How would I describe Tom LeClair’s latest blog? As part of an important democratic movement to rid ourselves of an illiterate President (he has said he doesn’t read books), a con-artist, a man with a thin skin, a compulsive liar, ill-tempered, and in the service of fellow millionaires and billionaires.
Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897 in which he described how this blood-sucking vampire was finally eliminated by driving a sword through the fiend’s heart while he slept in his coffin during the day. This is not a plan of action I would recommend today, though Donald poses a far greater threat to us than Dracula. It’s easy to acknowledge he had been a great television showman in the Barnum and Bailey tradition, and it seems to me the only civilized way to rid ourselves of him is by verbally pricking him countless times—like letting the hot air out of a Thanksgiving Day float.
And so I take particular pleasure in publishing Tom LeClair’s contribution to exposing this dreadful creature whose ratings are now the lowest in American history—down to 37% after three months in office.
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HARPOONING DONALD TRUMP
by Tom LeClair
In which the author interviews himself
From a novel about Lincoln and his law partner to essays about Donald Trump and his literary opponents—that’s quite a jump.
Not really. William “Billy” Herndon of Lincoln’s Billy was a highly literary man who spent 20 years of his life trying to publish unsavory truths about Saint Abraham. The “research” for Harpooning Donald Trump: A Novelist’s Essays was much easier, and I didn’t have to invent anything because Trump and his politics and his crooked friends are unsavory through and through. The challenge was finding new ways to understand and discuss Trump. My decades as a literature professor helped me out with that—from Homer’s Iliad to Coover’s The Public Burning, Pope’s The Dunciad and Melville’s Moby-Dick. But the book would never have been written if I hadn’t spent most of November and December holding signs in front of Trump Tower.
You’ve said you went every day. Why?
I’m a writer. The only things I could write after Trump’s election were my protest signs. From the very first one, RAGE TRUMPS HATE, which played off the usual ones I was seeing, I suppose I was seeking some creative outlet for my anger and disgust. The protest became a kind of contest: my imagination in writing signs versus Trump’s ignorance, his hateful clichés and dog whistles. So I tried to write inventive signs that responded to his actions, particularly his appointments of people like Scott Pruitt at the EPA and Betsy DeVos for Education. Of course, I was going to lose because Trump has what my Jesuit teachers called “invincible ignorance.” After more than a month of displaying signs, I started to write the essays in the book.
What did you hope to achieve as a solitary protester on the street?
During November and December, there was a series of mass protests, usually on weekends. I wanted to be in front of Trump Tower on weekdays and weekends to demonstrate with my modest example that Trump’s election was not normal politics, that this fact needed to be expressed day in and day out to the thousands of people who passed by the Tower. If I was sufficiently enraged to stand in the cold for six hours, I hoped my example would inspire citizens to stay angry, refuse to normalize the demagogue, resist in whatever way they could. My purposes changed some as I understood my demographic. Many of the passersby were foreign tourists. I wanted them to know that Trump and his Tower did not represent America or, at least, the best of America. The Tower was Babel, a construct of pride and greed. Out on the street, I hoped to use the social media that helped Trump get elected against him. I invited people to take photos of my signs and post them on Facebook and Instagram—and thus extend the protest of a solitary enraged old man.
Do you think you were successful?
Maybe the N.S.A. could answer that with some kind of universal image scanning for my signs. They did get me interviewed by television networks, radio stations, and print journalists—almost all of them from outside the United States. Japanese national TV interviewed me twice, even showed the covers of a couple of my books including Lincoln’s Billy. It’s possible my spoken words reached more people than my written words ever did. That’s kind of discouraging for a writer, but I’m still happy to be speaking with you about the written words in this book, which wouldn’t exist without the experience of protesting on the street.
So how is this book of essays different?
I rarely had long conversations with people on Fifth Avenue. The essays give me a chance to explain why I was protesting and how to understand Trump the man and phenomenon in more profound ways than daily news reports give us. Probably the central essay in Harpooning is the one entitled “Donald Trump Won’t Read This” where I apply the insights of the anthropologist Walter Ong to Trump. In his book Orality and Literacy, Ong contrasts the cognitive processes of preliterate humans and those of literate humans. Literacy created what we now call “thinking”—linguistic precision and logical analysis. Before literacy, cognition was through story-telling and bombastic display. Trump admits that he does not read. He therefore does not “think” as literate persons do. He reacts, he blurts and blusters, he uses the oral language of a third-grader, he lies as if his words disappeared into thin air. You can see him as the insult-obsessed Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, a poem about pre-literate warriors that was composed before writing. In this essay, I contrast Trump’s mind and language with the discourse of President Obama, who continued to be a reader despite the pressures of the White House.
Why do you feel this essay about literacy is “central”?
A working title of the collection was “Literature Against Trump.” Literature is literacy on steroids, the highest achievement of literacy. By its very nature, literature offers an alternative to the vacant mind and vapid expression of Trump. But not just an alternative. Literature can also be a weapon, a harpoon as my title has it. Since Trump’s election, journalists have written about the value of dystopian novels such as 1984. My interests are in what that harpooner Captain Ahab calls “the little lower layer”—literary works that provide psychological, historical, even anthropological insights that help us understand and, perhaps, undermine the demagogue. Historians and other scholars can place Trump in appropriate cultural contexts. Literature is a weapon because it elicits emotional responses. You might call it “demi-goguery,” half demagogic, half rigorous thought.
Do you think of yourself as Ahab?
No, because Melville “harpoons” the monomaniac Ahab at the end of Moby-Dick. I know this is not a popular recommendation, but try reading Moby-Dick as a political novel, and you will have a new understanding of and fear of Ahab’s—and Trump’s—aggressive narcissism that now threatens our ship of state. For a more recent and remarkably prescient novel read Robert Coover’s The Public Burning to learn how demagogues use the scapegoating sacrifice of “un-American” others to satisfy the masses. My argument is encapsulated in my epigraph from William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” If you step back a bit from the daily news cycle, if you see Trump through the eyes and words of profound imaginative writers I think you will understand his ignorance and his threat in new and deep and useful ways. Not just understand but feel.
You’ve published six novels. Why don’t you write a harpooning novel?
Homer, Melville, Coover, and other recent writers I mention in the book—they are tough acts to follow for an old man. But I have written a tale about Uncle Sam and Donald Trump, two angry old white men, as an appendix to the essays. It’s a small sequel of sorts to Coover’s magical realism novel that describes an unusual way in which Uncle Sam “incarnates” the power of the presidency in each new office-holder. One reader called my fiction a “scabrous satire.” That’s fairly accurate. Consider this a “trigger warning.” Or is it a solicitation?
Have you taken some heat for this fiction?
Yes, but some readers don’t see that it’s ultimately somewhat sympathetic to Trump. While writing the essays, I wasn’t able to understand how he became the enraged person he turned into as an adult, so I invented a plausible cause. Trump tells Uncle Sam of a childhood “wound” that explains—for Sam—Trump’s treatment of women, but Sam misses the larger effects of the wound—Trump’s fragile ego and his need to assert his power in ways both sexual and not. If Trump weren’t such a danger to the Republic and its citizens, I’d feel sorry for him because he is pretty obviously acting out obsessions and compulsions over which he has little control, the reason he is so often depicted as a child.
Are you still protesting at Trump Tower?
I took some time off to write the essays, but now I’ll be back a few days a week signing and selling my books, completing the loop from displaying signs to offering extended semiotic commentary on the target of those first signs. I think of the book as everything I couldn’t fit on pieces of cardboard. I’m looking forward to being back, interacting with citizens and tourists, hoping that one day Donald will come down and engage this Ancient Mariner. One of the many cops around the Tower asked me what I’d do if Trump showed up. I told the cop I’d say, “I don’t talk with liars,” and I’d turn my back on him, just as one of my signs says: TURN YOUR BACK ON TRUMP. The weather should be warmer now than when I began, but I still hope Trump will do something so stupid that he will have to resign and I can go back to writing.
So you’re still outraged? What outrages you the most?
As a former professor, I think I’m most outraged by his willful and smug ignorance. He’s every teacher’s recalcitrant dunce. I believe this ignorance is the root of his amorality, his treatment of women, his lying, his fraudulence. Trump’s ignorance is his harpoon, and he holds it dear. In the realm of policy, I’m most outraged by his environmental policies and appointees, the three men—polluting Pruitt, Exxon Rex, and numb-nuts Perry—that I call the “Fossil Fools.” Some of the damage Trump’s other policies will do may be repaired in four years, but his effect on the air and water will be difficult to repair. The British poet Alexander Pope wrote an epic satire called The Dunciad in which he called his time “the Age of Lead.” I fear that under Trump and his climate-denying dunces we will become the United States of Flint. Harpooning Donald Trump is dedicated to my two granddaughters. I’m enraged on their behalf, on behalf of a future polluted literally and figuratively by the First Fool and his family of greedheads.
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I ASK ALL OF YOU to send this blog on to everyone you know, both here and abroad. I particularly welcome your comments on this cockeyed pessimist site. You can also reach me by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or reach Tom LeClair by email (email@example.com). Let us all spread the word in every way we can, given the perilous days ahead.