MOTHER NIGHT: “We Are What We Pretend to Be” — Trump’s Performative Rhetoric

Mother Night (1961) by Kurt Vonnegut

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 “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.

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Kurt Vonnegut

          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. 

IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE: “There Are No Neutrals Here”

It Can’t Happen Here (1935) by Sinclair Lewis

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          In the past year, Sinclair Lewis’ novel about the rise of fascism in the United States has had an unfortunate resurgence in popularity as Donald Trump has increasingly dominated American politics and has, inexplicably, become President-elect. The novel is selling out in bookstores and remains one of the top-selling classic American novels on Amazon.com. Theaters and libraries presented a nation-wide simultaneous reading of a stage adaptation of Lewis’ work in October of 2016, almost in preparation for the unthinkable that might (and did) occur on November 8 of that year.

          But was it really unthinkable? All the signs were there. Americans were sick of career politicians, even if they were extraordinarily experienced. Their fear of Muslims, immigrants, and blacks was real (in their own minds), and horribly exploited by Trump, who used the most vulnerable of our citizens as scapegoats to distract from the genuine problems of labor, economic inequality, and an unfair justice system. He utilized and abused Twitter in a way that revolutionized how campaigns are run.

          And in doing so, the one man who most represented precisely the problems, challenges, and pitfalls facing modern America became the man Americans elected to fix those problems, not through policy suggestions, genuine ideas, or even hopeful rhetoric, but on a platform of nativism,  xenophobia, fear, militarism, and anti-intellectualism. Trump became Sinclair Lewis’ nightmare come to life. Those who have read Lewis’ novel understand that it can happen here because it always was here, long before Trump was ever born, much less descended the Golden Escalator.

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Sinclair Lewis

          Lewis’ novel was wickedly satirical. Unfortunately, that satire has become somewhat prophetic as we enter 2017 and continually push the boundaries of absurdity in American political discourse. The folksy, homespun Buzz Windrip seems clearly modeled on Huey Long, with touches of Eugene Talmadge, Theodore Bilbo, and Father Coughlin thrown into the mix — all of whom Lewis name-checks in the novel. In my early-20s I was fascinated with Depression-era demagogues (and read Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, naturally), so I was very familiar with all these names. Readers might benefit from some background study to understand the 30’s political climate that fostered these types of populists. However, while the book is firmly rooted in 1930s politics, there are significant parallels to the modern day that will resonate with readers in 2017. The fictional Windrip represents a unique type of American fascism that values equal parts P.T. Barnum buffoonery, Will Rogers schtick, and militarism. If this sounds like a recipe for Trumpism, then perhaps you’ll understand why this book still has a great deal to say to 21st century Americans.

          Into this fire, Lewis drops Doremus Jessup, a classic Twainsian Don’t-Tread-on-Me Connecticut Yankee — independent, skeptical, liberal, practical, and a bit curmudgeonly. He refuses both fascism and communism as dangerous collectives. His guiding worldview is pretty much “mind your own business and let others do as they please.” Yet he’s forced into action when Windrip is elected, giving Lewis free reign to satirize everyone form the dolts who fall for Windrip’s rhetoric to the housewives-turned-underground revolutionaries who rage against the machine.


Doremus Jessup, so inconspicuous an observer, watching Senator Windrip from so humble a Boeotia, could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences. The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.

Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.

–Sinclair Lewis


          Lewis begins each chapter with a quote from Windrip’s fictional book Zero Hour, but suddenly stops quoting about halfway through the novel, just as Windrip attains power. At that point, the novel becomes less about the rise of fascism and more about the way in which average people choose their destinies. Indeed, Windrip’s message is only the spark. The true horrors occur when regular people begin to make decisions (or refuse to act) based on collective fear. And here is where Lewis’ novel takes on prophetic form: not in its chronicle of how a fascist-leaning politician rises to become president, but in how Lewis imagines the American people would respond. They each make a decision to fall into line or to resist; to fight or to flee. Each more outrageous word and action becomes normalized, until Windrip’s own ignorant rhetoric fades into the background. At a certain point, even Windrip himself becomes irrelevant; the events he sets in motion move to a point beyond where he might stop them, even if he wanted to (which he does not). Americans like Jessup are forced out of their indifferent attitudes or politically neutral position and must resist. In the words of the protest song “Which Side Are You On,” written by Florence Reece and popularized by Pete Seeger: “There are no neutrals here.”

          When Lewis writes (ironically) “it can’t happen here,” he’s not talking about fascism so much as the overly-militarized, patriotic, and nationalistic groupthink that already is here, and which can so easily lead average citizens to accept or embrace fascist ideologies. (The SA-styled military unit patrolling the borders before an all-out war with Mexico is called the Minute Men [MM]. Again, this sounds all-too-familiar to modern American readers.) As we enter the Trump Era in the United States, sadly, the novel has become required reading for all Americans, even if its message falls on deaf ears, and might very well be too late to make an impact.

MAN OF STRAW: A Portrait of the Fascist as a Loyal Subject

Man of Straw (The Loyal Subject) (1918) by Heinrich Mann

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          Man of Straw (also translated as The Loyal Subject) is a razor-sharp take-down of the upper-middle-class buffoons who fervently supported Kaiser Wilhelm — the same type of power-worshipping nativists who later embraced the Third Reich. The subject in question is Diederich Hessling, who spends his college years swilling beer with his frat brothers in their exclusive secret society, the “Neo-Teutons,” and avoiding any type of intellectual pursuits, while challenging anyone and everyone to duels of honor (but not going through with those duels, of course; just issuing the challenges!). He worships the military, but desperately tries to avoid service by pulling strings with his social connections to get a medical discharge by feigning minor health problems. (Weak bones! A flat foot!)

          It’s obviously a portrait of Wilhelm himself, as Mann (older brother of Thomas and uncle of Klaus) describes Diederich as looking very much like the emperor, even shaping his mustache upward in sharp right angles in imitation of the Kaiser. But it’s also a portrait that has universal application, at times so accurately depicting certain modern American conservative warhawks and chickenhawks — everyone from Donald Rumsfeld to Donald Trump, but also their lackeys, like Chris Christie and Ted Cruz — that we begin to see Mann’s brilliance in crafting this character: these politicians, like Diederich, are not great men. They are, by and large, average dolts. The fact that Diederich looks, speaks, and acts like such national leaders (Wilhelm specifically) undercuts their perceived authority. These political figures, for all their pomp, lofty rhetoric, and gilded lives, are no more than uncouth, half-educated blowhards. And on some level, they know it.

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Heinrich Mann

          Mann is quite clear on the dangers of authoritarianism and the kind of people it attracts. His portrait of Diederich might well describe any extreme-right politician (or supporter) of this day. Deiderich isn’t too bright and is physically a coward, but his wealth and status as the son of an industrial owner gives him both privilege and a superiority complex. He lacks empathy and sees women merely as objects for his temporary pleasure or social status, and so his marriage becomes a business deal (and a poor one, at that), with a constant, paranoid fear of blackmail hanging over his head, as in most of his affairs. He is a mamma’s boy who talks bravely about the military and about wanting to “duel” those who dishonor him, but who cringes at any possibility of confrontation. His love of power causes him to worship anyone who wields it and to fall in line behind anyone who commands it, without question. He follows the Church not because he believes in its values, but because it gives him status and further scapegoats the “Others” who are not Christian. (In the case of Germany under Wilhelm, the Jews.) His wealth and status as a leader of industry are entirely inherited, so he knows nothing about the business he owns. As a result, he takes out his anxiety and aggression on his workers, who are brighter than him but lower in class, so are unable to advance under his ownership. He fears them, but his ego prevents him from acknowledging this fact.


…Diederich was alone when he stumbled on to the riding path in the direction of the Emperor, who was also alone. Diederich looked like a man in a very dangerous state of fanaticism, dirty and torn, with wild eyes — from his horse the Emperor gave him a piercing glance which went through him. Diederich snatched off his hat, his mouth was wide open, but not a sound came from it. As he came to a sudden stop he slipped and sat down violently in a puddle, with his legs in the air, splashed with muddy water. Then the Emperor laughed. The fellow was a monarchist, a loyal subject! The Emperor turned to his escort, slapped his thigh and laughed. From the depths of the puddle Diederich stared at him, open-mouthed.

— Heinrich Mann


          This complex combination of physical weakness, willful ignorance, hyper nationalism, capitalistic exploitation of the lower classes, and worship of military power creates “the loyal subject”: one who will be attracted to any powerful force upon which he can project his idealized (and unachievable) Self as a way to substitute for his own lack of will and inner fortitude. He will follow anyone who advocates crushing or eliminating the weak or “undesirable,” not realizing that 1) these are the very flaws that his ego refuses to acknowledge within himself, and 2) he is supporting the power-hungry authorities who will not think twice about crushing him as one of the weak. His own insecurity and lack of self-worth causes him to act against his own self-interest, but in the end, because of his inherited wealth, status, and privilege, he survives — and even thrives — safe in the bubble of his own foolish ignorance.