All American elections tend to be touted as historic, for all American culture tends toward the condition of hype. Flummoxing, then, to be confronted with a struggle for political power in which, for once, all is at stake. We have long since forfeited the words to confront it, rendering superlatives threadbare, impotent. No accident that among so many other things Donald J. Trump is the Candidate of Dead Words, spewing “fantastic” and “amazing” and “huge” in all directions, clogging the airtime broadcasters have lavished upon him with a deadening rhetoric reminiscent of the raving man hunched beside you on the bar stool. “This country is a disaster.” “We’re in big trouble, folks.” “Our leaders don’t know what they’re doing.” Or his favorite declarative closer to those 140-character Twitter dispatches that form the campaign’s anti-poetry, “Sad!” It is our loss that Mario Cuomo, who famously offered that “you campaign in poetry; you govern in prose,” is no longer here to enlighten us about in what, if we campaign in tweets and dead superlatives, we are destined to govern.
We have no idea. While on one side we have a vague conception of what our future politics might be—a professedly progressive government of familiar faces and uncertain success, dogged to a greater or lesser degree by congressional opposition and revivified scandal—on the other we have terrifyingly little notion. For the animating element of the Trump campaign, beyond its self-propelling cycle of insult and crass entertainment, is not a positive political program—renegotiating trade deals or imposing a Muslim immigration ban or even building an “impenetrable and beautiful” Mexico wall—but a kind of furious and exasperated nihilism about government as it exists and the broader discredited elite from which it emanates: the corruption, the back-scratching, the self-dealing.
The most powerful emotion one feels at a Trump rally is a great bellowing lust to scrub thoroughly the Augean stables and to entertain raucously while shoveling out the shit.1 Throw them out! And the “them,” it should be emphasized, is proudly nonpartisan: the elite of the Republican Party counts as corrupt as that of the Democratic; longtime conservative newspapers are no less representatives of the “lamestream media” than the liberal New York Times.
Thus their candidate may declare that he might refuse to support NATO members in the Baltics or that he might offer nuclear weapons to the Japanese or South Koreans or apply waterboarding or something “a hell of a lot worse” to any captured terrorist. Whatever principle of the postwar Pax Americana he blithely shatters, and however many “national security leaders” from Republican administrations issue yet another condemnation of Trump and pledge to vote for Hillary, this will do little but reassure his supporters. That their candidate offends, disgusts, appalls the elite and won’t seriously apologize for it, that, as we have seen, he refuses to back down from the grossest violations of “politically…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.