As I think about the chaos that has surrounded us in the United States since the inauguration of Donald Trump as our president, I keep finding myself in a condition T. S. Eliot describes in “East Coker,” having only learned to get the better of words for things I no longer wish to say. I have nothing more to say at this point about Donald Trump and his cabal or the Republican Party, or about my country.
Trump is being treated by his supporters and his detractors as a shiny new bauble on the tree of our public life, the new cynosure of our popular culture when we ought to be saying something like ‘surely not that again!’ For he is the worst of clichés. I don’t care whether he is smart or stupid or whether Steve Bannon is running him or not or whether the congress is using him or whether or when he will be impeached, though I don’t think impeachment is likely any time soon.
Nor do I care whether the chaos around him is accidental or part of a design to destabilize the country. Trump’s entire program is destabilizing as is the potential program of the Republican government in waiting. At this point events are in charge. I fear that neither he nor his supporters nor any of the rest of us will be able to undo the harm Trump is prepared to do—it appears he is ambitious to destabilize the world.
But we have seen his sort before again and again, the cowboy con artist with a shiv in his boot: Oliver North, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, George W. Bush, Rick Perry. Last year there was a fashion for comparing Trump to Lonesome Rhodes, the celebrity anti-hero of Elia Kazan’s 1957 film, A Face In The Crowd, made from a story by Budd Schulberg. Turner Classic Movies aired the film on Trump’s inauguration day. Rhodes is a bad ‘un with a smarmy smile that only an actor like Andy Griffith could have embodied, but he gets his comeuppance.
Towards the end of A Face In The Crowd a survivor among Rhodes’s entourage comments ruefully to a friend, about Rhodes and others like him:
You were taken in, just as we were all taken in. But we get wise to ’em. That’s our strength. We get wise to ’em.
We can hope Trump’s charisma will fail him—it’s the arc of the action he is playing out—nobody can strut and fret forever. But he has powerful allies in the alternative fact industry whose job it is to manufacture conspiracy theories and cram them in the black hole of the rightist media.
Most Americans are already wise to Trump, have been all along. But the joke’s on us. All the while we thought we were liberals, progressives, agents of change. Now it’s a rightist minority who are driving change, people who want to pull up the last hundred years or so of international history and burn it to ashes—they are not conservatives, no matter how they describe themselves. I am a conservative. I am now, at least in some sense, a Burkean. And I don’t have words for that condition yet.