Happy cultures are all alike. But this is not a happy culture. Sullen and sour, America seems like a country whose nerves are shot. And, after 16 straight years of war, why wouldn’t the political neurons be frayed? Each day the fear factor is being ratcheted up. New threats are being targeted. New wars being planned. A paralytic dread hangs over the Republic.
To watch the news these days is to be seated at a dark table in a casino for games of death. Or fantasies of death. At a certain point, it doesn’t really matter. At a certain point, one will lead to the other. Eventually, the fantasy must become reality. Those are the house rules. The thrill of the fantasy will ultimately be paid out in real blood.
Listening to Donald Trump speak is to be privy to a weird kind of political séance. He has become a fuming animation of the primordial grudges and resentments of white America, people who feel their invisibility made flesh in the figure of Trump, people who thrill at every low-minded slur and threat. He conjures up phantasms of what the elites and the minorities have done to them. He feeds them their fears in raw chunks. He offers sacrificial killing on their behalf. Mass arrests. Torture. Deportation of the sick and helpless. He vows to turn entire nations into glowing morgues. All for them. And they eat it up, savoring the bitterness. How long can this last, how long before the fever breaks?
I am listening to Trump’s incendiary speech in Seoul. He is standing at the dais in Proceeding Hall, the National Assembly building in South Korea. Perhaps it’s the color saturation level on our old monitor, but on this night Trump looks like a grotesque figure from a George Grösz painting. His face is glazed an acidic orange as if slathered in mortician’s makeup. Even though he is reading from a prepared text written by one of his sycophants and projected for him on a teleprompter, he speaks in a switchbacking syntax that I’ve come to call Trumponics. He looks and sounds like the dictator of bad taste.
Of course, it’s useless to probe Trump’s ramblings for their symbolic content. He strikes right for the spleen. Still, I continue to hunt for some logic to what he’s saying, knowing it’s futile. Except, perhaps, for the logic of the suicide pact. But a pact implies a deal, and most of us haven’t signed away our consent, except, I suppose, through our passive acquiescence to his resurrection of the old nuclear demons.
Each Trump speech should come with a risk assessment of its potential fallout. Yet none of Trump’s military-grade handlers—McMaster, Mattis or Kelly—seem up to the calculus. Tillerson may have some idea, but Rexxon’s been locked out in the cold for months, as the State Department, though alas not the state, withers away. The State Department, which, since World War II, at least, has been responsible for far more deaths than the Pentagon deserves its vacancies.
Trump’s bombast never seems quite serious. But I fear we must begin to take him so. He is, after all, a man without humor.
In front of South Korea’s legislature, Trump brags about America’s military prowess, a boast reinforced by the looming spectre of three aircraft carriers and two nuclear subs prowling the Korean coastline in real time. He gives the impression that he considers military quagmires about as problematic as the sand trap on the 16th hole at Pebble Beach.
Trump warns that his country, that is, our country, will not hesitate to vaporize hundreds of thousands of beings. We’ve done it before, Trump implies, and felt no guilt, no remorse. This is the voice of a man who has learned nothing from mass death, except that it paved the way for the globalization of American power. In a voice that slips from talking about index funds to nuclear missiles, the prime rate to F-35s, Trump projects the image of president as gravedigger.
Is it possible, Trump seems to ask, to profit from H-Bombs after you use one? Is nuclear war really a growth industry? I was surprised that the Korean delegation didn’t jump up and run screaming from the chamber. Or storm the dais, as they did during the impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun.
What happens when the president, a man with the capacity for continent-wide annihilation, strays beyond the reality principle?
Finally, I clicked Trump off and turned on someone who had found many of the answers to the most important questions in life: John Coltrane. Coltrane, the human antithesis of Trump. Coltrane, who had been inducted into the segregated US Navy, on the very day that Hiroshima was nuked. Coltrane, who prayed on his knees at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on his 1966 tour of Japan. Coltrane, who said at Nagasaki: “I dislike war, period. So, therefore, as far as I am concerned, it should stop.” Coltrane, who would die of cancer, the disease of the nuclear age, only a few months later.
The record I put on was “Ascension,” as liberated a piece of music as has ever been played. Coltrane’s only instructions to his bandmates was to end their solos with a crescendo. On that night, it seemed to me that Coltrane’s music might be invoked as a kind of sympathetic magic against Trump’s nuclear nihilism as if rising notes could cast a spell against falling bombs. In between the null and the void, the truth can still be heard in the organic phrasings played by Coltrane’s breath.