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The curse of apocalyptic rhetoric: why resisting Donald Trump requires prose

Days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the rhetoric around his presidency on the left remains mostly unchanged: a mix of incredulity and rage, laced with apocalyptic fret.

United States President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast February 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. Picture by Win Mcnamee DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved. On the eve of 9 Nov 2016, shortly after a Trump presidency fell from the realm of wild fantasies and thudded into the heart of reality, I left a stunned group of friends and took a walk across Manhattan at 3 am. Outside, in the global-warmed November night of New York City, nothing moved. Cars had abandoned the streets, people the sidewalks. Now and then I ran into enraged cohorts of people, wandering in shock, or standing transfixed at street corners, glued to their phone screens.

The problem is, rather than contributing to resistance to him, this rhetoric is fueling his raging machine.

Near Washington Square, I saw the first actual human effort to capture the magnitude of what was taking place: a few young women had brought a small globe to the sidewalk and set it on fire. They were sitting around it, weeping and singing a song about the end of the world.

Moving as it was, it seemed like a spontaneous response to a devastating shock, one that would fizzle out as the inevitable reality sinks in, and give way to practical strategies for resisting what so many feared so profoundly.

I write these lines days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, and the rhetoric around his presidency on the left remains mostly unchanged: a mix of incredulity and rage, laced with apocalyptic fret.

The problem is, rather than contributing to resistance to him, this rhetoric is fueling his raging machine.

Apocalyptic rhetoric and political passivity

Many on the left seem to believe that Trump presidency equals the end of the world, end of civilization, end of democracy, etc. This is of course shared by their European counterparts, embodied in Der Spiegel’s cover the day after the election: Donald Trump is portrayed as a meteor bearing down on earth open-mouthed, prepared to gobble up the planet.

It is important to recall that the apocalyptic rhetoric was not the natural, spontaneous response to the ascendency of a con artist. It was first developed and engineered by Democrats, and as it prevailed and came to fruition, was weaponized by them. According to WikiLeaks, a major strategy of the Clinton campaign was to ‘elevate’ extreme right candidates like Donald Trump, so that democrats could portray them as unfathomable monsters in general election, and pave their way to an easy victory.

After Trump won the nomination, most of the American media showered the world with stories about the grave dangers his potential presidency would pose to everyone. Washington Post editorial called Trump a unique threat to American democracy, LA Times the world’s most dangerous man, and NY Times provided an elaborate horror story to dissuade voters from choosing him. The content of those pieces was not untrue, but there is a difference between laying out the facts and deploying those facts to ‘elevate’ someone to the status of total evil, especially when that strategy benefits the very person it intends to harm.

He was pushed off the spectrum of humanity, flipped over and came out of the other side as a god. A destructive, ominous god, but a god

At the same time, Trump supporters bestowed upon their candidate a god-like status. Donald Trump’s famous statement, ‘I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters,’ is that of someone who considers himself above the human limits, a claim that only a self-declared god would make. As the campaign went on, however, his statement turned out to be chillingly accurate.

During the campaign, Donald Trump engaged in every disqualifying behavior imaginable: calling Mexicans rapist, promulgating torture, demanding ban on Muslims, insulting women in multiple ways, most flagrantly in the Hollywood tapes scandal, and none of that wavered his supporters. We were told that his supporters take him seriously not literally. Within the first week it turned out that he is determined to do literally what he promised and some more, yet his supporters do not care. What they do not take seriously is what they see before their eyes. The ridiculous controversy over the size of crowd in inauguration speech is a perfect example: Trump supporters saw the pictures of Obama and Trump inauguration crowd side by side, and had their minds defy their own eyes. They treat their president like a terrestrial Jehovah: a cantankerous, unpredictable, flawed god, but a god nonetheless, omnipotent and omnipresent, capable of solving all the problems of the universe by coming down hard on the misdeeds of the establishment, emancipating America from the claws of the elite, minorities, and terrorists by a snap of finger.

Democrats failed, partially because their campaign strategy differed little from the one Trump supporters signed up to: portraying Trump as a monster, as absolute evil, is the other side of portraying him as a god. Both campaigns worked to Trump’s benefit by taking the same absolutist structure, even though they filled it with opposite contents: Democrats believed he will bring absolute destruction, and supporters equaled him with absolute liberation.

As it turned out, the content mattered little. When passion runs so high, the structure ‘trumps’ any content injected into it. Democrats pushed Trump so far down the ladder of evil that he ultimately ceased to be a human, and became endowed with magical destructive forces. He was pushed off the spectrum of humanity, flipped over and came out of the other side as a god. A destructive, ominous god, but a god. And that is what matters. Democrats meant to scare people away from him, but they unwittingly produced music to the ear of the ones who desired the annihilation of the establishment.

Apocalyptic rhetoric and post-election resistance

Mario Cuomo’s famous dictum, ‘Campaign in poetry, govern in prose’, will never be taken up by Donald Trump, as he is thoroughly alien to the art of prose. His presidency so far has been the continuation of the nerve-grating poetry he relentlessly recited in the campaign: lofty claims, meager content, mind-blowing self-confidence. Democrats are out of the game for the moment, but their own campaign poetry has seeped down into dissent: the apocalyptic, end-of-the-world rhetoric that equates Trump with total evil.

To effectively combat Trump, a rhetorical overhaul, a move from poetry to prose, seems necessary.

The role of the mainstream media is worth noting here: there has been plenty of self-flagellation and apparent self-reflection, but they still operate within the same framework, and produce what Donald Trump loves to hear. Since entertaining the audience is still of paramount importance, they cannot stop falling into the trap of sensationalization, which Trump sets for them virtually every day. They keep contributing to the construction of the world he thrives in the best.

Examples abound: Sean Spicer, Trump’s secretary of press, harasses and threatens the media, even refuses to answer their questions, yet they are too spineless to walk away, and will attend the next press conference upon announcement. Kellyanne Conway comes on air practically every other hour, doling out blatant lies and alternative facts. When she goes off air, the whole punditry bitch and moan about how she insults the media, yet no TV network dares to deny her air time. Apparently, she is also ‘damn good’ for ratings. The media has been over-interpreting Trump’s every tweet to draw something grand out of it, dwelling on every single word that comes out of his mouth. No wonder Trump, modest as always, calls himself ‘Hemingway of twitter’: no literary critic has read into Hemingway’s sharp prose more than what the media pundits have attributed to Trump’s tweets.

To effectively combat Trump, a rhetorical overhaul, a move from poetry to prose, seems necessary. The best gambit would be to do the opposite of what the media has been doing: stepping away from the onslaught of soundbites, taking a cold, unsensationalized look at how things unfold. Searching for the banality of evil, not its glamor.

Donald Trump has no magic wand to wave and bring about ultimate destruction. He is just who he is: a reality TV character whose knowledge of politics is as limited as his vocabulary.

Nothing empowers Trump more than sensationalization, and it doesn’t matter whether the aim is to support or attack him. Governing with poetry is the problem. We need to bear in mind that poetry has previously fueled disaster, that the ‘poetic-military complex’ is not unheard of. A prosaic resistance strategy is needed, a cold stare that cuts through glitz and glint, and observes the painfully boring, superficial core of the spectacle we are sold as politics.

Donald Trump has no magic wand to wave and bring about ultimate destruction. He is just who he is: a reality TV character whose knowledge of politics is as limited as his vocabulary. He arrived at the right time right place, when the whole political scene was already diminished to a reality TV show, ripe for his takeover. Beneath the surface, like any other reality TV show, there is nothing but boredom and shallowness. Only a resistance strategy in prose can scratch away the grandiosity, reveal the empty, fragile core of this show, and set the ground for defeating it.

About the author

Amir Ahmadi Arian is an Iranian novelist and journalist, the author of two critically acclaimed novels and a book of nonfiction in Farsi, short stories and essays in English. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from The University of Queensland, Australia. He is currently enrolled at NYU writing program, and lives in New York City.


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