“I went because every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.”
So explains Herman Roth to his wife Bess why he goes to the theater to watch films of the elected President of the United States welcoming with warmth and affability hate mongers in the White House. These words from Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America capture with alarming prescience the accounting so many of us have given for why we have watched clips or read tweets of Donald Trump over the last six years with a mixture of disbelief, irresistible fascination, and revulsion. But the scenery of the storming of the Capitol on January 6 made it abundantly clear that long after Trump leaves the White House – assuming he does, in the coming days – all Americans, and perhaps especially Jewish Americans, will have to face the full implications of a horrible truth about the United States that is far from the realm of hallucination.
The Vulgarization of the Presidential
It would be absurd to claim that the Oval Office was pristine before Trump’s entrance – after all, we don’t have to go back too far to imagine a semen-stained dress and a duplicitous Chief Executive who hid behind the phrase “sexual relations” to claim that fellatio isn’t included. And yet, Trump managed single-handedly to vulgarize and debase both the Office of the President and United States politics in general. In using the phrase “President Trump” – and how could one refuse to use the phrase? That is what he is, isn’t it? – one necessarily alters our understanding and expectations of the Office of President. We could well say that uttering the phrase “I moved on her like a bitch,” or “Grab them by the pussy” are unpresidential; but apparently that’s not true. We may doubt his assertion that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and … [not] lose voters” – but we can say with certainty that saying so didn’t cost him the 2016 election. The list is as long as it is familiar: imitating a disabled reporter; utter contempt for truth as a value; the very fine people on both sides of the divide at Charlottesville; the tweets – the endless tweets, complete with all caps and spelling errors; the inability to concede defeat. These are now all presidential, and that is a legacy that Trump will leave behind, however and whenever he leaves office.
It’s Not Trump, Stupid
There’s something enraging but also oddly comforting in focusing on Trump. Doing so, however, is dangerously myopic – for Trump is not really the issue. Exactly four years ago at this time, days before Trump’s inauguration, I argued here that more than his election had effectuated a change, it revealed something already existent in the United States. I’m deeply saddened to say that I’m more convinced now of that truth than I was then. In 2016, 63,000,000 (46% of the voters) Americans voted for Trump, and in 2020, 74,000,000 (47% of the voters) did so. Four years’ more of knowing Trump – his constant, shameless mendacity and his active support of baseless conspiracy theories; his criminal collusion with the Russians; his fatally-inept handling of the pandemic; and his dangerous fanning of the flames of racism and hatred for the sake of political gain – all this knowledge had absolutely no effect on the support he garnered in the ballot box.
The problem is not Trump. Nor is it the Republican Senators and Representatives who shamelessly colluded with his refusal to acknowledge defeat. In fact, it’s not even the spineless Republican leaders that fell silent. The problem is that nearly 50% of the United States populace voted for him in the election. It is out of fear of losing these voters’ support that the spineless and shameless Republicans have acted accordingly. So, when people write after the storming of the Capitol that “We are better than this,” I am sympathetic to the sentiment – but feel obliged to set the record straight: 50% of us are better than this.
The Ending of the Hollywood Ending?
There is something peculiarly American about the Hollywood ending. Its iconic presence in American cinema serves not only to calm the moviegoer who, 10 minutes prior to its conclusion, wonders if the tension will be allayed, the character saved, or the problem resolved; it also emerges from – and speaks to – the deepest-held of American beliefs. From early political programs such as Manifest Destiny, to the capitalist ethos that Max Weber called the Protestant ethic, to the baseball-cinematic mantra “If you build it, he will come” – the American glance is forward-looking, and the faith in a good (or better) future – steadfast. Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed this quintessentially American idea in the area of ethical progress when he famously reworked the words of the Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
But now is the time to pay closer attention to one of King’s less-oft cited quips, from a sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct”: “Every now and then I go back and read Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And when I come and look at America, I say to myself, the parallels are frightening.”
King’s admonition echoes the one Roth issued through the obfuscated lens of fiction: The United States may well undergo irreparable decay, decline, or – as democracies are wont to do, precisely because they are exposed to that sometimes weak-link called “the majority” – self-annihilation. As Thomas Kuhn points out, every scientific revolution is preceded by a string of indications that the current paradigm will soon collapse – but each and every anomaly is explained away because of the inability to part from the stability of the current, if outdated, understanding.
In Trump’s America, the incremental movement of American politics has led to an odious and pernicious reality in which the vulgar and mendacious are commonplace and even “presidential.” But the single greatest danger of Trump is not Trump, nor is it even the subterranean, inimical forces that he has tapped into. It is the truth – yes, the truth – that popular support for him has made self-evident: namely, that those who stormed the Capitol were the extreme members of a much larger group that comprises approximately 50% of the United States voters. As Americans and as Jews we would be irresponsible to ignore the possibility that the hegemony of the Hollywood ending could, itself, come to an end.