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Coffee House US Election

Donald Trump is a masterpiece of American melancholy

2 November 2016

1:23 PM

2 November 2016

1:23 PM

The ‘pursuit of happiness’—an infinitely debatable formulation to describe a distinctively American activity. As Jefferson wrote the phrase as the climax to his triad of inalienable rights, ‘life’ would presumably have been a fairly non-controversial no-brainer, while the peoples of other nations had begun by 1776 to aspire to forms of quasi-democratic ‘liberty’. And then there it is in black and white quill ink: the ‘pursuit of happiness’—and a uniquely American idea is enshrined.

For a large number of people, Donald J. Trump represents perhaps the ultimate incarnation of this idea. And it’s hard to argue that ‘the Donald’ is not, in his way, happy. Supremely content with himself and what he has achieved (one might say ‘over-joyed’) he believes he has earned his entitlement to take—to grab—whatever he desires without needing to ask. As we now know, this includes women’s pussies. (‘When you’re a star, they let you do it!’ he exclaims with evident delight in his now-infamous back-of-the-bus chat).

Indeed Trump is at his most appealing—and most authentic—when he’s beaming his child-like enthusiasm for his own brand. Not a single care was being given when, after one of his early primary wins, he took the opportunity not to ‘pivot’ to a ‘more presidential’ persona (as pundits had predicted) but to promote Trump Steaks and various other Trump-branded products. The commentariat was left scratching its head (or licking its chops in misplaced eagerness to ridicule). Meanwhile Trump beamed on, all the way to the nomination.


The anti-Trump media (which is—as Trump himself correctly asserts—most of it) assures us that Trump as a man is ‘hollow’, ‘vain’, ‘brittle’, ‘easily provoked’ and all the rest of it. Perhaps so—but is he unhappy? Those who remember their Keats might like to imagine that in Trump’s very ‘temple of Delight / Veil’d melancholy hath her sov’ran shrine’ but of course we cannot know for sure. If he makes it to the grave as pleased with himself as he’s been in his 70 years thus far then—barring teleological come-uppance in the form of an infernal sulphur-pit—he’ll have run down the clock as an ostensibly happy man.

But ‘happiness’ is not a positive emotion: it is not delight, nor even a sense of wonder. As Cyril Connolly takes care to caution us (in his now neglected masterpiece of philosophical self-dissection The Unquiet Grave) happiness is best defined as an absence of angst, the non-specific sense of unease that afflicts us all some of the time (and some of us all of the time). And if Freud was right that angst derives from the repression of anger and the sexual urge, then clearly Trump is doing just fine: his anger is on open display and when he has a sexual urge he simply grabs a woman by the pussy (‘I don’t even wait!’).

And yet…we do know. We know—at least we are pretty darn sure—that Trump is a tormented soul. His desire for the adulation of crowds is an addiction, which must leave him unhappy in the rare moments he sits alone in his golden chamber on Fifth Avenue. We don’t believe that he has found true love and friendship in the Sphynx-like Melania. The thinness of his skin suggests a man who is in a constant state of agitated irritation. Trump does not know peace of mind: frantically he moves forward, looking to distract himself, to get away from himself, with the next thing, the bigger thing. Many of us, in smaller ways, have tried this approach in our own lives: with high-pressure jobs, or lovers-on-the-side or just drink and drugs. It doesn’t work: veil’d melancholy is always there. And Donald Trump, consummate man of action, is a masterpiece of American melancholy.

And while Trump represents the kind of Big Ugly American that we take pleasure in despising, let’s not forget (in the smugness of our condemnation) that others of his countrymen have accepted Jefferson’s invitation to pursue happiness in far different, equally American ways. ‘I loaf and invite my soul / I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass’ sings Walt Whitman. And as Trump judges women’s looks on a scale of 0-10, Whitman finds ecstasy in insects and animal shit: ‘the bug never worshipped half enough / Dung and dirt more admirable than was dream’d.’

Trump is not America, though his uniquely American melancholy, with its rich sulphurous glow, can serve to illuminate a path to happiness which it is our own inalienable right to pursue.

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