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A Rotting Pumpkin Reveling in Madness

The view from the debate

Paul Berman
September 30, 2020
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The president of the United States appears to be mad. He was never sane in the past, but now, in any case, he raves. A theater director who wished to conjure madness would have ordered precisely such a hairdo, which no longer resembles the buoyant hair of the president’s younger years or his times on “The Apprentice,” but has come to weigh ever more crushingly upon his head, as if flattening a pumpkin. The hue of the cheeks has taken on a sickly quality, like the fallen leaves in late autumn, after the color of vigor has passed into rot. From the crushed pumpkin emerges the voice, whiny, indignant, insistent, unstoppable. It is a disagreeable voice in the way that madmen on the street have disagreeable voices—an adult voice in the tone of a child, halfway lost to the painful allure of a tantrum.

The plastic lines of his mouth, mostly pointing downward into misery, occasionally spreading horizontally into a disturbing mirth, appear to have lost the firm muscularity that once was theirs. And from all of this, the hair, the hue, the impression of downwardness, the loss of control, the loosening plasticity, emerges the ideas, which likewise appear to be descending into rot—the fantastical claims, the angry accusations, the coup being plotted against him, the ominous invitations to the mobs of white supremacy and the extreme right.

I am aware that, in describing the president in this way, friends of mine who support him—I do have such friends—will say that, on the contrary, it is people like me who have lost their sanity. They will say that, oh, never mind that he gave a calamitous performance. What about the wonderful things that he has done? He moved the embassy to Jerusalem. He assassinated an Iranian general, the pandemic is China’s fault, and so forth. And wasn’t somebody named Carter Page wronged by the FBI?

But to my Trumpian friends, I say: Leave aside for the moment the various issues that you consider paramount. Blink twice to get the ordinary politics out of the way, and just look. Gaze honestly at the spectacle that was before you last night. The sound of the man’s voice was madness. It is not as with other presidents, whose hair has gradually turned impressively gray over the course of his term. This is a man who is descending into hysteria. You would hesitate to give a dollar to such a man on the street, for fear of inviting a physical attack.

Dear Trumpian friends: You ought to be able to see this even without making theatrical observations. What exactly was Trump’s strategy on the debate stage just now? Was there any strategy at all, or was his debate policy similar to his Iran policy, random rage and no planning? Which portion of the electorate was he trying to court? The women who dislike him? The industrial workers who used to like him, who may have lately returned to the Democratic Party? The people whose hatred of immigrants, having abated, may need a renewed infusion of loathing to return to the Republican Party? Did he appeal to Floridians? Or to Pennsylvanians, or to anyone? Or is strategy something that is no longer within his comprehension?

No, he is mad. He did us the courtesy of showing it to us.

As for Joe Biden, well, it was a little shocking to hear Biden tell the president of the United States to shut up. “Shush,” said Joe Biden. This was precisely the sign that Biden is not mad.

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.