Resisting Mr. T****Print
Or, the art of the boast
By Phillip Lopate
March 3, 2017
Immediately after the election of D***** T****, I fell into a funk. I read for a minimum of six hours a day, largely to escape the nightmarish reality of his victory, but also to embrace an activity I knew he rarely if ever engages in, and I also found myself watching more than my usual quota of old movies. Was I depressed? A while back, there was debate in psychotherapeutic circles about whether a distinction should be drawn between clinical depression and merited sadness, such as the grief experienced when a loved one dies. I realized that technically no one had died, but this turnabout from Obama to Mr. T**** felt like the repudiation of all my values, and the demise of that vaguely optimistic belief (as Martin Luther King Jr. put it) that the arc of history bends toward justice. I was inconsolable.
I soon discovered that everyone in my acquaintance, even every stranger I encountered in the grocery store, thought exactly as I did. We were all mouthing the same lines, repeating the same astonishment at the mendacities, offensive cabinet nominations and stupefying actions emanating from the White House. Never had my tribe, my cohort, my fellow East Coast elitists and liberal intellectuals, been so united, so much on the same page. This should have heartened me, but as the same ideas, the same informational nuggets and arguments I had stored up kept boomeranging back at me, I realized it would be almost impossible for me to say anything original about Mr. T****. It is not a happy situation for any writer to discover there is virtually nothing he can declare on a subject of public concern that has not already been said. He can rely on style, of course, but only so much style can be expected to rescue assertions from the stale or self-evident.
Furthermore, to be honest, I have always questioned the notion that the writer has a social obligation to “speak truth to power,” must be “committed” or engagé, as the French say. I knew full well the trap of writing crude agitprop poems, or of espousing the kind of misguided support for dubious regimes that even writers as brilliant as Jean-Paul Sartre and Gabriel García Márquez had fallen into, based on their perceived conviction of the necessity to follow a consistent political line. Neither do I think that my name carries enough weight to sway anyone to my beliefs if I were to go to the trouble of writing editorials and pamphlets. Put another way, I have always shirked the mantle of “public intellectual,” and with it the self-confidence and pontificating smugness that the term implies. Instead, I have thrown in my lot with the personal essay, which traffics in skepticism, self-mockery and doubt, and is loath to propound anything that is not backed up by individual experience.
My experience was leading me to resist thinking about Mr. T****: he was like a large sullen child making a great deal of noise, and the louder he got, the more I was repelled by his bluster. He was a black hole in space whose negative magnetism must be resisted for sanity’s sake. As I was withdrawing from his rancid showmanship, my wife became obsessed with the damage he was causing or threatening to cause: she would read every article pertaining to him in the newspaper, and keep MSNBC or CNN on all day long in the background. Every morning and afternoon she would engage me in conversations about the latest affront, and I would try to extract myself from these dialogues, which would only reiterate, it seemed to me, what we already knew. In retrospect, her fixation was entirely reasonable she was trying to digest the indigestible. Nevertheless, I told her at one point (in the spirit of waning patriarchal authority) that she should put herself on a diet of one hour a day’s brooding about Mr. T****, and no more. She thanked me for this suggestion, though without being able to comply; I myself was unable to follow it, on bad days going over and over the litany of his misdeeds. Meanwhile, my wife clung obstinately to the hope of impeachment, which I regarded as an utter fantasy, given the Republicans’ control of both houses of Congress. Even hearing the word impeachment made a part of me crumble inside.
I had stopped watching any TV news the day after the election, restricting myself to reading one newspaper to stay abreast of the latest indignities, which I felt civically obligated to ingest. Slowly, slowly I gathered up the courage to watch the local TV news, and to accept seeing his detestable visage from time to time, as an unavoidable fact of contemporary life. Not long ago, I watched a part of his press conference, in which he castigated the media yet again and boasted that he had accomplished more in the first 25 days of his term than any U.S. president in history. It was not enough to have preposterously bent the truth: he had to pit himself against Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Lyndon Johnson, even his hero Reagan, and claim he had outdone them all.
I realized at that moment that there was something very specific about my distaste for the man. His boastfulness made me uneasy, as I could too easily identify with it. I come from a long line of boasters: my father, who otherwise insisted (boasted?) that he was a failure, could not forgo bringing up the Latin tests he’d aced in high school; my brother, a radio personality, maneuvers any subject to some form of attestation about his celebrity; and I have struggled unsuccessfully all my life to keep from burping up yet another claim of accomplishment. How many times have I failed to suppress a boast! This man, wallowing in stupidity, keeps crowing about his high ratings and popularity, as though those alone were sufficient to guide the nation. In his naked need for self-approval, I see myself. He is the Mr. Hyde to my Dr. Jekyll. He is already inside me. Can you blame me for trying to eject him from my consciousness by resisting further thinking about him?
Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.