Swimming in the undertow

My first inkling that Trump was where something had gone badly wrong in the American psyche came in the fall of 2015, when Peter and I went to a bar in Williamsburg to hear a friend read a short story. The emcee took a turn at the microphone himself, as his reward for having organized the literary evening, but instead of reading a story or poem, he read aloud from one of Trump’s ghost-written books. The choice of text was meant to be a joke, I think. A few sentences would have conveyed the gist: the book was horrible, and obvious in its horribleness, and representative in its horribleness of the person whose name was on the cover. The emcee, however, read for what felt like an hour.

It was excruciating. If the point was that we Brooklyn literary hipsters were superior to someone like Trump, and knew better than to be taken in by him, why was the emcee reading so many of his words? And why were we listening? I couldn’t figure out what was going on or what the emcee was getting out of it. He seemed to be in the grip of something, and we were in his grip. It was all happening under the sign of irony, but irony wasn’t the right word exactly. In retrospect I should have taken warning; at the time, of course, I just wanted it to be over.

I’ve thought back to the night many times in the past four years. It came to mind most recently when I was reading The Oppermanns, a remarkably lucid novel by Lion Feuchtwanger set in, and written in, 1933. The book, recently reprinted by the British feminist press Persephone Books, describes the lives of four Jewish siblings in Berlin, owners and managers of a chain of furniture stores, as they try to adjust to the rise of Hitler, referred to in the text only as “the Leader” or as “the author of the book called Mein Kampf.”

About a third of the way in, one of the siblings, Gustav Oppermann, who’s a bachelor and a bit of a playboy, in a bibliophile kind of way, is visited by a friend, Alfred François, the rector of an elite high school where two of Gustav’s nephews are students. One nephew has recently had a run-in with a new teacher, who happens to be a Nazi, and the rector wants Gustav to persuade his nephew to apologize. It has become dangerous to make Nazi enemies, and François intuits that he won’t be able to continue protecting Gustav’s nephew indefinitely. Once Gustav hears the story, however, and realizes that his nephew was in the right, he refuses to intervene, as a matter of principle, and the rector amiably gives up. After all, he doesn’t really want Gustav’s nephew to knuckle under. Having tried their best, to no avail, he and Gustav retire with relief to Gustav’s library, to chat about books. They are the most erudite characters in the novel, and Feuchtwanger pokes gentle fun at their erudition: the rector is said to be writing a book about the influence of the ancient Greek hexameter on an 18th-century German poet, and Gustav, to be writing a biography of a philo-Semite playwright from the same period. As a slightly perverse hobby, Gustav collects editions of the infamous anti-Semitic tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, then back in the zeitgeist, thanks to the rise of Nazism. After showing off his newest copy of the Protocols, Gustav picks up Mein Kampf and starts to “read some particularly juicy passages to his friend.”

Rector François covered his ears. He did not want to listen to the incorrect, distorted German of the book. Gustav spoke to him soothingly. On account of his repugnance for the style, he had evidently missed the comic quality of the content. He refused to be dissuaded from quoting a few passages.

Gustav proceeds to read aloud a few samples of Hitler’s name-calling, allegations, and conspiracy theories. “Rector François, disgusted as he was, had to laugh over this accumulation of nonsense,” Oppermann writes.

I felt the edge of this passage’s irony rather keenly.

I’ve been trying to stay logged out of Twitter, so I don’t know whether this week we’re making fun of people who see analogies between Trumpism and Nazism, or making fun of people who resist such analogies. In either case, I admit that as I read The Oppermanns, the analogies seemed to draw themselves. A character insists to himself that he still loves his country, despite what it has become. A character discovers, to his chagrin, that even people dear to him would rather minimize the new outrages to decency than see them for what they are (“It was disgusting to read the papers and disgusting to hear the row the Nationalists made. But who took that seriously?”), and that even people who are hurt by the new regime quickly accept their injury as part of a new status quo (“It was an old story that the Nationalists were dirty dogs. There was no need for anyone to come and tell them that”). What little I know of Q-Anon sounds very silly, but you would probably laugh over the claims in the Protocols of Zion, too, if, like François, Gustav, and (in 1933) Feuchtwanger, you didn’t know what they led to.

After a while, exhausted by my pessimism, I started to check my analogical bent by telling myself that it makes a difference that Trump does not have a paramilitary force at his command, independent of government control, as Hitler did, and that the misguided anarchists of our day have broken shop windows and mau-maued outdoor diners but have not yet given white supremacists the pretext that they are looking for—that is, our anarchists have not yet burned down the American equivalent of the Reichstag. And then I learned this week that a teenage white supremacist Trump supporter, responding to a call for law and order on Facebook, gunned down three protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killing two of them, and that the shootings were later characterized by several pro-Trump TV pundits as a natural response to the protests in Kenosha, which the pundits saw as civic breakdown. So now the threat of attacks from vigilantes is indeed part of our political reality, and so is disingenuous justification of such attacks, and I have to fall back on consoling myself with the thought that the white supremacist in this case was a volunteer, not part of an organized militia. At least so far as we currently know. (A more sturdy consolation is that the American communities of color dog-whistled about and gaslit by Trump and the Trumpists are much more numerous, and therefore much less vulnerable, than Germany’s Jewish citizens were in 1933, when they comprised less than one percent of that country’s population.)

There’s a minor character in The Oppermanns named Friedrich Wilhelm Gutwetter who might be a portrait of Martin Heidegger. (Of course it’s possible that Feuchtwanger didn’t mean the reference to be that specific; there were no doubt many quisling intellectuals at the time.) At the opening of the novel, Gutwetter is a harmless-seeming, starry-eyed writer who happens to be fashionably pessimistic about the prospects of Western civilization. Since he’s oblivious to mere worldly concerns, it’s convenient that he is supported financially by Gustav Oppermann, who believes in his genius. When Gustav goes into exile, Gutwetter regrets his patron’s decision to leave with a curiously intense indignation, telling a mutual friend,

This country is about to give birth to a great new type of humanity. We have the enormous luck to be present at the birth of this gigantic embryo and to hear the first babblings of the noble monster. And our friend Gustav goes and runs away because one of the outcries of this nation in travail is offensive to his ears?

Gutwetter’s obliviousness to worldly matters, the reader senses, is starting to acquire an edge of intentionality. Gutwetter brings himself to accept Gustav’s exile to the extent of asking if he may borrow books from the library that Gustav has had to leave behind. Of course Gustav says yes. Before long Gutwetter succeeds in working his ideas about the new era’s new man into print, and soon he is enjoying a popularity that he believes to be world-historical:

He was not surprised that history had now, at last, made his, the poet’s, vision come true. The Nationalists, however, were surprised to find such a voice as his raised on their behalf. Almost all scholars, almost all artists of any standing, had turned their backs on the Nationalists. What a bit of luck it was that a great writer should now suddenly come forward to espouse their cause!

Feuchtwanger also makes an intriguing attempt to fathom the economics of fascism. He imagines that the Oppermanns have a less-successful rival in furniture-making, Heinrich Wels Junior, “a hard-working, reliable, slow-thinking man” whose error, in business strategy, is that he persists in having his employees craft tables and chairs by hand. By standardizing the designs of their furniture and by producing them more cheaply in factories, the Oppermanns have long been able to undercut his prices. “Had the recognition of solid merit died out in Germany?” Wels asks, aggrievedly. Well, no, Feuchtwanger explains; it’s just that most consumers care more about price. When Nazism comes along, Wels embraces it because “it freely expressed what Heinrich Wels had long secretly felt, namely that the Jewish firms with their cut-price methods were responsible for Germany’s decline.” After the Nazis put a higher tax on goods from the Jewish firm’s larger stores, Wels is able to come a little closer to competing with the Oppermanns on price—close enough that the new social stigma associated with buying from Jews is sometimes able to make up the difference.

A disconcerting aspect of The Oppermanns is that its moral universe seems continuous with ours—it’s a world in which people envy their neighbors’ apartments, and have mixed feelings about some of the poems in the national literary canon, and in which teenagers jockey for a chance to drive the family car—and incommensurate with that described in such Holocaust literature as Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. And yet one world turned into the other. Feuchtwanger is aware that the Nazis were setting up concentration camps, and even arranges for one of his characters to be imprisoned in one, but he doesn’t understand the full human meaning of such an institution; no one at the time could have. The book takes on an extratextual pathos; the reader realizes, that in 1933 Feuchtwanger couldn’t imagine that expropriations, beatings, humiliations, exile, and assassinations weren’t as bad as it could get.

An afterthought: While reading Jamelle Bouie’s roundup of the rightwing pundits who are acclaiming Kyle Rittenhouse for killing protesters in Kenosha, a link to which I have added above, I realized that the Rittenhouse story has a more specific parallel in The Oppermanns: When a teenager in Alfred François’s school, stirred up the new Nazi teacher’s fiery rhetoric, stabs to death a journalist who has made fun of Hitler’s writing style, Nazi pundits extenuate and even praise the murder in terms very much like those that Tucker Carlson, Ann Coulter, and others have used to justify Rittenhouse’s killings: “It soon turned out that [Rittersteg] was no scoundrel but a hero. The Nationalist newspapers published his photograph. They pointed out that, although the young man’s deed could not be unconditionally approved of, it was nevertheless easy to understand that a German youth would be aroused to do violence on account of the dead man’s dastardly assertions.”

Letter from my sofa

Over breakfast, Peter looked up from the paper to tell me that the New York Times has a word for what I do all day: “doomsurfing.” The trouble is that it’s hard to look away from a threat. Over the last few years, I have had bouts of being able to stay off social media that have lasted sometimes for months at a time, but in danger my instinct is to look at the danger, and after being stuck in the apartment for a week and a half, I can’t resist even a polluted conduit to friends and acquaintances. To judge by anguished emails from friends, I’m not the only person with this affliction. I suspect that writers are by inclination unusually susceptible to it.

“I need you to be on the team,” Peter said to me, an hour or two ago, when I interrupted his workday to tell him that Trump was bound to fire Fauci in a few days, if an interview that Fauci gave to Science magazine is any indication. Peter was repeating a sentence that I, insufferably, had said to him a few days earlier, when it had been his turn to spiral into anxiety. Another thing I’ve been hearing, in emails and in conversations with fellow dog walkers, is that longterm couples are having fights. Monogamy isn’t a strong enough word for the new cohabitation. On Saturday, Peter and I had a tiff because I wanted to take a long bike ride, and he felt he ought to go on it with me even though he’s not a fan of outer-borough biking. Halfway down Coney Island Avenue, we arrived the hard way at the realization that if we’re with each other 24/7, there’s no need for us to treat weekends as a special province of togetherness; it’s okay to do our own things.

Last week, when the mayor finally got around to advising people to stay in, I had the idea of writing a post on this blog that was going to say, Hey, guys, as a writer, I’ve been living the social distancing life for years, persisting for days and days without talking to anyone but husband and dog, and I think I should warn you. I didn’t, though, because the warning was just going to be depressing, namely, that after a few days of not seeing anyone but your significant other, you start to wonder what the point of your existence is, and to take irregularly timed naps, and to swing out into distant extravagances of mood. When you share physical space with groups of other people, you use them to keep your balance, and they use you to keep theirs, without anyone even necessarily being conscious of the use. A significant other goes a long way toward helping keep one’s balance but not far enough. One seems to need contact with a number of people sufficiently large to allow one to touch a kind of impersonality in person form. Joining a Cross Fit gym last fall helped give me this kind of regular challenging contact with other people, in a group that was structured but not controlled, but the city closed all gyms last Monday. I was probably the only person in New York City who sympathized with Mayor De Blasio’s profligate decision to go for one last workout. Online classes have been enjoyable but not quite the same. The separate physical space of the class provided a social affordance for slightly antisocial impulses, like showing off and competitiveness, a permission not quite extended when one is watching and repeating the movements from inside one’s domestic space. Over the years, I learned to recognize the early warning signs of too much isolation: irritability, weepiness, paranoid thinking. This tweet is really about me and it pisses me off and omg I think I’m going to cry! Now that I’ve shared what I know about the hazards of social distance, you see why I didn’t want to tell you: I don’t have a remedy. My remedy was always: you’re getting both squirrelly and dour, Caleb, which means it’s time to make plans to meet other people face-to-face. This weekend everybody suddenly seemed to be using the telephone again; maybe the phone will be a resource, and I for one am willing to give teleconferencing a try. But it’s possible that we’re all just going to have to suffer for a while, in separate cells. That’s going to suck.

We are social animals. Even in our isolations, everyone seems to be taking the same steps further into isolation at roughly the same time. There was the day when the directive to stay home made it hard to find alternate side parking because everyone was home and was on the spot to zip into the available parking spots. And then there was the day when it was easy, because everyone with a country house had absconded to it. “Love ya!” a neighbor shouted to me, yesterday morning, as she took the stairs instead of sharing the elevator with me, because yesterday was the day that everyone decided not to share the elevator anymore. It was also the day that strangers became wary of petting our dog. Just as a couple of days before was the day when it became not optional but required to wipe down the grocery cart handle.

I should end this post by making it clear that I understand sheltering in place to be as necessary as it is difficult. A friend who’s a young doctor, running a COVID-19 unit at a hospital in the city, wrote to me in an email yesterday: “Please do be very careful—I know that anecdote is not data and that I’m seeing precisely the worst cases, but I’ve just seen far too many intubations of otherwise healthy people over the past couple weeks, including some younger than me.” Another friend relays that a doctor-friend of his called last night to say that work in a hospital now feels like service in wartime. Confinement to the sofa may be durance vile, but it is the least that those of us not on the front lines can do.

Letter from the spices aisle

There was plenty of food to buy and there were few people shopping for it at Wegmans yesterday morning, which was probably about right for ten A.M. on a normal Friday. At the entrance, a policeman in uniform was standing in front of the citrus display, but he mostly seemed to be checking his phone. Am I overreacting? I wondered. I was at a grocery store instead of at my desk because I had thought that this wasn’t going to be a normal morning. Over breakfast, I had seen a tweet in my feed of empty shelves in Hokkaido, Japan, where a state of emergency had recently been declared on account of the coronavirus pandemic. Stores there had sold out of all paper products. I knew what happens to milk and bread at New York City grocery stores when there’s a rumor of a snowstorm, and had figured I had better sacrifice my hours for writing, which are never all that productive anyway.

I had a long shopping list. It didn’t make sense not to do the shopping for the week as well as for the apocalypse. I had instructed myself only to buy things that we regularly do eat and use. Oatmeal, farro—neither of which I could find, and I was too shy to ask, though Peter tells me that Wegmans does have both, the oatmeal we like apparently located in the “British” section of an ethnic foods aisle—canned beans, lentils. An exception: tunafish. In the early years of our relationship, Peter and I ate far too many servings of a dish we ended up calling “tunabeans” and now we almost never eat tuna from a can. But cans of tuna seemed very much like the sort of thing one eats at the end of the world. We joke a lot about how we’ll probably have to eat catfood in our old age, for example. I bought two.

Would two be enough? I wasn’t sure what I was planning for, exactly. Sheltering in place during some kind of general lockdown? Sweating out at home our own cases of coronavirus? (Would that even be legal?) I added a couple of cans of chicken noodle soup, which we allow our otherwise vegeta- and pescatarian selves to eat when we have respiratory ailments. But two cans of soup wouldn’t be enough if either of us actually did get sick. On the other hand, we weren’t sick yet. Maybe because it was hard to believe I was really buying groceries for a plague, I only seemed able to do it halfheartedly.

I bought a couple of boxes of tissues, even though I’m a handkerchief person, and as I put them in my cart, in my head I wrote a joke, which I later shared on Twitter, about how I was going to use them in a few weeks as currency, the way packs of cigarettes used to be traded in the gulag archipelago. Shopping in extremis seems to put me in mind of the Warsaw Pact. When I lived in Prague, decades ago, while Czechoslovakia was in a ditch between communism and capitalism, there were rolling, unpredictable shortages because farmers and other producers of goods were hoarding in anticipation of being able to get better prices once the new world order arrived. For a long time there were no potatoes; at one point, there was a run (as it were) on toilet paper, and on paper generally. Having been triggered by the Hokkaido tweet, I bought four rolls, and two of paper towels, in addition to the tissues. For years after Prague, I remained neurotic about keeping a stocked pantry, and about having candles and matches in a drawer somewhere in case the power went out. Half a dozen years ago I even made Verizon give us a backup battery when they insisted on replacing the good old-fashioned copper cable to our landline with a fiber optic one, which doesn’t transmit electricity. The phone company has a power system independent of Con Edison’s, and Verizon’s “update” was going to disconnect us from it. Now this backup battery is so old that it beeps an announcement of its death every few months, but as with most modern applicances, if you unplug it and then plug it back in, it resets and you get a little more life out of it. Just before leaving for the grocery store, in fact, it had been beeping and I had unplugged it anew.

When I started this essay, I thought I knew where it was going, but now I’m not sure.

When I got home, I saw out the window that our neighbors across the way have put up a Gadsden flag. That’s the yellow one with the snake asking not to be trodden. When I was a child, it was just a historical curiosity—I think it was around a fair amount during the bicentennial—but now it seems so dire. Last fall, when I visited my father, who lives in rural Texas, I was struck by how many houses in the state are flying “Trump 2020” flags. I don’t think I had ever seen flags for a political campaign before. Yard signs and bumper stickers, but not flags. And the presidential election was then still a year away! It suggested a shift in the kind of allegiance people were expressing. My parents both often tell me that I don’t understand what support for Trump is like in their part of the country now, and they’re probably right.

I put the groceries away, ate lunch, tried to do a little work. Later in the afternoon, on my bike on the way to Cross Fit, I decided I should write an essay about how shopping for a plague is reminding me of having lived once before in a society that was in crisis, but then I had been young and the disorder had seemed like an adventure and a challenge—like a story that I was visiting rather than one that I was described by. And Wegmans had been so calm! Maybe after all I was the one carrying around the anxiety about being able to provide in an emergency, perhaps on account of still being a writer, which doesn’t quite add up to a living. We still needed oatmeal and farro. There was a Whole Foods on the way back from Cross Fit, and after class, I stopped there on my bike ride home.

At Whole Foods, though I knew where to find the oatmeal we liked, there wasn’t any. “It’s getting pretty cleared out,” said an employee, when I asked if they really didn’t have that brand in stock. They still had another brand that we don’t like quite as much, so I took two bags of it. Then took another three, because we have oatmeal every morning. Would five be enough? There were still a few bags of farro; I took them. The only cans of beans still left were lesser-known varieties, but I already had enough beans. Most of the pasta shelves were empty. Maybe people who shop at Whole Foods are more avid news consumers than people who shop at Wegmans? Or maybe the mood of the city had changed over the course of the day? In which case perhaps it hadn’t actually been crazy of me to have gone to the store in the morning. I got in line with my few items, but while waiting, I started to feel anxious. Did I really have everything we needed? Had I gotten enough tunafish?

I went back. “We need QR codes for all of these,” one employee was saying to another, gesturing at empty shelves where cans of beans had been. “They just declared a state of emergency in California,” another employee volunteered. “The whole state?” I asked, shocked. “I don’t know because I haven’t had time to look into it,” he replied. (In fact, so far only a few counties in Califonia have declared emergencies.) I got more tunafish—four cans, this time. There were still two small boxes (not cans, this was Whole Foods) of chicken soup on the shelf, and they seemed to be the last ones. I took them, too. Before I left the aisle I remembered that we needed whole coriander, not for the apocalypse but just for our regular lives. Whole Foods doesn’t have whole coriander, only ground coriander, and I knew this, but “Walk Away, Renee” had started to play on the store loudspeakers, and Peter had told me last week that one of the members of the Left Banke had died recently, so I stood in front of the spices for a while as if to verify that they didn’t have whole coriander and it occurred to me while I was standing there trying to hold it together that this wasn’t going to be the first plague I had lived through, actually, even though this one looked like it was going to move a lot faster, and I suddenly had the feeling that I had had one night during Hurricane Sandy when I was scrolling through Twitter and came across a video of a Con Ed transformer exploding down by the East River—a feeling that everything was coming apart and that maybe it was going to be too much for me. I was fine, though, I knew. Peter and I were in good health (and even if we came down with coronavirus, we’d almost certainly be fine), and I was shopping for things like farro and steel-cut oatmeal. I was living in the richest country in the world. It’s just a sad song, I told myself.

On the ride home it occurred to me that if Trump loses in the fall, then by this time next year he won’t be President. In fact he won’t have been President for five weeks. This might not happen, of course, but it was pleasant to think about.

An unfortunate likeness

A few months ago, an unfortunate likeness occurred to me: What if Donald Trump is like Saddam Hussein? The arrest of Manafort this morning has reminded me of this terrible possibility.

Let me try to explain.

As you probably recall, America invaded Iraq and overthrew its dictator, Saddam Hussein, because America’s leaders at the time believed that Saddam was harboring weapons of mass destruction. And as you probably also recall, vanishingly few such weapons were found after the invasion, to the great embarrassment of America’s leaders. How did they get it so badly wrong? How was it that the intelligence agencies they depended on also got it wrong? The case has been made that America’s leaders were acting in bad faith—that they knew the evidence was flimsy and didn’t care because they intended to fool the American public. Maybe. But whether in bad faith or in earnest, the members of the Bush administration convinced not only themselves but also most of Congress and many of America’s pundits and journalists. Protests against the Iraq invasion were massive, but the leaders also succeeded in convincing enough of the public—or at least raised in enough citizens’ minds sufficient doubts—that the invasion went forward. How could the case have been so convincing when the evidence was so weak—when, in fact, the weapons weren’t there?

Well, one of the lines of argument at the time was this: Look at the way Saddam is blustering and obstructing. He’s accused of having amassed weapons of mass destruction, and we and a number of allies are threatening to invade his country and overthrow him. Would he really be willing to risk such a disaster if he didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction? In his position, any rational person who was actually innocent would surely let international inspectors into his country and let it be proven that he was innocent. If he’s innocent, maybe it rankles him a little that he’s being falsely accused. But what politician in his right mind would value his righteous rage more highly than a secure and continuing hold on power?

You probably see where I’m going with this.

Saddam was not in his right mind. He was a malignant narcissist. He had virtually unlimited power within his own country, and he had grown accustomed to indulging his personal grandiosity without limit. He didn’t much care about staying in contact with reality for its own sake. What he was passionate about was his sense of honor and pride, which is a polite way of saying that more real to him than reality was the rage that he felt whenever his self-esteem was challenged.

What if Trump is a similar case? Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was arrested this morning on charges of money-laundering, tax fraud, and conspiracy to disguise his work for a foreign power, namely, pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. Manafort’s connections to Ukraine and Russia looked shady even last summer, and there’s much evidence that through hacking and disinformation, Russia was trying to influence and did influence America’s 2016 presidential election. But what if Trump himself in fact didn’t have anything to do with Russia’s meddling? What if he fired Comey, and made and continues to make statements that threaten to trigger a Constitutional crisis, only out of narcissistic rage? I hasten to say that I don’t know that Trump is innocent of collusion with Russia, and that I do think that the possibility of such collusion should be thoroughly investigated, by investigators as independent as possible from his meddling. But I also think that people dismayed by Trump should be prepared, politically and psychologically, for the possibility that Trump didn’t collude with Russia and simply can’t get his mind around the fact that although he’s now the highest authority in the land he can still be subjected to scrutiny and doubt—even on matters where he happens not to be guilty. The insult of it! To be suspected of a crime one didn’t even commit! Democracies regularly inflict such insults on their leaders, but I don’t think Trump understands that he still lives (for now) in a democracy.

Please don’t let the arrest of Manafort raise your hopes too high, is I think what I’m trying to say here. I’ve thought since last summer that Manafort will end up in prison, and that he might not be the only one in Trump’s circle to end up there. In another era, to have hired someone so corrupt would discredit a politician, but politics has changed and we live in a darker world now. The investigation must go forward, and it’s wrong of Trump to make any attempt to obstruct it, but it’s possible that tugging on this string will not unravel the whole Trumpian sweater.

UPDATE, 11:25am: Maybe my take here has been superseded by the guilty plea of Trump foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos, which was released while I was writing it. At first, in embarrassment at my poor timing, I deleted this post, but in the interests of humility and full disclosure, here it is again. As of this writing I’m more hopeful than I was a few hours ago that Trump might eventually be shown to be guilty of collusion with Russia.