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Since Donald Trump has become the presence we can no longer ignore, writers have discovered all sorts of literary works that seem to have presaged his bursting upon us. The dystopian Brave New World and 1984 are two novels frequently mentioned. Last year the Los Angeles Timesidentified James Thurber’s satirical short story “The Greatest Man in the World” as another such work. Having just read George Saunders’s essay “The Braindead Megaphone,” I think it deserves to be added to the list.

Braindead Megaphone

Consider how much of what he has to say could apply to our new president.

Imagine a party. The guests, from all walks of life, are not negligible. They’ve been around: they’ve lived, suffered, own businesses, have real areas of expertise. . . . They’re talking about things that interest them, giving and taking subtle correction. . . .

Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate.

But he’s got that megaphone.

Saunders then indicates that people start listening to him. They start talking

about the validity of Megaphone Guy’s ideas . . . . Some are agreeing with him, some disagreeing—but because he’s so loud, their conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they.

These responses are predicated not on his intelligence, his unique experience of the world, his powers of contemplation, or his ability with language, but on the volume and omnipresence of his narrating voice. His main characteristic is his dominance. He crowds the other voices out. His rhetoric becomes the central rhetoric because of its unavoidability.

In time, Megaphone Guy will ruin the party. The guests will stop believing in their value as guests, and come to see their main role as reactors-to-the-Guy.

Since Donald Trump has become the presence we can no longer ignore, writers have discovered all sorts of literary works that seem to have presaged his bursting upon us.

Today are we (Trump supporters and critics alike) not in danger with President Trump so predominant in our national life and in the media of letting him and his policies dominate our public dialogues? As The Nation article “All TV Will Be Trump TV” alarmingly predicted, “Come the next presidency, Trump TV will, in effect, be on all channels all the time. . . . Nearly all news will revolve around Trump, more even than it already does. Syria and immigration, police violence and school vouchers, hate crimes, sex crimes, terrorism, gossip, Social Security—all will reflect aspects of Trump’s brain. His personality will saturate the fabric of the media far more deeply than Obama’s, W’s, or Bubba’s ever did.”

Of course, when Saunders’s essay first appeared about a decade ago, he was not thinking of Trump. The author’s “braindead megaphone” was the ruling class of mass media or as he put it a “composite of the hundreds of voices we hear each day that come to us from people we don’t know, via high-tech sources.”

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By the time Saunders wrote this essay “our fear” had “subsided somewhat” in the years following the 9/11 attacks. But he predicted that “when the next attack comes [think of new terrorist attacks and the influx of Mexican immigrants who Trump accused of “bringing drugs,” “bringing crime,” and being “rapists”] the subsequent swing to the Stalinesque will be even more extreme.” It will have “the additional oomph of retrospective repentance of what will then be perceived as a period . . . of relapse [under Obama, according to Trump supporters] to softness and terror-encouraging open discourse.”

Besides fear, Saunders believed in 2007 that the “profit motive” and lack of imagination were looming too large in our country. If profit and economic viability “trump every other consideration,” he predicted, “we will be rendered perma-children, having denied ourselves use of our higher faculties.”

Our war in Iraq, he thought, was

a failure of imagination. A culture better at imagining richly, three-dimensionally, would have had a greater respect for war than we did, more awareness of the law of unintended consequences, more familiarity with the world’s tendency to throw aggressive energy back at the aggressor in ways he did not expect. A culture capable of imagining complexly is a humble culture. It acts, when it has to act, as late in the game as possible, and as cautiously, because it knows its own girth and the tight confines of the china shop it’s blundering into. And it knows that no matter how well-prepared it is — no matter how ruthlessly it has held its projections up to intelligent scrutiny — the place it is headed for is going to be very different from the place it imagined. The shortfall between the imagined and the real, multiplied by the violence of one’s intent, equals the evil one will do.

A lack of imagination is also implied in what Saunders writes about the “Megaphone Guy.” He “is a storyteller, but his stories are not so good. . . . The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse [and]. . . are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them . . . we imagine them as being, essentially, like us. If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, inconvertible.”

In that 2007 essay Saunders also wrote that “a significant and ascendant component of that [megaphone] voice has become bottom-dwelling, shrill, incurious, ranting, and agenda-driven. It strives to antagonize us, make us feel anxious, ineffective, and alone; convince us that the world is full of enemies and of people stupider and less agreeable than ourselves; is dedicated to the idea that, outside the sphere of our immediate experience, the world works in a different, more hostile, less knowable manner. This braindead tendency [also sometimes] leers and smirks and celebrates when someone is brought low.”

The term “braindead guy,” which Saunders often uses, is no doubt too hyperbolic a label for our current president, but most of the words the author uses to describe his imagined guy seem to apply to Trump. He is “not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate. . . . His main characteristic is his dominance.” His words do not “proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse,” or a recognition that life is “complex and baffling and ambiguous,” which tends to “make us slower to act, rather than quicker.” Moreover, he is not humble, empathetic, or imaginative, and all three failings could easily lead us into another foolish war like that in Iraq. His rhetoric is often “bottom-dwelling, shrill, incurious, ranting, and agenda-driven. It strives to antagonize us, make us feel anxious, ineffective, and alone; convince us that the world is full of enemies and of people stupider and less agreeable than ourselves. This braindead tendency also sometimes “leers and smirks and celebrates when someone is brought low.’

If “The Braindead Megaphone” presaged the Trump phenomena, Saunders’s “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?”in The New Yorker last July, brought it more up to date. There he wrote that Trump’s “speeches themselves are nearly all empty assertion. Assertion and bragging. Assertion, bragging, and defensiveness. He is always boasting about the size of this crowd or that crowd, refuting some slight from someone who has treated him ‘very unfairly,’ underscoring his sincerity via adjectival pile-on (he’s ‘going to appoint beautiful, incredible, unbelievable Supreme Court Justices’). He lies, bullies, menaces, dishes it out but can’t seem to take it.”

“The Braindead Megaphone” is just one of Saunders’s numerous essays. His others, plus his many short stories and most recently his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, offer many additional insightful thoughts and depictions.

Recently Saunders appeared on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show. In his “Braindead” essay, Saunders recognized that even in a mass media that was getting “meaner and dumber” there were still some “heroes holding the line,” like Bill Moyers. If written today, he would probably include Colbert and some of the other media voices satirizing, lampooning, and otherwise criticizing President Trump, thereby risking being lumped together with those the president calls “enemies of the people.” But in introducing Saunders, Colbert referred to him as “quite possibly my favorite living author.” Like Colbert, Saunders is perceptive, and often very funny, and also anything but “an enemy of the people.”

walter moss

Walter G. Moss

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