by Chris R. Morgan
Traveling by air used to be a wonder. Then it became a tedium. For me it has always been nerve-wracking. But in the span of a weekend it has become politicized on top of all of that. Donald Trump’s authority has made it so. Under the auspices of his new office, he placed fresh dung on a much older dunghill, having imposed an order temporarily blocking the admission of people from select countries in the Middle East, whether they are refugees from Syria or green card holders visiting Somalia, or wherever. In response, his many opponents have descended on numerous airports to protest any detention or expulsion that may take place.
Trump’s orders are unacceptable. Legal grounds and moral grounds are glaring, but perhaps preeminent over those are the grounds of sheer operative expediency. That which has united the bickering cliques seems to be the brashness by which President Trump hands down his orders filtered of the clouds of procedural clemency. The amount of chaos and confusion he imposes upon an already confused bureaucracy, and his apparent indifference to any of it, is staggering even to sympathizers; as if the dunghill was also a wasps nest. Evidently taken with the trappings of his Twitter celebrity, Trump seeks to project them outside of the internet bubble. His orders are as he has stated them, with the implication that his “followers” are all instantly aware of its utterance and its intent. Secretary Mattis, Director Pompeo, and the border authorities didn’t have their notifications on is all.
Donald Trump, in a style similar to Hugo Chavez, has fully embraced the politics of contention, and thus positions himself in such a way that he will usually win. Opposition, strident opposition especially, may hinder him in the short term but validates him all the same. This is partly due to Trump’s love of dramatization, as if he’s using the presidency to restage King Lear. But even that is mostly a glittered paint job over the driving force that is his administration’s searing sense of principle, one derivative of Enoch Powell’s in ideology and temper, being similarly welded to its truth, hardened and determinant, and unwilling to compromise an inch. Now subtract Powell’s political isolation and basic respect for process and you have an executive leadership of righteous empowerment and bottomless contempt.
It is a politics that is new only in the sense that we may not be able to move on from it as we have been able to from Obama and Bush, as from Palin, Nixon, Johnson, Wallace, and on and on. Trump would much rather that we not, that we remain fixed in his drama and in the roles that he assigned us. I don’t know how to overcome that. I can only approximate where we should go from here. But it is not as simple as going away from Trump.
Trump has flouted the rather bizarre tradition of being asked what presidential or political biographies he has read in the lead up to taking office. “I never have. I’m always doing a lot,” he told the Washington Post when asked the inevitable question. But predictable anti-intellectualism has not shied from history. Indeed, someone is aware of the precise dimensions of Trump’s moment. Amidst the flurry of executive orders, Trump found time to have a portrait of Andrew Jackson hanged in the Oval Office. It is a twisted irony. After debating who might replace Old Hickory on the 20-dollar bill, we installed someone into the White House who believes his presidency, if not himself, to be the renaissance of his vision. Ironic, but fitting.
This has not gone unnoticed by any means. It would make sense that supporters would find parallels of a strong populist executive just as it would make sense that detractors would see the mercurial architect of Indian removal gleaming in eyes of the nuclear-capable visionary of Muslim and Mexican exclusion. “Jackson’s authoritarian will, his eagerness with the veto pen, his unprincipled use of federal power against non-whites, and his ugly patronage schemes changed forever the character of the Republic,” Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote. All fair and accurate, but Jackson’s example also reveals the genealogy of American power. Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, but Indian removal as a policy originated with Thomas Jefferson who had been enacting his own removals as early as 1802, breaking land treaties in the process.
Jackson’s Indian removal was far more brutal, leaving thousands dead out of tens of thousands expelled westward in the prototypical act of modern ethnic cleansing. Trump’s tribute invites consideration on the kind of bold decisiveness he seeks to emulate. On the campaign trail, he broke taboos on what can and cannot be expressed as pursuable policies: Muslim registries and bans, a revival and even more liberal application of torture, mass immigrant deportation, and so on. None of these are quite new in our policy, however; they just never took center stage. Torture, bombing raids, deportations, and executive overreach either existed upon discovery or were announced under the most clinical circumstances but less like an item on a to-do list more like a stage in digestion.
The sub-debate beneath the overriding debate, then, is between short-term and long-term aims of moral correction. It seems productive only in the sense of illustrating how the moral-political landscape is shifting under Trump’s national guidance. The short-term and more obvious goal, as supported by libertarians and leftists, is cutting Trump’s decrees and other enactments at the knees. While the long-term aim, urged on largely by paleoconservatives and other leftists, seeks to reverse the brute imperialist mindset that makes these policies and their consequences habitual. Both positions are correct. Both positions are difficult for their own reasons, but both are beneficial to each other and to the American people.
During Donald Trump’s first week in office, sales of 1984 spiked, probably for the first time since the signing of the Patriot Act. Though the circuitry of this moment is only broadly applicable to the tone and political context of Orwell’s prophetic satire, it shows a certain willingness to cope, or to attempt to cope, in the midst of an oncoming crisis. We will not be Winston Smiths. Yet the prospect of a boot stomping our face forever seems comforting compared to the prospect of coming out on the other side of it. And maybe that’s wise, that thinking is not as prevalent as assessing the immediate effects of Trump’s Crazy Eddie Jacksonianism. But the moment beyond Trump is something worth contemplating, though not because it is comforting.
I suppose most people have their own idea of the Trump apocalypse. Most of them seem to tilt a certain way; though for the moment, sales of The Road remain unremarkable. But the Trump apocalypse, as I see it, should unravel within the traditional meaning of the word: of uncovering rather than destruction.
For all of his taboo shattering, Trump as the icon of American mutation and standing alone athwart a tide of corrupt and ineffectual busybodying does little to show how engrained Trumpism is in the American mindset. He has indicated as much himself, it is in his words. “I am your voice,” he proclaimed at his monumental convention speech. It seemed arrogant to detractors and refreshing to supporters, but in the end may be simply accurate. Trumpian drama seems now like King Lear 2, but over time may come to look like Scotland, USA, with Trump cast as the Porter and the Americans in place of the Thane of Cawdor.
Macbeth did not handle his ascension to power very well, and his play’s adaptors like to dwell on that. But Macbeth, as Harry Jaffa wrote, “is a moral play par excellence.” Far from relishing in tragedy, it serves to show why it needs to be abated. This being America, no one will agree to what the moral order restored will look like. (In a way, the key is not who is Macbeth, but who is Banquo.) For those thinking in the immediate moment it is a simple fealty to justice. For those thinking further toward the epilogue it is a fealty to sanity. Sanity is a broader, harder ask, however, and rings like a pained history lecture. More accurately it is a call for modesty in a time when it is not wanted. It is hoping that the “shining city on a hill” becomes the house at the end of the road: shuttered and quiet, cordial and kempt, empty of old secrets and uninterested in those of others. We just need to be able to move there.