Mother Night (1961) by Kurt Vonnegut
“This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
— Kurt Vonnegut
Donald Trump is a performance artist. A “showman.” A con man. A professional liar with a dangerously unstable personality. He is also a businessman, a politician (despite his insistence otherwise), and, beginning January 20, 2017, President of the United States of America. He wears so many masks as a part of his public persona that he doesn’t even pretend to be anything other than a walking, talking brand. And the only consistent trait of that brand is to be foolishly — and recklessly — inconsistent. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, all Trump can do is be Donald J. Trump…whoever that is.
The impossibility of pinning down Trump is precisely what draws so many people to his cult of personality. His followers can project their desires onto him because his performances are unchecked by accountability. And the keystone to the performance of “Donald J. Trump” is that he openly desires what they desire: power, wealth, and success. He is their Ideal made flesh. Likewise, he speaks to their fears because they are his own — the very deep-seated fears and insecurities that are masked by his persona.
And so Trump’s truth becomes their own. The fact that this “truth” is ever-shifting and rarely based on evidence, logic, or reality is all-the-more reason for them to accept the Trump fantasy: Trump speaks their truth. And why is it true? Because Trump speaks it. So goes the tautology of totalitarian thinking. Trump “tells it like is” because he knows. But what does he know? Exactly what his followers “know,” but what they cannot say in public for fear of ridicule. So Trump, the Ideal upon whom they project their desire, will perform this truth for them because he has the power and the wealth to resist that ridicule. His power becomes their own through his theatrics, which are the epitome of what J.L Austin termed “performative utterances.” Ironically, Trump has the insecurity of a child, but neither he nor his followers see it. Why not?
Because Trump is who he pretends to be.
It’s a lesson that we can learn from reading Kurt Vonnegut’s most complex and challenging novel, Mother Night, framed as the “confession” of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a Nazi radio propagandist during World War II who was also working as a spy for the United States. However, Campbell’s web of lies runs so deep that he becomes unable to distinguish what is real and what is illusion. He begins to live the role he has been performing on the radio. When he is put on trial for war crimes at the end of the novel, his own broadcasts stand as evidence against him.
Vonnegut asks us to consider the power of performative rhetoric and the dangers of how the misuse of language might distort the world around us and warp our own inner sense of self. The danger is not merely that politicians with damaged moral compasses might gain significant followings, but that their words and lies will begin to damage the collective moral compass of the nation — like a powerful, centralized magnet that forces all needles to point in one direction, rendering all bearings unsound. What ultimately matters is not what a speaker says is “true”/”false” or whether the speaker is authentic/inauthentic, but rather what the words are doing — the impact those words have on others.
And here we begin to see the folly of apologists who justify inflammatory speech by claiming “It’s only campaign rhetoric” or “That’s only one side of the candidate.” We saw this not only with Trump, but also with Hillary Clinton: discussions of her “public” side and her “private” side. Vonnegut warns us that there is no other side. The personas we project are the people we are — even if those personas are largely performances, and even if they conflict — because the impact our words have on others remains the same, regardless of any other factors. After all, our personalities are complex and multifaceted. We “perform” differently depending upon the audience and our own changing purposes. But each one of those performances constitutes the construction of a Self — an identity that we adopt even as we shift and change roles depending on audience. So we had better be careful how we perform, Vonnegut warns, because the words we speak have consequences, no matter which persona we adopt at any given moment, and no matter what the purpose of our performance.
Like Mephistopheles, whose speech in Goethe’s Faust gave Vonnegut the title for his novel, Trump’s persona of “greatness” comes wrapped in the swaddling darkness of Mother Night. The question our nation must ask in the next four-to-eight years is not “Who is the real Donald Trump?” (because he is who he pretends to be), but rather, “Who will hold Donald Trump accountable for being the Donald Trump he pretends to be at any given moment through his dangerous rhetoric?” Since neither Trump himself nor his acolytes are up to the task of adjudicating Trump’s performative “crimes against himself” (to quote Vonnegut on Howard W. Campbell, Jr.), then it falls on every rational, critical thinking person to do so.