Florida Man Eats America
As befitting the dark and labyrinthine Kafkaesque landscape that has settled upon this American experiment, Donald J. Trump awoke one morning and found himself transformed into an insect.
Well, not really an insect, but a bug. You know, as in virus. Like, the virus. The virus that his inability to manage with effective leadership, or even acknowledge, to a degree, had eroded his already precarious chance for re-election, exposing him as phony, reckless, callous and unqualified to many who, astoundingly, had somehow not already seen those qualities in him, or who had, at the very least, chosen to overlook them.
Like so many, I’ve spent a lot of time lately contemplating, or agonizing, really, our current state of affairs. The reality is stark, and difficult. Not only the obvious hardships, personally and societally, brought on by this pandemic, but the political and social shifts that are once again at the forefront of our attention.
To this end, I had been trying to think of a literary or allegorical metaphor in which to summarize the emergence of Trump, and Trumpism, in our midst; to tie it together, somehow, with the worldwide pandemic which has so altered life as we know it. And when he got sick with the virus himself a few weeks ago, I thought I might be on to something. He contracted the virus, so the tale would be told, and consequently morphed into it. Kind of like Gregor Samsa awoke into his unexpected state of…bugness.
Not a super original thought, I admit. Not even an apt analogy of a less-than-ideal allegory to make my point. Notwithstanding the overarching themes of alienation and societal isolation in Metamorphosis — which seem quite relevant to our current situation—it just doesn’t quite work. Mostly because, among other things, Trump is far from the protagonist of this story, let alone the victim.
Of course, it depends on your point of view. When you are the delusional hero of your own fantastical narrative and you have a legion of followers who will march into the sea behind the dulcet tones of your insidiously hypnotic piping, almost any metaphor will do.
Sorry, I’ve done it again. A little better, but while this analogy of Trump as a gaudy, mad piper leading his lemmings over the cliff has some merit, it’s still not quite working for me. If you remember the story, or some version of it, you know that the Pied Piper led the children away after the townsfolk refused to pay him for ridding their village of lemmings. So, even if you want to analogize that the children in the story represent our innocence lost — the self-styled ideal of American freedom, liberty and justice stripped bare to reveal systemic inequality and rampant corruption— I contend that those inequities and open wounds were already festering, and Trump is not remotely clever or talented enough to have revealed them deliberately.
No, I think the best metaphor for the Trumpian effect on America is much simpler, far more obvious, and eerily ironic in it’s timing: it is the virus itself, and it’s arrival in the final year of his first term.
I do not consider that I am making some grand revelation here, or that I’m the first to notice the symbolism contained in this once-in-a-century event––a cataclysmic shift in our zeitgeist––as both it, the Coronavirus, and he, the human version, consume everything, and everyone, in their paths.
To paraphrase and repurpose a classic Marshall McLuhan principal: the man is the message. The man, in this case, is a deeply flawed, irredeemable shit-can of a human, whose vulgar behavior and destructive politics of annhilation have paralyzed a nation that has long been harboring a submerged resentment; disillusionment borne out of the dawning realization that not only is the American dream lost, but that it never existed in the first place.
The palpable feeling that some monstrous manifestation of Trump’s personality has permeated our everyday life is hard to escape. His ideas, his sociopathy, his obsession with the banal and petty. Even his infantile and obnoxious character traits. The lies and the narcissism. The disdain for long-held American institutions and traditions, such as the media, the military and democracy itself. The lack of empathy, or the tiniest fragment of ethical conscience. The totalitarian wish-fantasies of a man who doesn’t understand historical perspective and doesn’t care. The childish behavior and boorish antics of a profoundly immature, emotionally-damaged and under-developed man-baby.
It would be proper journalism at this point to cite at least a few examples here. Any small sampling from the endless litany of absurd, outrageous, unpresidential, immoral and corrupt acts and utterances that encapsulates the four years of his highlight…er, low-light reel. But these relentless and mind-numbing examples occur so frequently that they have finally become what amounts to newsbites and eyewash on the evening news, successfully normalized and sanitized, like the teasers for one of his reality-shows, and fuel for the psychotic wet dream of Trump’s imagined autocracy. Mentioning them again would be sadistic, citing them as evidence pointless. Anyway, they have already been litigated in our social consciousness, ad nauseam.
Besides, I really don’t think that it’s the tangible evidence of failed policy and sick behavior that feed upon our national soul in the most diabolical way. No, it’s the intangible effects wrought by the ever-present awareness that this parasite occupies the highest acknowledged office in the land. That he and his bloodline of grifters and miscreants sleep in America’s house. He swivels in his chair in front of the Resolute Desk as he baskets another balled-up Big Mac wrapper. It’s a kind of how-the-fuck-did-we-arrive-in-this-place form of existential dread that permeates all aspects of everyday life, and has not ceased, or waned, since the morning after election day, 2016.
The normalization of racism and brazen bigotry are startling alarm bells for the seeds of creeping fascism. But underpinning that is the harrowing implication that the very idea of a common core of ethics is no longer unanimous to every citizen, and that’s terrifying. The politics of division and hate are exhausting on an ideological scale, but the struggle to reconcile such deep differences on the street level, in everyday interpersonal ways, is both tragic and emotionally devastating.
We cycle through the disjointed processes of unfriending on social media, avoiding family get-togethers, learning new ways to swallow disgust in favor of civility. We notice a growing alienation from certain co-workers, associates, clients. The mistrust of new strangers and old acquaintences for fear they might be one of them. We do this dance of social interactions, trying to negotiate that line of when it’s “worth it” to express our feelings, or more prudent to shut up, knowing that the difficult internalizations are in many ways more soul-rending than just having it out, and severing another tie. We cannot bear to agree to disagree, because the very idea that anyone could suggest this is simply about a political contest or a policy difference makes us want to throw up in our mouths. The dissolution of a shared reality, the absolute iron-plated wall between their facts and ours, and the very real truth that only one of them is right. Having to stick that landing with grace.
I often find myself feeling depressed or anxious for reasons that I can’t pin down. It’s more than personal stress or emotional dips or the restless ennui of general life stuff. It’s the feeling that I don’t know where I am anymore. That I can’t feel the ground under my feet. That there isn’t a shared concept of what constitutes moral right, justice or even basic human kindness. The country I grew up in is unrecognizable, and not just in the ways that mark the natural progression of cultural and social mores. There have always been political differences, and sometimes vociferous separation of ideas. But Trumpism has soaked the very bones of the American psyche with shamelessness, apathy, meanness and self-loathing.
And mind you––I am a white, middle-aged man. I cannot even begin to imagine the experience of this perspective from a person of color. From a woman. From an individual in the LGBTQ community. From an immigrant. From a brown toddler, spending what should be his joyous discovery years in a cage and unable to fathom what happened to his parents. We simply cannot exist in a world where fear is an acceptable commodity for the negotiation of our individual and common identity.
Most exasperatingly, the thing that defies any attempt to package this phenomenon into some convenient analogy falls apart because the central figure of the story — Trump himself — is the personification of random chance. He’s gotten far too much credit, on both sides, for being some sort of mastermind or evil genius, when the reality is that he arrived, much like the Coronavirus, through a combination of a perfect storm of natural anomolies and human error. He’s a broken, syphilitic clown on laughing gas who stumbled into the children’s party and inadvertently gave the performance of his life. The emergence of Trumpism, under one guise or another, was probably inevitable, and the warning signs were there. With proper attention, perhaps the spread could have been mitigated. But once we created him, and nurtured him with apathy and ridicule, he grew stronger.
There is a culminating line in a song called Elvis Ate America––from a flippant but inspiring side-project consisting of Brian Eno and the members of U2––that goes “Elvis ate America before America ate him.” I’m not sure what meaning was intended, but I always took it to imply that Elvis became ever larger than life, as an unconscious struggle to outpace the myth of his own celebrity. Sadly, for Elvis, this path led to a scene of grotesque, bloated indulgence and excess, culminating in the act of a base and humiliating, yet predictable decline into irrelevance and finally, self-destruction.
But the legacy of Elvis will always be the memory of him as the legend, the sensation, the pelvis…Elvis. All of the excess has diminished into so much tabloid rumor and we chalk it up to a late-life caricature. Sure, we love to laugh about Fat Elvis and his gold-lamme jumpsuits. But it’s young Elvis we cherish.
Trump and Trumpism began as bloat and excess. That is where he planted his flag in the early days of his perverse celebrity, and that is the memory we will be left with when he has become irrelevant. I would like to posit, optimistically (for I must), that this infection is bound to run it’s course. I don’t think it will happen overnight. But it will happen, I believe, with or without the person of Trump to die with it.
Still, he seems determined on laying the foundation for the next phase of his legacy, even if he’s not aware that that’s what he’s doing. And whether he watches it play out from the pirated perch of another term, or from a reclusive exile at Mar-A-Lago, as a revival of the tabloid reality-star pundit for Fox News, or as an inmate from a New York state prison, there seems little doubt that his actual involvement in the spread of this movement will hardly even be required. His cancer has already been unleashed and caused immeasurable harm to the body of the nation that nurtured and created him. But he will be relegated, one day, to a pathetic symbol of the irrational fears and paranoia of the far right, a nostalgia for an American tantrum, the nation at it’s most failing, or most flailing.
As this torturous election winds down and winds up — depending on which side of the glass you prefer to be empty — it is appropriate, and not accidental, that Trump anchors the last of his appearances this week in the state of Florida, his adopted home. As he spins through another dozen or so frantic rallies of orgiastic viral super-spreading, in one final desperate week, in what may be the electrifying terminus of a historically norm-shattering presidency, Trump seems determined to be the sarcastic headline for the punchline, every single day, to the ubiquitous internet game called Florida Man.
His rally speeches, tweets, public musings and interview meltdowns in the period since he contracted — and supposedly ‘beat’ Covid-19 — have been over the top, even by his standards. He he has put the batshit in crazy in a way that makes even his malignant narcissism blush.
As we all prepare to stand up, or line up, to do our duty, it is important that we remember not only who we are now, but who we have been, and who we want to be. Trump has been shredding the mechanisms of American democracy from the outside, but those can be saved. Restructured, girded, even made stronger, if we act soon and reverse course.
Still, he is eating America from the inside, and that will take infinitely more effort, energy, healing and redemption for us to recover. It will take all of us.
And I don’t have a metaphor for that.