In the age of political melodrama, Trump's monstrous villainy makes us all complicit

The president understands that his political power relies on his willingness to play the villain. So how do we respond when children are ripped from their families?

June 25, 2018
Security forces observe the protesters behind a large poster with the image of US President Donald Trump during a protest against the migration policies of USA. Photo: PA
Security forces observe the protesters behind a large poster with the image of US President Donald Trump during a protest against the migration policies of USA. Photo: PA

What kind of monstrous villain can listen to a child cry and pretend not to hear? We all know the answer to that question: the Trump monster. The rest of us know we are not monsters, because we do respond to the tears of children. But does that mean we’re human—or simply that we’re monsters with the capacity for pity?

One notable feature of the outrage over U.S. border children’s caged imprisonment last week was the conspicuous outpouring of public grief. MSNBC’s political TV host, Rachel Maddow, choked back her tears as she reported on the “tender age facilities” where the youngest children, including children under five, are held.

We are hardwired to respond to the cries of children, people told themselves; even the coldest hearts in this increasingly heartless world will object to the senseless, needless, cruelty of ripping children away from their parents.

For three long days—days that would have felt even longer for a child without her parent—Trump’s allies stared down the outraged tears of their fellow citizens with defiant lies and counter-blaming.

In another clip from the U.S news that went viral last week, Ann Coulter, with her signature blend of schoolgirl nastiness and fascist bravado, glared into camera and told us it was all fake.

By Thursday, the President intuited that the drama needed to take a new direction and signed an executive order ending future separations—but not, of course, his ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy.

But this was no victory for humanity: it was another turn in the melodrama of contemporary political life. Trump knows about melodrama. He certainly understands that his political power relies on his willingness to play the villain. As David Remnick wrote in the New Yorker this week, “Cruelty is the content of his character and the foundation of his politics.”

Melodrama emerges when the shared meanings of what is considered morally sacred collapse. It is so exaggerated and blatant about its villains and victims, and so absolute about its moral truths, because it responds to a world where the experience of real and meaningful justice is absent.

As heartfelt and unbearably real as they are, our furious tears are as much a part of this as Trump’s pantomime grotesqueness.

This is not to trivialize this tragedy; on the contrary, the fact that people have no option but to collaborate in this melodrama shows just how serious the moral and political mess we are in is.

Artistic melodrama is a contrived manipulation of our emotions. “Kill Jo,” Charles Dickens wrote in a note to himself as he wrote Bleak House. And Jo, the orphan boy who sweeps the horse manure away from the feet of indifferent pedestrians, was duly despatched. Vladimir Nabokov thought his death was a mark of Dickens’ stylistic brilliance.

But this isn’t just art. Dickens’ real brilliance was to gesture to the real Jos, wondering just how many times people like them had to die before they could stop sweeping shit—just as today millions of children in the rubbish tips, slums, migrant, and refugee communities, camps, and “tender age facilities” might well be wondering just how much more suffering they have to endure before something breaks.

In the last century, the first age of fascist brutality reached its denouement in melodrama. This wasn’t just because of the extremes of cruelty—a cruelty that also began with the racist criminalisation of minorities, including their children. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt worried that the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people was so extreme it had exploded the moral and political limits of the law.

She was right to worry. When the writer Rebecca West attended the Nuremberg trials, what she found there was melodrama. Like historical characters in bad paintings, the defendants were too blatantly what they were: villains. Hermann Göring, West wrote, assumed the pose of a “Marseille brothel madam.” She doubted that the justice on offer at the trial could put things right again.

In our second age of fascist brutality, we have melodrama again. Once more, our sense of shared moral values has gone to the bad, and not only because the children of the world would much rather be under the care of a Marseille brothel madam than of Donald Trump. We are now stuck in a cycle of cruelty and tears with seemingly no moral and political ground to anchor us.

We also wept over Aylan Kurdi, the little boy washed up on the beach with his bottom in the air looking like anybody’s toddler taking his afternoon nap. But still, we grant our governments the power to lock our borders in ever more cruel and ineffective ways. It could be different. As the writer Daniel Trilling put it recently, the migrant and refugee problem “is one of resources and policy, not overwhelming numbers.”

You might be able to make immigration systems a bit more humane, but in reality there is no humane way to systematically repel large numbers of people attempting to flee the vilest and violent of circumstances imaginable. It is the policies themselves that need to change.

And so it goes on. In the final act of last week’s melodrama, Melania Trump joined the show and, apparently unable to just put her lips together and blow, displayed her contempt on the coat on her back. “I really don’t care, do U?”

Well, yes, actually. But caring about the fact she doesn’t really care spins us even further away from the atrocity. Now we are all talking about Melania’s coat, as if accurately deciphering its meanings would make anybody’s life any better.

What is lost in this melodrama is the space for real mourning. We need to be able to mourn, really mourn, not only the lost lives of children, but the loss of a shared sense of what a moral world might be.

This is hard—for it involves acknowledging our own part in creating and benefiting from a grossly unequal globe. The migrant children are there, at some level, because we like it here. Ending this melodrama demands some sober realism about our own complicity. The politics of pity is not enough. It is time for the return of a politics of responsibility.