Monday, August 24, 2015

The Great Political Twitch: Donald Trump and New Politics of Nihilism

Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark in "All the King's Men."
Rod Dreher at the American Conservative, mentioned that Donald Trump reminded him of Huey Long, the populist demagogue who served as governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932. This was amusing to me, since I had just finished Robert Penn Warren's All the Kings Men, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book that portrayed the political life of Willie Stark, a thinly disguised version of Long, from the perspective of the fictional Jack Burden, one of his close aides.

Dreher, partly because he is perspicacious, and partly because he is a Louisianan, saw in Long what I had seen when reading through the novel of Willie Stark―an inverted analogue of Trump.

In Warren's novel, Stark, a country boy and self-professed "hick," rises from mean circumstances to being a candidate for governor. But he suffers from the idea that the best way to reach the voters is intellectually, giving them arguments, facts, and figures. Politics to him is a cognitive enterprise, to be conducted by capturing people's intellects.

His aide Burden watches the bored crowds, listening to Stark in a numbed stupor.

One day, after giving another fact-filled speech, Stark asks Burden what he thinks of his speech and how things are going, and Burden gives him this advice:
"Yeah," I said, "I heard the speech. But they don't give a damn about that. Hell, make 'em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em think you're their weak, erring pall, or make 'em think you're God Almighty. Or make 'em mad. Even mad at you. Just stir 'em up, it doesn't matter how or why, and they'll love you and come back for more. Pinch 'em in the soft place. They aren't alive, most of 'em, and haven't been alive in twenty  years. Hell, their wives have lost their teeth and their shape, and likker won't set on their stomachs, and they don't believe in God, so it's up to you to tive 'em something to stir 'em up and make 'em feel alive again. Just for half an hour. That's what they come for. Tell 'em anything. But or Sweet Jesus' sake don't try to improve their minds.
One night, after a shell-shocked Burden finds out that his childhood sweetheart is having an affair with Stark, he gets in his car and drives west―through darkness and drizzle, ending up on his back in a hotel in Long Beach, California. He relives the events of his life and his childhood with the girl he loved, who, he now decides, was really no better than any other girl, and his love for her no more significant than any other feeling. There is not even any "better" or "worse" in the total scheme of a world that has no metaphysical order. Nothing, in fact, means anything:
...for names meant nothing and all the words we speak meant nothing, and there was only the pulse in the blood and the twitch of the nerve, like a dead frog's leg in the experiment when the electric current goes through.
Jack has discovered nihilism, or at least he has given its god a name: He calls it the "Great Twitch." Jack has really been a nihilist all along. His advice to Willie about how to give political speeches was nihilist advice: Apply some electric current to the voters, and they will feel alive again, or, like the frog, they will at least look like it.

Willie takes his advice, and in one of the most powerful scenes in the book, Stark ditches his facts and figures, and administers the electric shock therapy, telling the crowd that he's just like them, that he's angry with the establishment that plays people for fools, that he's going to stand for them against the powers that be. His speech ends with Willie's pages of facts and figures blowing away in the wind.

The change in tactics results in Stark's rapid ascent to power. His fiery populist rhetoric serves to give life to the lifeless who come to hear him.

Another Louisiana writer, Walker Percy, honed in on the nihilistic culture and the lifeless men and women who people it. Percy lived before the popularity of the zombie craze, but he would have seen in it the very image of modern men. The wise men of the twentieth century―Percy, John Updike, Phillip Roth, Flannery O'Connor (an honorary wise man), as well as early twentieth century existentialists such as Albert Camus―sent the dispatches home to tell us what we were: bored, purposeless, and dis-integrated

We spent most of the 20th century trying to fill the inner void, and developed entire industries to serve the purpose: the resort industry, the pornography industry, Hollywood.

In his classic "self help" book, Lost in the Cosmos, Percy noted that,
[b]ecause the self in the twentieth century is a voracious nought which expands like the feeding vacuole of an amoeba seeking to nourish and inform its own nothingness by ingesting new objects in the world but, like a vacuole, only succeeds in emptying it out.
Camus underscored the meaninglessness and absurdity of the modern condition when he opened his book The Myth of Sisyphus with these words: "There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide ... I have ever seen anyone die for the ontological argument ... On the other hand, I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living." There are plenty of people who commit suicide, of course, far more than in the previous ages that believed in God and recognized the existence of an ordered and meaningful world, but rather than commit suicide, most of us try to find various ways to pinch ourselves to assure us we're still here.

This is why Merseault, the protagonist in Camus' The Stranger, kills the Arab on the beach: "Because," he tells the judge, "of the sun." In other words, there is no reason. But it at least provides something to relieve the boredom of life.

The Great Twitch is in his nihilistic heaven and we humans here on earth go to ever more fantastic movies, or ever more extreme sports (note, despite the otherwise obsessive concern with safety in everything, the popularity of cage fighting), or watch pornography, or obsess about the climate, or join ISIS―anything to jolt ourselves alive.

But it never seems to last. Percy pointed to modern fashion as an example of how we try to fill up the emptiness, but never seem to be able to:
Gradually the new style becomes everyday, quotidian, rendered neutral. No matter how exotic it is, like a morsel to which an amoeba is attracted and which it surrounds and takes into itself, it is devoured and becomes part of the transparent flowing substance of the amoeba.
The empty utilitarianism of our education system, the cynicism of the political class, the self-righteousness of new politically correct commissars of gender and racial politics, all of these have helped create a society of people who aren't even alive, most of 'em, and who are seemingly in need of a pair of political or cultural jumper cables.

Hollywood feeds off of this need, and since politics is now an almost wholly-owned subsidiary of the entertainment industry, so does politics.

Unlike Stark, Trump is no hick (No one with a private 757 is a hick). But he has realized that what the voters need is something to jolt them out of their stupor. The modern electorate is jaded, and only the most extreme measures can now revive them. Only something entirely different can relieve their boredom. And Trump is not only different, he is outrageously different.

Peter McWilliams once said that boredom is "hostility without enthusiasm." The voters have long harbored a latent hostility, but now Trump is providing the enthusiasm.

Between the alternatives of weak, erring pal and God Almighty, Trump has chosen to offer himself up as the latter. He's making 'em mad, even mad at himself, which is why he doesn't care if he makes outrageous statements about people. He even thinks, after all the things he has said about Mexicans, that he can get the Latino vote (Shades of Stark calling his audiences whose votes he was asking for, "hicks"). He's stirring 'em up, not caring how or why, and their loving it and coming back for more.

He'll tell 'em anything, and, unlike everyone else running for president, he is certainly not trying to improve their minds. Hand it to him: He's figured this much out.

Donald Trump is the anti-Adlai Stevenson. He is Robert Penn Warren's Willie Stark turned upside-down.

But like all such jolts, it only last so long. Even the Greatest Twitches soon subside. The question is, how long will it take Trump to be taken into the nihilist cultural ameoba and become part of our transparent flowing substance.

Personally, I'm hoping it happens before the election.


Anonymous said...

If Trump is Willie Stark turned upside down, that's still not a good thing. The question Trump a Republican and since when?

Martin Cothran said...

Did I say something that indicated it was a good thing?