Purification of a “Pure Idea” by Excess?

March 14, 2024

Just how far can you succeed with a “pure idea” that is pursued relentlessly—and effectively—against all odds? Maybe only so far, and not—however close it comes—to the end of the line of ultimate success? That, I hope on March 14, 2024, is the eventual moral of the story with Trump. Trump has taken us really, really far into his campaign of winning, but maybe not so far as appearances or our worst fears would have it. 

To those who would demure that Trump is not winning, I would direct your attention to the recent Supreme Court decision on immunity that has supercharged Trump’s delay tactics (likely preventing the trying of the January 6 trial before the election), and Judge Aileen Cannon’s rulings today on Trump’s frivolous motions for dismissal. On their surface, Cannon’s rulings appear to deny Trump, but at a more insidious level, they set up the possibility for a  complete dismissal of the classified documents case—all thirty-plus counts—and without the possibility of appeal. As one insider ominously commented on Trump years ago: “Don’t count him out.” For all his deficiencies, corruption, and failure, Trump’s “pure” method of forging ahead has a way of leaving him on top, at least apparently, and at least for the time being.

The “pure idea” of Trump’s that I would characterize in this blog is his approach to politics, and really to all matters dealing with business, as presented by both him and those who study him. It starts with a kind of distillation of Roy Cohn—in particular, Cohn’s refusal, ever, to admit anything, to give an inch. Added to that is a kind of Norman Vincent Peale optimism, as has been documented elsewhere, in the Trumps’ unbending commitment to the power of positive thinking. Enabling/mixed into this “purity” would be all the pathologies of personality that have been well explained by Mary Trump and others—Trump’s insecurity; his daddy issues; his sense of inferiority—not to mention all the personal failings of low intelligence, lack of discipline, cowardice, mendaciousness, misogyny, racism, and the like.

Put the whole package together, amp it up, enlist a few key enablers—and there you have it: a recipe for a presidential candidate, and more, a recipe for a president. So, we know that part of the answer to the “just-how-far” question is, simply and horrifically, “becoming the most powerful person on earth.” That far. Hence, the descent by so many of us onlookers into Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS)—something, by the way, I’ve suggested should be felt by all right-thinking individuals, not just the Frank Grimeses of the world. Really, how did 2016 happen?

But does Trump’s success go farther? Does it go all the way to “Destroyer of Modern Democracy,” “Destroyer of the ‘American Experiment””?

American democracy has been messy as it has been inspiring. This thing, once assumed by many of us to be so foundational and permanent, does have a history, and the very concept of “history” tells us that a thing that can come into existence may also be a thing that can fall out of existence. America was an offshoot of the Enlightenment, which itself was a moment in time; the idea of America stretched towards a realization of liberal human possibility and actualization. It was all attempted—a rare exception in recorded history—among once discordant immigrants who found ways to live together, more or less, within certain parameters of law and order. But our founders and ancestors may have created something, alas, that might prove to be a temporary, fragile oasis in a larger trajectory of social oppression and injustice (and foolishness and ignorance and greed).

So many have commented on how our institutions and systems of justice, not to mention conventions of social comity, have been stretched to the breaking point under Trump. They’ve bent, bent, bent, and then have been stretched and re-bent. But arguably, they have not yet broken, and if accountability is in the offing, we may return to a more normal kind of routine where the system operates in a groove that is recognizable as fair and within bounds.

Besides raising uncertainties about the future viability of America, my TDS has brought me to question many foundational values I have long have taken for granted as widely shared. The idea of decency—of humility, gentleness, and submissiveness—the beauty as well as the moral impetus of these things—has been dissolved before our very eyes, brushed aside as arbitrary presences or principles that might be or not be, as those in power decide. 

While our energy flags in the relentlessness of the Trump dissolution, we nonetheless have some cause for hope. If accountability does eventually occur, the “just how far” question will stop a bit short, and leave us with a democracy in place. 

But there are also other hopes in the struggle. The coming together of the TDS crowd of critics, teachers, lawyers, journalists, psychologists, and scholars has performed a public service that is awe-inspiring in its scope, dedication, and promise for a better day. We huddle together; we are a bulwark—and conditions, particularly in the all-important area of coms in such conflicts—are favorable for victory.

It’s hard to imagine—either a Trump or a proper TDS response—in a pre-Internet, pre-social media, pre-24-hour-news-cycle world. The ability to bring critics and communities together, in both agonizing grief and incisive analysis—as YouTube, apps, networks, and social media have done—creates both conditions of and solutions to the Trump problem. As for the latter, we can positively luxuriate in insightful critiques of every aspect of the saga of Trump unfolding in real time. So many lawyers have committed themselves to the public service of tracing out the implications and possible remedies available. As have people with significant firsthand experience.

When I read, for instance, Barbara Res’s book, Tower of Lies, I find myself grateful for the guidance, the examples, the connections she enables of past tendencies to present actions. As Trump’s long-serving VP and chief engineer, she brings a record and commentary that not only illuminate the etiology of current behaviors, but that also empower more effective resistance to them. Beyond Res, we need the endless analyses of every daily move provided by legal commentators recording and breaking down the evolving narrative. We must process all this, and to do so, we need the back-breaking, excessive, obsessive attentions of so many in the know from experience as well as education and leadership roles. They have purified and acted upon their TDS with a kind of dedication I find both inspiring and impossible to imagine, were I in their position. My response, typically when faced with such a complex, Byzantine nexus of evil and involved drama and detailed complexity, is to throw up my hands, shake my head, lament, and collapse in a wallowing kind of despair.

Res, Cohen, Kirschner, Weissmann, Popock, Meisales, Katyal, Rubin, and more, are worthy, noble guides, leading us into—and out of—the morass. These storytellers—the talent and dedication they bring to unpacking all that is there to unpack—are our saviors and are owed our deepest gratitude. They create conditions for redemption and for a time when they can back out of the excess they have been compelled to enter into.

All of which brings me to the question part of my title: Can redemption result from the practice of purification by excess? In his essay, “By Ice, Fire, or Decay,” Kenneth Burke discusses “three modes of redemption—redemption by ice, fire, or decay.” The essay is a review of Clifford Odets play, Paradise Lost, which Burke says deals with all three modes, but finally lands on decay: “Like certain ancient heresies, [the play] pictures the ‘good’ arising from the complete excess of the ‘bad,’ as the new growth sprouts from the rotting of the seed” (Philosophy of Literary Form, 431). 

Trump’s unrelenting pursuit of his “pure idea,” fueled by his talent at demagoguery and bullying—and unblemished by any pivot or mitigation—has set in motion a full-blown response of TDS. Taken together, Trump’s prolific Trumpism, and the resulting TDS-imbued Trumpology, both overgrown and tangled in contemporary social media, leave us, collectively, “ripe” for a “complete excess of the ‘bad.’”

Let us lean in. May the ensuing rottenness pass, please, at some point, and put us in a state ready for that new growth.

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