Notes From DC’s Underground
In Dostoyevsky’s masterful short novel Notes from Underground, a misanthropic young man, disappointed in life and bitter at his peers, announces himself to readers in the most brutalist way possible. “I am a sick man,” the anonymous narrator tells his audience. “I am a spiteful man. I am a most unpleasant man.” He wallows in his despair, he glories in the fact that others detest him, he behaves as abominably and dishonorably as possible – not just occasionally, but as a default method of interaction – and then he uses the dislike that others naturally feel toward him in response as a further rationale for his increasingly unpleasant actions. And he seeks to humiliate those, especially women, with less power than he has, and to wreak revenge on those who, in his paranoid musings, he feels have wronged him.
Dostoyevsky’s angry young man attends social gatherings just to spite the people who are discomforted by his presence. He hates himself and what he has become, yet is, at the same time, incapable of thinking of anyone beyond himself. “But what can a decent man speak of with most pleasure? Answer: Of himself. Well, so I will talk about myself,” he avers.
He is a cloying combination of misanthrope and narcissist, measuring his own success largely in his ability to get under the skin of all those forced into contact with his truculence. “‘I’ll go this minute!,’ he says, in response to the unpleasantness that he unleashes on his compadres. But then, he tells readers in an aside, “Of course, I remained.”
I feel, this week, that I have been somehow transported into this scene. Vis-à-vis the phone call that Trump had with Ukrainian president Zelensky in July, after weeks of his saying it was a “perfect,” a “beautiful” conversation, his own chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, brazenly announced to the assembled press that of course a quid pro quo was put on the table, that politicians do this all the time, and that all of us who are offended by such illegal actions should “get over it.”
Compounding the sense that illegal activities are now simply the default behavior in DC, Mulvaney then announced that Trump had decided to award the contract for hosting the next G7 summit to… himself, channeling millions of dollars of business to one of his Florida resorts, in clear and open violation of the Emoluments Clause of the constitution.
And all of this comes on top of days of foreign policy madness, in which the president sent a simply insane letter to Turkey’s president Erdogan about the Kurdish-controlled area of Syria, a nonsensical mixture of flattery and threat; followed up by a phone call in which he gave the green-light to Turkey to invade this territory; followed that up by a tweet in which he referenced his own “great and unmatched wisdom” in threatening to “totally destroy” the Turkish economy if they invaded the Kurdish enclave; stepped back and evacuated the zone while Erdogan actually did invade; said he’d be happy if “Napoleon Bonaparte” stepped in to rescue the Kurds; talked about Syria and Russia having lots of sand to play with in the middle-east; and then talked about saving civilization by arranging a “truce” that, however much spin one puts on it, actually gave Turkey absolutely everything it could possibly desire in its border zones with Syria.
Headspinning? Yes. Delusional? Yes. Dostoyevskyan? Possibly.
Not that I think Trump has ever read any Russian literature – or any serious literature from anywhere else, for that matter. But I do think he has somehow absorbed the persona of Dosteyevsky’s peculiarly nihilistic, angry, spiteful, mid-nineteenth century narrator.
There’s a fundamentally irrational, burn-it-all-down, glory-in-one’s-unpleasantness, quality to Trump. And it is lethally infectious. Every public official who works too closely for him ends up contaminated, ends up sacrificing integrity and ideological beliefs in favor of servicing the whims, the financial concerns, and the ego of one man. There’s a grubbification that occurs, as predictably as the rising of the sun each morning, and that rapidly reduces the ethics of participants to the low level occupied by Trump himself.
We see that in reports of conversations in which Trump inquired into the possibility of placing impaling spikes on his border wall, or of building a moat stocked with alligators to attack would-be-migrants – and in his minions simply saying they would get to work looking into the costs of such projects. We saw it in Mulvaney’s shocking display this week, when he said he knew opponents would oppose hosting the G7 at a Trump property, but that the Administration didn’t care and had decided to simply go ahead anyway. We’ve seen it with elected officials such as Lindsey Graham twisting themselves into ethical and intellectual knots to defend Trump’s clearly illegal interaction with the Ukrainian president. We see it in Rudy Giuliani’s shocking transformation from a well-respected DA and then mayor to nothing more than a bag man for Trump. And the list goes on.
Trump seems to be betting the house that he can so inure his sycophantic defenders to his wrongdoings that he can inject that complacency into the body-politic as an antidote to counter the growing rage of his opponents. He aims to create a sort of political paralysis – in which all of his impeachable offenses seem to be reduced to white noise, to simply another element in a noisy, crass, political culture, to mere babbling.
But I increasingly think it’s a losing bet. All moments of madness reach a tipping point eventually. This past week, the full catastrophe of Trumpism has been on full display. It has been a quite nauseating spectacle. More than half of Americans polled now say they want Trump removed from office. It’s hard to see how those numbers get better for him over the coming weeks. As each new allegation surfaces, as each new resignation or arrest of a Trump associate occurs in full public view, so the personality cult becomes more vulnerable.
Ultimately, Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man was entirely insignificant. He was, when push came to shove, a failure, his unpleasantness no longer a weapon but a scarlet letter. He was, in the final tally, a lonely man sabotaged by his fundamentally ugly spirit.