He who should not be named

Paul Constant

November 01, 2016

I am so sick and tired of Donald Trump. I know this is not a unique opinion, or an especially interesting one, but it is an opinion that I want to shout in a very public place, or paint on a giant wall somewhere, with “sick” and “tired” both underlined three times for emphasis. It’s an imperative, a biological urge, like being hungry or needing to use a bathroom. My body is rejecting Donald Trump the way it would cast out a foreign organ. The election, one week from today, will be less a function of democracy and more a matter of much-needed surgery. Will the patient live or die? Who knows?

As soon as I was able to, I cast my vote against Donald Trump. My ballot arrived in the mail, I filled it out immediately, and I mailed it the next morning. It has already been received and verified and it will count on election day. The sensation of voting this year was one of relief — a sort of relief that I have never before known: I didn't feel it when I voted for the first African-American president, or when I voted against the worst American president of my lifetime in 2004.

The relief should have come in voting for the first woman president of the United States, in casting a ballot against a patriarchal system that has kept women from the reigns of power in this country for two and a half centuries. Unfortunately, that’s not the case; instead, the relief came in voting against Donald Trump. And that’s maybe the worst part of this election: the selection of the first woman to the office has been hijacked by the worst, ugliest major party candidate in history, a primal scream from a demographic that is losing its majority status and is not in the least happy about it.

Of course Trump’s followers are anti-diversity and anti-equality. He’s what happens when white men finally realize that they’re facing a nation where their voice will no longer be considered the societal default. The idea that everyone else should enjoy the same fundamental rights and privileges that they have always enjoyed is disgusting and unfair to them. And so they fight. And so Trump. It’s all so predictable, and horrible, and regrettable.

In the end, I think the moment of peak societal exhaustion with Trump arrived when the Access Hollywood tape was leaked. That was when America finally got bored with Trump, when we realized that he was just as vulgar and dumb and desperate to impress anyone in private that he was in public. There was always some unspoken hope, I think, among his supporters that there was a more private, pensive Trump hidden somewhere deep inside the blustery wave of showmanship that he presented in public.

The desperateness to his words as he tried to convince a television host of his virility — Billy Bush, for Christ’s sake — retroactively exposed all Trump’s big speeches and rallies as nothing more than the status-obsessed actions of a deeply insecure man. Yes, he most likely did assault women. Of course he is racist as the day is long. But his values aren’t even his values because he’s a monster. He acts the way he does because he’s looking for approval from the monsters. He’s just another toady, a molester and a bigot who hopes enough people are impressed with his loud voice that they won’t notice the mediocre record or the howling intellectual vacuum of the man at the center of all the bluster. It’s all so tedious. Boring.

This summer, I read Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money and Power by Washington Post reporters Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher. I read it because I always like to read books about presidential candidates, because doing so gives me an understanding of the personalities at the center of the electoral process. As far as these biographies go, many of which are rushed and poorly written, Trump Revealed is excellent. Fisher and Kranish had plenty of access to Trump for interviews, and their research seems extensive.

Trump Revealed certainly did fill some blanks in my understanding of Trump’s biography. Kranish and Fisher find some terrific examples in Trump’s early life that reveal the boy already demonstrated the same flaws of the man who would be president. In elementary school, Trump admits, “I liked to stir things up and I liked to test people.” He brags about giving a music teacher a black eye in elementary school because “I didn’t think he knew anything about music,” though Kranish and Fisher can’t find anyone to back up Trump’s specious claims.

And though the book certainly confirmed many of my suspicions about Trump’s biography — that he was obsessed with his father, the bigoted Fred Christ Trump; that he has a long history of screwing over partners and running away from ostentatious business failures; that his own racism is a lifelong pursuit and not a new adaptation created for the presidential race — it didn’t answer my questions of why. Why is Trump the way he is? Why doesn’t he act like a normal human being? Why is he so obsessed with what other people think of him? This isn’t a knock on Fisher and Kranish’s work; these sorts of topical presidential campaign biographies don’t dig into a figure’s brain. Motivation is generally left to the historians.

But it seems that most of us staring, wide-eyed, at the man who has relentlessly clowned the office of the president, aren’t especially interested in the whys and wherefores. Democrats and other Republican presidential candidates have thrown any number of substantive attacks against Trump, and none of them have stuck. The only attacks that hurt Trump involve videos of Trump himself saying atrocious things. Trump Revealed, then, can’t begin to resolve the questions that interest us as humans, that eternal why. It can only offer more of his outrageous words. In fact, the book does have one of the most entertaining back covers I’ve ever seen:

In the last month before the election, journalist and author Jon Ronson released a short e-book titled The Elephant in the Room: A Journey into the Trump Campaign and the “Alt-Right”. The folly of this book begins with its title. Ronson isn’t really talking about the alt-right that most of us discuss — the online trolls with the Pepe the Frog avatars who encourage white supremacist ideals and badger decent human beings into avoiding the internet entirely.

In fact, Elephant doesn’t mention Milo Yiannopoulos, the young British hatemonger whose Breitbart.com posts have encouraged a whole generation of terrible young men to become even uglier in public. Elephant only mentions Breitbart.com once, in reference to Trump staffer Steve Bannon, who left Breitbart to help run Trump’s campaign. Ronson doesn’t mention Richard Spencer, who many consider to be the founder of the alt right movement.

And so Elephant doesn’t stand anywhere near the best writing about the alt-right of 2016. The best writing about the alt right to be published this year — perhaps the best writing about this election, full stop — is “I’m With the Banned,” a Medium post by Laurie Penny about attending a party with Yiannopoulos. The best writing about Spencer is this Mother Jones profile by Josh Harkinson. When compared to these two pieces, it’s unclear that Ronson even actually understands what the alt-right is.

Instead, most of Elephant is about Ronson’s long professional relationship — some would say friendship — with Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist and radio host who has demonstrated a great deal of influence on Trump. I suspect that a title which more accurately reflected the content of the book might have influenced the way I read it. And no matter what the title promised, the byline is a good advertisement: Ronson is an excellent writer. Get a load of this image: “Trump had emerged from the polluted waters of Twitter like a mutant fish, and the world could not believe its eyes.” And a passage early in the book involving the media gaggling around a potential flag-burning at a political convention is undeniably hilarious.

But even if Elephant were to be retitled, there’s too much wrong with this book to recommend it. In short. Ronson is way too chummy with Jones for this book to feel ethically sound. When Ronson sees Jones perform his radio show after a long time apart, he describes “Alex” as “brilliant and audacious as ever — a beat poet of paranoia.”

Ronson separates his personal feelings for Jones from Jones’s ideology, which some readers might praise as responsible journalism. But in this year, to my exhausted sensibilities, it feels downright irresponsible. In 2016, we have plenty of proof that the inflammatory language of Trump and Jones has effects in the real world, that Jones is not a “beat poet,” he’s an ideologue with a base of millions of fans who consider his word to be gospel. I have no stomach in 2016 for this kind of friendliness and admiration for a man who has enabled and ennobled Trump. I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the stomach for it again.

The rise of Trump in the media was created in part from this chumminess, this desire to gawk at hate speech like it’s some sort of performance art. Without the mutual eager embrace of Trump and the media, Trump never would have happened. Perhaps it’s time to stop palling around in green rooms with people like this, to stop tolerating and even encouraging them when they say hateful things to people who will echo them back. Maybe it’s time, when people say monstrous things, to treat them like monsters: to cast them out and stop giving them our attention.

I’m done reading about Donald Trump for a while. In a week, this campaign will finally be over. Hopefully, a time will come — not immediately, but in a couple weeks, or maybe a month — when a full 24 hours will pass in which I do not think of Donald Trump. But even if he does lose, his legacy is already established. Even if Donald Trump were to disappear on the day after the election — not a likely outcome — he’d still be present in every angry political mob full of aggrieved white people. The spirit that he emboldened will still be stoking the fires of anti-immigration sentiment, of isolationism and anti-globalism. Even if one day soon the name “Donald Trump” isn’t spoken with the same frequency that it has been over the last year, Trumpism is here to stay.

Books in this review:
  • Trump Revealed
    by Michael Kranish, and
    Marc Fisher

    August 23, 2016
    432 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound
  • The Elephant in the Room
    by Jon Ronson

    September 27, 2016
    48 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online

About the writers

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

Other recent reviews

October 17, 2017

Going steady

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Boyfriends
    by Tara Atkinson
    Instant Future
    October 26, 2017
    36 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online
  • Requiem for the American Dream
    by Noam Chomsky
    Seven Stories Press
    March 06, 2017
    192 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
October 04, 2017

Among the ruins

Jessica Mooney

writes about
  • Imagine Wanting Only This
    by Kristen Radtke
    Pantheon Books
    April 18, 2017
    288 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound