What the hell are we all going to talk about when he’s gone? That’s the barely disguised fear of wonks and analysts, journos and spinners, cultural critics and columnists, podcasters and Don Lemon. What will we all do when Trump loses by a landslide next month? Calm down, lower the volume? Take a Thai beach vacation? Write about something other than Donald J. Trump?
This has been a golden era for pundits and commentators. You’re never five seconds away from a Trump take. (Sometimes I write four before breakfast then a dozen after lunch — if each take was a downed martini I’d have severe alcohol poisoning by dinner.) All by himself, Trump is what Tom Cruise, in Top Gun, called ‘a target rich environment’.
The easiest game of all, and the laziest, has been comparing Trump to anything — anything you want — literally anything at all. I think I’ve seen just about all of them in my time. Donald Trump is like: Adolf Hitler, Ronald Reagan, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Goebbels, P.T. Barnum, Silvio Berlusconi, Lord Voldemort, Boris Johnson, Norman Mailer, Jeremy Corbyn, Darth Vader and George Wallace. Victor Davis Hanson managed to compare Trump, over the course of one slim volume, to Dirty Harry, Ajax, Hercules, Alcibiades, Alexander the Great, Emperor Augustus, Martin Luther and George Patton. What a genre! What a way to make a living! There are thousands more of these. Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica ‘whistleblower’ mused that Trump was like a pair of Crocs. A personal favorite: one immensely learned critic, scribbling away in an obscure journal, obscurely compared Trump to the obscure character Moosbruger, from Robert Musil’s obscure 1930s novel The Man Without Qualities.
(Moosbruger is an unrepentant sex murderer.)
Now, the hour grows late. The President is about to be replaced by a geezer who was offered his first drink in a speakeasy. Allow one final comparison. Trump, like most US presidents, and like the Pope, is a king.
During the 1830s, amid an unprecedented growth in executive power, critics accused Andrew Jackson of acting like a king. Cartoons showed him clad in ermine, labeled King Andrew the First. Abraham Lincoln was the next president to face the accusation as the Civil War raged. Later, Henry James suggested that the initials ‘TR’ did not stand for Theodore Roosevelt, but Theodore Rex. FDR’s grip on the presidency had more than a whiff of kingship about it. Sen. Rand Paul drew upon this rich tradition when he accused Barack Obama of acting ‘like he’s king’ in March 2016.
Usually, when a president is being compared to a king, their critics are talking about George III. Farmer George was America’s original boogeyman, a bad faith tax raiser, and the subconscious model for a thousand plummy-voiced Hollywood villains in the last century. Trump does not have much in common with George, unless Donald secretly loves agriculture, book collecting and the music of Handel.
Trump is more medieval than enlightenment. Like many medieval monarchs Trump is vain and willful. He takes pleasure in pleasure itself. He enjoys battle and glory; he understands extravagant display and is unbothered by practical politics. He has a court — who was the Mooch if not a particularly second-rate jester? He’s capable of almost unbelievable petulance and juvenility. Medieval kings traveled widely. Mobility was the key to leadership; they had to see and be seen. England’s Edward I made 2,891 journeys in his 35-year reign, a move every five days on average. Trump’s rallies aren’t so much fascism reborn as they are a simulacrum of this 13th-century power-politics. In the course of the 2016 campaign, Trump held 323 rallies, attended by over a million people. Since winning the presidency he’s held dozens more. For Trump, the rallies are the ‘real’ part of politics, not briefings in the White House. Perhaps this was true of some kings. They are bored of the prattling of priests who ran their palaces, only feeling truly monarchical when on the road, preparing to be grandly entertained by some desperate-to-impress baron.
America is full of medieval resonances. BLM has all the trappings of a millenarian cult. Flagellants — genuinely! — appeared at anti-racist protests over the summer. The middle-classes, according to Joel Kotkin, are the most disadvantaged estate in a new feudal system. The harvest of the economy is reaped by a tiny oligarchical minority. Religious feeling, if not institutional religion, endures and flourishes in all sorts of ways — consider the revival of astrology in recent years. Under Trump, American culture has seen the grown ever more irrational, magical and visual; all were hallmarks of the medieval era. Christian guilt is climate guilt. Sumptuary laws are political correctness. Succession, HBO’s dynastic comedy, dramatizes this neo-medievalism better than anything else. ‘History never repeats itself,’ Voltaire once wrote, ‘man always does.’
Since his COVID diagnosis, Trump has become more, not less kingly. ‘I feel so powerful,’ he said in Florida last night. ‘I’ll kiss everyone in the audience. I’ll kiss the guys and the beautiful women.’ In France and England kings believed their touch could cure their subjects of various ailments. Trump, no doubt helped by whatever his doctors are injecting him with, clearly feels the same way. Kings took their authority from God. Whether the American public wants to give King Trump any more authority, let alone a kiss, seems like a less and less open question.