Donald Trump

Donald Trump speaks on a stage.

(Photo: Michael Vadon/flickr/cc)

Trump: Rhinoceros in Chief

An example of absurdist drama that prophesied Trumpist transformation is Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros—the classic play in which an entire town devolves into rhinoceroses that silence any hope of coherent conversation.

In 1968, the Youth International Party nominated a pig named Pigasus for president; in 2024, the Republican Party will likely nominate a Traitor named Trump for president, a dumber and more corrupt candidate than Pigasus. The Youth International Party—the anarchic, counter-culture Yippies— nominated the pig as an absurd joke. While it’s absurd to nominate an indicted felon who tried to overturn the 2020 election, the GOP is not joking.

The Yippies’ pig had no chance of becoming president: according to the Constitution Pigasus wasn’t qualified, being younger than 35 years old. Trump as an insurrectionist is—like the pig—unqualified to be president, according to the Constitution. Yet, unlike Pigasus, he has a good chance to become president: The Supreme Court will likely discount the Constitution, he leads Biden in some polls, and, if he loses, he will try to steal the election again, threatening “bedlam” if that happens.

To rational people, it is mindbogglingly surreal that an incompetent, ignorant megalomaniac and sexual abuser like Trump, whose grating voice alone rattles teeth, would be deemed fit for the presidency, let alone close to winning power. Yet he is. Despite his enabling of the pandemic, his 2020 defeat, his instigation of the January 6 attack on the Capital, the 91 charges across four criminal cases, and his never-ending hurricane of lies, millions of reality-challenged Americans worship and support him.

Exposing its total MAGA-tization, the Republican Party has crawled with Trump into a moral abyss that turns out to be a bottomless pit of unreality. The fake GOP primary delivers phony, cowardly candidates Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, who are terrified of criticizing him and have promised to support him even if he were a convicted felon. They continue their sham candidacies, hoping that the laws of gravity will reverse on Trump and he will be sucked up into the vacuum of outer space. Failing that, it is perfectly fine with them that the defeated president attempted a coup and, though stopped, he can still return to the presidency.

The deranged Trump swamped his “opposition” in the Iowa caucus by 30 points. Watching cable news afterwards, it felt like I was living in Russia and Putin was running against two puppet candidates. The pundits seriously discussed the micro-details of the race and how each of the candidates fared in Nowheresville, Iowa, and no one screamed, “This is insanity—this is the cult of a madman!”

The craven cult that inflates Trump’s already-enormous self-esteem has given him the power to bend the arc of reality.

The nightmarish possibility of electing the shameless septuagenarian— a self-described dictator—is helped by his politically weak octogenarian opponent Joe Biden who frames the election as a choice between him and doomsday, but provides doomsday-style weapons and unconditional support for Israel’s Gaza genocide. In addition, Biden risks a “Red Sea War” by bombing Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Angry with Biden, pro-Palestine anti-war progressives might turn away from him in disgust—not voting or voting for third party candidates, undoubtedly funded by Republican donors. Other voters don’t like him because he is too old. In any case, Biden-hating voters might help elect the Muslim-hating, also elderly Trump, who is even more supportive of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than Biden. In his first torturous term, Trump moved the American embassy to Jerusalem and left Palestinians out of the Abraham Accords, which many viewed as a betrayal of Palestine.

In his first term, Trump’s brutality and corruption were slightly mitigated by his ignorance and laziness. In a second, Trump—older and lazier—would better understand the system’s vulnerabilities and loopholes. On inauguration day 2025, Trump will be an indicted or convicted outlaw. He will commit the first crime of his second term at noon: His oath to defend the United States Constitution will be a perjury.

In a second term, he would install an army of political loyalists whose fealty to his most unhinged demands will take precedence over their commitment to the Constitution or legal governance. They will help him drive a much more focused agenda of vengeance against his adversaries and impunity for himself. For his own survival, he must destroy the rule of law by stopping all state and federal, civil and criminal cases against him. If a president can order the justice department to stop a case against him—as Trump would surely do—then obstruction of justice becomes a normal privilege of the presidency.

A former insurrectionist re-elected to the Presidency, he would use the Insurrection Act to order the military to crush protests—which he hoped to do during the summer of 2020—and turn the power of the federal government against his perceived enemies. Paraphrasing Hitler, he said, “We will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.” It has always been Trump’s supreme political wish to wield military violence as personal weapons of power—a wish that many in his party now seem determined to help him achieve.

As xenophobe-in-chief, he hopes to institute a program of mass detainment and deportation of undocumented immigrants, who he says are “poisoning the blood” of the country, employing the rhetoric of European totalitarians. His aides have already drawn up plans for new detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border, where anyone suspected of illegal entry would be held until officials have settled the person’s immigration status.

If Trump is returned to office, he will undoubtedly make January 6 a national holiday—the Day of the Patriotic Martyrs.

American democracy will disintegrate piece by piece as a second Trump term erects a postmodern fascist state modeled on Victor Orbán’s Hungary—destroying the legitimacy of elections, trampling constitutional rights, instituting a nation-wide abortion ban, cutting off immigration, suppressing derogatory media, promoting Christian nationalism, and undermining the rule of law.

Even beyond this horror, the craven cult that inflates Trump’s already-enormous self-esteem has given him the power to bend the arc of reality. His hallucinating supporters believe in an elaborate MAGA phantasmagoria that Trump has concocted: that the previous election was stolen, that Biden is an illegitimate president, that Biden has weaponized the legal system to prosecute his strongest opponent Trump, and that the January 6 riot was not an insurrection by Trump supporters but an instigation by the FBI and antifa.

In a brief moment after the January 6 Capitol attack, many in the GOP thought the Trump monster had been banished, a pariah in the Party. Republican leaders blamed him for the insurrection. Party fund-raisers assured donors they were done with him. Trump’s own loyalists turned against him. Former Attorney General Barr said Trump’s conduct was a “betrayal of his office and supporters.”

The Murdoch-owned lapdog Wall Street Journalargued that Trump was done: “This week finished him as a serious political figure. He has betrayed his loyal supporters by lying to them about the election and the ability of Congress and Mr. Pence to overturn it. He has refused to accept the basic bargain of democracy, which is to accept the result, win or lose.” Trump also got blamed when the 2022 midterms went seriously awry as Trump-endorsed election deniers lost winnable races and the much-hyped “red tsunami” turned into a dribble. In her book, purged Republican Liz Cheney reported that afterwards Trump was depressed and refused to eat.

After condemning Trump for January 6 and even suggesting that he resign, now-deposed House Speaker Kevin McCarthy traveled to Mar-a-Lago and, in an historically spineless act of recantation, embraced and absolved the starving former President. Cheney and many others have identified this as a pivotal moment in reviving the former president’s political viability and appetite.

Still, previous to this submission, the Republican Party threw away its best chance to bury him forever when 43 senators voted to acquit him in his impeachment after the Capitol riot. They could have relegated him to Palm Beach and saved America from hearing the despicable rants of this malfunctioning moron and putting the police and the nuclear button under his thumb.

Trump resumed eating, lying, and constructing a new absurd reality that has proven more politically salient with the GOP and its voters than many of us thought possible on January 7, 2021, even after seeing it happen over and over for the previous six exhausting, gut-wrenching years.

Pulling off a kind of double coup, this psychopathic fabricator added to the original Big Lie about the “rigged election.” He called January 6 “a beautiful day,” and he designated the nearly 1,300 defendants arrested in connection with the Capitol attack ”martyrs” and “hostages.” He has promised to pardon insurrectionists and threatened to lock up the police who tried to defend the Capitol that day. If Trump is returned to office, he will undoubtedly make January 6 a national holiday—the Day of the Patriotic Martyrs.

The GOP and the right-wing media echo system has been so effective in pumping out Trump’s upside-down-world propaganda that polling recently found that, in the intervening three years, the number of Republicans who believe Trump’s lies about a “rigged election” has, in fact, gone up. Today, only 31% of Republicans believe that Biden is the “legitimate” president, down from 39% in late 2021. The poll also showed that Republicans thought the insurrectionist mob were mostly peaceful.

For millions of people, Trump has managed to transmute historical events that everyone saw with their own eyes into theater of the absurd, an anti-realistic dramatic genre characterized by dark humor, incoherent language, strange symbolism, and themes that relate to human irrationality.

An example of absurdist drama that prophesied Trumpist transformation is Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros—the classic play in which an entire town devolves into hard-skinned, monstrous rhinoceroses that issue ear-shattering bellows that silence any hope of coherent conversation. Rhinoceros thundered onto the stage, in 1960, with a chilling yet farcically funny allegory of how fascism can mutate ordinary people into angry, violent, mindless beasts whose articulateness dissolves into a cacophony of guttural honks.

Writing in the wake of Hitler and Stalin, Ionesco painted a picture of a society succumbing to the contagion of “rhinoceritis,” a disease that erodes individuality and replaces it with groupthink and casual brutality as well as a hatred of non-rhinoceroses. The transformative infection suggests the dehumanizing force of tyrannical ideologies.

Becoming a huge, horned rhinoceros is gradually normalized: A formerly concerned character Jean dismisses his friend’s terror at the multiplication of grotesque rhino mutations and their deleterious effects on human freedom. Jean debases himself and enables rhinoceritis when he says that despite their savage deformity, they’re “harmless, docile herbivores” and “seem so sure of themselves.” This mindless acceptance and rationalization foreshadows the insidious nature of the disease, disguising its destructive potential.

Ionesco’s play exposes the lure of surrendering to a mass authoritarian movement and abandoning the burden of independent thought. Among Trump’s abettors are numerous verifiably insane congresspeople who have been infected by rhinoceritis for a long time such as Marjorie Taylor Green, Lauren Boebert, and Matt Gaetz. But it’s the transformed normies that are most pathetic.

Current House Majority Whip Tom Emmer angered Trump when he voted to certify Biden’s election, unlike 147 colleagues who voted to overturn the election. When Emmer ran for his dream-job Speaker of the House, Trump sank his candidacy, warning that he would be a “tragic mistake” and calling him a “Globalist RINO” (not a rhinoceros). Two months later, Emmer—like nearly 100 members of the House, said, “I am proud to endorse Donald J. Trump for President.” Expressing his gratitude to Emmer for his miserable self-abasement, Trump smirked, “They always bend the knee.”

One of the more pitiful examples of “Trump Debasement Syndrome” is Sen. Josh Hawley, the guy who egged on the January 6 rhinoceros-thugs with a fist-pump that lamely showed solidarity with them and then was recorded in security footage fleeing for his life to avoid those same stampeding thugs. Hawley has decided to “forget” his traumatic escape from the mob, though he had not endorsed King Rhinoceros as the Iowa caucus approached. Exhibiting concern for Hawley’s electoral health, Trump warned him to “be very careful” in his Senate re-election campaign. Shortly thereafter, Hawley joined the Republican Rhino herd and publicly endorsed Trump saying, “I’m with him.”

Rhinoceros explored the erosion of moral values, the seductive nature of power as people become mere instruments of brute strength and aggression. As authority figures collapse and undergo metamorphosis, other people find it easier to justify why becoming a rhinoceros is desirable. As one character declares, “It‘s the strength that counts, don’t you want to be strong?”

Once a rising conservative normie in the party—an acolyte of former Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan, Rep. Elise Stefanik has transmogrified into an automated MAGA rhinoceros. She trumpeted Trump’s reference to the January 6 criminals as “hostages,” and embraced the claim that the 2020 election was an “unconstitutional circumventing of the Constitution.” Stefanik refused to commit to certifying the results of the 2024 election, saying “We will see if this is a legal and valid election.” After calling the media biased against Trump, she said the “border crisis is poisoning Americans.” Desperately thirsty for Trump’s VP spot, Stefanik has become a eager demagogue.

What began, in Rhinoceros, as isolated incidents becomes a rhinoceros contagion as the town’s residents witness an astonishing metamorphosis as more and more people sprout horns, grow enormously huge with hard green skin, and succumb to the allure of the rampaging Rhino fascists. There are no elections in Rhinoceros Town so the entire society is transformed, except for one individual Berenger who shouts, “I’ll take on the whole of them! I’ll put up a fight against the lot of them! I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating.”

The entire Republican Party—elected officials and voters—have capitulated. They’ve chosen the sickness, nihilism, and absurdity. Fortunately, we still have democracy. Stopping the Trump contagion will not suddenly eradicate the disease and make America perfectly healthy, but it is vital to embrace reality, reject the absurd, prevent further suffering, and preserve the possibility of progress.

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© 2023 Juan Cole