It’s an exhausting and familiar cycle: Donald Trump tweets something grotesquely racist, xenophobic, or misogynistic, or some combination of the three. There are the meekest of replies from Republicans — Mitch McConnell choke-chortles as if passing a gallstone while sucking on a Werther’s Original; Marco Rubio appears in a video resembling a deposition for a divorce suit; Mitt Romney chuckles while seeming to glitch in the simulation.
Then comes the Trump rally. (So normalized and deadened are we that it seems eons ago when presidents didn’t hold hysterical self-promotional events every couple of weeks.) The rally takes place at a college or perhaps an arena, sponsored by a company that makes catheters. In his hyper-starched shirt that looks suspiciously like a girdle and his tie swinging like a pendulum over his gut, Trump luxuriates in the blood-and-soil brays of the crowd.
At a very recent rally, Trump went on an Orwellian rant: two minutes of hate against Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota congresswoman whose family, when she was a child, sought refuge in America from the brutal civil war in Somalia. She was elected to Congress in 2018. “Send her back!!” the crowd roared, and Trump stood back and beamed, his face glistening like the prime rib station at one of his golf resorts.
It was an exceptionally dispiriting moment, even in this time of never-ending acceleration down a dark road that evokes the end of Lost Highway or Terminator 2. But this is not new; we have been here before. Anyone who says otherwise — who bawls “this is not who we are!” — is either a sentimental fool or a grifter trying to leverage the news cycle. Jamelle Bouie recently wrote about the echoes of the past in these rallies, their pageantry and carnival atmosphere, and how they resemble public lynchings of a century ago. Conservatives, such as Andrew C. McCarthy of The National Review, dismiss the threat of Trump’s rallies as just blowing off steam, the people having fun. But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? They sure are having a lot of fun.
What’s different this time — different from the years of George Wallace, Orval Faubus, Barry Goldwater, Joe McCarthy, Father Tom Coughlin, Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Johnson, the Know-Nothings, John C. Calhoun, Andrew Jackson, et al. — is the aesthetics. The brilliant American writer William H. Gass, who should be much better known today but was so caustically pessimistic that his work remains exceptionally astringent, spent nearly 30 years writing a book called The Tunnel. Published in 1995, it was received with bafflement and a measured appreciation. As chronicled in this piece, critics were mainly impressed by how ceaselessly unpleasant and disturbing it is. But The Tunnel was, in retrospect, remarkably clear-eyed and prescient. In the loose and experimental stream-of-consciousness style of a bitter scholar of fascism introducing his magnum opus, one segment reads:
“Consider how the titles of tyrants change. We shall suffer no more Emperors, Kings, Czars, Shahs or Caesars, to lop off our limbs and burn our homes, kiddo, defile our women and bugger our boys; the masses make such appointments now; the masses love tyranny; they demand it; they dance to it; they feel that their hand is forming the First Citizen’s Fist; so we shall murder more modestly in future: beneath the banners of ‘Il Duce,’ ‘Der Führer,’ the General Secretary or the Party Chairman, the C.E.O. of something. I suspect that the first dictator of this country will be called Coach.”
Trump isn’t exactly a coach, but otherwise, the comparison is spot on. He taps into a deeply American frisson of arrogance, resentment, entitlement, and delusion. Take this clip of Alabama football coach Nick Saban comparing a game loss to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, mix in Donald Trump fuming like a compost heap in the sun as Obama roasts him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, season with centuries-old racist grievances and white nationalism, and you end up with the affective temperament of “Make America Great Again.” To explain what distinguishes this new one from the old far-right American style, let’s take a look at MAGA’s nexus of aesthetic accoutrements.
Obviously, we have to start with the red MAGA hat, which will certainly one day be featured in a Smithsonian display case on white nationalism — assuming the museums aren’t all flooded by rising seas. One of my least favorite current trends is the spoof of the MAGA hat. When I was recently in San Diego, I saw an egregious one at an alcoholic kombucha bar that read “Make Kombucha Hard Again.” Beyond its role as the contemporary incarnation of the Confederate flag (from a distance, it’s hard to tell that your cheeky hat actually reads “Make Techno Black Again,” or whatever), it just looks awful and cheap. MAGA hats are aggressively pedestrian and lazy in their design. They are indistinguishable from hats given out at the retirement party of a VP of a life insurance company in a Plains state.
In Adam Serwer’s crucial and seminal text The Cruelty is the Point, he argues that much of Trumpism is simply revelry in sadism, or in Serwer’s own words: “…rejoicing in the suffering of those they hate and fear.” Ironically, this dark and brutal dynamic is, I believe, to some extent blunted by the aesthetic slovenliness. The cruelty is the point, but so is the frowsiness. Attendees at a Trump rally are not lantern-jawed youths in tailored slacks screaming at black people at a Woolworths lunch counter; they have grown up to be pear-shaped boomers in cargo shorts, giant marshmallow sneakers, and a MAGA hat. This is not the Aryan Übermensch; it is defiance in a barcalounger. Trump’s version of The Emperor Has No Clothes is to look aggressively terrible at all times while still radiating vanity and a deep sense of superiority. Put on those basketball shorts, the t-shirt showing Hillary behind bars, and a MAGA hat, and head to the airport to fly to the port of your cruise. And yes, you will want to speak to the manager.
Then there are Trump’s court artists, the cartoonist Ben Garrison and the painter Jon McNaughton. The philosopher Theodor Adorno described how kitsch is the aesthetic of fascism, and these two artists are the two poles of that aesthetic — bullying humor and treacly sentimentality. Garrison likes to draw Trump with rippling muscles and a jutting chin instead of as the anthropomorphized honey-baked ham he actually resembles. Each of his cartoons depicts Trump walloping some feeble, skeletal foe (Pelosi, Obama, Hillary, etc). There is rarely a joke, a pun, or a point to his compositions, other than a snorting glee not unlike the strange time in the early ‘90s marked by a confluence of t-shirt companies that were simultaneously hyper-aggressive and absurd (Big Johnson, No Fear, Big Dogs, Co-ed Naked….). That Garrison has a history of trafficking in very Third Reich-ian antisemitic imagery is not surprising.
McNaughton makes Thomas Kinkade-esque oil paintings of sentimentality so rich and thick it nearly crosses into the gonzo surrealism of early John Waters films. In one, Trump tenderly cleans a dirty American flag; in another, he instructs a young frat brother on the art of fixing a fishing line (plausible!); in a third, he grabs Robert Mueller by the lapels while sternly brandishing a magnifying glass for some reason. It’s impossible to imagine anyone taking McNaughton’s pieces remotely seriously, but this is where the unreality of MAGA kitsch kicks in. Just as Trump and his supporters routinely engage in textbook racism but then recoil with aggrieved denials of it (after all, for conservatives it’s much worse to be called a racist than to do something racist), everyone knows these paintings are absolute pap — but don’t you dare mock them! Garrison and McNaughton together form an accurate portrait of Trump, and by extension, of the MAGA psyche: the sensitive bully, sadistic and thin-skinned.
Next, consider the broad panoply of Trump’s media appearances, rallies, campaign videos, and photo ops. There are the South Lawn appearances, where Trump screams over the sound of helicopters, points his finger at various reporters, and bellows “fake news!” There are the White House receptions for championship teams, where Trump buys a nauseating amount of fast food and grins demonically like the character Jack Torrance, frozen in the picture at the end of The Shining. There are his video “ads” of rallies and other pageantry, which resemble motivational propaganda directed by Paul Verhoeven. The cumulative effect of these media products drives home the conclusion that Tim & Eric are probably the most relevant artists of the last 15 years. Tim & Eric’s broad universe of sketch shows, movies, and live performances have a commonality of gross food, lumbering arrogance, and hair-trigger hyper-masculine rage. Their work is a relentless indictment of the petit tyranny of the small business owner, the middle manager, and the regional boss. This is of course the core of Trump’s base; his most fervent devotee is less a laid-off steel worker and more the owner of a chain of pool supply stores in the Florida panhandle. Trump himself, despite his self-idolatry, fits into this mold, especially with his tendency to obsess over minutiae as he prints out articles and scrawls exclamations on them and Tweets.
Finally, we have The Villages — the absolute apotheosis of MAGA aesthetics, a sort of Valhalla for Trump’s faithful. As this piece probingly details, The Villages is a gigantic retirement community of 125,000 people outside of Orlando. It boasts dozens of golf courses, hundreds of miles of paths for golf carts, and all of its houses are uniform by requirement. One private company owns the entirety of The Villages as well as its newspaper and radio station, and this company is, unsurprisingly, run by rabid Trump supporters. Among the residents of The Villages, a super-majority supports Trump. The Villages, as this long advertisement illustrates, is not impressively luxurious. Like many retirement communities, it resembles the colony in the classic show The Prisoner mixed with an outlet mall. Its appeal is its discrete space — a walled city of sorts — with a desired rigidity of exclusion.
With this in mind, MAGA can be reinterpreted to stand for “Members Are Guaranteed All.” The “all” here is not the limitlessness of imagination, but a mirror to others having none. As W.E.B. Dubois wrote in his autobiography Darkwater: “Most men today cannot conceive of a freedom that does not involve somebody’s slavery. They do not want equality because the thrill of their happiness comes from having things that others have not.” And so the houses in The Villages may be somewhat dumpy and fungible, the food is probably eminently average, but the TVs in the lounges don’t show the ungrateful thugs of the NFL and NBA. And if an employee snickers or glares at you, you can report them to management and they will be fired, or deported, or maybe, someday soon, simply disappeared.