As we slip further into this timeline, I’ve noticed that both fictional dystopias and real-life accounts of authoritarian regimes are doing a good job at pointing at both specifics (the denial of reality) and general trends (people falling for a fake populism out of fear and uncertainty. However, I’m not sure there is a figure who quite matches Trump.
While the USA has a long way to go before it meets the full horrors of 1984’s Oceania, people are still managing to find many active parallels with Orwell’s political horror story. The Fox News Right have already nominated George Soros to be their Emmanuel Goldstein for example. Indeed, I can imagine in a century hence, when post-WW2 history is seen as all sort of smooshed together as one time period (as we tend to now with the Victorian/Edwardian periods), that people might anachronistically think Orwell’s invention was based on the panicked hatred of Soros rather than Trotsky. But while 1984 allusions are handy, Trump is no Big Brother.
Perhaps some of this is time. Charlie Chaplin’s portrait of Hitler as Adenoid Hynkel is an absurd man with an over-inflated ego. While searing satire at the time, our full understanding of the horrors of Nazi Germany make Chaplin’s film seem understated – almost trivialising of the brutality. Not Chaplin’s fault (and still a magnificent film) but The Great Dictator was overtaken by history. Chaplin does neatly capture though the need for self-importance and constant praise of the would-be authoritarian.
For a recent post, I’d dug out my copy of Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man which is bound with the sequel The Truce, which describes his survival and journey home after surviving Auschwitz. In The Truce there is a magnificent description of the self-appointed leader of the Italian section of a Soviet refugee camp in Poland:
But the camp leader of the Italians, to whom I was directed to be ‘enlisted’, was very
different. Accountant Rovi had become camp leader not by election from below, nor by
Russian investiture, but by self-nomination; in fact, although he was an individual of
somewhat meagre intellectual and moral qualities, he possessed to a notable degree
that virtue which under any sky is the most necessary to win power — the love of power
for its own sake.
To watch the behaviour of a man who acts not according to reason, but according to his own deep impulses, is a spectacle of extreme interest, similar to that which the naturalist enjoys when he studies the activities of an animal of complex instincts. Rovi had achieved his office by acting with the same atavistic spontaneity as a spider
spinning its web; like the spider without its web, so Rovi did not know how to live
without his office. He had begun to spin immediately; he was basically foolish, and did not know a word of German or Russian, but from the first day he had secured for
himself the services of an interpreter, and had presented himself in a ceremonial
manner to the Soviet Command as plenipotentiary for Italian interests. He had
organized a desk, with official forms (in beautiful handwriting with ﬂourishes), rubber stamps, variously coloured pencils and a ledger; although he was not a colonel, in fact not even a soldier, he had hung outside his door an ostentatious placard ‘Italian Command — Colonel Rovi’; he had surrounded himself with a small court of scullions, scribes, acolytes, spies, messengers and bullies, whom he paid in kind, with food taken from the rations of the community, and with exemption from all jobs of common interest. His courtiers, who, as always happens, were far worse than he, ensured (even by force, which was rarely necessary) that his orders were carried out, served him, gathered information for him and ﬂattered him intensely.
Levi is a powerful observational writer both in this pair of harrowing memoirs but also in his science & science-fictional writing. We’ve never met ‘Colonel Rovi’ but he is instantly recognisable: the man who acts not according to reason but to his deep impulses. As it happens Levi goes on to describe how Rovi’s quasi-authority was relatively benign. Yet, in his description, there is the notion of a man who seeks power for the sake of sycophancy rather than the sycophancy being a by-product of a quest for power.
Moving rapidly from great literature to low comedy, I find myself frequently reminded of Blazing Saddles over the past few months. Of course, this is in part due to the sad death of Gene Wilder but also Mel Brook’s unsubtle side character Governor William J. Le Petomane. Brook’s himself is no stranger to portraying Nazism as absurdity but the Governor in the film is far too self-absorbed to be a tyrant. Instead, Brook plays a lecherous, racist, incompetent politician, who sees himself as a great popular leader but is actually little more than a puppet for the Machiavellian Hedley Lamarr. The Trump/Bannon parallels write themselves.
Brooks and Chaplin have both attempted, to varying degrees of success to capture the inherent comedy of the absurd trumped up figure – the spectacle of extreme interest of the man who acts not according to reason but according to his own deep impulses. I’m not sure either work in general or capture what we have in Trump.
The comedic quality to Trump was employed long before his campaign for the presidency was taken seriously (John Oliver, infamously pleading with Trump in 2o13 to run for president http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/john-oliver-donald-trump-president-944682 ). What Brooks fails to manage and which Chaplin captured better was the mix of both menace and absurdity. Le Petomane, not distracted by a paddle ball but by Tweets that might crash the stock market or start a war. Confronting the abuse of power with its absurdity hides that part of the horror is the absurdity. Closest to this is Chaplin’s dance in character as Hynkel with a globe that is also a balloon.
For awhile Hynkel has complete control of the world until…it bursts and Hynkel is left with a childish expression of disappointment. The burst balloon is most obviously his ambitions but there is a horrific element of world destruction equally in the image.
When I think of that combination of horror from absurdity, that encompasses both the denial of reality forced upon people in 1984 *and* this notion of the dictator as childishly self-absorbed I can’t help but think of the Twlight Zone: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It’s_a_Good_Life_(The_Twilight_Zone)
In this episode, a town is controlled by a child (Bill ‘Lost in Space’ Mumy) who, for reasons unexplained has extraordinary powers. The horror is absurd and it is horrific because it is absurd and because fear prevents the adults from acknowledging the absurdity.
“You’re a bad man. You’re a very bad man and you keeping thinking very bad thoughts about me.”
I’ll stop there I think.