The god himself stood in the middle of the unmown lawn: Life-sized, swaying faintly, inflatable – no, more than that, undeflatable. He was attached by a hose to a rumbling pump. About his feet were placards uncountable, hammered into the grass. The wire-fence was covered with more slogans, and the house itself, a mangy clapboard bungalow, was swathed with bunting and posters and images, or icons, covering even the windows, up to the roofline, which was topped with a solid plastic bald eagle and four (I don’t know why four) American flags, each sewn over with the deity’s name, so that, as we drove by, we not only saw the orange toad-like face looking at us dozens of times, but saw the same word TRUMP, TRUMP, fluttering over us.
This wasn’t a house that had been given over to a political cause. Here was a house that had literally been turned into a religious shrine. Folk came to stand reverently on the footpath and look in. Passion had created it. Religious devotion.
If we want to understand why the most powerful man in the world can be a creature like Donald Trump – a fact that leaves most of us baffled, nauseous, swaying with vertigo – we have to think about him religiously.
Not that the reality’s any more comforting once we’ve understood it.
I spotted this atrocity in a Californian mountain village last summer, when we were driving down though the American Far West. This wasn’t the Far West you imagine: The beaches, shining ocean, palm trees, glass towers. We turned back from the ocean. We transversed Amérique profonde, the continental interior. Here were ranges of nameless mountains, brown deserts bare as concrete reaching to a horizon, marked by jagged black mountains of lava, shimmering in the heat. There were lakes, not of water but of dissolved poison-blue soda, interminable plateaus and forests. Much of it was intensely beautiful, but it was intensely alien.
America is about the size of Europe, but it’s big the way Europe can’t be. Every European city – every castle, cathedral and country – is within striking distance of another. What amazes anyone who drives across America is how void it is. It’s empty with the emptiness of northern Asia. In that mountain village you’re not near anything. You’re four hours’ drive (on extremely good motorways) from the sea. You’re as landlocked as Prague or Minsk. And there is no Prague or even Minsk in the neighborhood. There’s nothingness: Dust in the West, black-soil in the Midwest, bog in the South.
People have the impression that the coastal states voted Democrat, the “heartland” states Republican. But in fact it was simply the coasts themselves, the densely-inhabited urban strips on the Atlantic and Pacific, that clove to Clinton. Go a little inland, even in a state like New York or California, and you’re in Trump territory. It’s easy to drive across the United States without leaving counties that voted for him. You can easily find yourselves hundreds of miles from any state that doesn’t teach creationism in its school. Less than a fifth of the locals own a passport. There are more guns than people.
This is a different human world, matching its outlandish landscape. The America a European Review reader is likely to know is as remote from this other America as Tibet or the Congo; remote, feared and, most of all, resented.
Since the election, it’s become a cliché to empathize with the erring American heartland. We’re told we must not despise them for electing Trump, that they have authentic concerns that they have been left behind by globalization, they have been forgotten.
Which is nonsense. Even the “rust-belt” proletariat has enjoyed fairly steady economic improvement since the 1980s. It is flatly untrue that they’ve lost their jobs to China (there’s virtually full employment in America). It’s flatly untrue that they’re beleaguered by radical Islam. Such foolish slogans are just rationalizations: A way of hiding from the true root of resentment, which is geographical or, if you like, existential.
The harsh truth is that these places are not forgotten. They were never thought of in the first place. What coastal Americans call “the fly-over states” (a term of aggressive contempt) have no particular role in the economy, nor in American civilization. They could easily not exist. The US does not need its hinterland. It is inevitable that the hinterland should loathe this state of affairs.
What’s the answer? There is no earthly answer. South Dakota never had a role in history. But there’s a superstitious solution.
Trump is the hinterland’s messiah.
A sham-messiah does not have to do. He simply is. Inasmuch as Trump has a program, it’s childish (exclude Muslims from America “until we work out what’s going on”), impossible (“We will double our growth”) or meaningless (“I will give you everything”).
A sham-messiah does not have to propose. Beyond a settled hatred of free trade, Trump seems to have no particular political views.
A sham-messiah does not have to be good. In summer, as we drove through the Far West, the national press still regarded Trump as a nasty joke. Nearly every day there was a new Trumpian scandal sufficient to end any politician’s career. But he’s not a politician. These accumulated outrages made him stronger. He could flaunt his mindlessness (“I like uneducated people”), his negligence (refusing intelligence briefings because “I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing for the next eight years”). He’s never made any secret of his cowardice, childishness, vulgarity, sexual depravity. Strangest of all, he evidently enjoys airing what, at some level, he must recognize as insanity.
His supporters relish it all. Every excess makes their revenge on the authorities more lurid. If he were (as is hard to imagine) viler still, they’d like him even more.
“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” railed Trump, in his obscenely bitter Inaugural Address. “This American carnage stops right now.” It didn’t mean anything (what “carnage”?), it expressed feelings. The religion of resentment seeks relief through disruption. Trump disrupts. He has delivered his people.
A sham-savior need only believe in himself. Trump does. If you visit Mar-A-Lago – thank God, you won’t – you’ll see the official portrait. It shows the Donald robed in white, glowing superhumanly orange (as Krishna is superhumanly blue), un-deflatable, evidently immortal; about him the sky breaks open in uncreated radiance.
This blasphemous daub is called The Visionary. The joke is that the visionary can have no “vision.” There’s nothing in the picture but himself.
Success doesn’t matter. Facts clearly don’t matter. Decency’s obsolete. Trumpism’s a radiant solipsistic void, a variety of nihilism. His hardcore supporters will remain with him through all the coming horrors. He’s just what they prayed for.