Panicked by Trump? Turn to Lit

Napoleon's retreat from Moscow

Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow


Literature speaks to us at our moments of greatest need so it makes sense that various conservatives would be citing literature as they panic about the rise of Donald Trump. Neo-cons hawk Robert Kagan recently invoked Oedipus and Frankenstein while Ross Douthat of The New York Times pointed to War and Peace.

Meanwhile liberal commentator Tom Sullivan of the blog Hullabaloo made nice use of Slaughterhouse Five to capture how Trump supporters appear to have become unstuck in time.

My favorite of the lot is Kagan’s use of Oedipus:

When the plague descended on Thebes, Oedipus sent his brother-in-law to the Delphic oracle to discover the cause. Little did he realize that the crime for which Thebes was being punished was his own. Today’s Republican Party is our Oedipus. A plague has descended on the party in the form of the most successful demagogue-charlatan in the history of U.S. politics. The party searches desperately for the cause and the remedy without realizing that, like Oedipus, it is the party itself that brought on this plague. The party’s own political crimes are being punished in a bit of cosmic justice fit for a Greek tragedy.

From Oedipus Kagan shifts to the more commonly invoked Frankenstein. I’ve written in the past about how many commentators are turning to Shelley’s novel—or at least to the James Whale movie—to describe what’s transpiring in the GOP. But Kagan is particularly detailed, and his argument carries extra weight as it comes from someone on the right:

Let’s be clear: Trump is no fluke. Nor is he hijacking the Republican Party or the conservative movement, if there is such a thing. He is, rather, the party’s creation, its Frankenstein monster, brought to life by the party, fed by the party and now made strong enough to destroy its maker. Was it not the party’s wild obstructionism — the repeated threats to shut down the government over policy and legislative disagreements; the persistent call for nullification of Supreme Court decisions; the insistence that compromise was betrayal; the internal coups against party leaders who refused to join the general demolition — that taught Republican voters that government, institutions, political traditions, party leadership and even parties themselves were things to be overthrown, evaded, ignored, insulted, laughed at? Was it not Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), among many others, who set this tone and thereby cleared the way for someone even more irreverent, so that now, in a most unenjoyable irony, Cruz, along with the rest of the party, must fall to the purer version of himself, a less ideologically encumbered anarcho-revolutionary? This would not be the first revolution that devoured itself.

Kagan is just getting started, and he ends, unexpectedly, with the declaration that he will vote for Hillary Clinton if Trump is the nominee. The entire piece is well worth reading.

Ross Douthat, sorely distressed that Marco Rubio’s campaign hasn’t fought Trump more fiercely from the beginning, complains that their problem was following the lead of General Kutuzov when facing Napoleon’s invasion:

From their perspective, there’s no reason to play Churchill yet because Trump’s advance is less Hitler-in-France than Napoleon-in-Russia, and they’re like Marshal Kutuzov, the much-maligned Russian commander whose wait, wait, wait strategy was vindicated when winter overwhelmed the French. (With winter, in this case, being Trump’s relatively high unfavorable numbers relative to Rubio, his poor performance in general election polls, the ad campaigns that haven’t yet been unleashed against him but will be, etc.)

Maybe Douthat is referring just to history rather than to Tolstoy’s novel, however, since Tolstoy basically sees everyone just stumbling through events. If that’s the case, then War and Peace is particularly relevant. In Tolstoy’s eyes, tactics are overvalued, and whether a man is celebrated or excoriated depends solely on the outcome rather than on anything he actually does. Perhaps there’s nothing the Republican establishment or Rubio could have done to stop Trump’s advance.

And if Rubio does, miraculously, pull off a victory, then Tolstoy will have captured the situation perfectly. In the course of the novel, we see the conventional wisdom on Kutuzov turn 180 degrees and then 180 degrees again as Russia’s fortunes ebb and flow. Everyone is a Monday morning quarterback.

Which brings us to Sullivan’s Vonnegut reference. In Sullivan’s view, the United States is undergoing a major transition with people looking back to different historical referent points to get a sense of bearing. But people can’t agree on the particular historical referent, which means that we have become Slaughterhouse Five:

This is a very Vonnegut moment. America has come unstuck in time. At one moment, it is 2016. At another, Orwell’s 1984. The next, it is FDR’s 1934. Or 1862, before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Everybody thinks they get to have America their way. And, by God, they feel entitled to it.

In Vonnegut’s novel, Billy Pilgrim, like the author, is inexorably returned to the devastation of Dresden in what could be regarded as PTSD flashbacks. Could middle class wage stagnation and the shocks of a changing world, including the browning of America, be inducing PTSD-like shocks amongst white Americans?

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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