Considering a blossoming source of stupidity in our current cultural moment
One of my all-time favourite pieces of political magazine writing was Wells Tower’s 2012 profile of Mitt Romney. As some well-to-do magazines have sometimes done, GQ paid for the fiction writer and occasional correspondent to join the other political journalists on the campaign bus. The idea was to get a novelist’s eye on Romney.
Of course, anybody who had any interest in reading a piece like this probably already had a basic idea of what Romney was like: Your cookie cutter millionaire politician, famously boring, known as much for being out-of-touch with the average American as he was for his attempts to disguise how out-of-touch he was.
But it was precisely this fact—that Romney was almost the perfect cardboard cutout of a politician—that gave Tower an opening to write what turned out to be a revealing character examination. There was something to unveil, and it was right there in all his campaign blubbering.
“Mitt Romney once said that he cannot imagine anything worse than polygamy,” Tower wrote of Romney’s a-little-too-enthusiastic attempts to dispel concerns about his Mormon background. “This is a failure of the imagination. I can in a split second imagine many things worse than polyamory. One, two, three, go! The Holocaust, guzzling a bucket of pus, a baboon fucking a human baby.”
Granted, Tower did not have had to dig very deep to figure out what was going on beneath the surface but watching him scratch at it was fun, edifying even. He humanized Romney, overcoming near-heroic efforts on the politician’s part to avoid even trace amounts of humanity. He was able to write something interesting not in spite of the fact that Romney is boring, but because of it. This is what writers are supposed to do: To find the human inside the robot, or the monster inside the slick and steady operator.
But things have changed now. The monsters are no longer hiding.
Here are the most important things that future generations will need to know about Donald Trump.
- He doesn’t care about anything or anyone who is not named Donald Trump (and he doesn’t even really seem to care about the other person who is named Donald Trump).
- The only people he can make minimal effort to pretend to care about are the people who help Donald Trump.
- There are many people affected by this man’s actions who understand these things and either: a) don’t care; or b) are rejoicing over it.
Now, if you cannot accept these premises, by all means, go back to whatever activities otherwise occupy your time (throwing eggs at the town newspaper boy?). It wouldn’t be fair to ask you to care about the role of writers in our current cultural moment because if you still believe Donald Trump is a good president with all that we now know about him, you must believe it’s the writers—or the journalists, or the people with a functioning sense of decency—who have not been telling the truth. If you don’t trust them, there’s no reason to think you’ll trust me.
If you’re still here, here’s my thesis: Mr. Trump, and the broader phenomenon of which he is a part, has made us dumber. This is not because Mr. Trump is dumb (which he is) or because the people who elected him are stupid (which, I would bet, most of them are) but because he defies the ordinary conventions of trying to conceal one’s stupidity, self-interest, etc. The parts of our brain that evaluate the most powerful people in the world are atrophying because we no longer have to do the basic work of trying to figure out who these people are.
Consider our comedians. Most have said this president is very bad for comedy. Bad, they say, because it’s nearly impossible to match the absurdity of what’s happening in real life in a way that would register as a joke in the human brain.
Take Stephen Colbert. Colbert went from playing a very smart and funny caricature of a right-wing blowhard in the Bush years to something significantly less funny when he took over from Letterman. Granted it’s a totally different show, but it’s also the only kind he could do today. Now he just plays himself, matter-of-factly pointing out all the terrible or stupid things Trump has done day after day, barely even making jokes about it. Because, you see, the things Trump is doing are the jokes. A solid—I don’t know—93% of Colbert’s bits stop probably two sentences shy of outright saying “look how dumb this is.”
The success of any joke depends saying something interesting and not immediately obvious as a way of saying something true. Trump resists any effort to do that. The funniest bit I’ve seen Colbert do since he started doing the Late Show was one about the flame-out candidates in the 2016 democratic primaries and the only reason it was funny was because he had to do more work to make fun of these people. There was still room for him to say something more creatively absurd than what was going on in real life.
Point is, you got to do the work. Being well-informed (or funny) requires some degree of effort. It means caring about things that are not as bombastic or salacious as any one of the dozens of scandals that have happened under Mr. Trump’s tenure. Usually it requires patience and a degree of nuanced thought to wrap one’s head around. Mr. Trump, and by extension, our efforts to accurately portray him, are to nuanced thinking what a rancid fart is to a wine tasting—unpleasant, uninteresting, and masking what you should be paying attention to.
There are fucked up things that happen in every government. In fact you could probably even make a compelling case that many other governments were far more fucked up, if for no other reason than the fact that their actions were always handled and spun more effectively—chewed by a bureaucratic machine to be easier to swallow. That’s what politicians do. It is not an accident that so many people are willing to shrug off tens or even hundreds of thousands of deaths in every war because those people are not “our people.”
But those politicians and their policies invited scrutiny. Politicians invite scrutiny by virtue of existing, because existing as a politician means embodying two conflicting ideas: one, that you must accurately represent a group of complex, flawed and often very different people (i.e. you are one of them), and two, that you can be—at least implicitly—better than them. Then you have to convince them you can be both at the same time. I don’t believe you can do this with any level of sincerity, which is why sincerity is not something we associate with politicians. It is why we have a sort of duty as citizens to pay such close attention to them. It is why “norms” exist—they allow us to pare away distractions that might interfere with the activity of paying attention to things that matter. They are also what make politics boring.
Donald Trump blew all that up. Despite his many (many) lies, he is nothing if not sincere. Although it’s a kind of emotional sincerity, in which he’s sincere about being self-interested, greedy, etc. He embraced this role as the country’s id, and in doing so gave the people who endorsed him permission to do the same. Journalists, writers, and people otherwise trying to figure out the magnitude of this noxious plume of idiocy, can’t really, because they’re in it. How are you supposed to evaluate the moral implications of the leader of the free world dismissing predominantly black countries as “shitholes” when literally within a week, you find out he paid out $130,000 during his campaign to cover up an old affair with a pornstar, an affair that he knew could influence the outcome of the election, and did so in ways that we now know were not totally above-board?
I’m not here to write another story pointing out this stuff. God knows you’ve heard enough about it. What I’m more interested in is how he’s managed to rob us of the basic ability to even think about whether any of this stuff matters; whether it has legitimate bearing on his position, or the decisions he makes. Because the answer to that question is already both completely obvious and completely different depending on who you are. He invites ridicule or defensiveness, but makes more traditional kinds of scrutiny very difficult.
I don’t want to come across totally sanctimonious here. I mean think he’s a piece of shit, but so are lots of people. What makes him different is that he’s the president, so his piece-of-shitness is a near-daily assault on our senses. The guy is a walking billboard of every shameless excess and vice on which American stereotypes are built. And we still entertain ideas that maybe he is more complicated than that. Do you think Donald Trump has an inner life? Do you think Donald Trump believes anything? Do you think there are complex human forces of love or anything like it at work in Donald Trump’s life? No. There is nothing to Donald Trump except all that you already see on TV.
And yet the standard political conventions (read: “norms”) haven’t adjusted to a person like this, and so basically half of the political machine in the U.S.—politicians, pundits and others who inform far too many people in the country—end up spending full days thinking of why all the things you see on TV or read about him are wrong, or don’t matter. Trump is the best at it, of course, but him defending himself from the (*grand waving gesture indicating everyone who has ever said anything bad about him*) fake news, well, that comes from a different place, somewhere more primal, like an animal trying to stay alive. David Roth, the Thompson to Trump’s Nixon, called him “the president of blank sucking nullity.”
“The most significant thing to know about Donald Trump’s politics or process, his beliefs or his calculations, is that he is an asshole; the only salient factor in any decision he makes is that he absolutely does not care about the interests of the parties involved except as they reflect upon him. Start with this, and you already know a lot. Start with this, and you already know that there are no real answers to any of these questions.”
Which is I guess comforting, but also sad. Once you manage to get a clear-eyed look at things, I think you’ll realize there’s nothing to see. It’s just emptiness all the way down.
 You remember when Romney said his favourite meat was “hot dog” at a campaign dinner? “And, everyone says, oh, don’t you prefer steak? It’s like, I know steaks are great, but I like hot dog best, and I like hamburger next best,” said the man with a net worth of $250 million.
 Pus-guzzling jokes and all.
 I know this sort of talk opens me up to the familiar criticisms around elitism. I understand there are many people who love Donald Trump and give him (largely undeserved) credit for many things that have a far more direct and powerful impact on their lives than the latest scandal du jour. Say I’m a coal miner who still has a job and who hears Trump talking about saving my job all the time, I wouldn’t want to listen to some ivory tower egghead in some liberal cosmopolitan enclave (or whatever cartoonish idea I have about journalists) try to tell me why this guy who (I think) saved my job is actually bad because of some bad thing he’s done that doesn’t affect me, and then listen to these same people tell me I’m wrong not to care about it. I get that. The problem with this is that it a) assumes that there aren’t writers/journalists significantly closer to home (in both geography and attitude) who aren’t trying to uncover truths that do affect me, the coal miner; and b) suggests that the word of a single proven pathological liar is worth more than that of large professional groups whose very existence depends on delivering the truth accurately. If you don’t agree, consider the consequences for individual journalists and their organizations when they get something wrong vs. the consequences (read: lack thereof) for Donald Trump.
 Patton Oswalt actually has a joke about this in which Mr. Trump is a demented homeless man who shits on the street, and before the comedian is able to tell a joke about his shitting on the street, Mr. Trump is already wearing his own fecal matter as a sombrero.