PHOTO: Donald Trump enters Friday’s inaugural ceremony:
Liam Kennedy of the University College Dublin writes for The Conversation:
Donald Trump is now the 45th president of the United States.
The country he will oversee is, to him, a dark and troubled place. In his first speech as its president, he described a tragedy of “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape”. With a promise to end this “American carnage”, he built up to his signature applause line: “Together, we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And yes, together we will make America great again.”
As Trump’s election as president in itself makes plain, America is indeed undergoing an excruciatingly painful reinvention. We cannot yet know where it will lead, and making sense of it will be no easy task. The last time America was this confused and disturbed, it spawned a whole cultural project dedicated to simply conveying the reality of what was happening.
The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality … The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist … on the TV screen, as a real public image, a political fact, my mind balked at taking [Nixon] in. Whatever else the television debates produced in me, I should like to point out, as a literary curiosity, that they also produced a type of professional envy.
This sense that reality was outrunning the capacities of writers to represent it was not new, but tellingly articulated by Roth as a challenge occasioned by the growth of televisual media and the transformation of politics into spectacle. His comments indicated something profound and shattering: an epochal shift in the “American reality.” Prescient stuff, given today’s laments about a “post-truth” society.
Superman Comes to the Supermarket
It is not coincidental that Roth was writing at the start of a period of intense social and political unrest in the US. As he pilloried many contemporary American writers for failing to respond to this epochal change, he noted one exception: “There is Norman Mailer. And he is an interesting example, I think, of one in whom our era has provoked such a magnificent disgust that dealing with it in fiction has almost come to seem, for him, beside the point.”
Sure enough, Mailer helped fashion a “new journalism” that could cope with the emerging society of the spectacle in the 1960s. In his 1960 essay on Kennedy’s election campaign, Superman Comes to the Supermarket, Mailer described the president-to-be as an “existential hero” who could tap into the drives that roil the national unconscious. This reflected Mailer’s very particular vision of American history:
Our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics, which is concrete, factual, practical, and unbelievably dull … and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation.
In Kennedy, Mailer saw someone who could fuse these historical currents and potentially renew the nation: “Only a hero can capture the secret imagination of a people, and so be good for the vitality of his nation.” To be sure, he recognised the dangers in celebrating a “superman” as leader, but reckoned Kennedy struck the right balance between rational substance and romantic style.
Later, with his hero assassinated in Dallas and the decade descending into protest and chaos, Mailer became a more jaundiced witness, if no less engaged. In The Armies of the Night, his account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon by legions of protesters, he argued that the US had entered the “crazy house of history,” reflecting the growing absurdity of events in late 1960s America. Yet he was smitten by the “idea of a revolution which preceded ideology.”
In the carnivalesque figures of the protesters he saw a flicker of existential promise:
They were close to being assembled from all the intersections between history and the comic books, between legend and television, the Biblical archetypes and the movies … the aesthetic at last was in the politics – the dress ball was going into battle.