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The Prophet and Trump

The unfathomable harbinger of doomsday? Or just a political blip?

Paul Berman
May 09, 2016
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne/Wikipedia
Detail, Stefan Lochner, 'Last Judgement,' c. 1435. Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne/Wikipedia
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne/Wikipedia
Detail, Stefan Lochner, 'Last Judgement,' c. 1435. Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne/Wikipedia

An old man banged a cane on the sidewalk and announced:

“Donald Trump’s political successes reflect a cultural crisis, and nothing else. His successes do not reflect a crisis over immigration. There is no such crisis. Nor is there a crisis of unemployment. Among white Americans the unemployment rate is 4.3 percent. Nor is some kind of right-wing ideological triumph taking place. Nor do Trump’s successes reflect a political split in the Republican Party. Ted Cruz stood for something. Trump stands for himself. He proposes to be the savior of the nation. The nation does not need a savior.”

My face radiated skepticism. The old man, unfazed:

“Yes, a cultural crisis. Every serious journalist in America understands this crisis—understands it by personal experience. The disappearance of one newspaper after another, and the shrinking of the magazines, and the fact that news depends on fewer and fewer reporters—these are more than business facts. Here is the cultural collapse. Worse: The surviving newspapers and political magazines, understaffed and underfunded, have lost their professional edge, not in every respect but in many respects; and everybody knows it. Does the collapse of the book-review supplements and the slimming of the magazines seem to you meaningless? Maybe you figure that people never bothered with books, anyway. You are wrong. The supplements and magazines survived in the past, didn’t they?

“Television news: another sad story. The decline of the trade unions: sadder yet. In days gone by, people used to get a political orientation from their unions, which was reality-based, too.

“Disembowelment by Internet—of course, that is the explanation. And yet the cultural collapse is also an event in the history of ideas. The collapse of music education and the symphony orchestras is part of it. The fate of humanities education, a larger part. The literature professors devote themselves to policing the literature of the past for its racist and imperialist political crimes, and the humanities students devote themselves to persecuting transgressors and promoting the higher cause of flaying the Zionists. But, I grant you, the universities are not the center of the problem. Nor is classical music the center.”

I said, “Where is the center, then?”

“Center? There is no center. The problem is somehow in the air. It is a cumulus cloud, in which the fog-puff cumulations are variously right-wing conspiracy theorists, left-wing theorists, old-school racists, populist anti-elitists who inveigh against highbrow culture, and highbrow professors who likewise inveigh against highbrow culture—the enemies of intellect, high and low, right and left. The effect is to leave huge portions of the population rudderless as to making political decisions—deprived of reliable political reporting, addicted to the cyber-hysterias of their electronic devices, deprived of leadership by institutional systems, deprived of a sense of history and of American political tradition, and incapable of judging any longer who is worthy of respect and who is not. People today are incapable even of identifying the simple quality that is known as presidential.”

I said, “Oh, none of this is new.”

“It is new,” he said. “The first sign of it within the world of politics took place in 2008, which is practically yesterday. John McCain understood that Sarah Palin was unfit for high office. Palin was unable to tell Katie Couric what magazines she reads! Everyone knew why: Sarah Palin does not read magazines. She was already the modern personality: a proud barbarian, confident in her illiteracy. But McCain understood that, in order to have any chance to win, he needed to motivate the party base, which he himself could never do, nor could any other leader of the Republican party. So, he gambled on barbarism’s appeal. It was unprincipled of him, it was scandalous, but it was a matter of political survival.

“In this way, McCain, who represents the best of the Republican party, paved the way for Trump, who is not even the worst of the Republican tradition but comes from outside of it. Trump: a figure without precedent in the Republican party. It is no small thing to consider that, from the days of John C. Frémont, Lincoln’s predecessor, until Mitt Romney, the Republicans never once awarded their presidential nomination to someone visibly unqualified. Sen. Joseph McCarthy was a drunkard and a liar, but, at least, in those days the Republican party preferred to nominate Dwight Eisenhower.”

I interjected: “Circumstances explain everything—isn’t that a law of politics?”

The old man:

“Trump’s triumph is terrifying because it resists explanation. No large or powerful group or faction is responsible for his successes. Bernie Sanders’ railings against Wall Street and banks and Citizens United tell us nothing about what has happened. And Trump’s success is terrifying because it is not obvious what can prevent similar developments from taking place in other versions.

“If masses of Republican voters have lost the ability to make the most obvious of judgments, why shouldn’t parallel developments take place among their Democratic counterparts? Democrats may be chortling right now, and yet one day they, too, may wake up to discover that entire blocs of voters in their party’s base, the young people whom everybody loves, have decided, on the basis of information gleaned from Twitter, to nominate a guitar hero or a talk-show star. And if this can happen to the world’s most venerable democracy, why not to the newer and shakier ones?

“Here is a crisis that absolutely no one anticipated. In this one respect, though not in any other respect (thank heaven!), the successes of Donald Trump share something with the rise of the Islamic State. These are outbreaks of Proudhon’s ‘fecundity of the unpredictable.’ A characteristic of a viral age.”

“No,” I said. “You are just another prophet of the decline of civilization. Something is indeed predictable, and it is the gloomy nattering of doomsayers like you.”

“ ‘Even paranoids have enemies,’ said Delmore Schwartz,” he replied. “Today we are learning that doomsayers have dooms.”


To read more of Paul Berman’s essays and criticism for Tablet magazine, click here.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.