Something I’ve noticed among my leftier-than-thou friends is a continuing tendency to minimize how historically disastrous the Trump presidency actually is. This dovetails nicely with an increasing trend among right wing intellectuals to normalize and domesticate Trump: a trend that can be followed (relatively) painlessly by tracking the devolution of National Review from a Trump-bashing publication to a place where 75% of the commentary either enthusiastically or grudgingly supports him.
Yes Trump is, in terms of policy, a standard issue contemporary Republican — by pure default in his case, since he would have been the Queens version of Hugo Chavez if that would have maximized his grifting. This means a Trump presidency would have been terrible even if he wasn’t such an utterly corrupt, loathsome, and ignorant man. But he is all of those things, to a completely unprecedented level in the context of American presidential politics, and that makes a real difference.
A few days before Trump was sworn in, Philip Roth’s friend Judith Thurman emailed him about Trump’s impending presidency. The great writer had some choice observations:
Roth wrote in the Times Book Review that “The Plot Against America” was not intended as a political roman à clef. Rather, he wanted to dramatize a series of what-ifs that never came to pass in America but were “somebody else’s reality”—i.e., that of the Jews of Europe. “All I do,” he wrote, “is to defatalize the past—if such a word exists—showing how it might have been different and might have happened here.”
Last week, Roth was asked, via e-mail, if it has happened here. He responded, “It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man,’ the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’ ”
American reality, the “American berserk,” Roth has noted, makes it harder to write fiction. Does Donald Trump outstrip the novelist’s imagination?
Roth replied, “It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type—the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist—that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States.
“I was born in 1933,” he continued, “the year that F.D.R. was inaugurated. He was President until I was twelve years old. I’ve been a Roosevelt Democrat ever since. I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.” . . .
“My novel wasn’t written as a warning. I was just trying to imagine what it would have been like for a Jewish family like mine, in a Jewish community like Newark, had something even faintly like Nazi anti-Semitism befallen us in 1940, at the end of the most pointedly anti-Semitic decade in world history. I wanted to imagine how we would have fared, which meant I had first to invent an ominous American government that threatened us. As for how Trump threatens us, I would say that, like the anxious and fear-ridden families in my book, what is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.”
In a juster world, Roth’s health would have been good enough to allow our present catastrophe to convince him to break his fictional silence, and produce a worthy sequel to Our Gang.