A year ago I published a monographic volume called Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort in which I aimed at showing how real-life and fictional villains embody patriarchy’s promise of power to complicit men. Some fulfil that promise to a degree so hyperbolic that they need to be eliminated, hence the need for heroes. Most ambitious patriarchal men, however, understand that there are legal and ethical limits to their power. They struggle anyway to take their empowerment as far as possible, risking a downfall but protecting themselves effectively whether they are called Mark Zuckerberg or Vladimir Putin. In other cases, such as that of Hitler or Voldemort, the massive sense of entitlement overwhelms all caution, resulting in a series of missteps that lead to an eventual downfall. I believe this is what we have seen this past week with Donald Trump’s enticement of his followers to take the Capitol and prevent Joe Biden from being formally proclaimed as the next US President. Trump has gone too far in his villainy, heroically stopped by the Senate and Congress, but although he seems to have reached the end of his political career (if the impeachment proceeds he will be banned from holding any kind of public office), the future looks uncertain. Most tyrannies end with the death of the tyrant, but we still need to see how democracy copes with a living would-be tyrant.
The assault on democracy of last January 6 has been brewing since the very day Republican Trump won the Presidential election against Democrat Hillary Clinton in November 2016, if not earlier. As I have written here diverse times, I blame American women for Trump’s win: many more men than women voted for Hillary Clinton, and that says all we need to know about the failure of feminism in the United States. I do not particularly sympathize with Senator Clinton but given the choice between her and the patriarchal monster Donald Trump, I would not have hesitated to vote for her. The question, then, is why American women allowed Trump to be elected, both the liberal women who did not bother to vote at all, and the conservative women who voted for this pussy-grabbing narcissist. How the man who was mostly considered a joke by 80% Americans in 2015 could become the US President in 2016 is a gendered matter indeed. In view of how he has degraded the American Presidency to limits unthinkable before his election, I believe many US voters owe a deep apology to Senator Clinton. I do not know what kind of President she would have been but one thing is certain: a much better one than the resident monster at the White House.
The one thing I most clearly remember about the 2016 election was President Obama saying in an informal TV intervention, addressing Trump himself, something along the lines of “the difference between you and me is that I will be remembered as an American President but you won’t, you’re not qualified”, implying that he would never be elected. There was in this remark both total lucidity (Trump indeed was not qualified) and a bit of arrogance, which possibly has incapacitated the Democratic Party from fighting Trump more adequately. Just as I blame the Democratic women for not having mobilized all American women in favour of Hillary Clinton, I blame the Democratic men for not having been more effective in counteracting Trump’s worst traits as a patriarchal man. Joe Biden’s calm, sedate personality (from what I see) seems to be what is needed now, but throughout the four years of this nightmare I have been wondering, much peeved and annoyed, why former President Obama was not opposing Trump more forcefully. I understand that an implicit rule of American politics prevents former Presidents from criticising their successors but I believe that Obama has gone too far in obeying that rule. I very much doubt that Trump will show so much leniency towards Biden, particularly if he still thinks of a hypothetical 2024 re-election but even if that goal is out of bounds for whatever legal reasons. In most democracies there is an opposition leader keeping the Prime Minister on their toes, and I believe that this figure is sorely missing in US politics. The President has, in short, too much power.
Surprised as I have been by the barrage of disrespect with which President Trump has been treated by late night show hosts and a variety of political critics, I have been even more surprised by the tolerance shown towards his behaviour. Yes, Trump was impeached, but this is a man whose personal demeanour is simply outrageous. He has shattered all the limits, from being known as a sexual abuser to making constant diplomatic gaffes in his dealings with the likes of Putin or Kim Jong-Un. Any other democratic leader in the world would have been ousted by far less, and new elections called to replace him. And that’s another weakness, I think, of the American democracy: its inefficient electoral system. I am not siding at all with Trump’s claim that the system is fraudulent (funny how he never raised the issue when he was himself elected) but noting that it is too inflexible. Supposing the impeachment had progressed or the 25th Amendment invoked, this would still have left Americans in the hands of Mike Pence, who, as Vice-President, has seconded each of Trump’s steps. That he chose to stay in Capitol and certify Biden’s win does not exonerate him from his responsibility in maintaining President Trump in power for four horrendous years. There should be a mechanism to call for new elections in case the US President behaves, as Trump has done, despicably. I will possibly eat my words if/when Joe Biden resigns and VP Kamala Harris becomes the first woman President of the USA, but it still seems to be anomalous that Americans are stuck with their choices for four years no matter what might happen.
Another issue I wish to raise is that of the Grand Old Party’s complicity with Trump. The GOP or Republican Party elected him their candidate, whereas, please recall this for future reference, Hitler ran for Prime Minister supported by his own Nazi Party. Donald Trump seemed initially the kind of fringe figure that would try to enter US politics using his own platform (in the style of Kanye West’s Birthday Party and the other third parties that backed independent candidates in the recent election). What is astonishing and disgusting is that the same Republican Party that backed Abraham Lincoln could back Donald Trump. I have not forgotten about Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, but in comparison to Trump they appear to be now excellent Presidents. It was even funny to read Bush’s press statement complaining that the USA are not a banana republic as the current incumbent at the White House believes, but also tragic. While democratic leaders all over the world worried how Trump’s behaviour would inspire other right-wing populists, the right-wing populists in power mocked the ineptitude of their American colleague. The Republican Party, and particularly Trump sycophants such as Ted Cruz or the extremely dangerous Josh Hawley, are to blame for the brutal attack against democracy perpetrated by the Capitol rabble as much as Trump himself.
This leads me to the concept of ‘the people’ and Trump’s argument that the closing down of his violence-mongering Twitter account is an attack against the right wing. The social media are not directly responsible for the possibly unsolvable political polarization of our times in all democracies because they were not created with that purpose. However, they are guilty of remaining passive as the fanatical political divide grew. Within democracy, there is room for the expression of diverging political views, but those views that threaten democracy itself, whether they are communist or fascist, need to be firmly rejected. Trump and his followers are using the classic Nazi argument in protecting extreme right-wing positions as a legitimate political stance but one thing is the democratic right and quite another the undemocratic extreme right. In that sense, all popular revolts that aim at invading Parliaments are undemocratic, hence intolerable and punishable by law. One thing is taking the Bastille to start a revolution against absolutist monarchy, and quite another taking the Capitol to deny the legitimate election of a new US President. The vandals assaulting the Capitol last Wednesday are not an expression of the American people, but its enemy, and so is Trump.
About the man himself, I’ll just say that the scariest thing about him is that there could be someone even worse, by which I mean more intelligent. The biographical volumes Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success (a.k.a The Truth about Trump) by Michael D’Antonio (2015) and Too Much and Never Enough (2020) by Mary Trump (Donald’s niece and a reputed clinical psychologist) describe in all detail the sociopathic personality of this immature, self-loving man. Yet, as happens in Hitler’s case, there is a major risk in stressing the singularity of an individual man whose rise is actually symptomatic of the society to which he appeals. Hitler rose with the complicity of the German upper classes at a time of profound economic crisis when the social anger of the disenfranchised masses had to be diverted away from Communism and given an outlet. Hitler was willing and able to play the role of German hero, to make Germany great again, and eventually escaped the control of his enablers, sinking the nation into chaos. Still, had he been unwilling and unable, I’m sure that some other messianic figure would have played the role, with the same or even worse consequences if that is conceivable. In Trump’s case the GOP was responding to eight years of Obama’s presidency, which exposed the deep racism of American society, and to a deep social fracture caused by the rampages of US capitalism amongst the less privileged segments of the white population. Trump was there to channel their grievances, despite being himself (supposedly) a key businessman, but, I insist, it could have been someone else, as shown by the number of ambitious men in the GOP biding his time as he falls. In short, you may send Trump to jail for life but what the USA needs is a much deeper structural change that prevents someone even worse from rising. For if he rises, the next assault against the Capitol will be carried out by fully armed militias that will not hesitate to execute the people’s representatives. Just think how much worse last week’s invasion could have been, perhaps the beginning of a second Civil War, in the hands of a more capable man.
Patriarchal villainy works, precisely in this way: it maintains a structure of power that is occupied by successive patriarchal men. The men themselves do not matter very much, and it is hopefully a sign of American patriarchy’s decadence that it has been unable to single out a more intelligent man than the clownish Trump. What matters is the structure and how it connects with privilege, and the sense of entitlement of the already privileged. In this case, please note that whereas Hitler came from the impoverished middle classes, Trump comes from American business aristocracy (though I insist that everything indicates he is not as rich as he claims). In that sense, democracy is just a slight deviation from the patriarchal norm stating that those with power rule but it is certainly preferable to any other system, if only because now and then it allows for genuine change. Of course, although I am calling the system ‘patriarchy’, we should not believe this is just an association of men–as we can see, there are now men and women on both sides of the democratic divide; the horrid thing is that the undemocratic women have been freed by feminism to express their undemocratic ideologies. For each Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez there is a ‘Trump in heels’, as State Senator Amanda Chase has described herself, though they are not democratic political equivalents: the former protects civil rights guaranteed by democracy, the latter does not.
I want to finish by appealing to the democratic right wing. I do not agree with your constant attempts to curb down personal freedom and to enable big business to rule our lives but democracy cannot be sustained without your firm defence. It is up to the Republican Party to regain lost honour and stop Trump and all other aspiring tyrants by impeaching him so that he can never hold office again, and it is likewise imperative to make sure that no other person like him will ever represent the GOP. The right wing should not oppose the democratic left wing but fight the undemocratic extreme right wing (as much as the undemocratic extreme left wing, of course). The Washington Post has been carrying since 2017 as its grim slogan ‘Democracy dies in darkness’, borrowed from journalist Bob Woodward, and this has almost happened in the nation that supposedly stands for the defence of democracy all over the world. Pearl Harbour and 9/11 were days that will live in infamy, but at least in those cases the enemy was external. 6 January 2021 will also live in infamy, but this time the enemy is American and wants democracy to end. This is how patriarchal villainy operates and it is something that all honourable conservative politicians should acknowledge to protect fragile democracy from any aspiring patriarchal villain.
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