PARIS – The word “trump,” according to the dictionary, is an alteration of the word triumph. And because Donald Trump, the US presidential candidate, appears likely to become the nominee of the Grand Old Party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, we owe it to ourselves to ask in what sense and for whom he represents a triumph.
One thinks of a segment of the American population angered by the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, a group that is now feeling vengeful. And one also thinks of the white supremacist, segregationist, nativist strain represented by former Ku Klux Klan leader, David Duke, whose noisy support Trump was so hesitant to reject last week and for whose constituency Trump may be a make-or-break candidate.
One easily gets the sense, when trying to take seriously what little is known about the Trump platform, of a country turning in on itself, walling itself off, and ultimately impoverishing itself by chasing away the Chinese, Muslims, Mexicans, and others who have contributed to the vast melting pot that the most globalized country on the planet has alchemized, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, into prodigious wealth.
But, as is so often the case with the United States, there is in the Trump phenomenon an element that extends beyond the American national scene. So one is tempted to ask whether Trumpism might not also be the harbinger – or perhaps even the apotheosis – of a truly new episode in world politics.
I watch the head of this Las Vegas croupier, this kitschy carnival performer, coiffed and botoxed, drifting from one television camera to another with his fleshy mouth perpetually half-open: you never know whether those exposed teeth are signs of having drunk or eaten too much, or whether they might indicate that he means to eat you next.
I listen to his swearing, his vulgar rhetoric, his pathetic hatred of women, whom he describes, depending on his mood, as bitches, pigs, or disgusting animals. I hear his smutty jokes in which the careful language of politics has been pushed aside in favor of supposedly authentic popular speech at its most elemental – the language, apparently, of the genitals. ISIS? We’re not going to make war against it, we’re going to “kick its ass.” Marco Rubio’s remark about Trump’s small hands? The rest is not so small, “I guarantee you.”
Then there is the worship of money and the contempt for others that accompanies it. In the mouth of this serially bankrupt billionaire and con artist with possible mafia ties, they have become the bottom line of the American creed – so much mental junk food full of fatty thoughts, overwhelming the lighter cosmopolitan flavors of the myriad traditions that have formed the great American pastoral. In the sequence about small hands, even an ear untuned to the subtleties of that pastoral might have caught (though in a version perverted by the abjectly low level of the exchange) the famous line from e.e. cummings, the American Apollinaire: “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.”
Confronted with this leap forward into coarseness and pettiness, one thinks of Silvio Berlusconi, Vladimir Putin, and the Le Pens, father and daughter. One thinks of a new International, not of communism, but of vulgarity and bling, in which the political landscape shrinks to the dimensions of a television stage. The art of debate collapses into catch phrases; people’s dreams become bombastic illusions; the economy takes the form of the grotesquely physical contortions of verbally deficient Scrooges who despise anyone who thinks; and striving for self-fulfillment deteriorates into the petty swindles taught in the now-defunct Trump University.
That’s right: an International with a capital I: Globalized corruption in the mutual admiration society of Putin, Berlusconi, and Trump. In them we see the face of a cartoon humanity, one that has chosen the low, the elemental, the pre-linguistic in order to ensure its triumph.
Here is a universe of fakery in which one consigns to the oblivion of a now-obsolete history the precariousness of the exiles, migrants, and other voyagers who, on both sides of the Atlantic, have built the true human aristocracy. In the United States, it is that great people composed of Latinos, Eastern European Jews, Italians, Asians, Irish, and, yes, Anglos still dreaming of Oxford-Cambridge sculls now cleaving the waters of the Charles River.
Berlusconi invented this cartoon world. Putin intensified its macho element. Other European demagogues are hitching it to the foulest forms of racism. As for Trump, he gave us his tower, one of the ugliest in Manhattan, with its clunky, derivative architecture, its gigantic atrium, its 25-meter waterfall to impress the tourists – a Tower of Babel in glass and steel built by a Don Corleone from the dregs in which all of the world’s languages will indeed be fused into one.
Careful, though. The new language is no longer that of the America we dreamed would be eternal, the America that has sometimes breathed life back into exhausted cultures. It is the language of a country with balls that has said its goodbyes to books and beauty, that confuses Michelangelo with an Italian designer brand, and that has forgotten that nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of the founders of the “Nouveaux Philosophes” (New Philosophers) movement. His books include Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism.
By Bernard-Henri Lévy