How the Swamp Will Win

Leo Tolstloy’s War and Peace might make good sense of Trump.

I think there is no way, short of literature or poetry, that any of us can get our heads fully around the massively strange, attention-sucking, opinion-inducing all-tantrum Trump presidency.

So let’s consult some literature.

War and Peace was Tolstoy’s argument against the Great Man Theory: one I am sure Donald Trump subscribes to. It is thanks to Tolstoy that I see Trump winning the White House as today’s equivalent of Napoleon winning the Battle of Borodino, and his troops occupying Moscow as winter sets in.

Washington is Trump’s Moscow. He won’t “drain the swamp” from Washington any more than Napoleon drained winter from Russia. (In fact it went the other way.)

But big things are indeed afoot. There is a revolution going on, and it’s a digital one. During the election, Trump took great advantage of prevailing digital trends, especially in social media. But it might be better to think of Trump as a phenomenon that would never have been possible in the pre-digital world. (Can you imagine? Me either.) In that sense he is less a product of himself than of his time and place: one that is very new to all of us, and we’re only beginning to understand.

From David Foster Wallace’s This is Water:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

The water in which we now swim (right here, right now) is digital. And we are at least as immersed in it as our ow and prior generations have been in the spoken, written and printed word, or in radio and TV.

This whole digital thing is something much bigger than all of us, yet very strange to all of us, even as we live in it full time. (Yesterday I was in a crowd of over a thousand at a show. One of the performers asked who in the audience did not have a cell phone. Maybe two hands went up.) I believe the most leveraged quality of digital life is that it puts us all a functional distance apart of approximately zero. This is new to human experience, and none among our metaphors from the natural or the industrial worlds equips (to use an industrial verb) us to make full sense of it. (I have spoken more than written about this. Perhaps the best example is this talk here, given at MyData2016 in Helsinki.)

That Trump was lifted by Digital’s tide does not mean he understands it or fully knows what he’s doing with it. In fact, it’s pretty clear that he hardly has a clue about how the office he now occupies actually works, or what it was designed for. (Notably, while he issues many tweets, he dictates or hand-writes them. And most of his media input is from cable news channels.)

I doubt he’ll be able to enjoy the same success in the White House as he enjoyed getting there. One reason is that all of us can participate in this new world, with far more agency than we ever had in any earlier media environments. That alone may prove to be more than any leader can handle, especially one with Trump’s flaws.

So we’ll see how it goes. If the Internet is the world’s largest clue exchange (and it is, among a zillion other things, most of which we have yet to see), maybe something like democracy will come out the other side. But, more likely we’ll get something like Leonard Cohen’s “The Future”, which one might imagine our self-involved pussy-grabber-in-chief singing:

Give me back my broken night
my mirrored room, my secret life
it’s lonely here,
there’s no one left to torture
Give me absolute control
over every living soul
And lie beside me, baby,
that’s an order!
Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that’s left
and stuff it up the hole
in your culture
Give me back the Berlin wall
give me Stalin and St Paul
I’ve seen the future, brother:
it is murder.

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul

I’m more optimistic than that, but not as much as I’d like.

By the way, what turned me on to War and Peace was a marathon reading of the book on WBAI in New York, in 1971. The Pacifica Radio archive describes it this way:

On December 6, 1970, more than 170 people from all walks of life came together to read from one of the great novels of all time, over the airwaves of Pacifica station WBAI 99.5 FM. Nearly five days later, the legendary actor Morris Carnovsky read the famous last words to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, ending what was at the time the longest continuous broadcast in radio history. One of the more ambitious radio broadcasts ever undertaken, with one of the largest casts, listeners struggled to stay awake so as not to miss a single sentence, and emptied New York bookstore shelves in pursuit of a companion novel for this historic reading.

The cast of readers included Dustin Hoffman, Ann Bancroft, Mel Brooks, Julius Lester, Abbie Hoffman, William F. Buckley, Buck Henry, and dozens of others.

It changed my life. I read and re-read War and Peace many times after that (though not in recent decades).

Apparently the original is not available. (Does it even exist? It’d be a shame if it didn’t.) You can at least buy a copy of a two-hour re-visit of it, in two pieces, here and here.

A prior version of this post appeared in Doc.Blog on 3 February 2017.