A rhetorical revolution on Trump?

Ethan Croft explores the academic discussion of Donald Trump's election and administration

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We have all become accustomed to the cry of ‘fake news’, pronounced since last year from the mouth of the new US President, or his Twitter handle @realDonaldTrump. When he vanquished the Clinton machine in November, Trump turned his gaze fully to the fourth estate, declaring media organisations the new opposition in America.

Over the course of the campaign, voices of articulate criticism were best given a platform in the spindly pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. But now, as we see the bookstore shelves dedicated to discussions of Trump steadily lengthening, perhaps lightning fury has finally given way to weighty contemplation. Following Trump’s ascension to the White House, I wanted to see a revolution in the discourse surrounding his election.

In the weeks and months surrounding November 8, searching for a substantial exposition of the Trump phenomenon was a fool’s errand. There were two main ports of call. First, a thin volume entitled Trump & Me—Penguin’s hastily published reprint of Mark Singer’s 1996 profile of the Manhattan Megalodon.

This humorous enquiry made for leisurely reading in the summer of 2016, when all bets were on a Clinton victory. But it is not of the likes of post-election literature. The other option was investigative journalist David Cay Johnston’s critical biography of Trump’s “tremendous success,” The Making of Donald Trump.

Whilst this was, at first reading, an admirable dissection of Trump’s moral and often fiscal bankruptcy, the book now leaves us feeling cheated. How could a man as repugnant as this lie his way from the Trump Tower penthouse to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

But while the new President hurtled through the first 100 days with pause only to tweet and swing a golf club, the writers of America (or at least those who could face the ‘American Tragedy’ of Trump’s victory, as David Remnick called it) were working away.

The first major fictional offering post- presidency is Howard Jacobson’s Pussy (he might have been warier of the title). This half-satire, half-elegy to liberal America, was written in the immediate weeks after the election. While Jacobson’s prose is intended to show us the inadequacy of Trump, I am afraid it more clearly demonstrates the inadequacy of his opponents in their reactions to defeat.

Indeed, the fact that Trump is so objectionable in so many ways presented a goldmine of potential attack lines to Clinton and her supporters last year. To many Republicans, the inexcusable behaviour of their candidate was anathema, for they were the ones who had to defend him publicly whilst attempting to masquerade as people with a shred of decency.

For his opponents, Trump’s various misdemeanours could be fashioned into a cache of poison dart invectives throughout the campaign, targeted expertly to turn designated sectional interest groups. For defence hawks, there was Trump’s professed isolationism. Women were given a heavy dose of his misogyny and allegations of sexual assault.

Clips of Trump’s race baiting and his support from the white supremacist David Duke were aimed at black and ethnic minority Americans. Of course, his ‘America First’ economics were given a good airing for Hillary’s big buck donors who have done very well out of globalism.

But as the Clintons have now quietly retired to walk their dogs and write pulp fiction political thrillers, the attacks have turned disparate. The precise crossbow of the Democratic machine has been packed up until 2020, replaced post-inauguration by the chaotic firing of scatterguns by those, like Howard Jacobson, who are still searching for answers.

The title of Pussy and accompanying front cover illustration of an infantile Trump, dressed only in a nappy and holding a doll of a naked woman, clarifies the novel’s main polemical line—the new President’s attitude to women.

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In this roman à clef, Prince Fracassus (obviously Trump), lusts after his his female teacher Doctor Cobalt, is open about his taste in hardcore pornography, and demonstrates an intense hatred of intelligent women such as Sojjourner, who engages in sex work to finance her degree: “He resorted to Twitter. ‘Met a bitch called two js. Great piece of ass with two as. Moved on her, not close.’”

These points, though not particularly original, satirise Trump’s misogyny quite well. While reading the book, one oscillates between titillation and despair, a credit I think to the accuracy of Jacobson’s caricature. But this is all slightly undermined by his shtick toward the fictional Ivanas, the Ivankas and Melanias of the tale, who the writer describes as dressing “in a vertiginously low-cut sequined evening gown that appeared to be entirely open, but for a paper clip.”

I wonder if it is credible to hold dual outrage, on the one hand at Trump’s attitude to women, and on the other at the chosen dress sense of the scantily clad women around him. Herein there seems to be a contradiction, which is endemic in many attempted takedowns of ‘The Donald’, whereby liberals accept a Republican prejudice as their first premise and then hold Trump in contempt because he violates it.

This is the case in Jacobson’s fictional account, where we are supposed to take a disliking to Trump because the women around him aren’t ‘classy’ enough. But it can also be seen in David Cay Johnston’s The Making of Donald Trump. On the subject of revenge, he quotes the Sermon on the Mount, professing that Trump’s business dealings are “in direct opposition to both Christian and

Jewish theology.” During the Republican presidential primaries, this was the critique that such shining lights of secularism as Ted Cruz offered, appealing to the theocratic instincts of much of that party. It seems misguided for the liberal opposition (now more portentously named ‘progressives’), to be endorsing right wing principles in the hope of landing a cheap shot on Trump.

In Pussy, Jacobson also ridicules Trump on similarly religious grounds: “Fracassus was frightened. He’d seen a television programme in which a father took his son to the top of a mountain to slit his throat but then God stepped in to stop him. Not a great storyline but he liked when the father slit a ram’s throat instead.”

It is unwise of liberals to form an unholy alliance with those who do not accept the fundamentals of women’s liberation or the separation of Church and state in a desperate attempt to do the President harm.

Through the course of most significant political careers, we can see development of personal belief systems executed in office, be it Thatcherism, Stalinism, or Kissingerian realpolitik. But with Trump, things seem to be going in the opposite. Faced with the power of his office, we are not seeing Trumpism, only Trumpery.

His individual consistency is in being a showman, but one who is essentially worthless and devoid of substance. To run on a platform of non-interventionism, and then subsequently provoke a diplomatic incident by bombing a Syrian airfield (though not necessarily unjustified) highlighted the volatility of Trump’s behaviour, and his lack of beliefs.

In Pussy, it is unclear whether Jacobson objects to Trump the man, or to what he represents about “a society that set great store by fantastical coiffure.” In a pointless rehash of Marco Rubio’s futile attempt to emasculate Trump in front of the fickle Republican primary debate crowds, Jacobson insults Prince Fracassus as being “slow-witted,” and having “small hands.”

This trivial kind of venting—which is more prominent in the earlier chapters—shows how writing the book so soon after 8 November affected the quality of Jacobson’s prose. As the novel goes on, the author’s remarks on Fracassus become more perceptive.

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Focussing on Trump’s famed relationship with cable television, Jacobson presents the young Prince Fracassus as a critical viewer. He writes, “whatever was combative and divisive he liked; whatever was discursive and considered he didn’t.” Jacobson also considers how far television nasties influenced the relative cruelty of Trump as he grew up into a ruthless entrepreneur: “sadistic surgeons, bent cops, the Discovery Channel’s dictator of the week—it was on these that he grafted his own image.”

He seems to be raising the question of whether Trump was born repugnant, or that he is a product of the America in which he grew up, and America that gave him the great final endorsement of the Presidency at the 2016 election.

The result in November certainly made a lot of liberals angry not only at the new commander- in-chief, but also at the public at large. In his essay ‘None of the Old Rules Apply,’ the writer Dave Eggers reveals how in a post-election conversation with fellow Democrats, “we all talked about where we will move: Belize; New Zealand; Canada. We no longer knew our own country.”

The implied sentiment that a kind of unbridgeable gap opened between liberalism and the United States last year, is reflected in Pussy. Despite quite forcefully making the point that Fracassus and his real-life counterpart President Trump were bad eggs from birth, Jacobson also shows a sneering attitude to those who elected him. He doubts the very ability of the electorate to make ‘sensible’ choices: “voters, in all likelihood not knowing what they were voting for, felt the same. Lie to us, lie to us.”

However, it seems unwise to predicate a movement of democratic opposition on the founding premise that the voters are typically idiots. Those who want to remove Trump from office as soon as possible do themselves no favours by describing “Caleb Hopsack, leader of the Ordinary People’s Party (OPP)” as “championing of all things unquiet and unrefined.”

The first step to regaining power is destroying the entire poisonous notion, ironically propagated by billionaires like Trump, that liberalism is elite. Some like Jacobson disapprovingly tut at the electorate.

Others, like Linda Sarsour in her essay ‘The Ultimate Wake Up Call’ revert to repeatedly shouting through caps-lock “THIS IS NOT NORMAL”, and emphasise the value of “OUTRAGE” in obnoxious tones not far removed from the President’s own tweet storms. But all this is only solidifying the received idea of ‘metropolitan elitism,’ or to use one of Jacboson’s own lines: it is ‘ironising the archetype.’

Donald Trump will still be the President tonight, and tomorrow, and the day after. Though Mrs Clinton may have won the popular vote in November, the crushing apathy her kind of politics induced allowed her opponent to flourish. It could do so again in 2020 if the Democrats select a similar candidate.

Reading Pussy, I was admittedly disappointed, hoping as I had since the election that Trump’s earth shattering victory would at least trigger a creative renaissance in writing, satire, and political opposition to conservatism. The book left me wanting for all of the things which I hoped it would provide. Instead of getting red in the face, those who oppose the administration should get even, by turning the voters against Trump.

A lively discourse on the American Left over the next few years, about what went wrong and what can go right in the future, will be far more productive than trotting out the attack lines of ex-Republican candidates and calling the general public stupid. It is the politicians, not the people, who should seek redemption.