There have been many attempts among literary journalists to capture, in words, the emotional and intellectual experience of living under a Donald Trump presidency. During the campaign, outlets sent writers like George Saunders and Patricia Lockwood to describe the experience of Trump rallies; since his election, there have been scorched-earth jeremiads and exhortations for civic action that galvanize people. A lot of books written prior to Trump’s rise have been passed around, most notably J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, but also earlier books like Hannah Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism and, of course, 1984. One such pre-Trump tome is Rebecca Solnit’s Hope In The Dark, written during the bleakest years of the George W. Bush era. This week, Solnit has written a remarkable piece directly about Trump for LitHub, which manages to understand Trump’s small, enfeebled heart, and, armed with that knowledge, better eviscerate him.
Entitled “The Loneliness Of Donald Trump,” the essay doesn’t attempt to land haymakers, instead contextualizing Trump’s current state by narrativizing his life. It helps that she does this in perfect sentences like this:
The child who became the most powerful man in the world, or at least occupied the real estate occupied by a series of those men, had run a family business and then starred in an unreality show based on the fiction that he was a stately emperor of enterprise, rather than a buffoon barging along anyhow, and each was a hall of mirrors made to flatter his sense of self, the self that was his one edifice he kept raising higher and higher and never abandoned.
Solnit doesn’t view Trump as some remarkable tyrant, but as the sort of bullying rich kid we’ve all seen before. That’s part of what’s so unshakeable about the images of him shoving aside world leaders or hoarsely ginning up outrage at rallies: These are imminently familiar images, reminiscent of people we have known and witnessed the violence and sadness of. What these people lack is a conscience, and a capacity for decency and civility, she writes:
Some use their power to silence that and live in the void of their own increasingly deteriorating, off-course sense of self and meaning. It’s like going mad on a desert island, only with sycophants and room service. It’s like having a compliant compass that agrees north is whatever you want it to be. The tyrant of a family, the tyrant of a little business or a huge enterprise, the tyrant of a nation. Power corrupts, and absolute power often corrupts the awareness of those who possess it. Or reduces it: narcissists, sociopaths, and egomaniacs are people for whom others don’t exist.
On a day when that president is aiming to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord—something the majority of Americans oppose, at least in principle—Solnit’s essay manages to do something similar to her 2004 book: inspire a glimmer of hope. Because Trump is lonely, and falling apart, and relentlessly mocked. He’s old and sick and increasingly frail, and his administration is losing power. She continues the narrative she began in the beginning:
A man who wished to become the most powerful man in the world, and by happenstance and intervention and a series of disasters was granted his wish. Surely he must have imagined that more power meant more flattery, a grander image, a greater hall of mirrors reflecting back his magnificence. But he misunderstood power and prominence. This man had bullied friends and acquaintances, wives and servants, and he bullied facts and truths, insistent that he was more than they were, than it is, that it too must yield to his will. It did not, but the people he bullied pretended that it did. Or perhaps it was that he was a salesman, throwing out one pitch after another, abandoning each one as soon as it left his mouth. A hungry ghost always wants the next thing, not the last thing.
He found out to his chagrin that we were still something of a democracy, and that the free press could not be so easily stopped, and the public itself refused to be cowed and mocks him earnestly at every turn.
She goes on from there to an ending that she be read in full, but, in other words: Read the essay, call your reps, then, sure, get back to making fun of that fucking covfefe tweet. It’s one way to let him know that his life’s defining mission—to be revered—has failed. He is despised by more people than he could’ve ever dreamed.