Down the rabbit hole. Kafkaesque. 2016: where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. Just describing this current election strains the descriptive faculty. This election feels more like art than politics. But not the kind of art we’re used to; weird art, avant-garde art. A hundred years after the preposterously brutal horror of World War One led to the rise of futurism, surrealism, expressionism, absurdism, artists insisting that art no longer describe reality, reality itself having been violently shattered, so what we needed instead was anti-art, reflecting a radical opposition to/immersion in politics. I feel like we’ve stepped into a time machine, gone back 100 years, to 1916 and Zurich and the Cabaret Voltaire, where Dada reigned. Dada was a nonsense word for nonsense art; its performers tore up Shakespeare’s sonnets, then read their words in random order. Or placed a lovely French child on-stage, in her first communion dress, to read a poem consisting of the vilest profanities in German, a language of which the child was ignorant. Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, and Jean Arp, who was also called Hans Arp, because as he held joint citizenship in France and Germany. This election reminds me of Dada. Anti-art, reflecting anti-politics. Because the Republican Party–the conservative, white bread, buttoned down, relentlessly bourgeois party!–has nominated Donald “Ubu” Trump for the Presidency.
But let’s take our time machine back another twenty years. To December 10, 1896, the one performance of Ubu Roi, a hilarious and blasphemous and horrifying and intentionally offensive play by the madman/genius Alfred Jarry, at the Theatre de lŒuvre in Paris. Riots shut down the show. In fact, rioting began with the first word spoken on-stage: “merdre,” almost, but not quite, a French swear word. And in the play, the fat and disgusting Ubu raged and whined and beat his wife and insulted women, while conquering Poland. In the audience was William Butler Yeats. He was shocked and horrified and appalled by the play, but more than a little impressed, and reflected on his own avant-garde past, and then added “after us, what more is possible? The savage God.” Ubu Roi is a grotesque caricature of the bourgeoisie, with the revolutionary Ubu at its center: violent, inarticulate, brutal, venal, misogynist, racist. A revolutionary who becomes King. Sound like someone you know?
So I make this case. Ubu Roi, by Alfred Jarry, prefigures the candidacy of Donald Trump. It’s savage and it’s funny and it’s profoundly anti-democratic. Isn’t Trump running, not for President, but for King? Isn’t his candidacy built, as Ubu’s first line puts it, on ‘merdre?’ Not quite merde, but close to it, the misspelling adding to the ridiculousness of it, the whole play teetering on the edge of comedy, if it wasn’t so horrifying. After its one performance, it was obvious that the play could no longer be performed as written. So Jarry turned it into puppet theatre. And wrote two more plays in an extended Ubu saga, neither of which was performed in his lifetime, except with puppets. And Ubu begat dada, and surrealism, and absurdism. Ubu leads to Zurich, and the dada crowd.
This is now. This is happening. Murderous clowns cavort in southern forests. An advisor to a major party Presidential nominee insists that the current President of the United States is demonic, that he reeks of sulphur and attracts hordes of flies. A new movement has arisen, insisting that Obama was demonized–turned demonic–by the Grand Demon from Hell: Oprah Winfrey. A televised Presidential debate was conducted with a Greek chorus of accusing Furies, assault victims of one candidate’s husband, sitting in grim judgment. As for Hillary Clinton, another close advisor to Mr. Trump has detailed descriptions of 67 homicides she’s supposed to have committed. That’s where we are. A sizeable percentage of the electorate is convinced that one of the candidates is a serial killer.
Our political process has become ontologically unstable, if not epistemologically unhinged. We can’t agree on what’s real. We can’t agree on what sources we can read that might describe what’s real. To paraphrase Yeats again, in his greatest poem, we’re turning, turning in the widening gyre, the center really cannot hold. (But, boy, can we ever more clearly than ever, the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born). We don’t agree about the basic nature of the world. We don’t agree about what ‘truth’ means. We have at our fingertips the greatest technology for the dissemination of information ever invented, and we have learned, to our dismay and shock, that all it does, aside from sharing cute kitten videos, is exacerbate confirmation bias. Make us more polarized. More at each other’s throats.
We’re used to elections in which the candidates do not agree about policy. That’s normal. That’s usual. I feel considerable nostalgia for 2012 (so long ago in the past, it feels!) when Barack Obama and Mitt Romney disagreed about things like tax policy. Deep in our hearts and souls, we knew that both men were fully qualified to become President, and would do their best to serve honorably if elected.
(But there was always something beneath that, wasn’t there? An irrational core of festering hatred and fear and racism and self-disgust. It was always there, barely acknowledged, but bursting forth periodically).
But what now, when we can’t even agree about what issues our country actually faces, what problems we expect our politics to solve? Look at Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. It was death and destruction, murder and violence, hordes of roaming illegal immigrants slaughtering our children. He said “Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this Administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.” He said “This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction and weakness.”
Apocalyptic language; if Hillary Clinton wins this election, we cannot survive. And of course, that’s happened before. Hyperbolic prophecies of incipient doom are often invoked by the most fanatical political partisans, Right or Left. But this is something else again. I’ve talked to Trump supporters, and if there’s one thing they have in common, it is an insistence that our country is in terrible shape, and that unless something is done about it, we may not any of us survive. Or at least, our fragile democracy is seriously threatened.
(And it’s all nonsense. Violent crime statistics show massive decreases over the last eight years. Nafta didn’t destroy our economy, and Isis isn’t much of a threat, and immigration is a good thing, economically, even if it’s illegal. He’s factually wrong about everything).
When irrationality triumphs, what’s left are irrational false narratives. Conspiracy theories. Here was Donald Trump today on the campaign trail.
Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt — now, when I say “corrupt,” I’m talking about totally corrupt — political establishment. There is nothing the political establishment will not do — no lie that they won’t tell, to hold their prestige and power at your expense. And that’s what’s been happening. . It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.
This is not simply another four-year election. This is a crossroads in the history of our civilization that will determine whether or not we the people reclaim control over our government.
This is nothing new. This kind of rhetoric has been used before, most appallingly in Germany in the 30s. Once it was the Rothschilds, or, more simply, a cabal of “Jewish bankers” conspiring together to destroy America, or the world economy, or western civilization. Or ‘mongrel races.’ Or it was ZOG that threatened (Zionist Occupation Government, a favorite acronym of the Ku Klux Klan). Or perhaps something more actively demonic. Alex Jones (a ‘2-degrees of separation’ Trump advisor) had this to say.
I’m told her and Obama just stink, stink, stink. You can’t wash that stuff off, man. I’m told there’s a rotten smell around Hillary. I’ve been told this by high-up folks. They say, listen, Obama and Hillary smell like sulphur. I’ve talked to people who are on protective details. They’re scared of her. They say, listen, she’s a demon, and so’s Obama, and they stink of sulphur.
And now, it appears, there’s a new evangelical group of Trump backers, who claim to have identified the arch-demon who turned Barack and Hillary evil. Who? Wait for it: Oprah Winfrey.
That’s where we are. That’s where we stand. At the end of Ubu, he wrestles, and defeats a bear, a traditional symbol for Russia. Earlier, Russia invades Poland. It’s like Jarry sort of even got the politics right. Russia as threat and savior? Seriously?
Jarry once described himself as ‘blind and unwavering undisciplined at all times the real strength of free men.’ Blind as Trump is blind, unwavering (the Mexicans are paying for that wall, by golly!), and so remarkably undisciplined, with insanely self-destructive tweets at four in the morning. Every morning, I check the internet. What else has happened? Could anything get stranger? Ignoring two major hurricanes, because that madman did something even more surreal last night. Dada: absolutely. Ubu indeed.