Donald Trump told a joke the other day.
It was a real howler, sort of along the lines of “Russia, if you’re listening,” or “Slow the testing down,” or “I could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue.”
You’ll recall that we didn’t know those were actually jokes at first. We thought they were at best verbal atrocities and at worst treason. But then his flunkies explained that it was but another example of Trump’s unique wit and fun-loving nature.
Most of Trump’s jokes start out not very funny and go rapidly downhill from there. This one landed with a particularly dull thud.
It was on Day One of the Republican National Convention, and he was responding to chants of “Four more years! Four more years!” by his fawning worshipers. Which is when he launched this dandy witticism:
“Now if you want to really drive them crazy, you say twelve more years.”
Is that a knee-slapper or what? Didn’t even need explaining. I got it right away.
So let’s take a moment to ponder that thought (I know, must we?). Because while four more years of this abomination seems increasingly doubtful, it is not, alas, out of the question. And if Trump gets four more years, his odds of going for twelve improve considerably.
Trump is clearly a dictator wannabe, but as I’ve said before, he doesn’t want to put in the work. Not that others might not do it for him — if he wins this election, it will only be because the entire corrupt apparatus of the Republican party will have succeeded in stealing it.
Everything will have to work like a charm — the voter ID laws, purging the voter rolls, hacking the voting machines, closing precincts, undermining the Post Office, intimidation at the polls, collusion with foreign enemies, infestations of Facebook trolls, what am I forgetting? — just to get him over the finish line.
It’s a big ask for a party of incompetents. Because even if it all runs perfectly, record turnout could overwhelm their best-laid plans. There is every indication that all precincts will be inundated with concerned citizens eager to see Trump in prison by February.
But still, the cheating could work — the electoral college is a dangerous mechanism that has not served democracy well lately. And with that depressing thought in mind, I think the RNC just gave us a sneak preview of what we can expect if Trump does get (at least) four more years.
We’re now entering the “cult of personality” phase of the Trump presidency. The alternative reality his cultists have been living in for so long has taken over completely — it has become their only reality. The Fox-Limbaugh-Breitbart axis has created an impermeable bubble through which no objective truth can enter or leave.
The cavalcade of suck-ups, bullies, nut jobs, and deeply repulsive people we saw at the RNC were openly engaged in what Orwell called duckspeak, the dumbed-down, reprogrammable language of the glassy-eyed bubble dweller.
The term “cult of personality” was first used by Nikita Khrushchev to describe, posthumously, the long, murderous reign of Josef Stalin. But it can be applied as well to any of the great tyrants of the twentieth century: Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Franco. These are the people Trump looks up to, though he may not actually know this, since his understanding of history is less than comprehensive.
But just to show you where this all goes, here is a description of the cult of personality built around Stalin, from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s magnificent novel In The First Circle:
The man’s name was declaimed by all the newspapers of the terrestrial globe, mouthed by thousands of announcers in hundreds of languages, thundered by public speakers, intoned in prayers for his health by bishops…It had replaced the previous names of a multitude of cities and squares, streets and avenues, palaces, universities, schools, sanatoriums, mountain ranges, ship canals, factories, mines, state farms, collective farms, warships, icebreakers, fishing boats, cooperative cobblers’ shops, nurseries — and a group of Moscow journalists had even suggested renaming the Volga and the moon after him.
Trump dreams of this, but while he isn’t there yet, his cultists are showing him the same mindless reverence.
The overarching theme of their grotesque convention is the infallibility of Donald Trump. His infinite wisdom, his deep compassion, his clear-eyed vision, his steady hand, his stellar record of achievement. And, oh yes, his superb handling of the Covid crisis.
At the same time, the dominant sub-theme is the demonization of Democrats, those slimy insects hell-bent on abolishing our suburbs, immolating our cities, de-fanging our police, selling our daughters to MS-13, and forcing abortions on women who aren’t pregnant. And that’s without even getting into what QAnon, the real conspiracy nuts, are saying off-camera.
Scapegoating of the “other” is standard practice in a cult of personality. “Democrat” is just the dog whistle du jour, a convenient catch-all for anyone who’s not a “real American” — real, as in male, Christian, white, and heterosexual. Notice I've left out females, who would not be happy under this cult — the nineteenth amendment never sat well with those “real Americans.”
But this is not a risk-free path, even if Trump wins. When you hear the words “president for life” — which is what “twelve more years” amounts to — the strong implication is that tyrants don’t go away willingly. Or quietly. Some go sooner than others. Some more violently than others. But with rare exceptions, dictators don’t leave office alive.
Trump loves the idea of a cult of personality, but as with everything else, I don’t think he’s thought it through.