In a sardonic email written last year to the New Yorker magazine, the late, great Philip Roth describes Donald Trump as a man “incapable of expressing or recognising subtlety or nuance…wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”
I enjoy the crankiness, coming from Roth, and I wish I could say it was wholly uncalled for. Our president, it can’t be denied, is a man little given to nuance, and almost charmingly innocent of any refinements of diction or syntax. This is a loss for us, if a survivable one. The world is complicated, and all things being equal, leaders who speak precisely and beautifully render better service to the citizens they represent. Trump’s rhetorical style is what I (somewhat ignorantly) take be classic outer borough – pugilistic and pungent, heavy on c’maaahn, whaddyatalkinabout personal appeals.
Our previous president, Barack Obama, employed the English language somewhat differently. He was justly lauded for his soaring rhetoric on the stump, and while an undergraduate, he penned this passage in a letter to his college girlfriend:
“Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak.”
That’s one T.S. Eliot under discussion. And OK, yes – I know. But the man was a gawky undergrad trying to get laid, so let’s cut him some slack. Points for ambition, he who is without sin, etc. This same Barack Obama, once he’d graduated, gotten a wife and become president, took to hosting regular poetry readings in the White House. The man was clearly eager to steep himself in what Matthew Arnold calls “the best that has been thought and said,” and his amorous reading of T.S. Eliot is not entirely insane, if a little unclear.
This weekend in the New York Times, another American author took a rather graver look than Roth’s at Donald Trump’s undoubted, unembarrassed philistinism. Dave Eggers, Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and some other books, penned an article titled “A Cultural Vacuum in Trump’s White House.” It is a serious look at a very pressing topic of current concern, a fact confirmed by many writers and actors on social media.
Eggers points out, entirely correctly, that Trump has broken with long presidential tradition by hosting approximately zero arts events during his first year and a half in office. Eggers is morbidly concerned about what this portends for our nation, and the facts he adduces might make you shudder. “Never,” Eggers intones, “have we had a president not just indifferent to the arts, but actively oppositional to artists.” Oh God. What has the monster done? Did he imprison Jonathan Franzen? Talk to me about Beyonce’s whereabouts immediately. Eggers goes on to illustrate Trump’s opposition, and it’s not pretty: “Mr. Trump disparaged the play “Hamilton” and a few weeks later attacked Meryl Streep.” Oh. I see. Hamilton and Streep. Uh, hmm. I suppose we should be grateful that he’s left Harry Potter unscathed, yes?
Eggers’ article is mostly a laundry list of the good things prior presidents have done, and frankly, a lot of it sounds great. The Reagan White House hosted jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, and Chick Corea. I would truly love to have been there. Art is one of the chief ways a nation has of embodying its deep values, inspiring hope and consoling itself in loss. Again, all things being equal, it is beautiful for political functionaries to pay homage and host to the creators of these good, good things. It would not be hard to write a NYT op ed to that effect.
But Donald Trump has a way of getting talented opponents to underperform. Eggers’s much lauded article, retweeted by Neil Gaiman, Judd Apatow, Michiko Kakutani, John Lithgow, Samantha Power, Frank Bruni and Mia Farrow, offers this for its philosophical climax, the conclusion where things get truly serious. Art, he writes,
“…allows us to look through someone else’s eyes and know their strivings and struggles. It expands the moral imagination and makes it impossible to accept the dehumanisation of others. When we are without art, we are a diminished people — myopic, unlearned and cruel.”
Oy. One doesn’t know where to begin, but the red pen begins to twitch. Horny undergrad Obama would never have authored this kind of ham-fisted piffle. Impossible to accept the dehumanisation of others? What blessed reality is Mr. Eggers talking about? I don’t want to start parading Beethoven-loving Nazis here, but suffice it to say that many, many cultured people have found dehumanisation a far easier thing to accept than they should have. And yes, I suppose that in the absence of art some people are myopic, unlearned and cruel, as are many people who love art, and hell, a not insignificant number of very talented artists.
It’s annoying – Eggers’s plea should be an easy home run. Of course there’s a salutary symbolism to Whitehouse poetry readings and musical performances. Of course there’s something incurious and self-satisfied about Trump’s lack of culture. But again – this is a particular talent that Trump has, and it works in his favor op ed after op ed. His opponents are consistently so rattled by him, that they can’t bring themselves to employ the subtlety and nuance that Roth rightly wishes our president possessed. Donald Trump is a practical man, strikingly unreflective, and a little hyperactive. Dave Eggers is a rich, learned artist with lots of time to sit and craft a compelling jeremiad. I have a strong suspicion that Eggers and his retweeters think that Donald Trump is shaking our republic to its foundations, conjuring the very real spectre of fascism on American soil. If things are so serious, this kind of undergrad-term paper handwaving will not be sufficient.