It’s not strange that Trump wants to build a wall against people from the south. This bizarre caricature of a president is becoming more and more like one of the dictators parodied in 20th Century Latin American literature.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez acknowledged that his book, “The autumn of the patriarch” was influenced by “Tyrant Banderas” by the Spanish novelist Ramon Maria del Valle-Inclan.
The tyrant of the title is usually referred to as the Mummy in the book, a monster who constantly drools green spittle.
Other dictators have preferred to spend most of their time at the opera in Paris, returning home only briefly when a revolt needed to be crushed.
But perhaps the most interesting case is the president described in I the Supreme, by the Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos, which is a portrait of the dictator Jose Gaspar Rodriguez Francia, who ruled the country after its independence from Spain, between 1816 and 1840.
This was a period of instability, as a republic had to be invented in the midst of warring factions and external threats. His response was a nationalistic dictatorship cloaked in populism, during which he prohibited commerce, travel and even a postal service with Paraguay’s neighbours.
And as Carlos Fuentes points out in his review: “despotic populism disguises the stasis imposed by the tyrant on society; it gives the impression of movement, but it does not change anything.”
The book begins with a piece of fake news, which obsesses the tyrant: someone has posted a story that he has died on the doors of the cathedral.
The Supremo keeps a detailed notebook, which today would be a kind of bumper edition of tweets, in which he records “in a disjointed incoherent fashion… reflections… well-nigh maniacal observations on any number of entirely different subjects and themes…”
And he does it in the form of a business ledger, so that each entry is counted as a credit or a debit. In Trump-tweet vocabulary this would be “SMART!” for the credits and “SAD!”, or “SHAME!” for the debits. “I don’t write history”, Francia says. “I make it. I can re-make it as I please, adjusting, stressing, enriching its meaning and its truth.”
Writers, he says “should be shrunk till they are small enough to be put in a bottle”.
There is much more in this novel, including El Supremo’s tragic awareness of his own emptiness: “A chimaera has occupied the place of my person”, an awareness that most real-life dictators lack.
Instead the awareness remains unconscious, manifesting in a refusal to even look at people or events that might evoke their own weakness – Mexicans or immigrants for example.
And then there is patriarchy – it is well-known that Donald Trump had a good relationship with his father, while he hardly speaks about his mother, who was quite absent in his life.
So, it is not surprising that he champions the conservative vision of morality, at the expense of the more feminine liberal vision, which Lakoff has analysed. But a good conservative father, while being more authoritarian, also respects women, and traditional family values.
Trump, however, shocked his mother by his behaviour in the 80s and 90s, and a respectable man does not talk about women in terms of “grabbing them by the pussy”.
It seems the US public are still willing to accept this, because they think he keeps his promises. And as Lakoff points out, the US family model differs from traditional ones in that the parents (government) are not supposed to interfere in their adult childrens’ lives (by ‘imposing’ Obamacare for example).
But there must be limits. And just possibly we are seeing a crack appear after the school shooting in Florida, where a 17-year-old attacked adults for not getting over their politics and doing their job – “We are children, you are the adults, do your job” he said live on Trump’s favourite ‘fake news’ channel, CNN.
If the promised children’s march on Washington actually happens, could this be the critical moment when the politicians who have sucked up funding from the National Rifle Association, will begin to pause and feel the cold wind blowing from the voters?
And taking up the analogy of family-for-country again, it is worth remembering that a country will feel anxiety and seek re-assurance in authoritarian leaders when its identity and moral standing seem to be crumbling.
Trump, despite his boasting, has done more than most presidents to accelerate this, as if in resigned acceptance of the failing influence of the US politically and morally that began with the Vietnam war, and is now threatened by China.
Times like these have led to stupid military adventures in the past. The Suez crisis of 1956 can now be seen as one of the last spasms of two imperial powers, Britain and France, during the period of decolonization.
And let’s not forget that a president faced with legal action is likely to resort to a foreign theatre to attempt to re-burnish his credentials.
On the domestic as well as the international levels, it is time to take the toys away from the boys.