CAPITOL LETTERS (Ep. 6): The Gam(bl)er (Former and Future?) POTUS Trump, beyond the Mar-a-Lago “nuclear”/“unclear” foray
As a student, I used to sleep at night, as my days were fulfilling and filled with my studies and the like. My nights as a student in the dorm room were (for the most part) buzzing with an “audio-video” ecosystem. I contributed to the “video” aspect with a blindingly bright lamp that glowed with the power of the noon Sun itself, which watched over me as I dozed off to sleep under the sway of a book or gazette. The “audio” side was supported by my nocturnal roommates, masters/slaves (?) of games – video games, to be more precise. The poorly silenced background noise that occasionally startled me in the dead of night was woven of dialogues, spoken ritualistically and rhythmically with the melodic cadence of a talking lathe. Yet, it was not my companions that spoke. It was the “conversation” between the interfaces of the video games and the players viewing them on the screens, its phraseology both mechanistic and minimalistic. Into that blurry state between wakefulness and sleep, between reality and dreams, the environment would pour into my ears either the robotic “communiqués” of the proto-AIs in Age of Empires and Warcraft (strategy rodeos) or the commando-esque “communication” from Counter-Strike and Half-Life (adrenaline simulators), only rarely interrupted by rounds of human speech, except for when multiplayer sessions were in order.
I once woke up in the dead of night somewhere in autumn 2018, and although I don’t suffer from insomnias, I opted to give a chance to reality as opposed to dreaming. However, instead of the intellectually elegant choice of gracefully retrieving the book I had carefully set on my nightstand specifically for such unforeseen returns from the dream realm, I opted to grab the remote. On the news channel I stumbled upon, the dialogue I heard strongly resembled the speech patterns that permeate the cyberspaces where video game players, kids (and not only) with temporary residences or, sometimes, stable addresses, would chat away. The then-President of the United States (POTUS), Donald Trump, had just warned his Russian and Chinese counterparts, accusing them of breaching the INF Treaty (i.e., the treaty dealing with medium-range ballistic nukes) – “You can’t play that game on me!”. Looking back into the past, into his man(l)y shows of force towards Kim Jong-un, as well as statements meant to demon(et)ize Iran, Trump’s brand of international relations and nuclear diplomacy looked more like crude verbiage of strategy video games or 3D-shooters. I must confess, I had liked when “political correctness”, a malignant mutation of “liberal democracy”, took a solid right hook when Trump came to power – though, it seemed merely the slippery shot of a gam(bl)er.
Speaking of “liberal democracy”: in 2016, its tireless prophet, Francis Fukuyama, had been invited by the Financial Times to pen an op-ed dedicated to the US presidential elections. The political scientist deftly dodged the invitation by replying that he would only do it if the winner would turn out to be, against all likelihood, Donald Trump. On November 11, 2016, Fukuyama was writing that editorial. He later confessed that as a citizen he was appalled by the result, but as a scholar he was fascinated by the “Trump Experiment”: the separation of powers in the state and the associated checks and balances, the strength of the United States’ founding institutions, the set of values whose ultimate triumph he’d announced and espoused, were now all undergoing a stress test. The “Trump Experiment” seemed to oscillate between the (final?!) point of equilibrium of history: nativist nationalism and economic protectionism, totalitarian impulses and security throes. The most defining trait of the “Trump Experiment” was its (populist) tendency to be unpopular with all sides of the political spectrum, offending both progressive (egalitarian) and conservative (traditionalistic) whims. Trump was therefore both an eclectic and an erratic character (not always an erring or erroneous one), but that ease with which he spoke about reigniting the nukes race bore the scent of game over.
Much has been said about Donald Trump’s decision-making and reasoning ability from several perspectives (from political philosophers to clinical psychologists), inspiring many to compose parodies and scribble graffiti on various media. It would be comical indeed, if not for the very pervasive tragic note to this story. One of the greatest wonders of democracy is the difficulty for one individual to morally and materially confiscate a nation. That individual can, however, confound that nation, and can expose it to the blows of a third party’s tyranny. For all the existing administrative mechanisms to bring balance and in spite of any instinct for self-preservation, the warmongering instinct also takes “that brief moment of madness” as a key ingredient. Its trigger? A doctrine, or the opponent’s slipup. Its forms? Barriers, blockades, statements seen as vicious barbs. From the infamy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the Cuban missile crisis, all the way to the INF Treaty, the planet has had to bear the risk of witnessing the “(physical) end of history itself”. It prevailed, however, thanks to that timely moment of wisdom and clarity. “Play smart (i.e., stop arming yourselves), and so will I (i.e., by ceasing to arm myself)!” – this seemed the game message uttered by Trump. Only that in real world there is no such thing as nuclear “save as”, “resume playing” or “undo”.
Before ending this pithy rumination, and moving the angle from gaming to cartooning, I dared my co-editor, Alexandru Georgescu, who covered the Trump era in several succulent columns (, ,  etc.), with a question: leaving aside the perennial partisanship within the American society and surveying the “Trump” character from the narrative comfort of his own nationalist-conservative camp, is he closer to a Batman or to a Joker?
“He is neither, of course”, Alex replied to me. “Batman and the Joker are partners in a long-term stable relationship, sort of like a stable two-party system, running on 82 years now. Trump was Nemesis, the gods’ traditional punishment for hubris. The Middle American Radical that another Francis, this time Sam Francis, wrote about, was coalescing around a series of positions taken from both left and right, but an ossified business-as-usual ritualistic democracy kept preventing the generational realignment. Trump burst onto the scene like Darwin’s revenge, immune to threats, energized by conflict, impossible to ignore. Globalization means also synchronization, so many things happened in parallel, from Duterte to Brexit and the new European right, which is now being tamed by the US under the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Coalition) brand. That his speeches were simplistic and coarse was key to his success, since his followers were disillusioned by the expert class’ ritualistic (and hypocritical) appeals to credentials and decorum, and so vulgarity, impulsiveness and aggression became marks of authenticity and of the new counter-culture, just like the 60s forerunner flaunted the breaking of that era’s norms. In denying their class values, Trump humiliated them and positioned himself as a tribune to the plebs. Also making for good television and great memes.”
(Original Romanian version written in 2018 – updated on August 8, 2022, Washington, D.C.)
Photo source: author’s snapshot at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
CAPITOL LETTERS is a series of articles occasioned by the author’s presence in Washington, D.C. as Romanian Cultural Institute Fellow, studying industrial revolutions’ imprint on the cultural sector.
The opinions hereby expressed by the author remain his exclusive responsibility and do not engage, in any manner or measure, the organizations to which he is affiliated or with which he collaborates.