At the height of the gulag, purges, death squads and Ukrainian famine, Joseph Stalin’s underlings approached him about a deeply worrying concern that might imperil the regime. Reports were coming in from everywhere that most Russians believed that the vast majority of people who were being executed or sent to Siberia were innocent of any crimes against the USSR.
But Stalin reassured them. It was not merely inevitable that most Russians would realize that those being murdered, imprisoned, tortured and shamed were innocent. It was necessary. For totalitarianism to succeed, it was necessary for citizens to fundamentally alter their understanding of the state and its leader. Whereas every Russian emperor from 1454 to 1917 had been heir to the title of Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, “equal to the Apostles and God’s vice-gerent on earth,” Stalin had to do better, to exceed this status in his project of remaking Russian society in his image. It was not enough to be God’s agent; he had to be a god himself.
God, Stalin reasoned, based on a clear understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy theology and scripture, could be clearly recognized as distinct from mortals because his mortal servants were sent to punish the guilty and the unjust. God, as revealed in the Book of Job and countless other scriptural narratives, was the sole moral agent who possessed the right to punish the innocent and just. And only being god-like could Stalin, with a tiny fraction of the resources, population and allies of the capitalist empires he stared down, possibly prevail.
Whereas liberal capitalism was advancing a political theory in which any adult person might be entitled to govern a state and mete out its laws in a fair and moral fashion, Stalin offered an opposing theory, one rooted in the origins of the Russian state and its antecedents, the Byzantine Empire and the Khanate of the Golden Horde. Whereas the rulers of the capitalist, liberal West were to be understood as “first among equals,” men entitled to no more and no less than their fellow citizens, Stalin would present himself and his deceased predecessor, Lenin, as ontologically distinct from mere human beings.
And so Stalin set about doing god-like things: persecuting his children, terrorizing his allies, engaging in unspeakable atrocities, carelessly and pointlessly murdering millions as though they were straw dogs. It is in this light that we must understand actions that appear to have hobbled the Russian economy, political system and even Russia’s physical environment. No mere man could conduct himself in such a terrifying, incomprehensible, unspeakable fashion. Stalin, people concluded, must be something more.
It is in this light that we must approach the Donald Trump campaign.
Donald Trump is a man uninterested in serving as America’s president, engaged in a constant, endless process of technocratic compromise, negotiation and brokerage, the very thing craved by his opponent. Trump is not running for that job and has no interest in it. Trump is running for Stalin’s job, Mao’s job, Hitler’s job: absolute and supreme leader of a vast, world-spanning imperium. There is nothing irrational about his election strategy. He wishes to be elected with a clear mandate to serve as America’s god-king; anything less is of no interest to him.
And it is in this light that we must understand the programmatic, intentional and strategic marketing of parent-child incest by Donald Trump. Trump chose to give the convention address, reserved for generations for the spouse of a presidential candidate, to his daughter Ivanka. This choice was intentional and premeditated, as was his unambiguously libidinous kissing and ass-grabbing of his daughter on national TV before the address, the daughter about whom he has been making sexualized comments in the media since before her tenth birthday. Trump is direct, clear and unflinching in notifying America that he owns that girl’s ass and has since she was conceived.
And that is because he has been contemplating a run, not for the American presidency but for the role of American Emperor since before she was conceived. From her conception, she has been a prop, a means by which Trump can demonstrate his god-like status. A mere man, you see, couldn’t fuck his daughter and brag about it on national television; only a superhuman being could do that and walk away unscathed. Like taxes and contracts, the bedrock of the liberal social contract, prohibitions against the most monstrous form of sexual abuse do not apply to Trump because he is a god-being who can demonstrate this status by showing himself to transcend not merely our laws but our most fundamental social mores and taboos.
In writing this piece I was as reminded of the father of a friend of mine who killed himself this year (the son, not the father, sadly), a monster who began raping him when he was eighteen months old. That man was a charter member of the New Age movement, whose lifelong hustle has been photographing people’s auras for money. He begins each day with this affirmation: “I am a god-being, limitless beyond human comprehension,” like Ivan the Terrible, Russia’s most god-like emperor who is remembered best for beating his own son and heir to death – for no reason.
Like most survivors of programmatic and flagrant sexual abuse, my dear old friend was as powerless to retaliate against his abuser as is Ivanka Trump, a woman who has received the message loud and clear from over three hundred million Americans that they will not lift a finger to protect her. Her only hope of relative safety, like most survivors of sexual violence, is convincing her abuser that she is a willing, nay enthusiastic, participant in her own abuse. Victims of lifelong sexual abuse are at once ventriloquist and dummy, normalizing their abuser’s discourse while performing their accord with it as voluntary and enthusiastic, offering hagiographic descriptions of their abuser.
What we must understand is that, for Trump’s followers, their leader’s ongoing sexual violation of his daughter is what Slavoj Zizek terms an “unknown known,” in his tribute to the epistemology of Donald Rumsfeld, something we all know but refuse to permit our consciousness to see, a belief we concurrently deny and use as a premise undergirding our reasoning. Open secrets, unknown knowns, are the most powerful form of knowledge in a society because they represent the inchoate substructure of a social order. State-sanctioned torture, race- and gender-based violence, massive inequalities of wealth and opportunity structure our every interaction and so they must exist at the periphery of our consciousness.
By signaling that he is the incarnation of those very forces, Trump offers his followers what marginalized, desperate people in America desire, a literal deus ex machina. The invisible forces that are so terrifying that we cannot speak of them by name are incarnate in a man. Perhaps, they reason, this god-man might be more easily propitiated than the implacable invisible-handed deity that has laid waste their families, towns and workplaces.