Trump the Gargoyle

Different theories exist to explain the use of grotesques and chimeras in the design of gargoyles in medieval architecture. One theory says that these twisted, scary beasts were placed on cathedrals to represent demons in order to scare people into church. Relatedly, they portrayed the tormenting creatures in hell.

Yet another theory posits these creatures neither served nor portrayed evil, but served rather to repel evil and harm. Serving a symbolic function akin to guard dogs, it simply wouldn’t do to mount gargoyles in the image of fluffy little Pekingese, simply yip yapping and nipping at evil. Rather, fierce, hideous creatures were needed to face down equally ugly and ferocious evil. The scarier the gargoyle the better with which to repel evil. Recommendations to tone down their twisted ferocity would have been met with blank stares. Their appeal derived from their fierce grotesqueness.

So, too, the relationship between President Trump and his base. Since before the election, and certainly since, Democrats and Never Trumpers gradually recognized that Trump’s grotesquerie won’t repel his core base. Ever. Trump could lose his base for other reasons, but not for this. His appeal, like the gargoyles’, derives from his very grotesquerie. The more twisted and hideous a gargoyle might be only meant it would serve its purpose better; it would provide more comfort and security to those it protected.

Several items to note. First, Trump’s base, even his core base, for the most part, does not share his grotesquerie. Gargoyles comforted people in the Middle Ages not because the people themselves were gargoyles, but because they weren’t and they couldn’t. They needed something fierce and hideous on their side not because they, too, were fierce and hideous, but because they weren’t.

The failure to recognize this distinction leads Trump’s critics, even if they don’t make the mistake of saying it out loud, as Hillary Clinton did, to decry Trump’s base (o.k., half of it) as “deplorables.” This is not to say that there aren’t deplorables who support Trump. But they are only a small fraction, and it’s unclear whether, unlike Trump’s true base, the real deplorables haven’t already abandoned Trump.

Trump’s core base values Trump’s grotesquerie because they feel threatened and do not believe the yapping Pekingese in the Republican or Democratic parties can protect them. (I lay most of the responsibility at the feet of the Republicans. The party had decades in which it could have addressed the root concerns of what became the Tea Party movement and, as it expanded, Trump’s core electoral base.)

But while the vast number of those who compose Trump’s base are not deplorable, they value Trump because he is. Hence, when something grotesque is revealed about Trump, this only confirms the reason for their support rather than detracts from it.

This is not merely a matter of subjectively felt fear, or a response to revelations of Trump’s personal behavior. Trump’s presidential behavior seems to be of one weave with the way he acquits himself in his personal and business dealings. We would be foolish, however, to think that gargoyles do not in fact sometimes achieve their intended purposes. And Trump’s base responds to this possibility because they perceive there is no real alternative.

The best example so far of the fusion of Trump’s personal style, however gargoylish, with real political outcomes might be North Korea. To mix my metaphors, the only way to stop someone who consistently wins at games of chicken is for that person to face someone who can credibly commit to not swerving. That is, to face someone just as crazy as he is, someone just as gargoylish as he is.

It would seem that Kim Jong-un believes he faces that in Donald Trump. This is not to declare victory before it’s won. If Kim Jong-un believes he has nothing to lose by not swerving, there is the real possibility Trump’s commitment to not swerving means there will be a crash. But I am unconvinced a crash now would be more costly than a game of chicken later, when North Korea has workable ICBMs capable of delivering warheads to the west coast of the United States, and the then-President finds it impossible to swerve and maintain critical national interests.

Our gargoyle-in-chief, President Trump, is engaging what appears to be a long-term, and growing, threat in North Korea. It might result in a terrible crash. Or Kim Jong-un might be the one who blinks when face-to-face with our very own gargoyle and not with a cool, responsible politician who, reasonably, swerves every time when face-to face with Kim Jong-un.

Trump seems to be playing the same hand on the trade issue, daring other countries to conclude that his policies won’t be as fierce as his rhetoric. Trump can do likewise on the parts of the immigration issue he can control by executive order. He runs into a little more trouble with initiatives, such as the Wall, that take the approval of a largely un-gargoylish Congress. (Separation-of-power systems don’t really work well for gargoyles.) The point is, however, that Trump’s behavior, whether private or business or political, behavior many Americans reject as outrageous, largely confirms Trump’s role as a protecting gargoyle to his base.

A word about the gargoyles themselves, however, as opposed to the serviceability of the gargoyle. While useful at times, they are sad, twisted creatures. While I disagree with some of Trump’s policies, and applaud others, and feel nothing but repulsion for what seems to be his sad and empty Playboy-circa-1960s conception of manhood, I cannot but feel sincere sorrow for the man himself, a person who seems long ago to have disappeared in his own caricature.

And here I think even Trump misunderstands the nature of his own core constituency. While I would not (yet) rank Trump among Hegel’s pantheon of world-historical figures, I suspect his fate will nonetheless be the same. As Hegel wrote of the breed, “When their object is attained they fall off like empty hulls from the kernel.” When no longer needed, the same fierce grotesquerie in which gargoyles located their usefulness becomes only grist for laughter and mockery. And we look at them and wonder why such a fantastic creature was ever created in the first place.