February 5, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Donald Trump’s ‘Gothic’ Speech
The perversion of morality and the glorification of barbarism.
For your sake, my dear reader, I watched last night the president’s State of the Union address. Afterward, I struggled briefly to think of ways to communicate my feelings. I wanted to express their complexity, a fantasia of rage, delirium and dread, without speaking incoherently. My ruminating finally landed on a 90-year old short story by novelist William Faulkner, the first ever published by the canonical modernist.
“A Rose for Emily” is set in Mississippi some time after the Civil War. It’s about a woman who lived under the iron fist of her autocratic father. He treated her as a girl well into womanhood. She couldn’t work. She couldn’t date. She couldn’t marry. He made her dependent on him. That continued until he died. She was by then 30.
It was a nationally televised gaslighting session aiming to dislodge our trust in reality.
After his death, Emily is set adrift in a fog of what appears to be some kind of schizophrenia, though we never know for sure. Neighbors who once pitied her now gossip about her increasingly eccentric behavior, which magnifies Emily’s sense of isolation, loneliness and gloom. Merely existing is becoming nearly unbearable.
She eventually meets Homer, the one man in the story to provide a breath of human warmth. That’s all she needs, as she’s starving emotionally, to fall in love with him. They are presumed to be married. Then the bridegroom is never heard from again.
Over time, “Miss Emily” is seen by the townsfolk as a “hereditary obligation.” They won’t force her to pay her property taxes. They also refuse to address the stench coming from her house. The mayor instead sends someone incognito to spread lye.
When she dies, everyone shows up for her funeral. Her death does something else, though. It gives the townsfolk license. What does the life of a recluse look like? A group is emboldened to break into her house. On her bed they discover Homer. Emily had evidently murdered him and for decades slept alongside his desiccated corpse.
“A Rose for Emily” is a textbook example of a literary genre often called “Southern Gothic.” There are many ways of defining it, but I take it to mean an expression of life in which you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There are no choices save bad choices. There is no faith except bad faith. Hope is meaningless. Fate is certain. Human beings are mites compared to the menacing forces bearing down on them.
“Southern Gothic” is also an exploration of what can done to the human mind when social, political and communal conditions are arrayed against the individual. Empty and in pain, Emily has come to believe up is down, left is right, wrong is right—and that it’s totally normal to kill your husband and sleep next to his decomposing body. Emily’s father was a ghoul of a man bent on breaking her will instead of nourishing it. She’s now as broken as the line between victimhood and villainy. It’s impossible to say if she’s good or if she’s bad. Nothing matters. All that remains is power and death.
Last night, after watching two hours of Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech, the word “gothic” keep ringing in my ears. It wouldn’t stop. His address was a perversion of morality, an inversion of common sense and a glorification of pettiness and barbarism. Making it all the more gothic and horrible was the press corps pretending it was none of these things. Afterward, CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell said: “This was a speech unlike any other I have witnessed from President Donald Trump—the reality TV president took on the state of the union, a master showman at his best.”
For the benefit of racist white people, Trump said he was good for black people. He took credit for Barack Obama’s successes while blaming Obama for his failures. He said he was fighting for inclusion, democracy and justice even as he undoes them. He said children should be free even as he allows them to be caged. He warned white voters not to trust Democrats. They will take your Social Security and Medicare before giving it to “criminal aliens” bent on murdering you and destroying the United States.
On and on it went. It was a nationally televised gaslighting session aiming to dislodge our trust in reality, in ourselves and in democracy. It was punctuated only by cynical and cheap sugar highs (“made for TV moments”) in the form of a scholarship for a young boy, a medal for Rush Limbaugh and a surprise appearance for a military wife missing her husband. The gaslighting continued long after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi conspicuously ripped up her copy of the speech. The White House tweeted:
Speaker Pelosi just ripped up: One of our last surviving Tuskegee Airmen; the survival of a child born at 21 weeks; the mourning families of Rocky Jones and Kayla Mueller; [and] a service member’s reunion with his family. That’s her legacy.
Trump is like Emily. America is like Homer. Emily couldn’t get her father’s love. Neither could Trump. Emily longed for what she cannot have. So does Trump. Emily would rather kill Homer than lose him. With Trump and America, we shall see.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.