Like so many of us, I’ve spent the last 18 months enthralled by the dark carnival of our latest national election. From the start, I couldn’t tear my eyes from the spectacle of the Republican primaries. Never have I experienced such oceanic quantities of schadenfreude as I did watching the front men for modern conservatism stand slack-jawed while the leading candidate for their party’s nomination figuratively slapped George W. Bush across the face for starting the Iraq War and flushed 30 years of free-market trade policy down the toilet like schoolwork torn from the hands of teachers’ pets. From my own white, middle-class safety, I thrilled at Donald Trump finally bringing the Republican Party’s appeals to racial prejudice into the open, where they would be judged in all their ugliness. But at the end of each debate, I felt the nausea of the glutton and promised myself to consume less of the circus in the days ahead, only to return to the political blogs the next morning, hungry for fatuous commentary on who had “won,” knowing in my gut that all I or any of us were doing was losing whatever frayed threads of decency still held American political life together. Through the conventions, the summer meltdowns, and now the fall debates, my mind has been captive to each flicker in the polls.
And I am hardly alone. Our presidential contests have become such prolonged episodes of mass distraction and political anxiety it’s hard to even keep track of what we are experiencing. Still, we have to try. And that begins by understanding that one of the reasons they have become such totalizing events is that presidential elections are one of the only chances we have left to fulfill the basic human need to experience collective emotion. In an era of social atomization and online living, when we have so few points of civic attachment in the vast middle ground between domestic life and the imperial presidency, the candidates—as the phenomenon of Barack Obama made abundantly clear—have become repositories for feelings that have nowhere else to go. What have been, for most of our history, political contests over leadership of the executive branch have transmogrified in recent decades into something we experience less as debates on the direction of the nation than as zero-sum battles over who will be allowed the pleasure and relief of feeling they are not alone in their own country. Beneath the smog of vitriol and disgust that has characterized this election, then, lies a great sorrow: that there is so little fellow feeling left among us these days that we are compelled to seek it in our national leader. Historically, this has never been a good sign.
No one has better manipulated this paucity of solidarity—and thus more powerfully distracted us from the concerns of real life—than Donald Trump. He’s accomplished this through endless acts of public verbal violence that have broken one unwritten rule of political discourse after the next, and have had the effect that all violence does: to shock those who experience it into a kind of stunned passivity. Eventually, as we have seen, the violence numbs people’s senses to the point that they no longer fully register the horror of what they are living through.
In an essay on King Lear, the philosopher Stanley Cavell describes Lear’s daughter Regan, who orders the eyes of her father’s loyal friend Gloucester gouged out, thusly: “She has no ideas of her own; her special vileness is always to increase the measure of pain others are prepared to inflict; her mind is itself a lynch mob.” A year and a half into Trump’s incitement of a campaign, this seems the most concise formulation of his character: He has no ideas of his own; his special vileness is always to increase the measure of rhetorical violence others are prepared to inflict; his mind is itself a political mob.