Who can forget the opening pages of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which the traveling salesman Gregor Samsa awakens after turning into “some sort of monstrous insect”? No reader can fail to experience the uncanny dissonance of hilarity and terror that results from the grotesqueness of a man’s transformation into an insect, coupled with the utter banality of his subsequent response: He has overslept, he will be late for work, his boss will be angry, traveling by train is so unpleasant, it won’t be easy to maneuver his awkward new body out of bed, and so on.
The observer of today’s political world feels rather like the reader of Metamorphosis. Grotesque things are happening everywhere, yet consciousness seems incapable of registering the magnitude of the change. The disparity between the appalling metamorphosis of our political condition and the petty conventionality of the response is apt to provoke terror and laughter in equal and disconcerting measure.
In the United States, the Republican Party has succumbed to a brazen putsch. A confabulating narcissist who impersonated his own publicist in order to feed the tabloids with the myth of his sexual allure and then made a campaign issue of his genital endowment has taken over the party of Lincoln. Before entering politics, Donald Trump played on television the character of gold-pated and gold-plated mogul whose greatest pleasure was to humiliate his subordinates—sadism masquerading as “reality.” With his Gatling tweets he mowed down a field of pathetic political pygmies, whose pygmitude he was only too glad to compare to his own immensity. Any idea incapable of being contained within 140 characters thus became too cumbersome to keep pace with the whirligig of infotainment known as “the news cycle.”
“Trumpeters”—to borrow the name proposed by the former governor of Alaska, Trump’s jazz-tongued and quasi-unhinged predecessor in the politics of impudent farce—rallied round the Leader, whipped to frenzy by promises of impunity if they beat protesters to a pulp, as he assured them patriots used to do back when the country was “great.” To make it great again the party’s “presumptive nominee” promised to build a wall to ensure that “real Americans” would enjoy prosperity undisturbed by the “huddled masses yearning to be free” whom we once welcomed with Liberty’s beacon but now denounce as “criminals” and “rapists.” What’s more, Mexico would be forced to pay for its own incarceration, to keep her suspect population in, and if it refused, the wall would be raised higher still.
No longer would China be allowed to “rob” Americans by selling us televisions, computers, and mobile phones for less than we would otherwise pay. A billion Chinese would recoil before a single blustery blast from the gilded Trump. ISIS would shrivel at the mere mention of the self-proclaimed billionaire’s name, and if the ensuing vacuum should fill with a scrum of Sunni and Shia whom the untutored Leader had trouble differentiating, he would “hire the best people” to tell him which should be spared and which put to the sword.
Yet the party that produced this cockroach of a candidate seems as incapable as Gregor Samsa of recognizing the change that has come over it. Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, once called Trump “the most unprepared person I’ve ever met to be commander in chief,” but after the last rival was driven from the field a chastened Graham engaged in what he termed a “cordial” conversation with the former dunce to whom he was apparently now prepared to turn over the nuclear codes. He has “a great sense of humor,” Graham said, demonstrating a dark comic gift of his own. Texas Governor Rick Perry once described Trump’s candidacy as “a cancer on conservatism” but subsequently declared himself ready to serve as malignancy’s running mate: “He loves this country and will surround himself with capable, experienced people.” Former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal had called Trump “a madman who must be stopped” yet concluded that he was “certainly the better” choice in a race with Hillary Clinton.
“Well, what do you expect?” some will say. Trump has the votes, and politicians always go where the votes are. This is what democracy is all about. The New York Times, Gray Lady that she is, has also chosen to avert her chaste eyes from the Republican metamorphosis. Instead of pointing out that Trump’s policy proposals stand, like the monstrous body that Gregor Samsa became, on risibly thin, unsteady legs, the paper discusses “the three pillars” of his campaign as if they were as substantial as reinforced concrete. He offers “a broad opposition to free trade,” as the Times tells it, rather than a blustery threat to “force” the Chinese to do America’s bidding, without ever explaining why they would. His foreign policy is “muscular in tone” rather than based on fantasy and misapprehension. And his third “pillar” consists in “vocal opposition” to immigration, rather than insulting racist invective. Less inhibited than the Times, less hamstrung by the conventions of false equivalence, the historian Rick Perlstein wrote in The Nation that “if Trump wins the presidency, we’ll have elected an aspiring dictator.” More than that, even if he “loses … we’ll still be left with those millions of followers—many of them violent,” who “believe that their American birthright has been stolen from them.”
Indeed, this is the problem. Many of Trump’s followers share the qualities that make the “monstrous insect” so hideous to behold: his latent violence, his crude misogyny, his ignorance of world affairs, his devotion to false idols, his bullying ways, his contempt for liberal values. But there is reluctance on the left, when popular anger turns on the “wrong” targets, when it takes the form of jingoistic nationalism or racist repression or contempt toward women, to find fault with the people themselves. They must have “legitimate grievances.” Indeed, they do. There are many things about which one can feel rightly aggrieved. But even the aggrieved have an obligation to reject a candidate who threatens to pervert the judicial process in order to persecute those who opposed him and who appears not to comprehend the constitutional limitations on the powers of the presidency.
There are legitimate grievances, but there is also the fundamental decency on which the survival of liberal democracy depends. To fail to recognize that the Trump candidacy is different in tenor and kind from other protests against the status quo is to continue, as Gregor Samsa did, to worry about one’s daily commute after one’s world has been transformed. Trump is a menace, not least because authoritarian politicians have found popular support in many countries around the world, not just in the United States. He is a menace and should be treated as such.
This story has been updated.