PRINT September 2018

Editor’s Letter

Hell Is For Children

James Cameron, Aliens, 1986, 35 mm, color, sound, 137 minutes.

“A THOUSAND SHAPES of death surround us, and no man can escape them, or be safe.” Sarpedon makes this remark to Glaucus in The Iliad, Book 12. Bill Paxton’s character in Aliens puts the same thing a different way: “Game over, man! We’re fucked!” For Paxton’s character, Private Hudson, death has no shape at all—it’s just a smudge on his screen, a blur of malevolent radiation. But that’s more than sufficient to establish the salient fact, which he relays to his comrades with a memorable intonation of rising panic.

In November 2016, we didn’t know the exact contours of the nightmare that was about to drop through the ceiling. We just knew we were fucked, seriously fucked, really quite royally rogered. We knew people were going to be hurt, grievously, all kinds of people in all kinds of ways, and we knew people were going to die. It was not remotely far-fetched to conjecture that many, many people might die at once. After all, as Nikita Khrushchev wrote to JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “if people do not display wisdom, they will clash like blind moles, and then mutual annihilation will commence.”

It has always been evident that the blond mole in the White House is as capable of commencing annihilation as anyone who has ever lived, and the appointment of John Bolton to the position of national security adviser took us into a whole new saturation of red zone. On the “My Very First War” page of Trump’s presidential album, Iran will likely fill in the blank (provided Putin grants permission), but keep your eye on Trump and Kim Jong-un, whose reciprocal fawning is reminiscent of the alliances that formed among the lost souls who competed for douchebag supremacy on The Apprentice. In all such relationships, chumminess may morph into a blind-mole cage match at any second.

And yet, as this particular shape of death has come into focus, less lethal but in many ways darker possibilities seem stubbornly formless. Even right after the election, when everyone was feverishly proffering speculative answers to the key question—How bad is this going to get?—the Third Reich was the third rail of the conversation. One did not want to be alarmist and then later look like an overwrought fool. One did not want to read too much into subtle things, probably meaningless things. Things like Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte telling reporters that he and Trump had really hit it off in a get-acquainted phone chat. Or like Mike Pence saying to John Dickerson, vis-à-vis torture, “We’re going to have a president again who will never say what we’ll never do.”

In November 2016, we didn’t know the exact contours of the nightmare that was about to drop through the ceiling.

Even a fatuously bloviating clock is right twice a day, and in retrospect it’s apparent that with this comment, Pence was saying something correct and important. Hannah Arendt observed in her 1971 essay “Lying in Politics” that “reason’s aversion to contingency is very strong,” but unreason and contingency get along fine. While you and I warily advance toward our destinies, Trump just runs his heedless course through the multiverse, never hesitating at the cruxes, never quailing at the thought of all those constantly ramifying possibilities. You and I grow uncomfortable when we feel that we have no clue what tomorrow holds. We are happy to accept certain constraints on probability—facts, or logic, or principles—because they help us weed out the more outré potential futures. But to Trump, such constraints are like so many lines of Adderall on the Resolute desk. If he contemplates them at all, it is only to savor the prospect of making them disappear. Trump will never say what he’ll never do because Trump’s only way of knowing for sure what he’s going to do is to do it. And his only way of knowing for sure what he’s never going to do is to never do it. And never is a very long time.

ON APRIL 29, 2017, the White House press office revealed that, during the course of a friendly phone conversation, Trump had invited the president of the Philippines to the White House. Evidently, the friendship between the two heads of state had blossomed since their telephone introduction the previous December. Specifically, what Duterte had told the press about that call was that Trump “was quite sensitive to our war on drugs, and he wishes me well in my campaign and said that we are doing [it], as he so put it, ‘the right way.’” By December 2016, it was already widely understood that the Philippine war on drugs was considerably more expedient than the American one. Duterte himself had indicated, with his usual directness, that he had no use for such old-school tactics as draconian sentencing laws, covert ops in Colombia, or inadvertently hilarious PSAs. He was just going to kill everybody. Drug dealers, drug addicts, suspected drug dealers, suspected drug addicts—everybody. According to the most recent estimates I can find, Duterte’s anti-drug death squads have summarily slaughtered at least twelve thousand of their fellow citizens. Trump knew what he was praising when he called this strategy “the right way.” Whenever he talks about or alludes to obscene violence, his excitement is glaringly obvious. “They’re going to be gone very soon, believe me”: He loves to say things like this about MS-13. He’s enjoying a fantasy of the things he wants to do to these gang members, and it does not involve vocational training.

Donald Trump official “challenge coin,” 2017. Photo: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post/Getty.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt talks about how a lot of people found the photographs, film footage, and testimonies that emerged from Nazi concentration camps—materials she calls “the propaganda of truth”—simply too incredible to believe. She writes:

If the propaganda of truth fails to convince the average person because it is too monstrous, it is positively dangerous to those who know from their own imaginings what they themselves are capable of doing and who are therefore perfectly willing to believe in the reality of what they have seen. . . . To these people (and they are more numerous in any large city than we like to admit) the totalitarian hell proves only that the power of man is greater than they ever dared to think . . .

A June 24 YouGov poll revealed that 87 percent of Republicans continued to approve of Trump in the wake of extensive media coverage of the totalitarian hell he had established for migrant children. There are no longer any grounds for clinging to the belief that these people have a limit. They have mustered impressive resistance not only to an ethical imperative that is strong and crystal-clear—thou shalt not condone the sadistic terrorization of babies—but also to the normal, visceral human response to distraught children. Some percentage of them are indulging the same kind of fantasies as Trump. But the rest need reasons not to visualize the terror they are supporting, and to disbelieve those images from which they do not manage to insulate themselves. And they will accept any reasons whatsoever, as long as they come from an approved source. The crying children are actors? Sure, why not. Trump’s extraordinary performance in Helsinki was equally easy to take in stride. The fairly common argument that Trump is a flimflam man, and that his supporters’ irrational devotion to him rests on their reluctance to admit they’ve been conned, obscures what’s really going on. Trump’s supporters aren’t his marks; they’re the fully conditioned subjects of the massive propaganda campaign that was launched by American Goebbels Roger Ailes many years before Infowars went live. The words on the chyron are always changing, but, in the right-wing media since the 1990s, the fundamental message, the metamessage—not only is it OK to put ideology before fact and logic, and to believe partisan propaganda no matter how nonsensical, it’s highly suspect not to—has never changed.

UNDER TOTALITARIANISM, ARENDT WROTE, “propaganda and terror represent two sides of the same coin.” As if to affirm this assertion in the most idiotically literal way he could think of, Trump has been reimagining the commemorative presidential medallions known as “challenge coins,” turning them into shiny ideological objects, gaudy microcosms of totalitarian heaven for the demographic he calls “my people.” As reported in the New York Times on the same day the YouGov poll was released, one of Trump’s medallions shows Mar-a-Lago on one side and, on the other, the White House with a ludicrously phallic Air Force One rearing up behind it. But the really scary part of the article concerned a design for the president’s official “challenge coin.” This coin, wrote Kenneth P. Vogel, “is thicker, wider and more gold”—shouldn’t Trump being president be adequate reason to make golder a word? —“than those of preceding presidents and bears his campaign slogan, ‘Make America Great Again,’ as well as his name,” which appears not once but three times, all on one side. “Missing was a traditional staple of presidential challenge coins: the presidential seal with the national motto, E pluribus unum, or ‘Out of many, one.’”

America is not a totalitarian state (if it were, you wouldn’t be reading this), but this is one totalitarian coin. Terror is the praxis of making America great again; here the racist MAGA credo stands in for that terror. In supplanting the national motto, MAGA further signifies the classic totalitarian conflation of party and state. Meanwhile Trump’s triply repeated name partakes of a basic totalitarian propaganda tactic: reiterating representations of the leader to the point of insane superfluity. Usually, of course, this involves putting portraits of the leader everywhere, but DONALD J. TRUMP DONALD J. TRUMP DONALD J. TRUMP gets the point across. As for totalitarian portraiture in a specifically American vein, the image that Don Jr. posted to Instagram on the Fourth of July—a fantasy illustration of George Washington by a DeviantArt user called SharpWriter, with Trump’s face Photoshopped onto it—is the standard against which all other works must be measured.

Donald J. Trump Jr. Instagram post, July 4, 2018.

I’m not predicting that we’re going to plunge to the seventh circle of totalitarian hell. But indubitably the time has officially come to start imagining the worst that can happen, picturing it, so we’ll believe it if it does happen. What we do know for sure is that at least 87 percent of Republicans are over the hump. They’re as ready as any group of people needs to be. For what? It’s really up to our president. But don’t ask him, because he couldn’t tell you if he wanted to. And he doesn’t want to. The fact that he doesn’t know for sure what he will do makes it that much more delectable for him to luxuriate in fantasies about what he might do.

They will clash like blind moles. . . . But all moles are blind, Comrade Khrushchev. Perhaps the redundancy was a translation glitch. Or perhaps the premier, who through whatever combination of brains, luck, and ruthlessness had survived Stalin’s regime, was trying to emphasize the impossibility of seeing all possible futures, the insuperable difficulties of visualizing what is too atrocious to imagine, and the hazards of failing to try.

Elizabeth Schambelan is deputy editor of Artforum.