It was always there in America—the manic energy, the chaotic impulse to rush to the hills for gold, murder Indians, lynch Blacks, and above all Win Win Win! Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken, perhaps our greatest cynics, wrote about it. Twain’s sleazy, greedy “Duke” and “Dauphin” (the villains of Huckleberry Finn), the avaricious politicians in his The Gilded Age, Mencken’s doltish “booboisie” all represent those of our countrymen who were either corrupt or moronic, self-serving or self-deluding.
When the reality show star Donald John Trump, plump and made-up for all occasions, descended the escalator from his penthouse at Trump Tower in 2015, a kind of madness flew down along with him. Almost immediately, he observed that he could “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue” and no one would care. Certainly, as he discovered to his satisfaction, Republicans didn’t care. They represented both the self-serving and the self-deluding wilderness at the dark heart of the Republic.
And the madness that, batlike, flew down with him? It was a sleazy, greedy, falsified self—like Twain’s villains—sporting a fake hairdo, a cosmetic complexion, an extra-long phallic red tie, and elevator shoes. But as we discovered on January 6—coincidentally, the Feast of the Epiphany, the day of revelations—what else came down that escalator with him was a rampaging crowd, the mammoth swirling id of America. As New York Times columnist David Brooks eloquently put it, “There are dark specters running through our nation—beasts with shaggy manes and feral teeth. They have the stench of Know-Nothingism, the hot blood of the lynchers, and they ride the winds of nihilistic fury.”
These, too, spinning around Trump’s swollen belly, descended the escalator with him. Nearly half a century ago, Susan Gubar and I wrote a book about the secret rebellion of 19th-century women—The Madwoman in the Attic—but now we have to confront what might be considered the mania of the patriarchy that had bound and gagged them. Our central madwoman was the Creole wife of Jane Eyre’s Edward Rochester, who was imprisoned in a dusty attic because she was too desirous, too rebellious, too indecorous. Her downstairs double, the repressed little governess Jane Eyre, harbored fever dreams too, but was trained by her culture to silence herself. Yet the male-dominated culture itself, even in Victorian England but more so in the gold mountains and concrete canyons of America, was mad in a different way.
Mad with greed and lust and “feral teeth.” Donald Trump incarnated that madness from the start, and on January 6 his rage-flushed face and angrily swerving, bullying shoulders rallied the lynchers from the dark heartlands. If there was female anger muttering in the attic of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, a very different kind of macho rage erupted as Trump asserted his paranoid belief that he won an election he lost, as he threatened Georgia’s secretary of state in an hour-long rant, as he scandalously urged his blinkered followers to actually attack the Capitol of the United States.
What secret sickness in America does he embody? His base, or at least its most fervent members, would seem to be quite literally “base,” in the dictionary sense of a “contemptible rabble”—though they are poignant too, because their passions can only be fulfilled through him. He is the self-aggrandizing hero, or so he evidently believes, and they are the self-deluding mob, Proud Boys and Ku Klux Klansmen and Q-Anoners and Pizza-Gaters. Ashli Babbit, an invader of the Capitol who was shot dead by the police, had tweeted her credo the day before: “Nothing will stop us,” she wrote on Twitter. “They can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours….dark to light!”
But whence came the charisma of the overweight clownish creature who inspired all this and seems to have emerged from the American mind like a toad from a swamp?
If our madwoman raved in the attic of patriarchal culture, this madman—always greedy, always desirous—has sprung full-blown from the penthouse of patriarchy, the son of a father who was not quite as sinister but at least as selfish as he is. If the madwoman’s attic was dusty and dim, the penthouse from which Donald Trump descended is gilded and glittering. Fostered by its glow and by the glare of TV cameras (where he regularly fired lowly “apprentices”), he is His Majesty the Baby, tantrumming through history and always determined to have his way. From his Fifth Avenue penthouse, he descended to the White House, the great mansion of our government. Yet he brought his gilt—and his guilt—along with him. He has a scowling baby’s need to dominate, to own, to win, win, win. He has blank-faced wives and daughters. He has privileged sons who kill animals and despoil jungles.
He wants to live forever. He wants to be president forever and own the land he rules. No matter how many elections he loses, he will insist that he won—and he will persist. Unless we manage to unseat him, to peel away the ersatz gold and the glamour and expose, as in The Wizard of Oz, “the little man behind the curtain.”
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