In a recent New York Times column, Maureen Dowd describes Donald Trump as an "American monster." This is an entirely reasonable view, but American society is mired in such a state of malignant normality that this monster has tens of millions of followers, who worship his greed, criminality and cruelty.
Dowd contrasts Trump to the monster in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," who begins with "elegance of mind and sweetness of temperament, reading Goethe's 'The Sorrows of Young Werther' and gathering firewood for a poor family." But then his creator, Victor Frankenstein, abandons and rejects him, refusing to make him a mate:
The creature finds no one who does not recoil in fear and disgust from his stitched-together appearance, his yellow skin and eyes, and black lips. Embittered, he seeks revenge on his creator and the world.
"Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded," he laments. "I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend."
Before he disappears into the Arctic at the end of the book, he muses that once he had "high thoughts of honour," until his "frightful catalogue" of malignant deeds piled up.
Shelley's monster, unlike ours, has self-awareness, and a reason to wreak havoc. He knows how to feel guilty and when to leave the stage. Our monster's malignity stems from pure narcissistic psychopathy — and he refuses to leave the stage or cease his vile mendacity.
Dowd surmises that it never occurred to Donald Trump that a president openly plotting a seditious coup "would be a debilitating, corrosive thing for the country. It was just another way for the Emperor of Chaos to burnish his title." The House Jan. 6 committee's first prime-time hearing, she writes, played out as "a horror story with predatory Proud Boys and a monster at its center that even Mary Shelley could have appreciated":
In his dystopian Inaugural speech, Trump promised to end "American carnage." Instead, he delivered it. Now he needs to be held accountable for his attempted coup — and not just in the court of public opinion.
But who created this American monster? Donald Trump was not built by a deranged scientist in a secret lab. He is not an orphan, and did not emerge out of nowhere. He was the almost inevitable result of a decades-long assault by the "conservative" movement aimed at ending American democracy (especially multiracial democracy) and replacing it with a pseudo-democratic authoritarian state, perhaps organized under the system political theorist Sheldon Wolin described as "inverted totalitarianism."
As part of that long-term assault, most or all the historic victories of the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement, the gay rights movement, the labor and environmental movements and other struggles for human dignity and a more just society are being rolled back. If this project succeeds, America's already threadbare social safety net will be virtually eliminated. White Christian fascists and corporate plutocrats will forge a ruling coalition with near-total dominion over American life and society. The separation of church and state, along with the guarantee of free speech and most of the Bill of Rights, will disappear.
There is no longer a "normal" or "traditional" version of the Republican Party for so-called conservatives to return to. Even those conservatives who have disavowed or denounced the Trump movement are implicated in his rise. They are like political Dr. Frankensteins, horrified by what they have created but unable to kill it. Over the course of decades, they painstakingly built the monster and created the blueprint for American fascism.
As Wajahat Ali wrote this week in the Daily Beast, some of Trump's "most prominent enablers" are now trying to distance themselves from the "ongoing, concentrated, right-wing effort to overturn the 2020 election":
Even though most of these ex-Trumpers will fail up in their careers—as is often the case in Washington, D.C. — it's important for the rest of us to recognize them as utterly complicit actors who deserve to wear that MAGA hat on their heads until the end of time….
If you believe that there is a "team normal" in the modern GOP, then you'll also probably believe that fewer doors and arming teachers will reduce mass gun shootings, banning books will save your child from being transgender, and climate change is a hoax created by China.
Either way, you're not acknowledging that the GOP is now a weaponized cult that no longer produces "rational" Republicans, but instead caters to the festering, fevered paranoid swamp of dangerous conspiracy theories and white supremacist ideologies. This persistent right-wing disinformation has now radicalized its base, in which many members believe violence is necessary to "take back" their country. The reality is that Team Normal and Team Crazy both play for the GOP, wear the same uniforms, and, for now, worship the golden calf known as Trump.
Ultimately, Donald Trump is not some type of monstrous Other or outsider. He was not conjured up in some other dimension ruled by Lovecraftian demons, only to descend on America out of the ether to sow destruction, chaos, misery and death.
In reality, Donald Trump — as a man, a symbol and a political leader — and everything he embodies is the product of our society, driven by extreme social inequality, consumerism and greed, unfulfilled dreams, widespread alienation and loneliness, anti-intellectualism, racism and white supremacy, the cult of the spectacle, our fetish for violence and a range of related antisocial and anti-human values and tendencies.
In a recent essay for ScheerPost republished at Salon, Chris Hedges offers a powerful diagnosis of our corrupt and failing American political system, arguing that the House Jan. 6 committee will do nothing to correct it:
The two established wings of the oligarchy, the old Republican Party represented by politicians such as Liz Cheney, one of two Republicans on the committee, and the Bush family, are now united with the Democratic Party elite into one ruling political entity. The ruling parties were already in lockstep for decades on the major issues, including: war, trade deals, austerity, the militarization of police, prisons, government surveillance and assaults on civil liberties. They worked in tandem to pervert and destroy democratic institutions on behalf of the rich and corporations. They desperately work together now to stave off the revolt by enraged and betrayed white working men and women who support Donald Trump and the far right.
There are other systemic failures as well. America's mainstream news media, through both habit and laziness, have approached Donald Trump, and American politics more generally, as a running narrative of "great men" (and, more recently, "great women"), singular figures who are the main characters in an unfolding drama largely independent of history, culture or economic reality.
This partly explains the media's obsession with polling and public opinion, the addiction to horserace coverage and the drive to identify "winners" and "losers" on a daily basis. Of course the mainstream media is also driven by profit, and compelled to shape the news so as not to offend advertisers or alienate the political establishment and other social and cultural elites.
Media practitioners are also trained to avoid moral language when describing domestic politics, although they routinely use such language when discussing foreign affairs, and especially American's official enemies. The result is that most mainstream American political journalism remains an exercise in stenography and superficial commentary, almost always bending the knee to such totems as "moderation," "normal politics," "fairness" and "balance," concepts that were likely never helpful or transparent and are now totally inadequate to the task of confronting America's democracy crisis.
Many in the media still refuse to see the Trump movement and the modern Republican Party as destructive revolutionary forces, rather than as traditional political movements with an investment in the existing system. At this point, the media's willful or compulsive refusal to comprehend the nature of the threat has become a pathology. Journalists at mainstream outlets would benefit greatly from reading "The Authoritarian Playbook: A Media Guide," a new report from the nonpartisan nonprofit group Protect Democracy. It offers the following advice:
To the extent that the authoritarian playbook has a central theme, it is that democratic erosion is a process of power concentration and consolidation. While all political actors seek to accumulate power, authoritarians, uniquely, seek to entrench that power and protect it from external checks. Experts generally agree that democracies don't tend to die at the hands of individuals alone. Rather, contemporary attacks on democracy only succeed when they are coordinated, systemic, and undertaken by broad parties or movements.
If Donald Trump the American monster is somehow banished from American political life — through criminal prosecution, advancing age or some other force — another such monster will rapidly appear. In fact, Ron DeSantis and other leading Republican-fascists are eagerly waiting for Trump to leave the stage, and could well turn out to be more competent and more effective than him. Trumpism is a hydra-headed movement, no longer dependent on Trump as an individual: Chop off one of its heads and another will grow. The only long-term solution is to drain the swamp that birthed the monster.