The presidency of Donald Trump is a nightmare I couldn’t have imagined five years ago. But some literature, film, and song earlier hinted that such a horrific time could actually occur. In this essay I’ll present mainly those that I recall, and I hope Hollywood Progressive readers might furnish more.
More than a half century ago, I became familiar with Vladimir Soloviev’s “Short Story of the Anti-Christ.” Soloviev (1853-1900) was the leading Russian philosopher and poet of his day, and early in his career had been a young friend to the great Russian novelist Dostoevsky. Although I did not spend much time analyzing his short story, I did write my Ph.D dissertation on his polemics against Russian nationalists.
The anti-Christ figure appears most prominently in the Christian Bible, especially in the Book of Revelation, and the ecumenical Soloviev was thoroughly familiar with the Bible and other religious literature. But the anti-Christ he portrayed came to power in the future, in the twenty-first century.
Of course, Donald Trump was not even born when he depicted the anti-Christ. And in many ways his evil figure is very different than Trump—for example, ”owing to his great genius, by the age of thirty-three he [the anti-Christ] had already become famous as a great thinker, writer.”
But he did share some characteristics of our future president: “he loved only himself” [Soloviev’s italics]. “This man would bow down before the power of Evil as soon as it would offer him a bribe.” His “conception of his higher value showed itself in practice …in seizing his privilege and advantage at the expense of others.” He displayed “a complete absence of true simplicity, frankness, and sincerity.”“ [See here and here for Trump’s all-consuming egotism, and here for his constant lying.)
The anti-Christ also achieves high political office, “elected president of the United States of Europe for life.” One high figure who opposes him is the fictional Catholic pope at the time—”Get you gone, you incarnation of the Devil!” [See here and here for Pope Francis’s position on capitalism and climate-change, both contrary to those of Trump.] But many Christians had at first supported the anti-Christ, “with benevolent expectation and partly with unreserved sympathy and even fervent enthusiasm.”
In a previous article I mentioned Trump’s evangelical Christian support, and also quoted from an essay that asked, “If the anti-Christ is supposed to be a manipulative, powerful, smooth-talking demagogue with the ability to sever people from their most deeply held beliefs who would be a better candidate than the seemingly indestructible Trump?”
Like Soloviev’s anti-Christ, Sinclair Lewis’s President Buzz Windrip in It Can’t Happen Here (1935) is different than Trump in some ways—”Windrip was almost a dwarf”—but possesses significant characteristics that remind us of Trump: “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic.” [See my “Why Trump’s Crassness Matters.”]
Further description of Windrip, who in the novel defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1936 election, also calls Trump to mind: He possessed an“uncommon natural ability to be authentically excited by and with his audience, and they by and with him. . . Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man. . . . and the superiority of anyone who possessed a million dollars…He regarded…poetry not daily syndicated in newspapers and all foreigners, possibly excepting the British, as degenerate.
Like Trump, Windrip draws support from whites like the one who says, “I don’t pretend to be anything but a plain working-stiff, but there’s forty million workers like me, and we know that Senator Windrip is the first statesman in years that thinks of what guys like us need before he thinks one doggone thing about politics.” Windrop’s platform “condemned the Negroes–since nothing so elevates a dispossessed farmer or a factory worker on relief as to have some race, any race, on which he can look down.” Trump’s appeal to whites, stems partly from suggesting that liberals have coddled minorities.
Lewis wrote his novel just a few years after Hitler came to power in Germany. And he knew how the event came about and similarities between Hitler’s supporters and right-wing U.S. citizens. Lewis’s wife, Dorothy Thompson, was a journalist often residing in Germany, who between 1931 and 1934 wrote 15 well-researched articles covering the rise of Hitler and conditions in Germany for The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines. She also wrote the 1932 book I Saw Hitler!
An excellent June 2016 Washington Post article by Carlos Lozada mentions Windrip’s view of the press, which sounds much like Trump’s cry of “fake news”: “I know the Press only too well. Almost all editors . . . [are] men without thought of Family or Public Interest . . . plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions.”
As with Trump’s Art of the Deal, Windrip’s best-selling Over the Top was ghost-written and “part biography, part economic program, and part plain exhibitionistic boasting.” In his book Windrip wrote, “Love and that Patriotism have been my sole guiding principles in Politics. My one ambition is to get all Americans [except those “who are racially different from us”] to realize that they are, and must continue to be, the greatest Race on the face of this old Earth.” Ah, if Windrip had thought of it, he might have come up with a slogan like “Make America Great Again.”
A more recent novel depicting someone like Windrip and Trump, this time by defeating FDR in 1940, is Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004). The “someone” is Charles Lindbergh, who in 1927 became an American hero by completing a non-stop solo flight from New York to Paris. In reality, he did not run for president in 1940, but the idea that he might have is not preposterous. He was still a hero to many Americans and a spokesman for the America First Committee, which opposed FDR’s growing support for a Great Britain now at war with Nazi Germany.
Like Trump in 2016, Roth’s Lindbergh is a non-conventional Republican presidential candidate who defeats a more-favored Democrat. The fictional (and real) Lindbergh and Trump both admire strong rulers like Hitler and Putin respectively. Both Americans emphasize placing “America first” and support more isolationist, go-it-alone policies. Trump’s racism, evident in his diatribes against many immigrants, was matched by Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism. Roth writes of “Lindbergh’s contention that the Jews’ ‘greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.’” He adds Lindbergh’s words concerning “our inheritance of European blood,” “dilution by foreign races,” and “the infiltration of inferior blood” being shared “by a rabid constituency…flourishing all across America.”
Both novels, It Can’t Happen Here and The Plot Against America, depict some of the evils that ensue after Windrip and Lindbergh assume the presidency. In his Washington Post article, Lozada notes that “Lindbergh moves Jews from urban centers into the rural heartland through an ominous Office of American Absorption,” and “Windrip creates concentration camps for dissidents; establishes a sham judiciary; and bars black Americans from voting, holding public office, practicing law or medicine, or teaching beyond grammar school.” Although Trump’s steps against immigrants may not yet have reached such extreme degrees, his presidency is not yet over, and who can say what a second presidential term might bring?
Another fictional pilot who becomes famous and foreshadows Trump, though this time not based on a real-life hero like Lindbergh, is James Thurber’s Jack Smurch in the short story “The Greatest Man in the World” (1931). Unlike the main characters in the two novels considered above and Trump, Smurch never runs for president, but like all three he becomes a celebrity, “America’s greatest hero.” He achieves this status because in a fictional 1937, he outdoes Lindergh’s feat by flying around the world without stopping. The only problem is that he possesses “insufficient intelligence, background, and character successfully to endure the mounting orgies of glory” that surrounded him. As Thurber wrote, he was “mentally and morally unequipped to cope with his own prodigious fame.” Like Trump later, he is egotistical, boorish, crass, insulting, and outspoken: He tells reporters, “you’se guys can tell the cock-eyed world dat I put it over on Lindbergh…I did it, see? I did it, an’ I’m talkin’ about it.”
In April 2016, journalist Jeff Greenfield, who as a young man worked for Robert Kennedy, was astute enough to point out the similarities between Trump, who had not secured the Republican presidential nomination, and the fictional Smurch. “Whatever his IQ, Trump’s cluelessness about geography, economics, any public policy issue, is nothing short of staggering. His background, at least once you get past the bluster, suggests a life spent in personal aggrandizement and lawsuits by aggrieved customers and colleagues.” If he became the Republican nominee, Greenfield predicted, we would have “never seen a situation where a nominee so blatantly ignored or flouted the most fundamental standards of speech or conduct, all while lacking the most basic qualities we’ve (perhaps allegedly) thought necessary for any president of any party.”
Switching from discussions of fiction to a literary essay, we come to George Saunders’ 2007 essay “The Braindead Megaphone.” Since I have already written of how it presages Trump, I’ll only summarize a few of its points. Saunders asks us to imagine a party where “a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate. But he’s got that megaphone…Because he’s so loud, their [the party-goers] conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they.”
Saunders also wrote that “a significant and ascendant component of that [megaphone] voice has become bottom-dwelling, shrill, incurious, ranting, and agenda-driven. It strives to antagonize us, make us feel anxious, ineffective, and alone; convince us that the world is full of enemies and of people stupider and less agreeable than ourselves; is dedicated to the idea that, outside the sphere of our immediate experience, the world works in a different, more hostile, less knowable manner. This braindead tendency leers and smirks and celebrates when someone is brought low.”
Saunders tells us that people’s “responses are predicated not on his [the megaphone man’s] intelligence, his unique experience of the world, his powers of contemplation, or his ability with language, but on the volume and omnipresence of his narrating voice. His main characteristic is his dominance. He crowds the other voices out. His rhetoric becomes the central rhetoric because of its unavoidability.”
Two poems that appeared several years after the conclusion of World War I suggest today’s Trumpian times, both written by great poets, W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot. Yeat’s 1921 poem “The Second Coming” contains the lines,
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
As with the anti-Christ, the Second Coming is dealt with in the Bible’s Book of Revelation (see below).
The mere title of Eliot’s 1922 poem “The Waste Land” suggests the bareness and drought depicted in the poem. It appeared the same year that Benito Mussolini became the first Fascist ruler in Europe and just a year before Oswald Spengler’s two-volume The Decline of the West was completed. It, as well as Eliot’s poem and Mussolini becoming Italian prime minister reflect the pessimism and sense of crisis that affected many Western intellectuals following the horrific killing of WWI. Given the environmental policies of the Trump administration, which if continued will contribute to the wasting of our land, the images in Eliot’s poem also cry out to us today as a realistic warning.
To my knowledge, no more recent poets of the stature of Yeats and Eliot presage the coming of Trump, but some poets and poems of our time do criticize him, including the 2009-2019 poet laureate of England, Carol Ann Duffy, and American actor John Lithgow’s Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse. So far, Calvin Trillin, who gave us books of poems on the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, has not been as prolific when it comes to Trump.
Like poetry, dramas have not foreshadowed Trumpian times as much as works of fiction, but Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here was adapted for the stage, and “opened in 21 cities nationwide on October 27, 1936.” In September 2016, just two months before Trump was elected, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre staged a revised version of the play, which subsequently appeared at other locations.
In the world of films, the first one I thought of when Trump appeared was Being There, a 1979 movie starring Peter Sellers. In 2016 and 2017 the web site agonybooth.com posted almost 20 reviews of films and TV shows, including Being There, that “predicted Trump.” Except for two more of those films which I saw long ago, Citizen Kane (1941) and All the King’s Men (1949), I’ll state nothing more, but leave it to interested readers to go directly to the site. About the Sellers’ character’s comparison to Trump, the web site had this to say: “Both are ignoramuses who’ve spent their entire lives in a bubble of upper-crust privilege. Both readily admit that they don’t read; rather, both are obsessed with television and use it more or less exclusively to inform themselves about how the world works and what’s going on in it. Both speak of situations they don’t understand in reductively simple, catchall platitudes, a habit which impresses people with their ‘directness’ and ‘good sense.’”
The web site’s review of Citizen Kane points out that Trump says it is his favorite film, but the reviewer notes that many people said that because it was considered smart to do so. But the reviewer also quotes the famous documentarian Errol Morris, who interviewed Trump about the movie and related that Trump said the film deals with how wealth can produce isolation and loneliness , and that he (Trump) is “a wealthy and powerful man.” But, when he has marriage problems, he just moves on, unlike Kane was able to do.
Morris, however, notes that “the problem that Charles Foster Kane is having is not because of a bad marriage choice. The problem is he’s an empty, hollow man, a simulacrum of a human being, a nothing, nowhere man who destroys the people around him, who’s incapable of love, incapable of compassion, incapable of self reflection, incapable of awareness of the world around him save that which suits his own slimy purposes of gathering wealth and power.”
These words remind us of what conservative columnist David Brooks wrote about Trump:
Donald Trump never stops asking. First, he asked the party to swallow the idea of a narcissistic sexual harasser and a routine liar as its party leader. Then he asked the party to accept his comprehensive ignorance and his politics of racial division. Now he asks the party to give up its reputation for fiscal conservatism. At the same time he asks the party to become…the party of bigotry, alleged sexual harassment and child assault.
There is no end to what Trump will ask of his party. He is defined by shamelessness, and so there is no bottom. And apparently there is no end to what regular Republicans are willing to give him.
The 1949 film All the King’s Men (there was also a later inferior version) was based on the 1946 novel of the same name by Robert Penn Warren, which won him a Pulitzer Prize. Both book and the Academy-Award-winning film tell the story of a politician named Willie Stark. The story has special interest today because Sinclair Lewis’s President Windrip is, as a recent New Yorker essay mentioned, “clearly modeled after Huey Long, the Louisiana demagogue, who was assassinated the month before “It Can’t Happen Here” was published.”
The reviewer at agonybooth.com mentions Stark’s frequent resorting to “bullying, bribery, and other dirty tricks to get his way,” and adds “Trump’s rise to power and Stark’s rise are both brought on by the same factors upon which most populists thrive: Disempowerment, victimization, and fear of change—in both cases, the fear of being left behind by a rapidly changing world where your lifestyle, beliefs, and traditions are unwelcome. Much like Trump supporters, Stark’s voters are portrayed as proud emblems of traditional American values and workmanship upon whom the ruling class looks down as ignorant rubes whose concerns are unworthy of any sincere attention.”
The reviewer also mentions how both “Stark and Trump exploit the functioning of this ruling class to get to power,” how they use their “outsider status . . . . to frame” their “lack of ethics as a principled revolt against the establishment.” This, says the reviewer “is a message that’s always been at the core of everything Donald Trump has ever said, written, and done: To be successful, you have to be the toughest, smartest, meanest son of a bitch in the room and crush everyone that stands between you and your goal if you can’t turn them to your side.”
Throughout U. S. history there have been many protest songs, especially in the 1960s, but I can’t think of many that presage the Trump administration. Pertinent song words that most often stick in my mind are “the clowns are in control.” They come from Kris Kristofferson’ s “Slouching Toward The Millennium” and end the two lines, “They’ve driven off the fools and saints and now they’ve stole the show / It’s all a bloody circus mates and clowns are in control.”
Kristofferson’s use of the word “millennium”in his title also has interesting implications concerning Trump and his supporters. A 2018 Newsweek article proclaimed “Trump Will Start The End Of The World, Claim Evangelicals Who Support Him.” It mentioned that at the end of 2017 Trump ”officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” and that “Evangelicals believe that a unified Israel with control over Jerusalem will facilitate the construction of a new Jewish temple, and set the groundwork for the end of times.” The article also quoted a religious historian as saying, “Most evangelicals subscribe to a belief in pre-millennialism, the belief that the second coming of Christ will begin a 1,000-year period [the millenium] where Christ will rule over a peaceful and prosperous earth.”
Another site, Christianity.com, states that “premillennialism holds to a literal interpretation of the end times. It sees the events in Revelation 19-20 as a futuristic, progressive chronology,” which includes 11 stages. Among them are:
- The Rapture
- The rise of a single antichrist
- A 7-year tribulation
- The Second Coming of Christ
- The Battle of Armageddon
- The judgment of the antichrist and the binding of Satan
- The resurrection of the dead
- The establishment of a 1,000-year reign of peace (the Millennium)
In the quarter century since Kristoffereson sang his “clowns” song at a Farm Aid concert, and even more in the century since the the publication of the poems “The Second Coming” and “The Waste Land,”much has changed that made a president like Trump more probable. I outlined some of them in an earlier La Progressive (LAP) essay on Trump and American culture and values.
Our national emphasis on consumption and entertainment has continued to far outpace any concern with wise values such as respect for truth, compassion, empathy, prudence, humility, temperance, and tolerance. A half-century ago the most trusted person in the United States was the CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite. By the time Trump was elected, Fox News bigmouth Bill O’Reilly was our nation’s most popular newsman. Compared to the glitzy and entertaining Trump and O’Reilly, wisdom values were considered boring.
In my LAP essay I quoted two scholars who argued “that Trump’s campaign to become the Republican nominee was successful because it was, in a word, entertaining—not just for the white rural underclass, not just for conservatives, but also for the public at large, even those who strongly oppose his candidacy. Whether understood as pleasing or offensive, Trump’s ongoing show was compelling.” The two scholars remind us of many of Trump’s past entertainment connections—e.g., his casinos, his beauty pageants (including the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013), his connections with professional wrestling, and his starring role for over a decade in the reality-TV game show, “The Apprentice.”
Our country’s lack of respect for humility and truth was already evident before Trump’s election. A March 2016 Huffington Post piece stated, “Listening to the media these days one would think that our leaders have lost all sense of humility, if indeed they ever had it.” A 2009 Pew poll indicated that not even a majority of the U.S. public accepted the scientific truths of evolution and human-caused global warming. Yes indeed, our country was capable of electing a man who would become notorious for his many lies and untruths.
Since 2009 the development of the Internet, cell phones, tweets, and social-media sites has accelerated. Leading historian Jill Lepore’s take on these “advances”? She thought Internet information was “uneven, unreliable,” and often unrestrained by any type of editing and fact-checking. The Internet left news-seekers “brutally constrained,” and “blogging, posting, and tweeting, artifacts of a new culture of narcissism,” became commonplace. So too did Internet-related companies that feed people only what they wanted to see and hear. Further, social media, “exacerbated the political isolation of ordinary Americans while strengthening polarization on both the left and the right…The ties to timeless truths that held the nation together, faded to ethereal invisibility.”
The anti-Christ, Armageddon, the Millennium, a “braindead megaphone” as president, the clowns in control, a culture addicted to celebrities and outlandish behavior, to many of us anti-Trumpians it all seems strange and weird. Welcome to the Trumpian universe—and may it all end soon.
Walter G. Moss