TABLE OF CONTENTS

ECLIPSE OF THE SUN

Asteroid 2015 TB145 (“Death Comet”). Photo: NAIC-Arecibo/NSF.

1.

TWENTY YEARS AGO, physicists discovered that the expansion of the cosmos is speeding up. Instead of losing momentum as they fly farther apart, the particles dispersed by the Big Bang scatter faster and faster. In other words, entropy accelerates.

Once, this fact seemed counterintuitive, but in 2018 it was a palpable reality. As the universe hastens toward its demise, it seems fitting to begin this reflection by observing a different anniversary: the centenary of Dada Death. Toward the end of World War I, George Grosz promenaded through Berlin dressed as a grim reaper appropriate to the zeitgeist. In the photograph that preserves the costume for posterity, the artist stands facing the camera with a rattan cane tucked under one arm, his long overcoat surmounted by a macrocephalic death’s-head with shrunken eyes, four nasal apertures, and ridiculously oversize dentition. Like the novelty known as “windup teeth,” which is essentially a death’s-head minus the rest of the head (and a masterpiece of modernism in its own right), Grosz’s brilliantly fashioned mask exaggerates the inappropriate affect of skulls to remind you that behind every human face lurks a grinning, nihilistic idiot.

George Grosz in his Dada Death costume, Berlin, ca. 1918.

Dada was anti-nostalgia, and so was Dada Death. Grosz’s costume owed much to the tradition of the vanitas but even more to vaudeville, which in 1918 was contemporary pop culture. Walter Benjamin’s angel of history is blown forward in time while looking back at the catastrophes of the past. Dada Death, by contrast, is aggressively frontal, gaze locked on disasters yet to come.

Flash forward to the disaster that is 2018. The year started off with something called a super blue blood moon and transpired under the sign of another skull, the Death Comet. This celestial body’s morphology justifies its name, but, scary as it was, there was also something ludicrous about the way the Death Comet cruised across the firmament in November. It just kind of did a fly-by, like the regional manager of a chain of hell-planets—Hi guys, don’t mind me! Wow, you’re really being self-motivated with the carnage and misery. Just, uh, keep up the good work I guess! OK see ya!

It’s exhausting, our unending confrontation with the antic, leering, slapstick facets of horror. For me, the mascot of 2018 ghastliness was Tiny, the guy in the PINOCHET DID NOTHING WRONG! T-shirt who danced to the “Cha Cha Slide” with some Proud Boys in August at a demonstration in Portland, Oregon. Tiny, whose nickname is ironic, and who was wearing some kind of facial protection gear, is a surprisingly good dancer. The back of his shirt read MAKE COMMUNISTS AFRAID OF ROTARY AIRCRAFT AGAIN, in reference to the Chilean dictator’s habit of killing leftists by throwing them out of helicopters. One is loath to admit it when people like Tiny succeed in making themselves terrifying despite the eye-rolling obviousness of their tactics. Huge fascist in Bane mask sassily swiveling his hips: Yep, I’m freaked out. As for the fascist-in-chief, he really won’t give it a rest, will he? Clomping up the Air Force One loading stairs with toilet paper stuck to his shoe . . . It was like, Come on! We get it! You’re an evil clown!

But Trump has, of course, attracted a lot of terrifying and ridiculous subordinate freaks who orbit him like moonlets, and we are only just beginning to develop a taxonomy for their varied types of monstrousness (which is this crew’s only form of diversity). Let’s survey a few recent classificatory breakthroughs.

Senior adviser Stephen Miller is a Crawler, one of those moist and pallid humanoids of the type featured in the 2005 movie The Descent. He has escaped from his cave and learned to talk normally, as opposed to using echolocation like a bat, in the manner of his people. But every time a child is irrevocably traumatized while being ripped from its parents by border guards, Miller’s West Wing neighbors hear a rapid, excited clicking noise—the Crawler’s celebratory ululation. Sometimes his neighbors also hear rapid, excited breathing, which has no Crawler-specific meaning and simply indicates that Miller is masturbating to ICE’s newest list of detainee-restraint devices. To cope with more and more roundups of schoolchildren sans papiers and fugitive abuelas, the agency has asked vendors including American Lock, Ripp, and Safariland—I repeat, the name of the company is Safariland—to provide lots of “oversize leg irons,” “TranZport Hoods,” and, pant pant, something called “the Wrap.” Question: Why do you need TranZport hoods to take detainees to nonsecret prisons? Answer: You don’t!

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is a smoky-eyed demon who speaks in riddles, like the one that says, “My name is Legion,” in the Bible. While I understand that it is grossly sexist (not to mention very uncivil) to make a joke that acknowledges the existence of a woman’s eyeliner, my own allusion to smoky eyes is not sexist, because I’m referring to the fact that Sanders’s eyes actually smoke whenever she concentrates on evil.

And then we have Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin and his lovely wife, Louise Linton. They belong to a race of space vampires who have walked among us for millennia. These aliens never quite figured out how to make their faces look human, which is why they wore all that powder in the eighteenth century. But they’re not self-conscious anymore. With the invention of Botox and injectable fillers, humans started paying good money to look like what all the space vampires had been trying so hard not to look like: space vampires. Now the real space vampires blend right in. Everyone just assumes Mnuchin looks the way he does because his nasolabial folds are so full of Juvéderm that if one more cc were stuck in, his head would explode. Not so. That is his real face. And while you might think that his visage is frozen into a single expression, such that he has no choice but to constantly smile with the contentment of a possessed ventriloquist’s dummy whose murder spree is going well, in fact he’s smiling because he’s happy. The lies he’s been selling about the GOP’s methodical efforts to redistribute all American wealth to the wealthy are working. Plus, the New York Times recently published conclusive evidence that Trump is guilty of massively felonious tax fraud, and nobody cared, because we were all so distracted by fascism.

Louise Linton and Steven Mnuchin at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Washington, DC, November 15, 2017. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

It’s a wives’ tale that space vampires must suck blood. (There is no such thing as a non-space vampire.) They must suck vitality, in whatever form is most practical. Blood was a convenient medium in the past, but, as capitalism came into its own, the vampires found an even simpler way to mainline life force: Just suck up all the money. When space vampires tauntingly assert their growing prerogative to siphon the vitality of non-rich humans, it’s called taking the gloves off. This is what Linton was doing in her infamous viral Instagram rant. (“I’m pretty sure we paid more taxes toward our day ‘trip’ than you did. Pretty sure the amount we sacrifice per year is a lot more than you’d be willing to sacrifice . . .”) Then she put the gloves back on—black leather opera gloves, and a black leather skirt and black blouse. She lacked only the swastika armband to be the spitting image of Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Linton was photographed in this get-up holding a large batch of fresh hot money, her snide come-hither gaze expressing more or less the same sentiments that the cops who brutalized Abner Louima were expressing when they apocryphally said, “It’s Giuliani time!” (Of course, now when people say, “It’s Giuliani time,” they mean that a bobblehead cadaver is on TV saying deranged things about the president’s most recently indicted associate.)

Linton’s tirade and photo op occurred in 2017, but don’t you feel that all of Trump time is sort of running together? Has it ever not been Trump time? It’s like the final shot of The Shining, where Stanley Kubrick strongly suggests that Jack really has been in the Overlook Hotel “for ever and ever and ever,” just like the ghost twins say. Trump time is like Overlook time, wound up on itself, old murders tearing holes between decades, the gore of the past spilling into the present.

2.

First there were the paintings—maladroit, ingenuous, cute. Actually, they were terrifying. They showed a simple world, one in which the statement “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully” made perfect sense as political oratory, a peaceable kingdom where everybody got along, human and fish, dog and cat, Tony Blair and bathroom fixture. The stiffness was not the kind of rigidity that suggests a white-knuckled effort to keep something at bay—it was just clumsiness. For the painter, apparently, nothing was lurking beyond the frame: no monsters, no ghosts. That’s what was terrifying.

While these paintings were being made, there were (and still are) people in a detention camp in Guantánamo Bay waiting to be tried for whatever crimes they are suspected of having committed in the early 2000s. There were (and still are) Americans in Afghanistan prosecuting a war that will end when we win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people or when tectonic subduction flattens the Swat Valley, whichever comes first. And this is just one of the countless fronts in the ongoing, hydra-headed conflict formerly known as the War on Terror.

Entropy accelerates. Once, this fact seemed counterintuitive, but in 2018 it was a palpable reality.

Whatever you call it now, it’s one big murky battlespace, to use the military lingo, full of special operators running around doing . . . things, various things. The operators have been operating so busily that the Department of Defense is creating newfangled nostrums to keep the kids going. In the informative essay “Beyond Human: Rise of the Supersoldiers,” published in Small Wars Journal this past August, Nilanthan Niruthan said that the Pentagon—while continuing its efforts to perfect the TALOS exoskeleton, arguably the military’s creepiest boondoggle ever—is exploring the “potential for using drugs to create supersoldiers” who can do things “humans are not biologically adapted to, such as breathing in high altitude and even underwater.”

Still from a concept video for a Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), 2017

What is required to prevail in today’s battlespace, in addition to supersoldiers tweaking on government-issue war-meth, is drones. Tiny drones. Swarm technology has advanced to the point that it is possible to field battalions of mini-Predators and micro-Reapers, which could be equipped with facial-recognition software so as to improve their assassination performance. Hopefully they will also have artificial larynges for humming “Ride of the Valkyries” in high, squeaky voices. A video produced by the group Ban Lethal Autonomous Weapons offers a dramatic simulation of a coup enacted by tiny drones that penetrate the Capitol via vents and such, and then assassinate a bunch of politicians “from only one side of the aisle.” The video is called Slaughterbots. It is sadly much better than the Sicario sequel. Judging from Trump’s reaction to the Democrats’ takeover of the House in the midterm elections, I think we should all hope he does not watch Slaughterbots.

Still from Ban Lethal Autonomous Weapons video Slaughterbots, 2017.

So, that’s what’s going on in the military-horror-sci-fi complex. In the meantime, it’s worth emphasizing that by supplying weapons and “advisers” to the Saudi-led coalition that is bombing children, torturing detainees in secret prisons with American personnel on site, and starving people to death in Yemen, the US is joining forces with some unexpected bedfellows. The American foreign-policy obsession with staying on the Saudis’ good side has long defied reason, so there’s nothing surprising about the fact that the Obama administration decided to lend support to the coalition, and of course, there’s nothing surprising about Trump’s attachment to MBS, a sadistic, incompetent authoritarian with a penchant for Grand Guignol murder and Keystone Kops kover-ups. What is a bit startling is that, as we learned this summer, the coalition has recruited hundreds of fighters from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Our permanent war footing, supposedly justified by the need to stamp out Al Qaeda and its mercury-blob offshoots, has ultimately led us to fight on the same team as Al Qaeda. In hindsight, I suppose it was inevitable that something as heinously absurd as the War on Terror would eventually twist back on itself like this, that it would find some way to make its own meaninglessness absolute.

George W. Bush self-portrait-in-progress, 2013.

While all of this has been happening, George W. Bush has been placidly painting away. The canvases earned a lot of awwws a few years back, and then, this past September, there was the candy—or cough-drop—moment: entertaining, bipartisan, also cute, also sort of terrifying. His demeanor was wry as he slid the lozenge to Michelle Obama, seated next to him at John McCain’s funeral. He was aware of the comical nature of the moment, a president acting as if he were still a kid passing notes in chapel.

Did the handover of the cough drop prove the resilience of our democracy? Or was that interpretation just another step toward the unseemly rehabilitation of the man who has, incredibly, turned out to be the second-worst American president of all time? You’d think the answer would be self-evident, but it was vigorously contested. The debate was a weird little echo of the larger controversy in which it was embedded, the fight over how McCain should be remembered—as the Maverick, or just a Republican whose at least superficially self-aware sense of humor made him appear to be less of a tool than the average Republican?

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, George W. Bush, and Laura Bush at John McCain’s memorial service, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC, September 1, 2018. Photo: AP.

McCain and Bush were rivals, possibly even nemeses, but in the unconscious, a rival is always a double. It seemed possible that the national psyche was engaged in displacement, that the dispute around McCain’s “legacy” might really be a proxy war over Dubya and his “legacy.” Apologies for the scare quotes. It’s just such an inapposite word in this context, legacy—it sounds so archival, as if the instant a powerful person exits public life, all their works and deeds recede into history, becoming material for learned exegesis and definitive judgment. In the scheme of things, we are still in the immediate aftermath of Bush’s presidency. You don’t start talking about the “legacy” of Krakatoa before the magma has begun to cool. You talk about the matter at hand—how the hell are you going to extricate yourself from this incandescently hot mess?

You don’t start talking about the “legacy” of Krakatoa before the magma has begun to cool.

Hot, and getting hotter. It was another year of infernos, some as far north as the Arctic Circle. California burned. Movie stars fled Malibu—a J. G. Ballard novel come to life. It wasn’t climate per se but government neglect that fanned the flames consuming Rio de Janeiro’s Museu Nacional, immolating countless irreplaceable treasures, including the only documentation of some indigenous languages that are no longer spoken. Reports describe them as “recordings,” and I assume they were analogue recordings, or they would have been backed up.

Fire at Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, September 2, 2018. Photo: Leo Correa/AP/Shutterstock.

I can’t stop thinking about those old, brittle strips of tape just . . . melting, the voices imprinted on them melting, too. Every language represents a specific path through time, one that commenced when all the world’s languages began evolving from the first language; every language is a repository of unique knowledge developed by an unbroken chain of speakers stretching back tens of thousands of years. The thought of these chains being truncated so unceremoniously, and of the experiences and knowledge of millennia being cast into oblivion, is sickening. Safeguarding those fragile traces of cultures decimated by colonialism was nonnegotiable, something that had to be done. But it wasn’t done. Climate-change denial—Trump shrugged off the hair-raising United Nations report on impending doom like it was a joke—and the austerity that starved the museum of resources are two aspects of the same barbaric nihilism.

3.

That was my attempt to survey some of the ways that the REDRUM of the Bush years seeped into 2018. I realize there were some digressions along the way. I also realize that excuses are lame and self-reflexivity usually is, too, but I must ask my reader to sympathize with the predicament of a writer attempting to compose an essay on the horrors of 2018 while 2018 is still unfolding. One of the awful things about any truly awful event is how it performs a sudden, stomach-sinking gestalt shift on the past, which must now be reconceptualized as having all led up to this. Awful events in 2018 were constant, but at a certain point we experienced a qualitative leap, or rather qualitative plunge. And this made my efforts look all wrong—the recent past I’d attempted to represent was the pre-gestalt-shift past. What you are reading is essentially the catastrophic aftermath of a topical essay that got wrecked by an onslaught of topicality—fragments feverishly jerry-rigged together. I shall now focus on the crux of the nightmare, which has to do with leakages from an earlier era of REDRUM.

In March, the collective response to Austin bomber Mark Anthony Conditt was: “This homeschooled evangelical white guy, who’s on record as anti–gay marriage and anti-choice, started sending bombs to people of color in the most liberal city in Texas. But there’s no evidence he was radicalized.” But by October there really was no need to pretend that Cesar Sayoc Jr., who mailed pipe bombs to Democratic figureheads, and Robert Bowers, who slaughtered eleven congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue, were not “radicalized,” because by then the “radicalization” of the whole GOP had become an implicitly acknowledged fait accompli.

Cesar Sayoc Jr.'s van, Florida, October 18, 2018. Photo: Paul Bilodeau/Sun-Sentinel/ZUMA Press/Alamy.

I suppose we will each remember this historical period in our own way, if we live long enough. But to me it seems that something crystallized in the month between the Brett Kavanaugh imbroglio and the synagogue shootings. It was during this period that the “left-wing mob” trope was officially inducted into the pantheon of moronic stuff Republicans say all the time. This trope was scarier than most, for two reasons. First, it was all-purpose, indiscriminately glomming enemies—from Colin Kaepernick to overly vocal rape survivors—into one big, dirty, dangerous rabble. Second, since everyone in the GOP mindlessly imitates Trump, and since we all know that Trump projects his own qualities onto his enemies, the flies-to-carrion way Republicans swarmed all over the “left-wing mob” idea augurs an imminent new phase in which the GOP as an institution will begin openly condoning the violence of the right-wing mob.

Wound allegedly inflicted by Jair Bolsonaro supporters, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2018. Photo: Facebook.

The jaw-dropping October 8 Wall Street Journal editorial in support of Jair Bolsonaro (then a candidate, now Brazil’s president-elect) was a major bellwether in this regard. The bastion of respectable conservatism distorted Bolsonaro’s character and positions so preposterously that it could not have been accidental, describing him as someone lefties don’t like because he’s “politically incorrect,” not even acknowledging the devil’s-advocate argument that there might be legitimate reasons to fear and loathe a politician who makes no secret of loving Pinochet as much as Tiny does and who has been frank about wanting to implement a policy of summary liquidation of undesirables. No doubt it was true the editorial board wanted to signal approval of Bolsonaro’s economic predilections (deregulation, privatization, blah blah), but the paper was also signaling a willingness to provide cover for atrocity, at home or abroad.

There was no need to pretend that Cesar Sayoc and Robert Bowers were not “radicalized,” because the “radicalization” of the whole GOP was a fait accompli.

It was also in this window that I became conscious of the fact that anti-Semitism is just, like, a totally mainstream Republican thing now. It used to be fringier, didn’t it? Now, as long as you say “Soros” or “globalist” you can Jew-bait to your heart’s content, and not a single other Republican—not even that famous man of principle, Arizona senator Jeff Flake—will call you out on it. This embrace of anti-Semitism is seemingly in conflict with the party’s support for the Israeli government irrespective of any atrocities that government or its supporters might inflict on Palestinians, but Republicans don’t have issues with cognitive dissonance. On October 22, at a rally for Lyin’, Self-Abasin’ Ted Cruz, Trump finally announced he was a white nationalist, although he left out the word white. “I’m a nationalist” was definitely the most newsworthy sound bite of the evening, but right before that, he went full Elders of Zion: “Radical Democrats want to turn back the clock. Restore the rule of corrupt, power-hungry globalists.” The day after the Pittsburgh shootings, on Meet the Press, National Republican Congressional Committee head Steve Stivers stoutly defended an attack ad in which a Democratic House candidate was said to be in league with “left-wing mobs paid to riot in the street [cue image of Kaepernick kneeling]. . . . Billionaire George Soros bankrolls the resistance.” Then Mother Jones’s Ari Berman clarified that the ad was paid for by a branch of the NRCC. That’s right. The Republican Party, as a whole, is funding ads about Jews bankrolling violent leftist mobs.

Still from a commercial for Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District election, 2018. George Soros and Colin Kaepernick.

It’s not that anti-Semitism is any worse than any other form of hate. It’s more just the dreamlike surreality of watching the Jewish conspiracy become central to the rhetoric of one of America’s two major parties. To find this old fiction, the Jewish cabal, looming over our political landscape is like the shot in season two of Stranger Things when you first see the giant spider-monster. It’s an important milestone, not just because it’s another huge step toward the GOP no longer pretending not to be a bunch of Nazis, but also because it’s the scaffolding of a truly totalitarian epistemology, one that dispenses altogether with truth-value, but that does offer some kind of coherent theory of the world—perhaps crazy, but unified, the way Melania Trump’s head-to-toe Nazi-archaeologist look was crazy but unified.

Melania Trump, Giza pyramid complex, Egypt, October 6, 2018. Photo: Hoo-Me/SMG/Alamy.

On the morning of October 24, I saw an alert on my phone that a bomb had been removed from the CNN building, and then, on the elevator to my office, I overheard two people naming some other bomb recipients (Soros, Hillary Clinton) and realized this must be MAGA terrorism. I wondered how long it would take for Republicans to claim it was really a left-wing plot. Then I saw there were already countless tweets to this effect. I had not fully grasped that the overriding impulse of Republicans collectively is now to instantaneously reject any inconvenient or unpleasant fact, then justify it with whatever conspiracy theory is handy. Once again, my attempt to come to grips with our new reality, to get out in front of the horror, had failed.

4.

In the summer of 1941, the Nazis began planning the final solution to the Jewish problem. At the Wannsee Conference the following January, the implementation of the solution was announced to the Reich’s top officials. To most people, the Nazis’ shift from a policy of deportation to one of extermination would seem to be a giant ethical leap, but for the Nazis it was a logistical one. There had been no ethical leap. Instead there had been a series of incremental steps, one of the biggest of which was the 1935 passage of the Nuremberg Laws. In addition to declaring sex between Jews and gentiles illegal, thereby testing public tolerance for the obscene incursions into bodily existence and intimate life that any ethno-nationalist regime must ultimately undertake, the laws revoked the citizenship of all German Jews. In effect, the Nazis declared that there was no such thing as a German Jew. And because their word was law, saying it made it so. Poof. There were still Jews in Germany, but there were no longer any German Jews. With this ontological magic trick, the Nazis crossed a significant threshold. If you could suddenly make all German Jews cease to exist, then why couldn’t you make Jews cease to exist altogether?

This year, the Trump administration began a push to “denaturalize” millions of Americans. In June, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services announced the creation of a task force to investigate naturalized citizens for various infractions, the first such initiative since the McCarthy era. Everyone understood that this meant the government was now going to look in earnest for any reason at all to deport brown or black people. The program is not merely callous; it’s aggressively sadistic, and part of the reason it exists is to advertise the administration’s aggressive sadism. It’s a terror program.

In an era marked by hyperbolic grotesquerie, naturalism is normalization.

Trump’s proposed nullification, in October, of birthright citizenship (jus soli, citizenship derived from being born on the nation’s soil) would mean that all American citizenship would be based either on naturalization or on the principle of jus sanguinis—that is, on inherited citizenship. Your parents are citizens, so here’s your birth certificate: It’s an unobjectionable way of perpetuating a polity. As a bureaucratic concept, jus sanguinis implies an ancestry that fades into a foggy past; you needn’t ask the question of how the first ancestor in this citizenship lineage acquired their citizenship. The danger lies in the possibility of asking, and then demanding an answer.

In other words, the danger lies in the possibility of treating the concept of jus sanguinis not as a useful abstraction but as a sort of imprimatur, or ratification, of a supposedly literal phenomenon: membership in a nation, in Trump’s sense of the word nation. Jus sanguinis, as the term suggests, is citizenship ultimately backstopped by blood. The inheritance is not based on the fact that your forebears had passports—it’s based on the fact that they were American and, via the conduit of biology, they’ve passed their nationality to you. “How do we know your parents were really citizens? What if they were illegals? What about their parents?” Germans under the Nazis had to document generations of non-Jewish ancestors to get their “Aryan certificates.” SS officers had to go back to 1750. The DNA technology that Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren so foolishly used to show she has “Native American ancestry” could easily be used for an ancestry inquisition.

The administration has not yet passed laws decreeing that, say, there’s no such thing as a Salvadoran American. It’s starting that experiment with a different group of vulnerable people: transgender Americans. The Department of Health and Human Services recently proposed a legal definition of sex as purely binary, immutable, and determined by one’s anatomy at birth—that is, by one’s congenital genitals, to use a phrase that in our totalitarian future will no doubt crop up on a kids’ show, like a latter-day “Conjunction Junction,” but to teach cis orthodoxy and hatred of difference. No word on what to do if the newborn’s chromosomes and/or anatomy are not so easily categorized. The existence of intersex people is not something the HHS appears to have wrapped its mind around. But it knows transgender people exist and it would prefer them to stop doing that.

Lindsey Graham. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

I will never forget the photos of South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham that accompanied reports about his announcement that he would introduce legislation to end birthright citizenship. He looked the same as always, his stupid face unconscionably boyish. But the bizarre death drive of the Republican party was somehow there in his big blue eyes, in that vacant stare that evoked both the deer in the headlights and the headlights themselves.

5.

“George Grosz’s cartoons seemed to us not satires but realistic reportage. We knew those types; they were all around us.” This is Hannah Arendt circa 1968, talking to historian Peter Gay about Weimar Berlin. When she says “those types,” she’s referring to the inhabitants of Grosz’s interwar Bizarro World: narcotized flappers, gouty Prussian warlords, Slendermen in wingtips. Grosz also depicted empty suits, ghosts in the haberdashery of a lapsed belle epoque. That they were already dead was just as well. Soon enough, Karl Diebitsch was to design a very striking SS uniform, all black, with the famous death’s-head front and center on the hat. In a modernity patrolled by such apparitions, anyone in a cravat was begging to be garroted. Diebitsch was both morally and sartorially prescient. He sensed that the force of rücksichtsloser Härte (ruthless toughness, a core Nazi value) would easily overcome the starch of bourgeois respectability.

George Grosz, Sonnenfinsternis (Eclipse of the Sun), 1926, oil on canvas, 81 5⁄8 × 71 7⁄8".

Grosz sensed the same thing but felt differently. It is instructive to consider the contrast between his Dada Death mask and the SS totenkopf, which was pure kitsch, stubby and sort of cute. On the hat it appeared alone, but it was sometimes depicted against a rippling banner reading MEINE EHRE HEISST TREUE (“My honor is loyalty”), a slogan that teased out the sentimentality implicit in the skull icon itself. The totenkopf was an homage to the flamboyant uniform of the imperial German Hussars, whose fur hats sported a skull and crossbones at least four inches across. Today it conveys a doubled, telescoping nostalgia.

B49 members with pro-Nazi tattoos and paraphernalia, 2018.

On October 12, Vice Media cofounder and Proud Boys promulgator Gavin McInnes and some of his cronies used a sword to reenact the execution of a leftist, and then viciously attacked an antifa protestor outside the Metropolitan Republican Club of New York (whose respectable members had invited McInnes to speak that night). Shortly after, the data scientist and activist Emily Gorcenski tweeted links to images she and others had used to identify those who showed up that evening to fight beside McInnes. One image featured three members of the skinhead group B49 posing like the badasses they imagine themselves to be, their Nazi tattoos circled in black. I stared at the image—it was arresting, largely because of the scimitar-like weapon one of the men was holding—and noticed, in the background, a black banner with the death’s head and the words MEINE EHRE HEISST TREUE.

“My honor is loyalty.” It doesn’t even make sense. It doesn’t have to. In Porto Alegre, Brazil, during the country’s presidential campaign, three men attacked a woman wearing a sticker with an LGBT symbol on it and a T-shirt reading ELE NÃO (Not him), an anti-Bolsonaro slogan that highlights his misogyny. They carved a swastika on her stomach. A police officer investigating the case told the press that he thought the attackers had been the victims of a rush to judgment. “I looked at the drawing . . . on her belly. This is a Buddhist symbol of harmony, love, peace, and brotherhood.” At least he got the brotherhood part right.

SS officer’s cap found in Adolf Hitler’s command bunker, Berlin, Germany, 1945. Photo: William Vandivert/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

In William Vandivert’s 1945 photograph of an SS hat on the floor of Hitler’s abandoned bunker, the totenkopf is barely visible, indistinct, already deliquescing into history. The Third Reich fell, but its iconography came back, and keeps coming back. It’s like a vampire. Just because you kill it doesn’t mean it’s dead.

Grosz’s work, like that of fellow Neue Sachlichkeit artists Max Beckmann and Otto Dix, was not universally esteemed in its own time. His great allegory of postimperial delusion, Sonnenfinsternis (Eclipse of the Sun), 1926, spent years rolled up in somebody’s garage. Over the decades, the clarity and diagnostic penetration of Neue Sachlichkeit vision has grown ever more hauntingly apparent. Early on, these artists grasped that there is no such thing as objectivity, only a variety of methods for decoding and transliterating the signals emitted by empirical reality. The relevant distinction was not between objectivity and subjectivity, but between good-faith and bad-faith attempts to extract signals from the noise. The new objectivity was subjectivity. Had they attempted to neutrally mirror the world around them, the artists would have been guilty of the same mindless complicity as Grosz’s empty suits. In an era marked by hyperbolic grotesquerie, naturalism is normalization. That’s what Arendt was getting at. She was speaking literally. Grosz’s cartoons were realistic reportage.

“My honor is loyalty.” It doesn’t even make sense. It doesn’t have to.

We are in dire need of more realistic reportage. The way Danny in The Shining appears in certain shots where he just stands there frozen with his mouth agape as if horror is a paralytic venom—this is the feeling that has stolen through my veins as I have witnessed the mainstream media’s abject failures in the face of the unfolding nightmare. Both-sides-ism, the whole “Nazis-like-pancakes-too” genre, the atrocious New York Times profile of McInnes . . .''

6.

Clowns are figures of fun, depending on your idea of fun. They were invented to make people laugh. They both exceed and fall short of the human the way that laughter and terror exceed and fall short of words. I assume that’s why they segue so easily from being figures of fun to figures of terror.

Gritty, mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, October 9, 2018. Photo: Len Redkoles/NHLI/Getty Images.

Gritty exceeds and falls short of the human, but please don’t call Gritty a clown. Like many, I have a warm, genuine, weird attachment to Gritty. It was an instantaneous thing. It was the middle of the Kavanaugh-confirmation uproar, the end of a long, exhausting, upsetting day. I’d been seeing this furry orange meme all afternoon without paying much attention, but then I tapped on one of the images. The posture—arms at sides and pelvis sort of slumping guilelessly forward—was that of a five-year-old. The lumberjack beard, which grew directly from the lower lip, appeared to have been styled with a giant curling iron so as to bulge and then hang straight, like the back of Heather Locklear’s head in the 1990s. The lidless eyes held all the madness of accelerating entropy. But the smile. . . . Gritty just looked so happy.

Gritty is definitely a fitting mascot for the year, a realistic representation. My first glimpse of Gritty—adjacent to a caption explaining that this creature had just been unveiled as a National Hockey League team’s actual mascot—made me laugh for such a long time that, judging from my fellow subway passengers’ expressions, I think it qualified as hysterics. But Gritty elicits the full gamut of emotions. The image of Gritty beating the shit out of Pepe the Frog was almost as cathartic as the Samuel L. Jackson/Kavanaugh mash-up. Then there’s the photo of Gritty embracing the Phillie Phanatic, with the words MALE INTIMACY AND COMMUNICATION IS A LETHAL WEAPON IN THE FIGHT AGAINST PATRIARCHY scrawled across it. Gritty looks shocked to be getting a hug—shocked and, again, just so happy. When I saw this image, I teared up. I cried over a picture of the Flyers mascot hugging the Phillies mascot. For just a moment, but still. I haven’t always been unhinged, but in recent months, fear and rage have melted all my hardware. Gritty feels commensurate with the timbre of my state.

Gritty meme, 2018.

Gritty was the avatar of one of the people who posted photos ID’ing the Proud Boys at the Metropolitan Republican Club. Beneath the avatar were the words it gritty. No, Gritty is no clown, despite somebody’s brilliant depiction of Gritty in a sewer, like the monster Pennywise from Stephen King’s It. Gritty is an anticlown.

7.

Mob violence might mean pogroms or lynchings undertaken by regular citizens, but it is the jackbooted thugs who are at the bleeding edge of Republican politics. My feeling during Trump’s campaign was that his movement could not properly be called fascist unless or until we started to see phalanxes of Trumpshirts cresting the horizon, because I think it’s absurd to call any movement fascist if it’s not explicitly militaristic, and because if you don’t have fascist spectacle then you don’t have fascism, though you may have something just as bad. The Trumpshirts, I thought, were a necessary component of the requisite militarized pageantry.

In retrospect, I realize I was stupidly neglecting to adjust for the fact that we’re living in the twenty-first century and the first fascists were not. Militarism means something different in an era of unconventional and hybrid warfare prosecuted largely by corporate mercenaries, most of whom used to be special operators, like the American assassins that, according to a report a few months back in Buzzfeed, were hired by the UAE to kill people in Yemen on behalf of the coalition. And in the age of the gig economy, of course the Republican party’s paramilitary wing will be a motley assortment of freelancers—a word originally used to describe medieval mercenaries—and its spectacles will be only partly IRL and will be choreographed very differently from Leni Riefenstahl’s.

8.

We shall fight on till our final breath,
For we are the regiment of death. . . .
Yes, the Hussars have long eyelashes,
But we enjoy heroic clashes. . . .
Victories are won by those with flair,
So into battle if you dare.

The speaker is the Death’s Head Hussar, a character in The Last Days of Mankind, Karl Kraus’s 1918 magnum opus of repulsion, a bizarre and brilliant satirical treatment of World War I. Kraus abominates not only the conflict, but also the media’s collusion with imperial propaganda, lambasting an era that “has no flesh, only blood, no blood, only printer’s ink.” The Death’s Head Hussar is Kraus’s name for German crown prince Wilhelm, who led a regiment of the famously dandified cavaliers. The mixture of Thanatos, narcissism, and puerile glorification of combat in his speech seems very contemporary to me.

Postcard featuring a portrait of Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany, date unknown.

Even in the stilted English translations, you can feel the extraordinary force of Kraus’s rage and his sheer loathing, the way it pushes him to mad logorrhea, the way he looks around at this landscape of unrelieved iniquity and just can’t stop going, Ugh! Ugh! UGH! The play is part of the great efflorescence of aesthetic disgust galvanized by World War I, as artists in all mediums tried to capture the insane waste and horror of that war, which ushered in modern carnage and struck its witnesses, accurately, as the harbinger of a nightmarish future.

Kraus’s final poem, “Man frage nicht” (Do Not Ask), written the year of the Reichstag fire, begins:

Don’t ask why all this time I never spoke,
Wordless am I,
and won’t say why. 
And silence reigns because the bedrock broke.

We’re living in the era of evil clowns and ludicrous monsters because they’re what crawl out of the cracks when the bedrock breaks.

Elizabeth Schambelan is deputy editor of Artforum. Her essay on Brett Kavanaugh and the history of sexual violence will appear in the Winter 2019 issue of n+1.