I met a big man in Saskal Badali, a village in western Maharashtra south of the Dickensian grime of Phaltan. Someone told him a foreigner was in town taking pictures, and he came out to tend to his interests. The villagers who had clustered around me and Babu, my tuk-tuk driver, made themselves smaller as he walked up in his shiny whites.
He had a small retinue, unsmiling. His swagger was Trumpish, or it just reminded me, for Donald Trump is visible, moreso every day, even from here.
He is not so famous in India as chest-pounding American wrestlers on morning TV, but his threats have drawn attention. In an analytical piece about North Korea’s proud claim to have exploded a hydrogen bomb (Indian Express, Jan. 11, 2016), Andray Abrahamian mentioned the worrying distortions of American foreign policy in an election year. “The multiplicity of remaining candidates will have a chance to talk tough about North Korea,” he wrote, “criticizing past administrations while offering implausible solutions, if they offer any at all. If current patterns hold, Donald Trump will say something particularly ridiculous and everyone else will have to react.”
India has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, so Trump’s promise to close the borders to them has also stirred unease, as did his comment that he could gun down someone in public and not lose a vote.
The village big man’s broad face was deeply lined and an unnatural color from lightening chemicals; his hair was glossily black. Up close, it looked as sticky as shoe polish, and his Phantal stylist had colored even the skin of his hairline, making it black as well. The overall effect was that sought by Chinese politicians: a virile Las Vegas agelessness.
He was the local money lender, “very wealthy,” Babu said later in a hushed voice, and even I, who was flush and didn’t need a loan, felt his menace.
Reinhold Niebuhr speaks of “the little amenities which have always veiled the nakedness of the lust for power,” and the nod and friendly smile of the thug (late payments are discouraged here with beatings) was one. I was a passing spectacle, something to give to his beholden at a bearable cost—a Christmas goose, a year-end bonus, a common enemy.
Unexpected encounters on these Indian backroads stir analogy. If he lived among us, the money lender would wear a business suit and a thin smile: he has become wealthy by exploiting weakness.
America’s hallelujahs in support of our central myth have room for him. We have believed in Progress—change, bigger, better—a gospel for the left and the right, the one expecting human advancement, the other demanding ever more efficient systems.
Atomized as we have become, each buzzing within a cubicle, the tribal abbreviations of who we are offer vital comforts: Packers fan; second amendment frontiersman; Catholic; senior citizen; quilter; patriot; corporate gee-whizzer…. They cloak our fears with illusions of community.
We are frightened. We’ve become a timid people, afraid to walk at night; afraid of losing our job; afraid of missing the game; afraid of strangers on the block, and we yearn, more fiercely now with our flickering screens always on, for inclusion and for salvation.
Beyond the usual celebrity adulators, our self-abasing needy seek the heroic overturner, and in our country, which reads no more than is necessary, a champion: Shane, Dirty Harry in new clothes. The savior blows in as a remedy for incompetence or injustice: Barack Obama was a repudiation of the dumbness of the lesser Bush, as Dwight Eisenhower provided post-Roosevelt calming and John Kennedy relief from Eisenhower dullness.
Trump’s confidence seems from his staging as reassuring as a revival: he is the newest prize in the cereal box. George Wallace, a 60’s bogey-man, promised to curb Washington social engineering when the unfamiliar uppityness of blacks and the irreverence of hippies threatened the foundations of known America; and Gene McCarthy promised a return to the prudence of the Eisenhower era after a decade of Democratic militaristic recklessness that has altered, as he and Eisenhower warned it would, the American psyche.
We’re always on the lookout for a champion.They come and then fade away.
Trump, from that perspective, is perhaps most analogous to Louis Farrakhan. He is without experience in government or public service of any kind and promises not restoration but an uprooting that would replace the clumsy compromises of government with his certainties. He promises war and a further bolstering of the police and the military, which he holds close as a personal militia. And, unambiguously, he urges the exclusion of large groups—Mexicans, refugees, Muslims and all who question him—from the social compact.
Republican Party functionaries, stripped of an intelligible philosophy of government other than self-perpetuation but sharing his fondness for menace, pretend an equal fierceness, curs in his pack.
It isn’t necessary to question his sincerity or even to wonder overmuch if his pronouncements emerge from long reflection, as Nehru’s and Mandela’s emerged from long imprisonment, or if they are merely opportunistic.
When fear and insecurity, meanness, are widespread as they are now in America, the field is open to a skillful demagogue, and, like him or loathe him, Trump has found his fans. He dismisses cautions about complexity. That’s for wimps. His steely gaze, his years of experience in the financial back alleys of Manhattan and Jersey, have prepared him to shoot forward to a new era uncrimped by Constitutional niceties.
The social restraints enjoyed in Saskal Badali, the village traditions and expectations, are far in our past. The big man there knows the limits. But we left the village more than a century ago and are tethered to social order now only by habit: the game on Sunday, its rules; the requirements of job; the need for that job no matter how unsatisfying its gruel; family, often broken now and dispersed; the sad digital fantasy communities that engage millions.
Our politicians belong on the list, for they reassure us that the aptly-titled “system” which pays them generously still works despite the cracks in the floor, the gunfire in the streets, the undrinkable water, the wages that guarantee poverty, the schools that don’t school. And the worst among them take it a step further by identifying an enemy: the others.
This too is nothing new: Delenda est Carthago! We, the politically attuned, expect a calming lies ahead after the foolishness of the primaries, but it is prudent to grasp that we are not immunized by our myth of exceptionalism from real horror.
Sebastian Haffner recalls in his valuable memoir of the period, Defying Hitler, that as late as 1930, ordinary Germans, and he includes himself, dismissed Adolph Hitler as a low-class buffoon: “His personal appearance was thoroughly repellent—the pimp’s forelock, the hoodlum’s elegance, the Viennese suburban accent, the interminable speechifying….” Hitler’s bluster would soon be forgotten. Germany was dull, bureaucratized, clerk-ridden and politically incoherent, but it was not reckless.
Trump promises not horror, but relief and a return to better days, the days of our carefree childhood, with supper always on the table. Just step aside for a moment.
The little amenities themselves comfort us: the identical suits with the American flag cherry-on-top worn by American politicians, the public adoration of “democracy” and “freedom” regardless of the conduct the slogans justify, the good lighting for debates, the fawning network hacks, the careful hair, the doting family, the populist grin and wave of inclusion.
We should be warned. We have seen this play repeatedly, recently enough to be instructed: Mao’s cultural revolution, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, a series of thugs across South and Central America, ISIS, our own conflagrations to no purpose but death in Vietnam and Iraq, our acceptance of torture and the hideous living entombment of perceived current enemies by our home-grown, low-browed jailers.
The tissue of what we think of as civilized life is thin, and we must take seriously that an American Wannsee is not unthinkable, not when the entire slate of Republican candidates and the Democratic Party apparatchiki stand mute or softly clucking as Trump casually suggests deporting 11 or 12 or 13 million illegal residents.
The police presence necessary to pull that off would be pervasive. As the illegals are hidden, the door bangings and checking of papers would disrupt and terrorize many neighborhoods, including neighborhoods where the police are even now reviled as thugs. What would become of the rounded-up illegals’ property, and who would make such decisions, using what criteria? What to do with the American children of illegals? Would the legal rights of those rounded up be abrogated completely, allowing the trains to dump them at the nearest border, and, if not, would they be incarcerated while their case, just one of many millions, was adjudicated; and if incarcerated, where would those camps be, and under whose authority?
Haffner’s sense of the 1930 Hitler fits Trump, but Haffner wrote his memoir to berate, belatedly, his own inability to believe what his intellect and his moral sense had told him, that human evil was afoot and could thrive, despite its beer-hall coarseness.
Trump, crude and coarse, is easily dismissible, too, and we discount him because we have had regular stirrings of American fascism. They are seemingly short-lived.
Now, aside from Trump, it is the timidity of his opponents, Democrat and Republican, that is worrying. They may find him repulsive, but they fear alienating the unreadable, unhappy masses. They know their prosperity, too, requires a myth, and with Progress untenable, the discovery of new niggers might be the way to go.