Bob Woodward (2018) Fear: Trump and the White House, New York: Simon & Schuster
I returned last evening from Vancouver to Cowichan Bay, Vancouver Island after a visit with my youngest son, a filmmaker and horror film fanatic. Yesterday morning, we had gone to one of the most interesting art installations that I have ever attended, Melbourne’s Patricia Piccinini’s sculptural and video creations, Curious Imaginings, on offer in 18 intimate and private rooms of one wing of a floor of the Patricia Hotel located in a sketchy area of Vancouver, East Hastings.
The rooms themselves are an art piece in which commerce and poverty have been domesticated. The show is part of the 2018-2020 Vancouver Biennale; it runs until 15 December. It is worth flying to Vancouver to see it. We went at the opening time at 10:00 a.m. and avoided the line ups; for the first fifteen minutes we had the show to ourselves. It is an exhibit that should not be seen in the midst of a crowd so they limit admissions to 40 at any one time.
The transgenic show is described as a hyperrealist “world of oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creatures” made of a mixture of materials – silicone, fibreglass, real hair. Each art creation is set in one of the rooms in the midst of very appropriate and complementary everyday objects – sheets, jars, books – but every installation is about hybridization and crossing the boundaries between the human and the animal world, between botany and zoology, between the natural world and the world of man-made artifacts in our new world of holograms, genetic engineering, and body part replacements with the organs of pigs and legs made of titanium.
What fascinated me most was not the message about bio-engineering or of environmental degradation, that was also a lesson at the Vancouver Aquarium that we had visited the day before – in the last two generations of humans, 60% of the world’s mammals have evidently disappeared. In the art show, alterity and difference is normalized. Boundaries are crossed. In the Vancouver aquarium, myths were debunked – that the piranha fish of the Amazon devour flesh in seconds, leaving only a skeleton. What may seem horrifying, may be portrayed and viewed as loving. Our empathy rather than our disgust may be aroused. Our wonder at the variety and the beauty of our world may be greatly appreciated. The caravans fleeing terror and deprivation may be seen through other lenses than those that create a Halloween terror of invasive species.
I wish I could send pictures with my blog, but I was advised that you can find pictures of the sculptures on the site http://www.imcurious.ca. In one room, there is a super-realistic creation of a peacock renowned for its beauty as well as the question of the function of that beauty. On the bed was a doll-like young girl of perhaps six-years of age (evidently modelled on Piccinini’s own daughter) that is as lifelike as one could possibly imagine. She beams with love as she is embraced by a creature with a human-pig (?) face, arms and legs, seemingly of bone, but having the contours of titanium replacement body part. The creature has a hairy back with extraordinary beautiful patterns. The creature’s arms around the child and his look are both loving.
In another room, a man – but not a man – and a woman – but not a woman, lie in bed in a loving embrace. In still another, a pig-like human feeds her young at her teats. Love is everywhere. It is boundless and boundaryless. Eyes do not look out with suspicion and fear. They are always gentle – and caring. They draw you in. What could be creepy and crawly is just a pale human-like baby with translucent skin climbing over the back of her mother who is a cross between a human and an orangutan. The Donald may be an orangutan, but he is hard to picture with a baby on his back and another on his chest; Barron seems to barely get the time of day from a father glued to TV news 4-6 hours a day or playing golf at Mar-a-Lago.
We learn that Donald Trump is a frightening monster, but these artistic aberrations with wrinkles, opposing toes and faint blue veins may initially repel, but a closer look invites you to set aside any wariness of difference. The sculptures are articulate though they are silent. Whereas Trump is careless in his thoughts, words and actions, Piccinini is meticulous and the epitome of care about process.
In the Raptor show we saw last week in Duncan, turkey vultures were not filthy birds but kept the land clean and restored, as did the hybrid human-beaver in the Curious Imaginings show. Nature in all its wonder and difference and beauty, even in ugliness, has been made into a home in an urban area crowded with the homeless where maternal love and nurturing is celebrated rather than left out in the cold with the homeless addicts, where pigs have human hands and feet, but nevertheless are more pig than human.
When I got back to Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island last evening, I watched the last two episodes of Mike Flanagan’s 10-episode Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House that I had been watching for the past five days, if only to talk about a series that my son insisted I watch. (I am not a horror film aficionado.) The series too is about fear versus love, about home as a walled off space to hold off what frightens you and home as a place of openness in which experiences are shares rather than remaining buried secrets. The Hill House mansion is not meant to be a home, but a transactional economic exercise in which the parents are renovating the house and plan to flip it for a very large profit. It will haunt them all their lives.
If the art exhibit is an expression primarily of love to combat the fear of strangeness, the ten-part series is primarily about fear as defined in the last episode (three different times) as “the relinquishment of logic, of the willing suspension of the reasonable.” We either surrender to that fear or fight it, but we cannot meet it half way we are advised. For Trump it is never retreat. Never back down. Defence is weakness. Fight until you win. The result, like The Haunting of Hill House, is erratic behaviour, disorder, disruption, chaos, isolation – and churning, churning, churning.
Ironically, love is also a suspension of logic and reason and is the principal component that saves the remnant of a family of two parents and five children. The Trump saga is unlikely to have a redemptive ending, but this horror series did.
However, when love is used to wall out danger, to build a barrier against insecurity, to protect one’s family within a defined boundary, a home becomes a monstrous prison. Instead of nurture, motherly love suffocates. A house intended to be a home eats you alive as each member of the family retreats into his or her own world of secrets and closes himself of herself off from the others. In isolation, the house and its successors are populated by ghosts. And everyone is turned into a different variation of a paranoid freak. Life becomes just professional lying full of self-delusion.
This is precisely the description of Donald Trump in the last chapter of Woodward’s book. The issue is not whether Donald Trump had “corrupt intent’ or “knowledge aforethought,” whether he suborned perjury or did not, as Mueller sought to establish, but whether he would fall himself into a perjury trap because he was incapable of controlling either his thoughts or feelings. He only really felt alive, felt vital, when he was “spontaneous” as he spewed out the venom he had ingested all his life and lies he could not stop telling. His absence of logic and reason, his inability to read an extended brief, except if it directly concerned him, were part and parcel of an overweening narcissism that ate at him from within and consumed him.
Ty Cobb, Trump’s second-in-command personal attorney, specifically cited how the Mueller probe was haunting Trump (325). The ghosts of Obama’s successes never left him. Nor did his obsession with building the wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, which he repeatedly promised was underway even though he had just “approved a two-year spending bill for $8.6 trillion that had no money – not one red cent – for the wall.” (323) I am not reading into the Trump saga a tale of horror simply because I saw a horror series. This is what his aides, his associates and his cabinet ministers saw and described in the White House that Melania haunted as a rigid, remote presence.
Reince Priebus noted that, “Since the tweets were often triggered by the president’s obsessive TV watching, he looked for ways to shut off the television. But television was Trump’s default activity. Sunday nights were often the worst…The president and the first lady had separate bedrooms in the residence. Trump had a giant TV going much of the time, alone in his bedroom with the clicker, the TiVo and the Twitter account. Priebus called the presidential bedroom ‘the devil’s workshop’ and the early mornings and dangerous Sunday nights ‘the witching hour’.” (195) “Priebus could see the fires building around a string of troubled investments.” (194) This horror show is for real.
In the horror series on Netflix, the parents, Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton when he is older – I list the actor playing the older version second), Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino) and their five children, Steven (Paxton Singleton and Michiel Huisman), Shirley (Lulu Wilson and Elizabeth Reaser), Theo (Mckenna Grace and Kate Siegel), Luke (Julian Hilliard and Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell – Eleanor (Violet McGraw and Victoria Pedretti), temporarily move into Hill House. Just as the White House is being renovated, so was Hill House. Just as the Crain family had moved into the house to flip it for a profit, many suspected that this was the deep reason Trump wanted the presidency. Certainly, he viewed all events, domestic and foreign, as transactional exercises with nothing to do with real security, the defence of democracy or human rights and freedoms.
The tale of Donald Trump is a story of the paranormal, as is the case of Hugh and Olivia Crane and their children. Events do not have scientific explanations for Trump; they are simply projections of his beliefs. He perceives, not what occurs, but what haunts and bothers him. But the White House, just like Hill House, may consume and devour the family since, unlike the Crains, there is unlikely to be a happy ending even for a remnant still able to confront their deep fears and bring their secrets into the fresh air.
In the case of the Crain family, the various children carry different varieties of the paranormal – Steve the sceptic who is in denial and transforms his own and his family memories into fiction, Shirley who becomes a repressed mortician, Theo, a practicing psychologist, but one who has to wear gloves to prevent reading the twisted lives of those whom she touches, Luke, a fearful child who grows into a drug addict, and his younger, twin sister, Nell, who, unfortunately is the most sensitive of them all.
I was not horrified by the series. The labyrinthian plot was too hard to follow for the first few episodes and the jump scares too bothersome and distracting from the effort of trying to wind your way through the maze. But perhaps I am too inexperienced with fictional horror films and too preoccupied with the horrors we face daily with the rise of authoritarian figures as the head of polities around the world. My youngest son thinks The Haunting of Hill House is fantastic and a great horror film. But he cannot stand and look; he turns away from the horror of The Haunting of the White House.
But the two have a number of common elements – apparitions, for example. Apparitions are spectres or phantoms; they are not real. The claim that Obama was not a native American was a phantom. And Trump sees such phantoms everywhere. The Canadian government threatening the U.S. and taking advantage of the country south of the border, is another spectre. And we observers are repeatedly startled and sidelined by new ghosts and familiar ghosts and we are unsure whether they are deliberate distractions or the projections of a mad mind.
Another situation in the horror series is the sleep paralysis that Nell exhibits. As scientifically explained in the film by the sleep technician who eventually marries Nell, sleep paralysis is a feeling of being conscious, but you are unable to move.
Evidently, it takes place between stages of wakefulness and sleep. During these transitions, the individuals stricken with sleep paralysis are unable to move or speak for a short period. The cabinet members and the aides around Trump, at times, all suffered from sleep paralysis when they were stricken dumb and speechless by one or other outrageous observation or conclusion uttered by Donald Trump. In fact, Woodward’s set pieces of conversations and events, I would argue, is simply a series of instances of sleep paralysis by Trump’s appointees – until, of course, they wake up or are woken up and fired. They literally choke.
Other elements of a horror series are part of the Trump legacy – storms, an interweaving plot, repetitions and flashbacks. Gary Cohn or Rex Tillerson or John Kelly or Rob Porter or John Dowd, even Steve Bannon and Lindsay Graham, no sooner believe they have an agreement with the president than they are sideswiped. Trump wakes up in the morning, sends out a tweet that totally reverses the agreed course of action.
Trump also believes he has an extraordinary power to communicate with other autocrats. He calls it chemistry. They used to call it telepathy. For example, even though Trump initiated a major trade war with China, he believed that everything would be settled because he and President Xi Jinping understood one another. “He and Xi will work out a deal. It’ll be a beautiful deal. The best deal you’ve ever seen.” (341) China may be an economic aggressor, a major thief of proprietary commercial secrets, an abuser of human rights norms with a plan to emerge as the strongest economic and military power, “But all of those problems were superseded by his [Trump’s] rapport with Xi.” (232) Trump, if he knew the word, was claiming that he could form a psionic communication line with another ruler.
Another psychological characteristic used in horror films, and in The Haunting of Hill House, is a psychogenic fugue. Trump also seems to suffer from dissociative fugue or a fugue state whereby he repeatedly suffers from amnesia to the great benefit of those around who want to manipulate him. For he forgets what he orders, so his aides ignore orders with which they disagree. He may diss a cabinet member in the strongest language one day and forget all about it and praise the same person as the best and the brightest several days later.
But perhaps the best indication of Trump as a protagonist in his own horror film is his relationship with the Mueller probe. John Dowd convinced Trump to cooperate fully with the probe – which he did in supplying documents and witnesses – but would not allow Trump to be cross-examined under oath by Mueller or the other prosecutors lest he go off on a wild rant combining total fiction with snippets of truth. Trump praised the professionalism of Mueller in private, but in public branded the whole probe a witch-hunt that drove him to distraction. But if it was truly a witch-hunt, then perhaps he was the target, not of collusion with the Russians or even of obstruction of justice, but of practicing witchcraft, especially since he was a specialist in arousing panic and mass hysteria.
With the help of Alex Zisman
To be continued