The rain is beating against the windows, as it has been since late last night, long before I climbed out of bed this morning. My associate insists that this has nothing to do with the hurricane that ripped apart the Florida Panhandle a few days ago, but I wonder if they have might have some connection. This is one controversy I cannot resolve; meteorology has never been of especial interest to me, and more generally, science is something I have never wrapped my head around. I don’t think I’ve ever even entered into a scientific debate, except to argue with religious fundamentalists about the theory of evolution.
[Do you do this often, debate Darwinian theories with armchair theologians?]
No, I gave up that fight a long time ago. I’ve realized that I’m really not the one to be speaking on behalf of biologists, or on behalf of any scientists, really. I haven’t studied science since my second year of college, and while I didn’t flunk any of my classes, I can’t say that I ever learned anything. Kind-of like French.
[Or quantitative reasoning?]
No, I think I held on to some of that knowledge. Every once in a while, I think about reaching out to that professor and asking what textbook we used in that class. I’d like to review it, to see how many of those equations I can still follow through.
[Well, as much as I would love to accompany you on this stroll down memory lane, I don’t believe you came here to discuss college courses long since passed, or to count the raindrops sliding down your door. I think you have something more pertinent to discuss, something concerning the little book you’re reading.]
Yeah, I decided to return to Sinclair Lewis, five or six years after I read Babbitt, but less than six months after I knocked down Atlas Shrugged.
[Would you be so good as to explain the connection? I don’t believe you told your audience about the literary project you commenced this summer.]
No, I did not, probably because I’m still ashamed that I didn’t get it done.
[You didn’t finish it by the arbitrary deadline you established for yourself. We are only six weeks overdue, not six months or six years. Please, tell the audience what you’ve been so busily working on of late.]
Very well. Sometime earlier this year, probably in the middle of spring, I got a little tired of all the books that have been written, and continue to be written, about the Trump Administration. Clearly, there’s a lot of interesting material for a book therein, but I can’t imagine that anyone is writing a thoughtful book on that topic as of yet. More likely, it appears that every book that’s been written on the current president is rushed, typed out as quickly as it could have been, so as to capitalize on our collective obsession with the guy. If there’s gonna be an insightful book on the Trumpish Age, no writer will even start on it until at least a year after he’s left office.
[The Trumpish Age. That’s a cutesy little term. Did you come up with that coinage on your own?]
I did indeed. At first, I was drawn to it for the reason you noted: because it’s humorous, and stuff. However, I’ve since come to see within it quite an appropriate conceptual description: this is only the Trump-ish age, not the Age of Trump, not an age that is defined entirely by Trump.
[You suspect that, once this era comes to a close, we will recognize that there were other factors?]
Precisely. I think that, in many ways, Trump captured the zeitgeist—
[Apologies for interrupting you, but I like that word, as well. Why do you use it here?]
Last autumn, somebody wrote an article about the unforeseen box office bonanza that was It, the adaptation of one half of Stephen King’s longest novel. That writer said that, for whatever reason, the movie captured “the zeitgeist”—meaning, the cultural zeitgeist—hence why it broke so many box office records. I think that Trump captured the political zeitgeist, too, in a way that no one had since Barack Obama several years before. I’m thinking about the campaign commercial, released sometime in the summer of ‘08, that dismissed him as a mere celebrity. What the producers of that promotional missed is the reason he became such a celebrity so quickly. There is something similar to be discussed regarding Trump.
[Am I to understand that you would prefer to discuss the cultural elements surrounding Trump, as opposed to the man himself, or even to his political creed?]
Oh, absolutely. Unfortunately, the only discussion anyone ever has about why Trump is so popular consists of, on the one hand, drunkenly romanticized allusions to the “forgotten man”—whoever that is—and, on the other, sour glances towards a group of irredeemable people known only as the racists, or the whites, or whatever term is trending at the moment.
[You believe there’s something more to the phenomenon, I trust?]
There has to be. I don’t know if anyone has truly come to terms with the tactile reality of the Trump Administration. I’m not convinced that anyone actually believes this man is the president. Enough has been said about the so-called liberals’ disbelief, about the incredulity wherewith they—and I guess I might as well include myself therein—utter the words, “President Trump”. But even his supporters, I venture to say, have a difficult time believing that their dream has come true. It must be like learning you’ve won the lottery, or something: I’m surprised we didn’t hear about more of them fainting upon receipt of the electoral results. The Left is living in the unreality of trauma, the Right in its own fantasy of inebriation.
[A sober analysis is what is necessary, then.]
And such a thing cannot be achieved today, not when we’re still wondering what he’s going to do tomorrow, and whether he will be re-elected, even. Whatever research we conduct in this moment, no matter how thoughtful, no matter how fair-minded our intentions, all of it inevitably will need to be tossed, to be corrected, to be overwritten, sometime before the man leaves office. Ergo, there seems to me to be very little point in plummeting head-first into the Trumpish pool, not until all of this becomes history.
[And therefore, now might be the time to review other history, to concern ourselves with some of the events that transpired before Trump took office, preferably some time before he was elected.]
Which brings us to the question of what I was doing, or was starting to do, this summer. At some point in the spring, I had become so overwhelmed, so thoroughly jaundiced, by the exorbitance of sloppy literature on Trump that I pledged to remove myself from it, and to distance myself from it as far as was morally possible. Accordingly, I made plans to spend the summer reading as much political literature as I could stomach, with the one restriction being that none of it could have been published within the last ten years. Only books that were markedly apart from the Trumpish Age.
[How did you intend to benefit from such a directive?]
Honestly, I can’t tell you what my intentions were. I’m not sure that I really had some overarching philosophy when I started out, but very quickly, it became obvious that these books were far better than any contemporary literature could have been for me precisely because they helped me to put the present day in context.
[Explain. Maybe you should tell us what you read, as well.]
Oh, yeah. I started with Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. I fell in love with Hunter S. Thompson in high school, and I wanted to see him explore politics in depth after being just a little disappointed with the brevity of Generation of Swine—in contrast to The Great Shark Hunt, that is. In terms of its sustained focus, Campaign Trail is probably someplace in-between those two, taking more time with the bigger picture, clearly, but less time with the individual episodes. Does that make any sense?
[It does, although your audience will need a detailed understanding of Thompson’s oeuvre if they hope to follow what you’re saying. In Campaign Trail, the man documents—in real time, more or less—the rise and fall of each of the major Democratic challengers to President Nixon’s re-election campaign. And might I say, if you were hoping to read political literature without having to hear anything about Trump, then you come awfully close to having your cake and eating it, too.]
You say that now, but only because you can see where I’m going. You can tell from everything I’m saying to you here that Campaign Trail shed light on the present political crisis, but I can say with a clean conscience that, when I first picked up the book, I had no idea that I would be reading one gigantic parallel to modern times. For starters, it never occurred to me that Nixon’s re-election campaign was, in the early stages, seen by many reasonable people as a hopeless effort.
[The same is true of Trump’s?]
Well, reasonable people can still be entirely wrong—
[And I see your point, regardless: depending on the day, Trump appears to face a vertical climb.]
Maybe I shouldn’t have spoken of parallels, but rather, implications. Trump certainly isn’t in the same situation that Nixon was in almost fifty years ago, but the historical fact of the latter simply must say something about the former. Hell, I remember when the Democrats were gearing up for 2004, and the first article I read about the possible nominees didn’t even mention George W. Bush. At the time—I was twelve—I assumed that Bush was so unpopular that the entire press was already counting him out. Well, I was wrong, pretty badly wrong, just as Thompson was almost forty years before me, and just as a whole lot of other folks will be twenty-five months from now.
[Did anything else in Campaign Trail pique your interest?]
Of course. A lot of things did. For starters, I didn’t realize that some of the most vocal opponents of civil rights for blacks were Democrats as recently as the 1970s. Modern progressivists always enjoy taking potshots at George Wallace, condemning him for his unapologetic racism, but when was the last time you were reminded that the man ran among all those other Democrats in 1972? I know I sound like a misguided conservative who loves to point out that Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president, but irrespective of one’s political beliefs, it is interesting how someone like Wallace could mount a perfectly legitimate presidential campaign as a Democrat not so long ago.
[History is messy, and it’s simplified all too often by those who don’t know better—or, perhaps even oftener, by those who do.]
Take Shirley Chisholm, for instance: the first woman, as well as the first black woman, to run for the Democratic nomination, and yet, I don’t think anybody ever mentioned to her to me, not until I read about her in Campaign Trail. I’m not suggesting she earned the same historical distinction as some of the other candidates involved in that contest, but maybe we ought to take a little bit of time out of our lives to talk about her, rather than going on all day about Hillary Clinton.
[Many of your older politically-minded colleagues would probably be familiar with Chisholm. Do you think this might be mostly a generational issue?]
Possibly, but I don’t have a mentor here, and I have to figure it out on my own. In any case, there is cause to ask some serious questions about what kind of historical education the younger set is receiving. Why are so many of these historical events and figures fragmented and orphaned? Why do we have to pick up all of the pieces, and in the unlikeliest places, too?
[You do believe, then, that there is, or there will be, a parallel between the presidential campaigns of 1972 and 2020?]
I can’t imagine how there couldn’t be. Spike Lee accentuated Nixon’s re-election campaign in BlaKkKlansman, and while he stumbled in his effort to immerse his film within the Trumpish Age, it was refreshing because it took us out of the present day.
[And yet, like Campaign Trail, you find it fascinating because it leads us back to today. You are being pulled, quite literally, in different directions. Could it be that history is not the only thing that is fragmented? Could it be that your diagnosis of the traumatized liberals might be more apt than you wish to believe?]
Probably. I don’t know how many of us are still mentally healthy. What did Rorschach say in Watchmen? “Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?”
[You’re quoting a mentally disturbed fictional character to paint an unflattering portrait of your own psyche.]
Hey, I’m stuck in this room with you. I’ve got to do something until the rain passes.