Trump’s Theater of Cruelty

It has often been remarked that Trump has brought a “reality TV” feel to this election cycle. What is less noted is that he is on both sides of the reality show equation — for his supporters, he is Simon Cowell, while for his opponents, he is the hapless bad singer in the early days of an American Idol season. From one perspective, he is dishing out punishment to the losers, while from the other, he is suffering a humiliation all the more acute for his seeming lack of self-awareness.

The common denominator is cruelty, which is the true core of reality TV’s libidinal appeal. And I am not ashamed of my desire to see Trump suffer cruelty. He embodies everything I hate, and he misses no opportunity to double down on everything that is bad about him. I am no great fan of Hillary Clinton, but I began positively rooting for her when the debate presented her with an opportunity to publicly humiliate him on a national stage. Republicans have been demonizing her as a castrating ice queen for decades — and I was glad to see her “lean in” and openly scoff Trump, setting him up to humiliate himself again and again.

This kind of justified hatred is something that centrist liberalism normally cannot tap into, and that is its greatest weakness, because such hatred is a deeply human instinct that can’t be bought off with tax credits or GDP increases. Yet it is an instinct that takes us to some pretty dark places — both historically and theologically. In my research for The Prince of This World (shipping any day now), I found that it led all the way to hell, which is itself presented as a theater of cruelty. Theologians from Tertullian through to Aquinas and beyond highlight the fact that one of the attractions of hell is watching the sufferings of the unrighteous.

For all eternity, the saints get to enjoy the spectacle of God’s justice, world without end. There is something disturbing about this, insofar as the Christian concept of justice drifted ever further from what we would recognize as just punishment and focused increasingly on arbitrary scapegoating. Yet even if we agreed completely with Tertullian and Aquinas’s idea of who would join Trump in the eternal fires of hell, there is a deeper problem at work. Like all spectacles, the spectacle of hell — even an “accurate” hell — is a compensation, a distraction.

By focusing on the individual exclusively, we are distracted from the fact that the same system that produces the spectacle also produces that individual. In the medieval Christian worldview, this was very literal, insofar as God predetermined that each sinner would “freely” sin. In our setting, it has frequently been pointed out that Trump is “as American as apple pie.” Indulging our personal hatred for Trump — which is, I would emphasize, completely justified — is a poor compensation for the fact that we live in a system that produces Trumps.

To take only the most obvious example, Trump would not exist if we did not allow wealthy men to stockpile money and give it to their children. Trump would not exist if we did not set up a system where a man could live his entire life without hearing the word “no,” all because of what his father did. If we could channel some of that hatred and resentment into a determined campaign to impose a punitive estate tax, so that no Trumps can ever happen again, that would be productive. But the estate tax is treated as an amoral, technocratic question of economic growth, leaving the libidinal energy of hatred to find other, more destructive venues.

Please note that I am not saying “don’t hate the player, hate the game” — I think we must hate both, channeling our hatred for the player to abolish the game. System vs. individual is a false dichotomy: we can tell the system is horrible by the fact that it really does produce horrible individuals. The fact that Trump was produced by a horrible system doesn’t make him a less horrible person or somehow let him off the hook for his freely chosen, exhorbitant actions. He should be banished from the public eye for the rest of his life, and all his wealth should be seized and given to poor refugees.

At the end of the day, though, the most urgent question is not how to send the right people to hell (as my Trump example shows, that will never happen anyway). We need to abolish the system that produces these demons in the first place. And we can never do that within the liberal procedural frame that refuses to admit that the demons exist.

4 Responses to “Trump’s Theater of Cruelty”

  1. Alex Wyman Says:

    Surely you mean that watching the damned suffer is an attraction of heaven?

  2. Adam Roberts Says:

    I’m surprised this post hasn’t generated more comments: it seems to me really on the nail. Even as a foreigner, I’ve been following the election with surprisingly hefty quantities of emotional investment, and much of that boils down to a desire to see Trump suffer: to see the man who mocks losers and claims only ever to win lose. It’s obviously a futile desire: losing on Nov 9 will do nothing to dent Trump’s elephantine ego; and it doesn’t reflect well upon me either. Really, elections for powerful positions really shouldn’t be conducted on such irrational, emotive terms. The divide is starker than usual in this election, I suppose: putting it crudely, that voters who support Trump are invested libidinally in him where voters who support Clinton are invested intellectually in her. One thing I wonder about it whether the technical structures of power in the US, at their higher echelons, don’t encourage lidibinal rather than rational assessment. As a foreigner I may be misreading the state, but it looks to me as though the President has less power in a domestic sense than does the Supreme Court (over questions that actually effect ordinary Americans, like whether they can marry their same-sex partner or get an abortion or so on), and has less leverage over the economy (which also obviously affects ordinary Americans) than the Federal Reserve, whereas s/he does have power over foreign affairs. So does that influence the way people vote? People can let loose their libidinal desires in the election because they know it won’t really affect them, and if it affect foreigners, heh, who cares about them?

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I would be surprised if those institutional realities significantly affected people’s votes. Even very informed people wind up getting their hopes up for huge domestic achievements from their preferred candidates.

  4. Nathan Says:

    The cruelty factor is what made clintons basket of deplorables comment so satisfying. For once, the rosy picture that liberals try to paint for us became a little more honest. To the effect of “yes, there really IS a whole chunk of society that is truly evil to the core.” What with the alt right and all…

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