Unravelling the Trump Virus: On Honig’s Shell Shocked

by | 30 Mar 2021

Towards the end of Saramago’s novel All The Names a character we haven’t met before makes a fleeting appearance and leaves us with an unforgettable comment: ‘We are all bound together by a thread of tears’ she says and immediately our protagonist’s, and the reader’s, painstaking searches and piecemeal discoveries suddenly fall into place. Threads pulled, unravelled, and woven again is a running metaphor in Bonnie Honig’s new book[i] as she scrutinises an array of political, literary and cultural moments from the Trump presidency. The threads examined and rewoven run the gamut of tears from tears of anger, frustration, rage, shock, exasperation, to ones of joy. The background setting is dark and unyielding so it is all the more remarkable that Honig manages to extract, and start weaving, a pattern that slowly becomes brighter, more colourful, in short, starts showing signs of hope. 

I confess as an observer from the other side of the Atlantic I was not the most helpful of allies. Long before Trump was elected President (and American election campaigns do have a habit of being interminable), I would only catch the sound of the man’s voice before switching off in disbelief and exasperation. The type, the style, the demeanour were triggering enough to refuse to lend him my time, time that he’d use to boast and lie, all the while garbed in delusions of self-importance. Turning away is a privilege ill-afforded to those whose lives were directly affected, and too often shattered, by Trump’s policies. It is also, as Honig reminds us, precisely what the purveyors of shock politics want us to do: numb us into abstention, withdrawal and retreat, when they cannot achieve submission.

Far from turning away, Honig takes a hard look at those years, examining aspects in painstaking detail without flinching. Some passages, the murder of George Floyd in particular, are unbearable to read. Others make you want to scream in fury: he made taxpayers pay for his security at his own resorts?? He said what to a grieving widow?? Did this guy ever do anything that wasn’t calculated to manipulate, intimidate, manufacture a debt to use for his personal profit? Was anyone safe from his plot to turn everything and everyone into instruments for self-aggrandisement or, in the case of those who defied him, into recipients of his punitive vindictiveness?

Honig relates more than two dozen instances of Trump’s puerile yet deadly dangerous antics, yet the book is not only about Trump. It is about Trumpism generally, a corrosive condition that demands the right to grab whatever a guy wants and whose symptoms include misogyny, racism, xenophobia, narcissism (with nothing to be narcissistic about), aggressive individualism and a predilection for private deals to maximise one’s profit at the expense of the public and the common good. Its virus had infected American society long before Trump came to give a name to it and, as Honig bleakly acknowledges, will continue long after the end of his term. 

In Honig’s depiction, Trump’s fellow collaborators spreading the virus include Anton from the 1944 film Gaslight, Jeffrey Epstein, Brett Kavanagh and William Barr while their victims, their tales retold with sensitivity and minute care, include Gaslight’s Paula, Christine Blasey-Ford and Debbie Dingell. In Honig’s retelling of these stories it’s clear the techniques of patriarchal bullies are many, and they are neither subtle nor bright. All too often they’re dumb, childish and downright cowardly; they include casually ‘forgetting’ a woman’s name, isolating the victim from friends and allies with whom she can share and verify her experiences, denigrating and humiliating her views and outlook or, in the technique made famous by George Cukor’s film, gaslighting her faith in her own senses. 

The isolation may be achieved by literally kidnapping and keeping the victim hostage, as the novel Room depicts, or with the perpetrator’s insistence that everything about the victim’s life is owed, and in debt, to the abuser. The fact that the novel Room and subsequent film mirror so closely the countless stories where real women, often family members, are literally ‘boxed in’, remind us that the real life scenarios are often far worse than the fiction, the latter helping to make them palatable to the audience; fictionalising a trauma helps ensure the audience stays and looks rather than turns away in horror. After all, each of those hostages could have been each one of us. Honig analyses and extends the metaphor of hostage-taking: what if a whole nation is taken hostage, what if the techniques for gaslighting one woman are successfully applied to a whole country which can no longer see its way out of the boxed room? 

Despite the alarming accumulation of abuses, legal, personal, political and social that these essays document, Honig stays on course to address them: there’s no cynicism here, no broad hashtags, just consistent and painstaking attention to detail. Her technique is a centuries’ old hermeneutic knife, sharpened and honed by generations of feminist critics before her. The grounding power of close reading, Honig suggests, can be deployed to re-sensitise the senses numbed by shock, incredulity and disgust and reorient the destabilised subject, citizen, woman. 

In Honig’s reading the attention to detail starts and dwells on the signifier until it delivers more than its unwitting enunciator wanted it to convey; how many heard the story of Trump’s mum watching the Queen’s coronation without making the association to the boy from Queens with a mother who would be queen, how many laughed at Trump’s misspelling of the Nobel Prize to Noble Prize without linking it to Trump’s megalomania and penchant for nobility, or who saw Trump’s curious tweet on the eve of America’s assassination of Iranian general Suleiman without wondering why threaten to attack ‘fifty-two Iranian sites’? What did the number 52 had to do with anything? In Honig’s careful probing we are reminded 52 is also the number of Americans taken hostage in the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and Trump’s 52 is ‘his way of saying he is more Rambo than Reagan.’[ii]

It seems unlikely that hope can emerge from this picture of wilful misinformation, distortion of facts and brute denial of women’s experiences but Honig’s patient and meticulous digging manages to extract the, at first, thin and isolated thread that can be used to start weaving a different pattern. Honig finds it, unfailingly, in the public manifestation of women’s experiences, in sharing, comparing and acting collectively. It is a faith in not just the letter but the spirit of ideals of democracy, the rule of law, the power of the ballot box, and of checks and balances on the executive, even while recognising their limits: ‘Whatever the injustices of law in the US, and there are many, this idea that there is a public peace that needs to be voiced, a depersonalised public thing that needs to be personated in court, is a powerful democratic idea.’[iii]

‘Public things’ as Honig calls them, from public spaces, public ownership, to public protests and processes, are charged with the essential task of reorienting the citizen from the deceptive coordinates of the private and isolationist politics of Trump and his collaborators. The grounding work of public exchange and participation, in reading and in all areas of life, is tasked with re-sensitising and reconnecting threads brutally cut by the politics of isolation and shock. Its task is to start repairing and sewing anew torn projects and promises. Honig proposes a PTSD, a Politics That Sustains Democracy to replace the PTSD of Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome induced by shock politics.

Reconnecting to the public and severing oneself from the cult of the private does not happen by magic. It takes hard work, and courage, from individuals willing to take the risk, step out of line, and call out the abuse and injustice. Honig’s book records several such tales of refusal and defiance, from Stephanie Wilkinson politely escorting Sarah Huckabee Sanders out of her restaurant, Elin Ersson protesting Sweden’s deportation policy by holding up a flight until a passenger threatened with deportation is taken off the plane, to the Naked Athena gracing the cover of Honig’s book whose ‘nude pacifism was just too much for the heavily armed soldiers.’ It includes further the three women journalists at White House press briefings deferring to each other rather than letting Trump dictate the rules, and the twenty women signing on to Carlson’s suit against Fox’s ogre Roger Ailes as Honig’s reading of the film Bombshell as a contemporary gothic tale illustrates. 

The question of course remains: are these acts of defiance sufficient against obscene primal fathers like Trump and his collaborators? As Honig puts the finishing touches to her book, the last votes to the 2020 election are being counted, the results are being declared, the hostage situation is looking hopeful, the hostages are emerging out of captivity. It is, as she says, the restoration of a peaceful transition of power, despite the very credible threat, witnessed live on our televisions, of an angry mob, spurred on by the President himself, to frustrate the election results. While Honig, like all of us, relishes the relief afforded by this moment, we also can’t forget that neither Trump nor Trumpism descended unannounced from Mars but were bred by conditions brewing in Western democracies for decades. Can Trumpism, that insufferable male entitlement that grabs what it wants without regard to laws or other people, disappear overnight just because the keys to the White House have changed? 

Many of us continue to harbour the grim concern, if not foreboding, that the conditions that gave birth to Trumpism persist and that the return to a peaceful transition of power may also include a return to the conditions that bred the virus in the first place. What and how will Biden and Harris do differently to ensure another, if not the same Trump (as he promises his supporters), doesn’t re-emerge in four years? Is the challenge for addressing and reversing those conditions being taken seriously and urgently enough? In particular are social, cultural and legal changes enough without wider economic, in short, material transformation? This discussion is beyond the scope of this book but for me, without putting material conditions at the forefront of our battle, the fear lingers that we will see the same virus continue to spread and the same painful symptoms recur again and again. 

No transformation, material or ideal, can take place if the subject is gaslit, trapped, boxed in by vainglorious and invariably mediocre men who would be (pathetic) kings. Honig’s tales of Trumpism demand a progressive unravelling of these malignant signs and a reckoning not just from an indeterminate and intangible patriarchy, however tightly it surrounds us, but from each weaving and unweaving Penelope herself: how much did she let patriarchy define her, how many of those deeply held beliefs and protests of autonomy were disguised denials, refusals to accept that she was may be more in collusion than she realised, in her very resistance to the category of victim? 

It’s a difficult, but necessary reckoning for Penelopes everywhere and through time, that we also owe to those who come after us. After all, as Honig reminds us, courage is contagious: like a thread, it carries, and has the power to connect, weave and join with other stories to produce a tapestry that is slowly but surely becoming less bleak. So if I’m a little more hopeful than I was a year ago, a bit more likely to address the problems head on than turn away in rage and despair, it is also thanks to the growing tapestry picked up, unravelled and rewoven by this book. 

[i] Bonnie Honiq, Shell-Shocked: Feminist Criticism After Trump, Fordham University Press, 2021

[ii] Honig, Shell Shocked, 142

[iii] Honig, Shell Shocked, 182

1 Comment

  1. Then you also need to call it the Trump Vaccine. Fair is fair.


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