January 20, 2016
IT’S NO JOKE
Photo: Gage Skidmore
At book club not long ago, a friend called our attention to a piece in The New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs” humor space, a one-page joke whose premise was that all of Donald Trump’s outrages—the one about Mexican immigrants, the calumniation of John McCain, the insults to Carly Fiorina and Megyn Kelly—were not campaign gambits at all, but were calculated to extricate himself out of the presidential race and propel him back into popularity as a TV personality.
Only it wasn’t working. Instead of making him too hot to handle politically, his stunts backfired, making him an even stronger candidate.
It’s a not-unamusing premise, not-unamusingly executed—well worth the minute or two it takes to read it. And a worthy contribution to the growing body of efforts to laugh Donald Trump out of politics.
But here’s what’s really funny: The book club gathering at which my friend recommended the New Yorker jape was convened to discuss It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel about a megalomaniac senator–modeled on Huey Long but, as Wikipedia puts it, “less a Nazi than a con-man-plus-Rotarian, a manipulator who knows how to appeal to people’s desperation”–who gets himself elected president and institutes a brutal authoritarian regime. The novel begins as a seriocomic satire, but ends up deadly serious—like the contemporary political figure who inspired us to read this 80-year-old novel, not one of Lewis’s best, at this particular point in time.
This isn’t to say that a President Trump could be expected, like It Can’t Happen Here’s President Windrip, to put opponents into concentration camps or drive them into exile, organize Brown-Shirt-like militias, reorganize government along corporatist lines, or provoke war with Mexico—although the last two don’t seem quite as fantastical as they did when I started this paragraph. This is not 1935, not the depths of a Depression. Hitler and Mussolini are not ascendant in Europe.
It is, though, to point out three parallels between Lewis’s scenario and today’s reality.
First, Trump could win. For both valid and not-so-valid reasons we feel ourselves vulnerable and insecure. As the generations that lived through the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam and Watergate age and leave the scene, fewer Americans remain who lived through those crises, so to them, this looks worse than in historical perspective. We are frightened and angry, and—like Lewis’s President Windrip, “a manipulator who knows how to appeal to people’s desperation”–Trump is a master at playing on those fears and amplifying that anger.
Second, a President Trump could take major strides toward carrying out his radical agenda. It is hard to imagine that the kind of wave election that could sweep him into office would not maintain Republican majorities ready to follow his lead; I mean, as an outsider presidential candidate with just a third of the base before a single vote has been cast, Trump has already pulled his opponents into his orbit. How much more powerful would be his gravitational pull as an elected official?
Even without a compliant Congress and Court, Trump might be able to work his will. Do we see Trump as a man who, balked by legislators or judges, would take defeat graciously—or at all? If Obama could, in effect, exempt young undocumented “Dreamers” from deportation through executive action, why couldn’t Trump hire more immigration agents and increase raids and deportations, including those of families long resident and productive in the U.S. If Obama can admit thousands of tempest tost Levantine refugees by executive action, couldn’t President Trump bar all Middle Eastern refugees?
None of which is to say that Trump is inevitable. The stars incline us, they do not bind us. The continuing strong polling results by the two not-particularly magnetic Democratic contenders show that the basic Democratic proposition still retains considerable national support. Electoral College math strongly favors the Democrats. The country emerges from the Obama years much more strongly than it went in. Although the Obama administration has not yet solved Syria, neither has anyone else. And the U.S.-Iran nuclear arms agreement and prisoner, the Paris climate change agreement and the TransPacific Partnership suggest that other countries, even those fundamentally at odds with the US, will respond to patient negotiation more readily than to a knuckle sandwich.
But Trump will not be satirized into submission. He is a smart and potent candidate. He speaks to the fears of millions of voters. He could win the nomination and put up a stiff fight in November. If he were to win, he could be within sight of carrying out much of his campaign agenda.
He’s no joke.