By MIKE MAGEE
This week, as a fourth indictment came due, a tragic Donald Trump headed back to social media, digging himself into a hole that will eventually lead to some personal hell. But before Donald Trump, there was William Frederick Kohler.
He made his appearance on the American stage on February 28, 1995, an historian who had just completed his “Great Work” – The Guilt and Innocence of Hitler’s Germany. He was odd and dark and duplicitous. His life’s work was ready to go. All that was left was to write the introduction to his book. Instead his attention was diverted, as he followed his impulse to memorialize his own story dedicated to the “concealment of history beneath my exposition of it.”
Secretive and opaque, he was focused on a very special audience he labeled the “Party of the Disappointed People”, a group with whom he shared the affinity “that the loss has been caused in great part by others.” He hid the pages of the new and very personal (but incomplete) story from wife Marta inside the pages of the near completed Nazi history. And for some reason, he inexplicably headed to his basement and began to dig a tunnel to escape (or uncover) evil.
Kohler, like Trump, was not normal. Those who have analyzed his character describe him this way: “Preoccupied with evil, the nature of truth, and the effects of an individual’s relationship with others, he recalls his bookish childhood with a mother who drank to remember the ‘good old days’ and a bigoted father; graduate work in prewar Germany, where he hurled a brick on Kristallnacht; his unhappy marriage; and the lost love of his life, Lou, a former student. Kohler’s story exhibits the same inconsistencies and deceits he finds in history: Kohler, the personal memoirist … is as unreliable as Kohler, the eminent historian. A virtuoso performance without a grand finale.”
Kohler is the fictional creation of philosopher and novelist William H. Gass, author of the award winning novel, “The Tunnel.” The author is described in the opening line of his 2017 New York Times obituary as “a proudly postmodern author who valued form and language more than literary conventions like plot and character.” He died on December 7 of that year, at age 93, in St. Louis, where he had taught philosophy and linguistics for 30 years. Born in Fargo, North Dakota, he was translocated to Warren, Ohio at 6 months, and raised according to his own account by “an abusive, racist father and a passive, alcoholic mother.” These revealing personal details trace back to a writing style he developed and labeled, “metafiction,” or stories in which the author inserts himself.
Of more relevance to America’s current political dilemma is that Gass received his PhD from Cornell in 1954, in return for his dissertation “A Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor.” A metaphor, as we know, is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money).”
Gass’s love of metaphor is on full display in “The Tunnel”. You can almost hear the beloved high school advanced placement English teacher pleadingly asking her sleepy students “What do you think the tunnel represents?” Of the novel, one critic wrote, “As the novel progresses we see the lies, half-truths, violent emotions, and relative chaos of Kohler’s life laid bare, and while he continues to dig away at the memories of his past he also begins digging a tunnel out from the basement where he works, a reflection of his tunneling through himself.”
Beyond Gass’s own story line, and that of William Frederick Kohler, one can easily catch glimpses of Donald Trump. As he entered the strange world of politics, he embraced the use of metaphor with memorable 3 and 4 world phrases like “drain the swamp”, “the system is rigged,” and “take our country back.”
Andrew Hines, PhD, a specialist on the history of metaphor theory in the western tradition, traced the use of metaphor back to ancient times, to leaders seeking control of the “body politic.” Reflecting on Trump’s rise in 2016, he wrote: “In classical rhetoric, Aristotle even went so far as to say that the ability to discern these types of similarities was a sign of genius. As he saw it, a similarity between two things – a workforce and an army, say – can generate a new type of meaning for the listener. It can collapse all the complex problems and ideas together and thereby make them both intelligible and gripping.”
Trump mixes old, worn out “dead” metaphors like “take our country back” with occasional “live” ones. When he hits the mark, he makes news. For example, in a 2016 foreign policy speech, he used the metaphor, “shake the rust off American foreign policy” only to have it within days appropriated as a headline in the Financial Times.
Some have described Trump’s fragmented, sometimes confusing and incoherent style as “metaphorical chaos.” But Georgetown linguistics professor Jennifer Sclafani has suggested it is intentional, commenting that his speeches “may come off as incoherent and unintelligible when we compare it with the organized structure of other candidates’ answers. On the other hand, his conversational style can also help construct an identity for him as authentic, relatable and trustworthy, which are qualities that voters look for in a presidential candidate.”
Dr. Sclafani is the inventor of the term, “idiolect,” which she is careful to remind “is not the language of idiots, but an idiosyncratic form of language that is unique to an individual.” Nonetheless, she believes Trump’s style qualifies and works as authentic and relatable. His supporters, to deploy another metaphor, see him as “a straight shooter.” The problem for him now is complex. He has run out of targets who care what he says, and the hole he has dug has left him increasingly isolated even from those who fear him the most.
In the classic 2010 New Yorker article titled “Tocqueville in America” by literary critic James Wood, the writer picks apart some of Tocqueville’s less flattering observations about the nation he visited as a French aristocratic traveler in 1831. Considering the epic two volume “Democracy in America,” he prophetically lets loose with these words, “In the book’s second volume, he warns that modern democracy may be adept at inventing new forms of tyranny, because radical equality could lead to the materialism of an expanding bourgeoisie and to the selfishness of individualism… In such conditions, we might…meekly allow ourselves to be led in ignorance by a despotic force all the more powerful because it does not resemble one…”
Sadly, his words remind of another influential essayist, Kenneth Burke, whose 1939 masterpiece, The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle, is required reading for graduate students from English to Philosophy, and from Political Science to History and Religious Studies. The piece’s main focus involves a critical analysis of Hitler’s Mein Kampf (“my struggle”) which includes this stark warning.
Leaders of the free world need “to discover what kind of ‘medicine’ this medicine-man…concocted , that we may know, with greater accuracy, exactly what to guard against, if we are to forestall the concocting of similar medicine in America.”
Trump too has written his own fictional story; a despotic force with his own signature “idiolect”; as admiring of Nazism as William Kohler and as taken with sticky metaphors as William Gass in search of his own “Party of the Disappointed People.” Loyal indeed, like zombies, his followers and the Republican Party have followed him into the basement, and are heading down a tunnel which has no end. It has been “a virtuoso performance without a grand finale.”
Mike Magee MD is a Medical Historian and regular contributor to THCB. He is the author of CODE BLUE: Inside the Medical-Industrial Complex (Grove/2020)