It occurs that reading American political commentary has become a more delicate, more complex task than writing political commentary. Printed observations on our wretched political currents reign in, and over, the present — fears are unleashed, invective flows, alarmism rules, and the more sophisticated and informed the commentary, the more the commentary writes itself. All this because of Trump, who is utterly without nuance. His childlike behavior and adolescent notions of governance are nakedly preposterous; his grievances range from the disingenuous to the ignorant, and his many offensive fronts — such as that against the press — are a joke.
Hence writing in opposition to Trump (& Co.) is nearly as effortless as recounting one's ABCs, which, in turn, are as complex as TrumpThought. The essence of "philosophical" Trumpism is little more than a revival of 1960s Goldwaterism, which held that the greater and more aggressive the simplicity of mind, the more efficacious its application to national problems. (Liberalism, on the other hand, embraces complexity, which of course makes its electoral challenges more challenging, given that mass analytical thought is required to appreciate liberalism's approach to governance. Reaganism and the the 1970s New Right picked up on this key political insight, and ran with it — successfully.)
Contemporary commentary of the informed sort is thus virtually indistinguishable in its anticipated truisms. This morning, for instance, E.J. Dionne justifiably rails: "Just when you despair that only chaos animates the Trump administration, along comes Stephen K. Bannon, the White House ideologue, to offer … his Deep Thoughts on Trumpism at the Conservative Political Action Conference." What Dionne confronts is the gobbledygook of Bannon's "deconstruction of the administrative state" — a pseudointellectual corruption of Jacques Derrida's pseudointellectual gobbledygook about the impossibility of discerning the real meaning of written texts, which, naturally, would apply to Derrida's texts themselves. "Deconstruction," then, collapses on itself. (Take note, Mr. Bannon.)
My apologies for that bit of digression. What principally moves Dionne is the despair of Trump's chaos, just as most of us despair. And that's fair enough. Dionne's Post colleague Robert Samuelson simultaneously despairs: "Even without Trump’s eccentric and questionable behavior, so much is in flux that we’re disoriented. Stripped of familiar and reassuring beliefs, we are increasingly governed by disruptive surprises. This is why I call the present moment the age of disbelief." Again, fair enough, a perfectly justified — and quite familiar — observation.
As is Paul Krugman's, over at the Times: "Outrage at what’s happening to America isn’t just justified, it’s essential. In fact, it may be our last chance of saving democracy." Chimes Krugman's colleague Charles Blow about Trump's many outrages: "[His] demagogic language is reductionist language…. It can be quaint and even clumsy, all of which can give idiocy, incomprehensibility and untruth a false air of authenticity." As it did in the early stages of Goldwaterism.
Indeed, it seems we find ourselves in an intellectually untimely warp — one from which we never quite left. How so, more pointedly? This morning I was also rereading Philip Roth's 1960 speech (titled "Writing American Fiction") at Stanford University. Its contemporaneity is as chilling as it is informative:
The daily newspapers … fill one with wonder and awe: is it possible? is it happening? And of course with sickness and despair. The fixes, the scandals, the insanities, the treacheries, the idiocies, the lies, the pieties, the noise…. Recently, in Commentary, Benjamin DeMott wrote that the "deeply lodged suspicion of the times [is] namely, that events and individuals are unreal, and that power to alter the course of the age, of my life and your life, is actually vested nowhere." There seems to be, said DeMott, a kind of "universal descent into unreality."
There we were, on the precipice of the New Frontier — an opening to the civil rights movement and feminism and all manner of revolutionary thinking and activist urges — and yet the intellectual consensus, as expressed by the sick and despairing Roth, was one of national fixes, scandals, insanities, treacheries, idiocies, lies, pieties and noise.
That those torments — generally, a "descent into unreality" — also exemplify Trumpism is inarguable. Thus do political commentators (including myself) argue the point unremittingly. And yet the informed reader already comprehends the descent, the insanities, the idiocies, the lies. Of what novel value to the reader, then, is all the unremitting commentary?
What the reader must muster, as he or she journeys through so much depressingly indistinguishable political commentary, is historical perspective. Trump and Trumpism are, in so many ways, unique abominations on the republic; nonetheless, their horrors are far from historically unfamiliar. That is what's absent from so much of today's political commentary (again, including mine). And so it is, perforce, up to the reader to pull intellectual tranquility from emotional panic.
It just might get you through the day — and, ultimately, on to the new New Frontier.