Embrace the Hate

by on May 17, 2017 · 4 comments

in Civil Rights

Trump by Bosch

By Brett Warnke

Every Sherlock needs his Moriarty.  When Doyle’s great detective called his brilliant nemesis the “Napoleon of crime,” the reader kept reading to see London’s equally matched talents collide.

The great exposers in journalism, like Izzy Stone, America’s first blogger, self-published and changed the conversation when consensus was king.  The great haters, meanwhile, purified public outrage at the crimes or embarrassments of those in power, and had the skill to peel the muck of sentiment and the grime of politeness.

Truth is uncomfortable. Facts are ugly.  And hate is very real.

It is by seeing the failures and embarrassments of the past, those ignominious moments that send our hands flying to our faces, that we can better orient ourselves to where we are, or more accurately, where we have descended to in our own low point in history.

On the political right, the cynical voice of Baltimore’s H.L. Mencken—racist and reactionary as it was—burned away the mawkishness of the 1920s feel-good fog.  He pulled the drain on William Jennings Bryan’s soothing Christian bath and exposed the cults, drys, and phonies of his age.  True, Mencken, “The Sage of Baltimore,” was no radical and believed the country was as dumb as it was corrupt.

“Amhitheatrum Johnsonianum: Massacre of the Innocents at New Orleans, July 30, 1866,” by Thomas Nast illustrates Johnson’s sanction of white mob rule in the murderous riots in Memphis and New Orleans.

In the decade of mass delusion after World War I when the strikes were smashed and the factories once more chuffed their profits, even he was shocked when Senator from Ohio, a degenerate gambler, lech, and unqualified dunce named Warren Gamaliel Harding was elected President in 1920.  Mencken listened to the antipolitical flummery in Harding’s radio speeches and in an essay titled “Gamalielese,” took Harding at his words:

He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights.

It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

Harding was just a slob whereas, in our own time, Trump’s disgusting behavior, his crudeness and racism and dumbness, are something new only because they are thoughtlessly unfiltered, immediately expressed, and shamelessly announced in the smug tones of a proud know-nothing.

Nixon, too, was a squalid little bigot, but only on his secret tapes.  He incinerated Vietnamese children on Christmas Day and violated the Logan Act to scupper peace talks that extended a futile and unpopular war but was a smooth tactician.  Twelve earlier Presidents, to their shame, actually owned slaves but at least a few freed them and made pretense about respect for the political union.

But today, the country will need to decide when the level of embarrassment of this particular electoral slider has become much too much.

America is a sappy state.

A co-worker was weepy beside me in January meeting during those famed “huge crowds,” in D.C.  She was tearful from the pomp and traditions of the inauguration…yes, Trump’s inauguration.  It’s a forgiving and forgetful country with re-made rather than “self-made” men.  Often, it is the sharp-tongued journalists—those derided makers of “fake news” that shine a torch path when the national embarrassment and culture of forgetting becomes too great.

Memory is the perfect antidote to sentimentality.

Not all embarrassments are equal of course and journalists capture them in different ways.  When they filmed George H.W. Bush puking in the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister the scene was harmless, even funny.

When they pointed out Reagan’s repeating the lie that he liberated the death camps (he spent the war years in Culver City), it was more pitiful than malevolent.

When they pressed Bill Clinton on lying and behaving like the disgusting fraud we all knew him to be, it was unsurprising and he remained popular, even throughout his disgrace, disbarment, and rudderless Presidency.

And for all the astonishing disappointments of the Obama years—the bailouts and griftopia he was unwilling to stop or even the $400,000 Cantor Speech he accepted for his Wall Street pals 100 days out of the White House—there was no whiff of personal scandal, jobbery or pelf—even in the public stimulus funds spent in his productive early years.

The more obscene corruption and embarrassments of the Bush era, articulated excellently in journalist Thomas Frank’s more neglected book The Wrecking Crew, are almost forgotten in the fog of crisis and Trumpism.

Enron?  Tyco?  Jack Abramoff?  Tom Delay?  Alberto Gonzalez and Karl Rove?  If Presidents only get a few lines in history—will it be the crooks who supported Bush, his malevolent saddling of a generation to student loan debt, or his incompetence in Iraq and Katrina and the Social Security debacle?  What should we hate more?

The fight against power is unending and it demands irony and style in an age of distraction.  But it also requires fire, the hot boil of rage and indignation.

Love conquers hate?  Maybe.  Sometimes.  But hate can get you out of bed when love is in short supply.

The Baby Boom generation, with its quirky self-centeredness was interestingly personified in the biting New Journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, a writer who found his antithesis in the black heart of Richard Nixon.

In a 1978 interview at his home in Woody Creek he perfectly said,

“Richard Nixon represents the dark-side of the American Dream.  He stands for everything that I not only have contempt for but everything I dislike and think should be stomped out:  greed, treachery, stupidity, cupidity, the positive power of lying, total contempt for any sort of human constructive political instinct, everything that is wrong with America, everything that this country had demonstrated as a national trait—the bully instinct, the power grab, the dumbness, the insensitivity.  Nixon represents everything that is wrong with this country.  He can’t even walk.”

Thompson’s crushing obituary is his master-work.  His partnership with Ralph Steadman wonderfully paired the inky, misshapen ghouls of Nixon era with Thompson’s booze-fueled prose.  Yet, it wasn’t the prose stylists that perfectly expressed the excesses of another failed executive, but the cartoonists like Steadman.

“Andy’s Trip,”by Thomas Nast.

A lesser known national embarrassment in 1866, months after the Civil War, when Lincoln’s Vice President Andrew Johnson ascended to power after the assassination and took a notorious speaking tour called “The Swing Around the Circle.” It lacked Trump’s vigilante mob “punch him in the face” fascism, but Johnson’s hack stump routine astonished the country.

This hack was the President?  Lincoln’s heir?  The nation’s healer?

Johnson demanded the popular, trusting and dutiful General Grant join him on a national train tour as he tried to unify conservative forces in the South and North for his reactionary policy of “keeping the Union as it was and the Constitution as it is.”

Johnson, a half-literate East Tennessee tailor who delivered the same speech that was printed in the papers before he arrived, met crowds longing for something more than a Pretender’s rehearsed and pitifully inarticulate wind.

Hecklers jeered him, told the President to sit down.  They wanted to hear Grant, the “Hero of Vicksburg.”  The President tried new tactics—calling his Republican opponents “traitors” and even some racist billingsgate that shocked the populous, as did his comparisons between himself and Christ.

Johnson, fresh from his pardoning of the South’s plantation families, entirely misread the country and was booed off so many stages during his harangues and denounced so often for being a bigmouth that, in the only intelligent decision of his failed presidency, he cut his “magical circle of the union” tour short.  He returned to D.C., tale sufficiently tucked, and accepted the crushing midterm defeats for his party.

The writers didn’t bring Johnson low, or at least not as memorably as in the beautiful hilarious and furious art of Thomas Nast at Harper’s.  Nast scratched away any illusions about Johnson, revealing him as the petty, tempestuous, nasty little puke he was in cartoons like “Andy’s Trip,” where he mocks Johnson’s feaux martyrdom.  Nast did not equivocate, he even printed Johnson’s direct contradictions and lies.

In “King Andy” from 1866 he showed Johnson as a Richard III, a clownish usurper with Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens behind him at the chopping block.  And in his grandest piece, “Amhitheatrum Johnsonianum:  Massacre of the Innocents at New Orleans, July 30, 1866,” Nast illustrates Johnson’s sanction of white mob rule in the murderous riots in Memphis and New Orleans.

Today, Steve Brodner’s “The Court of Donald I,” based on Francisco de Goya’s royal portraits, is the perfect and early rendering of the unfolding corruption and decadence of our age.

Steve Brodner’s “The Court of Donald I.”

But Victor Juhasz’s Rolling Stone illustrations on the catastrophe of 2016 rival Nast’s grandness in scale and a personal style that is mesmerizing: Trump feeling-up the Statue of Liberty.  Trump roaring out of an elephant’s ass at contender clowns.  A Trump tornado.  Trump as a Bosch-like hell-monster engulfing everything.

Juhasz, in partnership with Matt Taibbi, has used journalism and wit for its purpose:  mocking the pose of authority and challenging power.  If it must be all-Trump, all-the time, the pair will paint and write the scene on their own terms.

In a January interview on Democracy Now, Taibbi self-consciously has positioned he and Juhasz as the duo to watch in the Trump-era.   And in a great echo of Thompson’s boiling hatred of Nixon, Taibbi said,

“On the campaign trail as I covered [Trump], it was hate at first sight.  He’s a fascinating, repellant, epically horrible character.  He is such a unique figure in our time.  He’s the perfect foil to reflect everything that is excessive and vulgar and disgusting and tasteless and cheap and greedy about American culture.  He’s the perfect mirror to reflect our society.”

Good journalists of course spell out the whats, whys, and hows of the age—but—but it is it the greats whose outrage burns through the page.  Our heirs, if we leave them much of anything, will wonder what it was like to endure an obscenity like Trump, a dimit like Devos, a pious homophobe like Pence.  We need to write our own history, if only to tell the story of how the dominoes dropped.

Ernst Fischer

Perhaps, I’ll conclude with a page from the journalist who made me want to write, a Viennese radical named Ernst Fischer.  Picking up his autobiography, An Opposing Man while at the New School in New York, I found the lashing snaps of his prose impossible to put down.

Fischer was a mild-mannered radical who was pushed by reaction, forced to use his talents for the war effort because of a boiling hatred of Hitler, written beautifully on the propaganda pamphlets dropped on the vanishing Reich, was expressed in every word.

He became a hatred for Hitler—and hate, for all the pious hooey about peace and love, is a great producer and animator in modern life.  Hate moves men to act against rich felons and corporate thugs.  Hate spurs them to join in solidarity against indifference and villainy.  And as Adolf Hitler, Fischer’s great nemesis, knew, stoking resentments yields great power.  Fischer’s response illustrates why hate was necessary and required:

Though I am not a hater I detested Hitler more than anything else in the whole world, detested him to the very foundations of my being.  He was for me not simply the representative of the most extreme form of imperialism and chauvinism, not the administrator of social decay—there was, indeed, no one social category in which he could be fitted.

I loathed everything about him, his voice, his face, his figure, his form of expression, his gestures, the very least of his pronouncements.  Although he did not drink, he was the beery smog of all beer cellars made flesh, a toper drinking himself crowd-silly, after every mass-meeting drained, drooping and pallid, seemingly wading through slime.

And beforehand, the baying, the bellowing, the screaming of the little man in the throes of hysteria, gone off the rails, the declasse’ petit-bourgeois turned gangster, an amalgam of pity for himself and vindictiveness toward all those who have made something of their lives—the skilled worker, the noted writer, architect or painter, the senior executive officer—a pariah dog taking his cue from a werewolf, a man gone down in the world, self-commiserating and ruthless, perfidious and attitudinizing, struggling to reach the top by fair means or foul, a sob in his throat, teeth bared, a sham Nero dreaming of ovations, of artistic renown, of holocausts, the rabble-rousing genius of complete dehumanization.

I loathed this man as a monster of mediocrity, as immeasurably bloated provincialism, as a pin-head troglodyte suffering from megalomania and all at once finding at his disposal the whole potential of technology, of verbal and armed coercion, of concentrated power.  The effluvium of his speeches, the fixed insanity of his gaze, foreshadowed Auschwitz.

The breach-of-promise specialist as an heroic figure of the primeval forest, ludicrousness dressed up as Lohengrin, impotence as the twilight of the gods, and all this, together with the mumbo-jumbo of his isms and ologies, his rabid gentility, his bloody dilettantism, added up to the most terrifying thing that has ever loomed on my horizon….To contribute my own mite to Hitler’s downfall became the whole meaning and content of my life.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar rick callejon May 17, 2017 at 3:32 pm

“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” H.L. Mencken

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avatar sloanranger May 18, 2017 at 4:22 am

Got a whole lot of villains and a whole lot of political history, here, I shall have to read this again, Brett, before I can adequately take it all in – let alone write a reasonable comment. Gonna have to research some of your very interesting & cogent facts : )

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avatar Frank Gormlie May 19, 2017 at 3:32 pm

Brett, thanks for reminding us of the 1865 Pres. Johnson.

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avatar Brett Warnke May 20, 2017 at 9:20 pm

The first truck cartoon is actually by Victor Juhasz, a Rolling Stone cartoonist. But thank you very much for the comments. Andrew Johnson was the worst, but the satirists, radicals and cartoonists of his day did the great work of attacking him!

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