Jonathan Lethem

I write out of disarray, from a field of compatriots in disarray. We’re drifting like astronauts, distantly tethered by emails like the one I just got from a friend: ‘i feel like he is making everyone sick, and bipolar./i feel like I am so incredibly ill-equipped to deal with any of this./i’m taking blind advice from all comers without feeling like anything is remotely adequate./ i feel nostalgic for all of life before Nov 8, 2016.’ Music helps and hurts. In a college classroom I played Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘Winter in America’, stirring up my old Nixon-era sense of abjection, and cried in front of my students. Of course, such behaviour makes us eligible for the web-scorn of alt-right triumphalists (‘Anguished by Trump, Lena Dunham Flees to Posh Arizona Resort, Asks Rocks for “Guidance”’). At these moments we’re the special snowflakes we were wishing to see in the world, the canaries in our own dystopian coal mines. But we’ll brandish our sensitivities proudly (if not our safety pins, which may be too smug and lame a gesture), since they’re what we’ve got, and are anyway better than robotic numbness, better than ‘normalisation’.

Yet figuring exactly which pretzel-shape to twist our sensitivities into – I’ll pity those who revile me, for not knowing they ought to be pitying themselves? – is a brain-stumping exercise. Are we to reach out to the Trump voter in tender empathy for their fear and pain, which is surely experienced as real, yet was partly cultivated by lies? Or should we do so out of cynical realpolitik (we need those states)? They’ve smashed themselves in the face again, electing this craven, gold-plated Ponzi-capitalist. But they’ve smashed us in the face too. Perhaps all empathy should be nipped in the bud, in righteous condemnation of the racist and sexist complicity – the betrayal of American idealism! of American exceptionalism! – reflected in a Trump vote. Anyhow we’re pretty sure that, taking account of lynchings, internments, black ops, waterboarding, drones, inequities, America was never great to begin with. The clearest evidence is also the nearest to hand: all the intolerant voters in the woodwork. This is our Naked Lunch, then – in William Burroughs’s words, ‘a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork’. Like the Trump voter, perhaps, we can only yearn to go back to a never-was.

Yet we’re galvanised. Like all good citizens – though few of us have been these particular good citizens until last week – we’re phoning our representatives on a daily basis, beckoning investigations and hearings, making strong statements in favour of strong statements of opposition. We’re demanding they demand! If we can afford it, we’ve just joined the ACLU, and donated to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for Biological Diversity. Good for us. Internet petitions fly, in favour of unmistakable righteous outcomes like the end of the Electoral College and of racistly gerrymandered districts, but also, schizophrenically, calling for a recount of three crucial states – don’t stop believing! – and repayment to New York City of the million dollars a day it will cost to secure Trump Tower for (at least) four years: cash on the barrelhead for the screwing we’re about to take! We’ve also got stealth plans. When the time comes, we’ll all report ourselves to the registry as Muslim: since we’re all Spartacus around here, that’s the way we roll. Sanctuaries for the persecuted are being readied, as well as vibrant protests; we’re scheming from within our own woodwork, from under the floorboards, and trust me, we’ll be heard from. I could tell you more, but then I’d have to – you know – empathise with you.

Such mania is the only antidote to despondency and disassociation, but, really, we’re taking both the poison and the antidote in one cocktail, on a daily ‘hair of the dog that bit me’ basis. We should have known, of course. We were warned by Richard Rorty in 1998:

Something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.

We were warned by Sheldon Wolin in 2003:

The elements are in place … a weak legislative body, a legal system that is both compliant and repressive, a party system in which one party, whether in opposition or in the majority, is bent on reconstituting the existing system so as to permanently favour a ruling class of the wealthy, the well-connected and the corporate, while leaving the poorer citizens with a sense of helplessness and political despair, and, at the same time, keeping the middle classes dangling between fear of unemployment and expectations of fantastic rewards once the new economy recovers. That scheme is abetted by a sycophantic and increasingly concentrated media; by the integration of universities with their corporate benefactors.

We were warned by Carl Jung in 1938:

He is like a man who listens intently to a stream of suggestions in a whispered voice from a mysterious source and then acts on them … The true leader is always led. We can see it work in him. He himself has referred to his Voice … That is why he makes political judgments which turn out to be right against the opinions of all his advisers … When this happens, it means only that the information gathered by his unconscious, and reaching his consciousness by means of his exceptional talent, has been more nearly correct than that of all the others, German or foreign, who attempted to judge the situation and who reached conclusions different from his. And of course, it also means that, having this information at hand, he is willing to act upon it.

We were warned by our European friends. I was warned in person by Adam Curtis, in London, in May. It now seems to me that Curtis spoke pityingly, but also gently, as to one in a dream from which it might be dangerous to be woken too suddenly. In the words of an anonymous writer, quoted in Greil Marcus’s morning-after ‘Real Life Rock Top Ten’ column: ‘Nothing more American than the faith that chickens will always go somewhere else to roost.’

Above all, we were warned – at least if you measure by my inbox – by science fiction. It began on election night, this grappling by allegory, as if we’d all been instantly thrust into Iron Curtain Europe, where the only safe dissidence came in the form of marginal genres – dystopian literature like that written by the Brothers Strugatsky and Stanislaw Lem, or Czechoslovak animated films. At one in the morning, as Trump claimed victory, a friend texted: ‘I feel like Charlton Heston on the beach.’ He meant that the ruined Statue of Liberty had been revealed, as well as the concurrence of Earth and the Planet of the Apes. There was no home to return to.

That Orwell’s Oceania had overtaken us, by means of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (which has its roots in Cyril Kornbluth’s story ‘The Marching Morons’, published in 1951 in Galaxy magazine), seemed more or less a given. So did the proposition that we were living in a world imagined by Philip K. Dick; this was easily recognisable even if you’d barely read him. To those who knew his work well, the morning-after debate consisted of whether Trump was more like Buster Friendly, the fascist demagogue television personality from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, or President Fremont from Radio Free Albemuth:

There is no point in dwelling on the ethics of Ferris Fremont. Time has already rendered its verdict, the verdict of the world – except for the Soviet Union, which still holds him in great respect. That Fremont was in fact closely tied to Soviet intrigue in the United States, backed in fact by Soviet interests and his strategy framed by Soviet planners, is in dispute but is nonetheless a fact. The Soviets backed him, the right-wingers backed him … the Democratic Party had been infiltrated by his people, spied on, wiretapped, reduced to shambles.

There are ‘calm down’ people as well as ‘freak out’ people. I’ve already revealed myself as one of the latter – but really, most of us contain parts of both: we’re intersectional, in that sense. Wednesday, 23 November, with talk of Mitt Romney for secretary of state and a scattering of vaguely semi-sane things said during a meeting with the New York Times (even a shred of global-warming acknowledgment!), was a calm-down day. The day before, with Nazi salutes, was a freak-out day. The reason I’ve sided with freaking out is actually this doubleness, this randomness, the sheer cascade of horseshit and affronts, of dog whistles and non-sequiturs. At best, the incoherence can be interpreted as evidence he’s a gormless, love-hungry 70-year-old child, a sort of feral president, an evil Chauncey Gardiner, as much the dupe in his own confidence scheme as he is its perpetrator, and utterly at the mercy of whichever voice just whispered in his ear. The other possibility, that he’s a totally Machiavellian sophisticate, a knowing possessor of the variety of ‘voice’ genius Jung ascribed to Hitler, is probably worse, and probably less probable. For those familiar with Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, the question is whether we’re in the hands of the existential-fool murderer Moosbrugger or the supercilious and beguiling industrialist Arnheim.

But why choose? We should consider the possibility that Trump and his fierce devotees are intersectional too, in the sense that Ernst Bloch describes in his essay on ‘Nonsynchronism’, from 1932:

Not all people exist in the same Now. They do so only externally, by virtue of the fact that they may all be seen today. But that does not mean that they are living at the same time with others. Rather, they carry earlier things with them … Times older than the present continue to effect older strata; here it is easy to return or dream one’s way back to older times … In general, different years resound in the one that has just been recorded and prevails. Moreover, they do not emerge in a hidden way as previously but rather, they contradict the Now in a very peculiar way, awry, from the rear. The strength of this untimely course has become evident; it promised nothing less than new life, despite its looking to the old. Even the masses flock to it since the unbearable Now at least seems different with Hitler, who paints good old things for everyone. There is nothing more unexpected, nothing more dangerous than this power of being at once fiery and puny, contradicting and nonsynchronous.

The non-sequiturs are as enraging as the lies and insinuations, I think. The destruction of language and meaning, the erosion of principles of truth and accountability perpetrated by Trump and his immediate circle is not only destabilising and distracting, but comes to seem part of the point, maybe even the centre of the operation. Everything is gestural now, everything has two names. At least two. Alongside outright denial, the dogs of the racist right have learned to whistle back to their master, in the form of the plausibly deniable. Slippage from ‘Black Lives Matter’ to ‘All Lives Matter’: these are notions that render sense insensible. We’ve all got our least favourite example. Mine came early in the campaign, when Trump declared that a Muslim ban was needed until ‘we can figure out what the hell is going on’ – the solipsistic implication being that a topic hadn’t begun to be contemplated until Trump turned his own enlivening attention to it (but of course he was a very busy man, and hadn’t gotten to it yet).

There was talk, through the campaign, of Trump’s ‘gaslighting’ technique when caught in flat denials of provable truth, such as his having tweeted out the suggestion that followers watch the former Miss Universe’s ‘sex tape’ (something less than a sex tape), or his disavowal of sniffling during the first televised debate, throughout which he plainly sniffled. The definition of gaslighting suggests that Trump’s specific tone casts the hearer’s sanity or reasonableness into doubt; such instances may be triggering for those who’ve suffered such abuses. The reference is to the George Cukor film of the Patrick Hamilton play Gaslight, in which Charles Boyer drives Ingrid Bergman mad with self-doubt through devious manipulations that include the gradual damping-down of the gaslight lamps in their marital home. Use of the accusation might tend to exculpate the accused, since anyone capable of applying it is surely better equipped than Bergman to resist; we should have resisted better, back when Trump’s hand seemed not actually to have access to the gas lamp’s mantle. It’s only now, after the shock of his election, that we’re all actually married to him, and living inside his house.

In John Ford’s morbid late Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the sociopathic highwayman Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin, senses an instability in the American recipe wherein law-abiding civilisation (represented by Jimmy Stewart) and wilful iconoclastic individualism (represented by John Wayne) find a precarious balance at the frontier of national self-invention. In seeking election, Valance ‘hacks’ this instability, partly through the deft manipulation of public fear. He also physically destroys the town’s only institutional conscience (since the local sheriff is a fawning coward), the offices and printing presses of a newspaper called the Shinbone Star – but not before somehow infecting its editor (Edmond O’Brien, who’d earlier played Winston Smith in 1984) with a kind of language virus, resulting in the dismaying headline-fail LIBERTY VALANCE DEFEETED. I won’t say how Wayne contrives to purge Shinbone of its Liberty Valance problem, apart from the fact that it doesn’t involve words. I do this not to withhold spoilers, but because it might result in my getting a visit from the Secret Service. The point is that, as Willie Mays’s glove was said to be ‘the place where triples go to die’, Donald Trump, like Liberty Valance, is the place where language goes to die.

On Sunday my wife and I sat in a backyard with another couple while our children played together inside a netted trampoline. They both teach media studies; he’s a native New Yorker and she’s Slovenian, by chance like Trump and his wife. She grew up inside the residue of Tito’s regime, then lived through 1991’s Ten-Day War, in which Slovenia pulled itself free from the grip of Milošević’s Serbia. The four of us talked over the latest dreadful cabinet nominations, and made our nervous, compulsive comparisons to wider history; nothing settled into place, and nothing settled us. Then our children shouted at us from the trampoline, saying they wanted us to watch their play, that they were putting on a ‘show’ – it involved a knotted rope that dangled into the trampoline from a tree limb, and a giant beanbag and collisions in which all the participants fell writhing to the rubber floor. The kids named their show ‘Theatre of Injury’. Of course before too long someone got hurt for real, and needed consolation.

‘Theatre of Injury – that’s a good name for everything at the moment,’ one of our friends joked. It is. Everyone’s genuinely injured, and yet, in this period of prodrome, everyone’s playing at it too. The cable television stars called onto the carpet at Trump Tower, despite being off the record, leaked their complaints – apparently Wolf Blitzer was particularly indignant. Right-wing pundits insist an atmosphere of woundedness originates in left identity politics, but the bruise we’re tending at the moment is inflicted by the ancient reactionary sulk of Nixon’s ‘silent majority’ which has now blurted its grievance in the worst form possible. Rehearsals are completed: fear the real blows to come.

29 November