From Andrew O’Hehir writing at Salon:
At some point during the Iran hostage crisis of 1980 – an event that, lest we forget, decisively scuttled the presidency of Jimmy Carter and got Ronald Reagan elected – I remember seeing a hand-painted banner outside a working-class tavern in South Baltimore. Its centerpiece was a caricature of the Ayatollah Khomeini, done in political-cartoon style with an oversized head and undersized body. Iran’s Supreme Leader was bent over with his robe hitched up to his waist, wincing in pain or religious ecstasy as a large bomb with streamlined 1958 Cadillac fins, bearing the atomic symbol and the American flag, was thrust between his buttocks. Beneath this was written, “How long, Mr. President? How long?”
This outsider-art masterwork made a huge impression on me, although I wasn’t sure why at the time and understand it only a little better today. I couldn’t tell you where I was in my adolescent political evolution at that moment: Did I think I was a Marxist or a libertarian or a Democrat? In any event, I couldn’t quite get my head around the multiple layers of hatred and cruelty and infantile viciousness in that image, the way it conjured up genocide and xenophobia and anti-Islamic bigotry and homosexual rape and a tribal revenge fantasy in a few simple brushstrokes.
It’s all very well to talk about racism and nativism and the distinctive small-mindedness and paranoia of white America, and those things unmistakably nourished the soil from which the Trumpian flower bloomed. But he is tapping into something that runs much deeper than any of that. There’s a reason the Trump spectacle is mesmerizing the media and dominating public discourse, and why those who find him despicable and disturbing are just as addicted as those who are delighted that someone is speaking for them at last. Trump is like the answered prayer of those South Baltimore boozehounds, made incarnate and blown up to superhuman scale. How long?, those guys plaintively demanded, and even if they’ve all drunk themselves into the next world by now, their sons and grandsons have worse jobs and worse attitudes and at last the wait is over.
Trump expresses the irrational and forbidden desires that more calculating politicians deliberately suppress, and as with my teenage response to that Khomeini cartoon, that feels exciting and dangerous. He channels primitive and incoherent tribal emotions that stretch way back into our species’ history, before America, before modern conceptions of race and nationality, before any of that stuff. He gazes upon us with his dreadful, melted countenance, looking like a Play-Doh replica of JFK blown up in the microwave by a malicious child, assuring us in half-bullying, half-benevolent tones that, sure, America is a great country founded on important values and stuff.
But beneath that pablum lies a knowing wink, and beneath that wink lies the understanding that the most important American value is the one-in-a-million shot (putting it very generously) that we might wind up half as rich and half as vulgar as Donald Trump. Even if we never get to ride in that helicopter — since we are not quite dumb enough to believe that will really happen — we take solace in another layer of hidden, shamanic meaning beneath the Trumpian wink and the Trumpian bamboozle. We thrill at our secret shared understanding that the veneer of civilization, with its “political correctness” and its insistence on facts and reason and the logic of causes and consequences, is basically a scam and that the true nature of human existence is about jamming a nuke up somebody’s ass every so often. And we’ve gotten soft and out of practice!
Trump represents something else. Call it the call of the wild, the allure of that long era of cruelty and brutality that preceded recorded history and human civilization, when the weak were ruled by the strong and little or no justification was required to inflict terror and violence on our perceived enemies. Anthropologists may dispute the proposition that this was universally true everywhere in the world, but however you slice it an awful lot of trauma and bloodshed was implicated in the nasty, brutish and short lives of our distant ancestors. More to the point, we all have moments when we wonder how much that has really changed after a few millennia of despotism and a few hundred years of high-minded Enlightenment thinking about human rights and democracy, applied with a notable lack of consistency.
What Trump understands, and may genuinely identify with, is the sense of embattled tribal identity found among too many white Americans of the 21st century, the belief that they are “living in a state of war in a small community, the existence of which is continually threatened, and the morality of which is the strictest possible.” What is the highest form of enjoyment to be found in such a community, “for souls which are vigorous, vindictive, malicious, full of suspicion, ready to face the direst events, hardened by privation and morality?” It is “the enjoyment of cruelty,” as Friedrich Nietzsche put it in 1881. “Such a community would find its delight in performing cruel deeds, casting aside, for once, the gloom of constant anxiety and precaution.”
That pretty much covers it, right? Nietzsche was actually writing about primitive human society before it had been afflicted or transformed by Christian morality. But he would be amused and not altogether surprised to learn that we have come out the other side of that process, and that the nation that pronounces itself the world’s arbiter of democracy and human rights has fallen to its knees before a third-rate imitation of King Ludwig II of Bavaria who promises to bring us back to the old gods and the old truths. “Nothing has been more dearly bought,” Nietzsche writes later in the same section of “Daybreak” (also translated as “Dawn”), “than the minute portion of human reason and feeling of liberty upon which we now pride ourselves.”
As to whether my barroom buddies in South Baltimore were joking about nuking Iran: It’s not the right question. Is Trump “joking” when he claims that Mexico is deliberately shipping murderers and rapists across the border, or that once in the White House and endowed with mysterious special powers, he will round up and deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants? You should never sell short on the ignorance and self-delusion of the American public, but even in the Trump demographic many people must halfway grasp that the first of those things is not true and the second is not possible, at least not without transforming the entire country into a police state. Like the juvenile fantasy of buggering the Ayatollah with the Bomb, those are not facts or proposals or ideas but forbidden desires that can be spoken aloud at last by the Trumpian fireside, tribal invocations meant to connect us to the long and thrilling history of human cruelty and rally us for the great deeds ahead.