Faculty Writing: Patrick Blanchfield on Trump and American Violence

Faculty member Patrick Blanchfield recently took to N+1 to discuss two not unrelated features of American life: Donald Trump and rampant gun violence.

In the latter, Thoughts & Prayers, Blanchfield discusses gun violence in its most sensational form: the mass shooting. In the wake of the October 1st Las Vegas massacre, as they do after mass shooting perpetrated by a white male, politicians invoked the concept of “pure evil.” “This,” as Blanchfield notes, “is a convenient formulation: it turns what should be a political problem into a metaphysical one. ‘Pure evil’ has nothing to do with policy or complicity or compromise—it exists beyond the human ken until it irrupts into our realm, leaving carnage in its wake.”

Meant to wave mass shootings away, the trope of “Pure Evil” has the paradoxical effect of more deeply embedding the prospect in citizen consciousness. As random phenomena, mass shootings “reveal to Americans otherwise insulated from quotidian gun murder that they are not immune, that brutal death or grievous injury can, in principle, come to them no matter who they are or where they might be. Compounding this sense of terrifying vulnerability is the recognition of a properly existential futility: an understanding that, no matter your station or your status, if this is how death comes to you, then, in any substantive sense, your death will not matter.

This is the horror of mass shootings. Not just death that comes from nowhere, intruding upon the status quo—but a death that doesn’t change that status quo, that continues to sail on unchanged by it.”

In his Trump piece, titled The Annihilator, Blanchfield remarks on the president’s “apocalyptic solipsism,” a disorder he seems to share with other archetypes of the Angry White Male—e.g., the Michael Douglas character in “Falling Down” who “facing financial ruin or other humiliation, decides on suicide while taking his wife and children with him like so many ritual objects he can throw on his own funeral pyre out of spite.”

In the instance of Trump, the perversity takes on geopolitical proportions: “‘My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal,’ [Trump] tweeted. ‘It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before. Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!’ Yoked to the ‘hopefully’ of ‘never hav[ing] to use this power’ the last sentence contains all the portent of a threat: that the weapons will be used against the possibility that we might ever be ‘not the most powerful nation in the world.’ The underlying logic is quite uncomplicated: unless America is the best and the most powerful, the entire world is forfeit. This is of course the brutish proposition that sustains American hegemony—that has sustained since it since the get-go.”