honorable trade in these besotted days of late capitalism, where morality is considered a quaint anachronism for the weak and the ineffectual in the jungle that is Manhattan. One needs greed and a enough bile to out curse the next rival to force a deal into fruition. Trump was expert at this game of cutthroat negotiations, and no one had the same deep reservoir of enmity from which Trump drew to nourish his personality. While much of his gall and aggression was for show, as producers on his TV shows have admitted when having to coach him in how to fire someone, he was a gifted intimidator and would have been a good foil to Stalin or Franco, at least in the preliminary stages of an epic feud.
I admire the slightly witty responses late night TV talk show hosts express when Trump out-trumps himself. His equivocations about the lunatic fringe of racists who went to battle against the anti-fas, the "alt-left," as he called them, has provoked mildly satiric caricatures of the president, each precisely calibrated not to seem too serious or too caustic as to chase away the dwindling audiences of TV after eleven o'clock. It's a delicate balance to retain one's boyish humor about the way of things and indulge in a personal anger at Trump's iconoclasm and pro-racist sentiments. The moment Steve Colbert leans into the camera and makes a dark face, you know you are in for some mannerly preaching about the virtues of democracy versus a man adept at vitriol and revenge against his critics. But none of these charming men and women buoyed by powerful personalities can quite grasp the mace of political anger and rail at the injustices Trump commits daily. Television, especially the entertainment sector, is not made for polemics; it can't take down the smiling face of Janus and put up the tragic frown, not for long anyway. And everyone is dying to be a moral crusader for the maligned left, the vast number of people who voted for Hillary and who maintain a program of tolerance and equality which the Republicans have routinely discredited and abased with their more powerful rhetoric.
I can't quite quell my suspicion that Trump is manufactured, a melodramatic villain who parades his toxic ideas before liberals with swaggering self-confidence. The mask slips, the grease paint is a bit too slathered onto his face. The political clown seems to peek out from behind the darting eyes as he spews venom. It makes any of his detractors seem a bit too rehearsed in their responses, as if they were hecklers in the gallery of an Elizabethan play tossing rotten tomatoes and lettuces at Shylock as he rubs his hands and grins with malice. It's good theater; it stirs the emotions and makes one stand up at times to cheer them on.
But is it real, or real enough? Is it throwing wrenches into the Washington gearbox? Is it having an effect beyond the momentary satisfaction it creates in the fickle TV audience? Where are the journals that once influenced what we call political discourse in this country? Where are Ramparts, The Reporter, the old original cantankerous voices of The Nation and Mother Jones? Where is that marvelous fanged journal, Stone's Weekly, written by I.F. Stone without a staff, a man alone on his ledge looking on at the machinations of the corrupt and the suborned pols? He dug deep, he knew he was standing in the foulest possible earth of man-made deceit, the muck of corrupt power. And he wrote his columns each week drenched in the ichor of righteous indignation. I thrilled to his words. I wanted to be him, to put on his threadbare jacket and visor (if he wore one) and tap out the devil's dictionary of disgust and anger after he retired. But who could screw such passion out of the soul to write so powerfully and to capture the dark side of human nature in the very bowels of a supposed working democracy?
It does pin you back in your seat to hear Trump quoted in the mainstream press siding with the goons, the hate-mongers, the twisted minds of the Neo-Nazi fringe, the rifle-toting militias who form convoys of pick ups to get to the next skirmish with liberals. To push Trump aside for a moment, to steal his microphone, in other words, how are these perverted activists different from ISIS soldiers, from the Boko Haram, the Taliban guerillas of Pakistan, the Al Quaida brigades that have been slaughtering the innocent for decades? What sets them apart from the marauders and terrorists we have been combatting since 2003? But Trump thinks he can find "some really fine people" among the hordes of gun-wielding white men (and some women) who lash out with undiluted rage at the social forces they believe displaced them from an imaginary golden age of white civilization.
As I sit in my chair in the evening and watch these events unfold in Virginia, where I grew up, I am appalled at my own paralysis. I can't do anything with my own hands and feet; I can't make myself rush to these volcanic eruptions just to raise my placard and let the cameras bathe me in momentary attention. I am not eager to be bludgeoned by someone next to me. I know my vote is nearly worthless, a penny that fell through the bars of a storm grate, and that my fantasies of a crusade for thwarting the terrifying heathens of democracy is about as deep as comic book dialogue. There he is, in the lime light he covets more than money, railing against liberals of all stripes, against all liberal institutions and agencies, against the college students and their liberal educations, against women agitating for equality, against blacks and Latinos for marching for their rights. He has come from a different Jerusalem than the visionaries of the Bible dreamed of; it was never going to be a city of peace for all mankind, but rather an enclave of the favored and blood pure. Trump never could stretch his eyes far enough to imagine that beyond his elusive white racial mountain was a world of diverse beliefs and cultures. They were not to be tolerated in his cosmology.
Like the Muslim extremists of the Middle East and Africa, Trump believes that the best years of our lives are behind us, buried under the sand, but real enough to resurrect if only his accursed vision could be evangelized by his followers to bring about a lurid awakening of tribal rage. He is a man laboring to reverse the huge arms of the national clock so that the past would emerge once more, a past composed of the slave economy of the old South, a past that would impose a kind of Handmaid's Tale on white women, a past that withdrew emancipation and the right to vote to the unwanted. Trump's utopia is a glittering tower of the privileged few, those whose morality is reduced to self-interest. Betsy DeVos's vision of American education would teach the gospel of Trump's white utopia and redact much of American history to produce generations of Christian disciples without any understanding of a larger world than the fragile structure of an apartheid America.
I find little solace in what I read in the papers these days. I find no solace from TV. I think the best minds of my generation have fallen silent. I don't expect to hear that any great change is coming, from any quarter. I don't know if Robert Mueller can lay his hands on the evidence that would lead to Trump's impeachment. I find the Congress frozen in its polarity, and I have little faith that the Supreme Court can adjudicate us out of this crisis. If there is any hope at all, it is that Trump himself will implode, and that those who know him best in the West Wing will turn against him. That's more pie in the sky, I know, but at times I find myself gnawing on my soul looking for a sign.