Down the Rabbit Hole With Donald Trump
Living a Mixed Metaphor
By Tom Engelhardt
There can be no question about it. Donald Trump is Lewis Carroll's Queen of Hearts. "Off with his head!" was the president's essential suggestion for -- to offer just one example -- a certain whistleblower who fingered him on that now notorious Ukrainian phone call. And if The Donald hasn't also been playing the roles of White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, and other characters from Carroll's classic nineteenth century children's book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, then tell me what he's been doing these last years.
Unfortunately, in attempting to explain the Trumpian world we've been plunged into, I'm not Lewis Carroll. If only I were! Still, I realized recently that, like Alice, I had gone down the proverbial rabbit hole and was still falling, falling as if into a deep, deep well or through the very center of the Earth. Now Alice, if you remember, first had to follow a White Rabbit with pink eyes who rushed by wearing a waistcoat, suddenly pulled a watch from its pocket, and said to itself, "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!" It then disappeared down that memorably large rabbit hole by a riverbank near her house in nineteenth-century England.
Willingly or not, I -- and here, I suspect, I speak for most of the rest of us, too -- had little choice, given election 2016, but to follow our own rabbit down a twenty-first-century version of that rabbit hole. It goes without saying that our rabbit, that famed impresario of (un)reality TV shows, was distinctly a white rabbit, too. (After all, he would be the first to assure you that he's no "Mexican rapist," nor a compatriot of the recently dead Congressman Elijah Cummings whom he labeled a "brutal bully" representing a "rat and rodent infested" district of Baltimore.)
In his own twitchy fashion, the president recently refused to throw out the first pitch at a World Series game in Washington, D.C., because he knew that the Secret Service would dress him up in "a lot of heavy armor" and he would, as he put it, "look too heavy." In other words, he rejected his own armored version of a waistcoat, a Kevlar vest, because it might, he felt, make him seem fat. This sort of thing, now our everyday reality, even Lewis Carroll might have had trouble inventing. And if any of this seems petty to you, keep in mind that never in our history has there been a pettier or more self-absorbed president. (On his introduction at that baseball game, by the way, he was greeted with a chorus of boos and -- a first -- chants of "Lock him up!")
For those of you who remember Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with its classic John Tenniel illustrations, here's one image that, I think, captures our Trumpian moment. Alice, already in Wonderland, finds herself in a room with a door too little to exit through. (It seems to me that, since 2016, all of us have found ourselves in just such a room -- updated to include an @realDonaldTrump Twitter account -- with no exit in sight.) On a small table, she suddenly notices a tiny bottle, "which certainly was not here before." As Carroll describes it, "Round the neck of the bottle was a paper label with the words 'DRINK ME' beautifully printed on it in large letters."
After carefully checking to make sure it wasn't marked "poison," Alice sipped the liquid in that bottle. It had, she reported, a "mixed flavor of cherry-tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffy, and hot buttered-toast." As she drank it, Alice found herself shrinking until she was 10 inches tall, just the size for that little door. She would later grow giant indeed in a world in which nothing seemed to remain expectably normal-sized.
Whatever we Americans may think, including the 30% percent or more of us who make up Donald Trump's ever-loyal base, it seems to me that we've all shrunk quite a bit in the years since he entered the Oval Office, even as he's grown, in his own strange way, to gigantic proportions, Kevlar vest or no. Through no fault of their own, in the last election season, many of those who would become part of that base were already far down a rabbit hole of inequality and feeling an increasing sense of hopelessness. No wonder that, recognizing a Queen of Hearts on their TV sets ready to insult the surrounding world of political propriety ("Low-energy Jeb," "Little Marco," "Lyin' Ted," "Crooked Hillary"), they decided he would be the perfect messenger to give the finger to a Washington that had betrayed them.
Were he ever to enter the White House, they assumed, he might indeed take off the heads of some of those who had helped put them in such a spot. Since they undoubtedly had few illusions about just what sort of figure they were voting into the highest office in the land, they had no reason to reject or desert him almost three years later (though admittedly his administration and a Republican Congress have only increased inequality in this country). Today, with Donald Trump in Blunderland and themselves still falling, falling, they remain remarkably loyal to, and anything but disillusioned with, their very own Queen of Hearts.
The Donald's Truest Moment in Blunderland
Now, consider for a moment just how wondrous (in a sense) all this has been. I mean, who, not in Blunderland, could ever have imagined that a bankrupted casino magnate and reality TV host might essentially -- like his lawyer recently -- butt-dial us all into a new form of (un)reality? Who could have imagined a world in which every camera would be focused on him and him alone, its red light seemingly always on? Who could have imagined that any bizarre thought our very own Queen of Hearts had or bit of braggadocio he tweeted or uttered ("[ISIS uses] the internet better than almost anybody in the world, perhaps other than Donald Trump") would be the news of that day? Who could have imagined that, no matter how he insulted them, the "fake news media" would focus on him and him alone, assigning reporters to cover him in hordes that had been inconceivable in the pre-rabbit-hole history of journalism? In other words, in media terms, whatever Donald Trump drank, it made him far bigger than anything else on this planet.
And honestly, each day, when you tumble down that rabbit hole yet again, it hardly matters whether you're heading there via CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News. What once would have been known as the politics of it all is now, in many ways, beside the point in what I once termed the White Ford Bronco presidency (in honor of the car O.J. Simpson drove down a California highway in a long-gone moment of no significance that was nonetheless blanketed by the TV news and watched by a nation).
Still, give Lewis Carroll the credit he deserves for grasping something of our twenty-first-century American fate so long ago. After all, his book ends on what might be thought of as the Wonderland version of an impeachment trial. There, the blustering Queen and King of Hearts are eternally eager for the heads of everyone, while the jurors -- small animals, birds, and a lizard -- desperately try to write down ridiculously irrelevant "evidence," and Alice suddenly begins to grow ever larger as she watches the spectacle.
Much as it may anger Donald Trump, impeachment will be his truest moment in Blunderland, the one in which the focus on him will only become more extreme ("Drink this!"). In fact, count on it growing to proportions never before imagined on this planet. All of us will, by then, have drunk that potion and, despite what Carroll imagined in balmier times, it has indeed proven a kind of poison. The question, of course, is: Will the rest of us ever reach the book-ending moment in which all the characters in Wonderland, having turned back into so many playing cards, rise up "into the air" and come "flying down upon" Alice? As she beats them off, she suddenly awakens on that riverbank near her house, "her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face."
Will we someday wake up, too, and discover that our version of Wonderland, The Donald's Blunderland, was all a kind of strange dream? Or in our time, in our world, might waking on that riverbank no longer be possible?
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