Unpresidented

Donald Trump walking past riot police in Lafayette Park
Tom Brenner/Reuters
Donald Trump walking past riot police in Lafayette Park during protests following the police killing of George Floyd, Washington, D.C., June 2020

In “The Jesting of Arlington Stringham,” a story by Saki (H.H. Munro), the eponymous politician in a debate on the Foreign Office in the House of Commons remarks that “the people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.” The United States is experiencing the same excess. More outrage is being perpetrated and felt than can be contained within the existing frame of institutions and discourses. The image of things bubbling over, of energies and emotions that can no longer be enclosed, is physically manifest on the streets, as those who have been privately confined for so many weeks spill out into the public realm. But what there is too much of is not just present injustice. There is a superabundance of the unresolved past.

This sudden enlargement of the public sphere is a response to Donald Trump’s mastery of belittlement. For all his logorrheic meanderings and florid hyperbole, Trump’s method is essentially reductionist, with mocking nicknames (“Crooked Hillary”), three-word slogans (“Lock her up!”), and an entire presidency predicated on four letters: MAGA. It is ironic that, on May 29, just as protests at the killing of George Floyd four days before were spilling out from Minneapolis and spreading nationwide, Trump achieved peak concision with a one-word Tweet that contained what was supposed to be his entire strategy for reelection: “CHINA!” While the country he misgoverns was boiling over, Trump was still boiling down. The American crisis could, he evidently still believed, be reduced to this distillate of foreign perfidy.

A central feature of Trump’s practice of malign minimalism is the erasure of American history. It is not just that his own ignorance (exposed, for example, in his suggestion in February 2017 that Frederick Douglass was still alive) seems almost total. It is that Trump is obsessed with a pseudo-history in which the past exists only as prelude to his own greatness and to the unique evil of his enemies. In the days after George Floyd’s death, Trump tweeted repeatedly about history: “The Greatest Political Crime In the History of the U.S., the Russian Witch-Hunt”; “the greatest political, criminal, and subversive scandal in USA history”; “Our Country has just suffered through the greatest political crime in its history.” He twice tweeted versions of a quote from Fox News host Lou Dobbs describing Trump himself as “arguably the greatest president in our history” and “Absolutely 100% the greatest President in history.” And he claimed that “My Admin has done more for the Black Community than any President since Abraham Lincoln.”

In this demented solipsism, the entire American past is shrink-fitted so that it hugs Trump’s own ample figure, cleaving both to his greatness and…


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