Close-Reading Trump

This is an addendum to this piece I wrote about House of Cards, up at The Guardian, on how downright naive the show seems now. It didn’t belong in the piece, but gosh-darn it, Trump’s greatest victory is teaching us that there’s no point in a good old-fashioned close-reading, and there’s a perfect experiment here in how contemporary America is different from the Underwood’s USA, and it’s in how their respective candidates handle the appearance of racism.

The Underwood’s United States is strikingly innocent and moral compared to our own. Underwood’s America needs to be handled. Things still need to be spun.

Compare, for instance, how Donald Trump and Frank Underwood handled the exact same scandal in their respective worlds. Trump’s father, like Frank’s, has been accused of associating with the Klan. “How do you deal with it—in this world—when your father is accused of hob-nobbing with the Ku Klux Klan?” Jason Horowitz of the New York Times asked Trump. Here’s the Republican frontrunner’s reply:

“It never happened. And by the way, I saw that it was one little website that said it. It never happened. And they said there were no charges, no nothing. It’s unfair to mention it, to be honest, because there were no charges. They said there were charges against other people, but there were absolutely no charges, totally false…

Because my father, there were no charges against him, I don’t know about the other people involved. But there were zero charges against him. So assuming it was him — I don’t even think it was him, I never even heard about it. So it’s really not fair to mention. It never happened.”

Follow the litany of contradictions at work here. If your claim is that a thing never happened, how is it “unfair to mention” the thing that never happened on the grounds that “there were no charges.” Charges for what?

Notice the infantile world-view that builds over the course of this sentence: “Assuming it was [my father]” leads to “I don’t think it was” leads to “I never even heard about it” leads to “it isn’t fair to mention,” which proves, therefore, that “it never happened.” Facts be damned: the only measure of whether something took place is whether Donald Trump has heard of it.

Which, of course, he has. We know Trump has heard about his father’s association with Klan, since a) he told us so, b) he’s giving an interview about it, and c) he’s going to great lengths to convince us that the incident he ostensibly never heard of ended in no one being charged—a peculiar thing to know about something you’ve never heard of that didn’t happen.

This—as Eddie Izzard famously demonstrated—is how toddlers argue. It isn’t cunning. It isn’t deceit. It isn’t even manipulative. It’s unskilled, obvious, simple lying. Trump’s “it never happened” is Eddie Izzard’s kid in trouble saying “I was dead at the time!” (It’s also Freud’s “Broken Kettle,” which he stole from Eddie Izzard)

Do Trump’s supporters like him because he “tells it like it is”? Clearly not. They like him because he tells it like it isn’t, and it’s so obvious there’s no missing it. They’re not stupid, he is. And they prefer that. They’re not stupid, they’re furious. They’re so angry with the political establishment that they’ve made their choice: they prefer an obvious and unskilled liar to a politician whose deceptions they can’t easily see through. Better the devil you know.

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