Trump, the last action hero
In a now-forgotten film, a satire of the action genre — a police detective (Arnold Schwarzenegger) indulges in a moment of reflection, asking himself, “To be or not to be?”
He immediately decides in favor of not-being, both reversing the typical action hero’s all-consuming drive to achieve his goal and drawing attention to an unacknowledged undercurrent of that drive — the desire to court one’s own extinction, not merely risking and defying death but seeking and embracing it.
Fittingly, the film is titled, “The Last Action Hero.”
Film audiences in 1993 may not have been ready for a hero who would choose not to be, but in recent years Hamlet’s appalling question — and Schwarzenegger’s appalling response — seem to have invaded social discourse, and even to have evolved into a political ideology.
How else to explain why so many of the millions of Americans who lack health insurance have voted for politicians who prevent them from getting it? How to account for the fact that skepticism about the global threat of climate change has become a partisan issue? Closer to home, how can one explain the politics of COVID-19 denial?
Any explanation must begin with President Trump, whose positions on these and many other issues have been adopted almost unanimously by those in his party despite the fact that he is not known as a deep, systematic or even predictable thinker.
Behind this political calculation lies the vast power exercised by the president’s “base,” whose zeal for the president is not solely based on their self-interest, or even, as the above examples suggest, on their safety or survival. Many analysts have described the relationship between the president and his volatile but mysteriously immovable base as one of “identification,” but what does this really mean?
The point of voter identification, and the core of the Trump presidency, is the rally.
Where most politicians stress their organic identity with voters, Trump has always stressed his total removal from the world of his base, with its humbling limitations and discouraging constraints. The “identification,” if that’s what it is, is almost entirely negative: Whatever Trump voters see in the president, they do not see a man who resembles them, admires them, cares about them, or wants to be like them.
An apparent decision “not to be” has also characterized Trump’s performance of his duties. The president takes no interest in the routine work of governance: He has no respect for traditions of the office, no desire to unify the country or build consensus, no aptitude for the give-and-take of politics, no interest in maintaining traditional alignments.
Moreover, the actions he has taken — the removal of regulations, the opting-out of treaties, the banning of immigrants, the abandonment of fiscal restraint, the withdrawal of troops — are largely negative, with many acts seemingly motivated by the desire to undo the work of his predecessor.
The America that Trump wants to make great again was always based on hope for a better future — the pursuit of happiness, the search for a “more perfect union” — as the natural orientation of a democratic society. The Trump presidency, by contrast, has demonstrated that for many citizens today, negation — nostalgia, contempt for one’s fellow citizens, the indulgence of grievances, resentment of elites, fear of outsiders — is almost equally compelling, and requires less work.
The most striking feature of the Trump presidency from this perspective is the emptiness of its view of the future, signaled by the fact that the 2020 Republican convention was the first in memory to issue no platform at all.
It is tempting to consider Trump an anomaly whose passing from the scene will permit a return to normality. But the Founders fully understood that the fine premises of democracy might be abandoned by citizens whose pursuits of happiness had not worked out to their satisfaction.
The greatest threat, the Founders knew, came from an unchecked and unbalanced executive, and so they created a complex and unwieldy governmental structure that would make it impossible for any individual to wield absolute power — in effect negating the negator — with periodic elections being the ultimate check.
The wisdom of the Founders is borne out by the brief but exciting career of the soon not-to-be President Trump.
Geoffrey Harpham is a senior fellow at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics and president emeritus of the National Humanities Center.