“Indeed, we are all implicated in Iowa.”
–Heather Anne Swanson, “The Banality of the Anthropocene”
Crossing the Mississippi River from Illinois into Iowa by car is an almost effortless glide, eliding entirely the forceful pull of the Great River and the centuries of violence greater still that harnessed its bucking current into an engine of commerce unsuitable for fishing, swimming, or drinking. It’s difficult to imagine that this momentary glimpse of blue in my peripheral vision was once the artery from which fortunes gushed or trickled, the playground where the nineteenth century’s Saint Hucks found death and adventure, and the vanishing horizon for the freedom of enslaved people sent ever-southward as the human traffic on which this nation’s wealth was built drew the entire southern social order into its own death spiral. Comfortably burning non-renewable fuel high above the Mississippi’s churn, it becomes all too tempting to consider this the distant past.
On the fuzz-drenched wasteland of AM radio, eerie voices emerge and dissolve once more like messages from the beyond. The mind-numbing banality of sports radio alternates with glad tidings of life after death through the salvation of Christ, before at last synthesizing into their logical conclusion, a man’s voice narrating the deadening ritual of an unfolding baseball game, punctuated by the Good Word proffered in the time between pitches. A few clicks down the dial, an old man’s molasses drawl laments Fulton County’s indictment of Donald Trump, declaring it to be unconstitutional, according to the studious insights of a constitutional expert, one Edwin Meese.
On the channel next door, a woman with a nasal twang waxes exasperated at the state of a conservative movement poised to defend conspiracy theorist Russel Brand against a slew of sexual assault allegations. Lamenting the cults of personality that have taken the place of conservative principles, the host declares that Donald Trump has led the movement so far into chaos and disarray that it is time to inquire whether he is a “deep state” asset, propped up by the CIA. Then, at once, an invisible line is crossed, and this fading voice in the wilderness gives way to harsh static, quickly replaced by a still more ethereal Christian choir simulating ascent through the great pearly gates.
CIA asset or not, Donald Trump is coming to Dubuque, Iowa. The four-times-indicted, twice-impeached, two-time Primetime Emmy-nominated former President of the United States of America and current World Wrestling Federation Hall of Famer has chosen the riverside Rust Belt enclave of Dubuque, Iowa for one of his increasingly rare public rallies. With the fabled company bearing his name on the verge of court-ordered dissolution, and ninety-one felony indictments hanging over his head, the seventy-seven year old has cut far less of an imposing figure on the campaign trail than he did in in previous election cycles, when he taunted his adversaries with dastardly relish, furnishing classic sound bytes and instant memes, as he danced across the stage drunk on adulation, hopped up on amphetamines, and clearly having loads of fun.
Today, the network TV star, who has found far more success portraying a thriving businessman than actually being one, tramps glumly into what promises to be his final leading role, on the boldest reality programming since Survivor: either he becomes President of the United States once more, or he spends the rest of his days under house arrest, or even in prison. Yet, if the polls are to be believed, even as he skips Republican debates, and spends his days issuing unhinged rants on his own (also failing) social media platform, lacking all the humor and verve which once made him the unofficial king of Twitter trolls, Donald Trump is still, somehow, against all odds, poised to win the Republican nomination and face off against an even older, less coherent, and potentially more vulnerable nemesis next Fall. Trump is therefore tasked with an increasingly perfunctory exercise in rallying his troops to make America great again, again, in what he insists is the most important election in the history of our country, again. And in the arcane annals of US presidential politics, all roads lead to Iowa.
Little Cloud’s Big Claim
The setting of the latest Trump carnival was once peopled by numerous indigenous tribes, including the Sauk, Meskwaki, and Ho-Chunk, in advance of European colonization, which arrived in the late eighteenth century in the person of one Julien Dubuque. As recounted in Franklin T. Oldt’s History of Dubuque County, the Quebecois adventurer was drawn to the area by rumors of lead mining, a disastrous process for miner and consumer alike, already begun by natives acculturating themselves to trade with the ever-encroaching Europeans. Dubuque constructed lead furnaces and ingratiated himself with the locals sufficient to receive written permission from a Meskwaki chief, dated 1788, to mine and settle an ill-defined plot of land surrounding a small complex of mines. It was the beginning of Euro-American private property in the region, according to which distinct plots of land belonged irreversibly to individual people engaged in an effective state of war with the world outside of it; theirs to destroy along with the rest of the planet should they see fit.
The natives lacked the legalistic conception of landed property which accompanied the rise of capitalism in Western Europe and now transformed the vast expanses of Turtle Island into a continental jigsaw puzzle of private holdings. They almost certainly meant to allow Dubuque, who they affectionately dubbed Little Cloud, to simply make use of the land, likely in exchange for serving as a conduit to settler traders. Nonetheless, equipped with their written agreement, Dubuque approached colonial authorities and claimed the writ as title to a large and ill-defined territory of Meskwaki on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, centering around the county that today bears his name. Dubuque also went into the real estate business, selling off a portion of his holdings, and taking on a business partner to capitalize on the ever-appreciating riverfront property and its poisonous bounty of blue-gray shimmering lead.
It was a time of remarkable flux, even for the Hericlitean order of private property in the New World. In the fifteen years following Dubuque’s supposed land purchase, claimants to the territory beneath his feet shifted from the Spanish crown, to France, and finally to the United States, under the Louisiana Purchase — to say nothing of a number of indigenous tribes who already lived there. The Louisiana Purchase also added the Mississippi River to US territory alongside a massive westward expanse, and redoubled both the river’s importance to commercial traffic and the centrality of ports like the one that would soon stand on Dubuque’s claim.
Following the Louisiana Purchase, Dubuque petitioned the nascent US government to legally sanctify his holdings. The curious writ caught the attention of US Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin, who introduced onto the record his belief that Dubuque had simply received permission to mine the land and was now misrepresenting this as a property claim. Further complicating matters, Dubuque’s agreement with the Meskwaki lacked the precision of even the most rudimentary land title; simply put, Gallatin observed, there was no title at all. Against these objections, Dubuque’s claim was upheld by the federal government, based in large part on the fact of his already having taken charge of it. Possession, as the old saw goes, is nine-tenths of the law. For their part, the natives bolstered Gallatin’s case significantly when, upon Dubuque’s 1810 death, they burned Little Cloud’s house and erased all signs he had ever mined there, to discourage further European incursion on land they were happy to populate and mine themselves.
Another noteworthy dissent to the land treaties of this period emerged in the person of Sauk warrior Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, also known as Black Hawk. Black Hawk had watched in disgust as an 1804 delegation of Sauk and Meskwaki chiefs had signed away a massive tract of land just east of the Mississippi, including Black Hawk’s birthplace of Saukenuk, in present-day Illinois, to the nascent United States. In his 1833 memoir An Autobiography, Black Hawk recounted how these chiefs, who lacked the authority to sell tribal land should they have even intended to do so, had set out to St. Louis to petition for the freedom of an imprisoned tribesman. In the process, they were plied with alcohol and manipulated into making a sale they did not understand. As insult added to injury, the man was released from prison — only to be shot in the back as he fled. Such treatment by the US led to the Sauk fighting against the US, on the side of the English, in the War of 1812, where Black Hawk distinguished himself as a warrior.
Between 1829 and 1832, as settlers increasingly populated the land ceded in 1804, Black Hawk led numerous incursions eastward across the Mississippi to reverse the course of colonization. He commanded a squadron of Sauk and Kickapoo warriors and their families known as the British Band, because they flew an English flag, less out of enduring loyalty to the English than defiance of US sovereignty. Engaged in a series of escalating conflicts with settlers and militia troops, the British Band failed to sufficiently rally neighboring tribes, and soon experienced forceful retaliation by the US government.
Thus, the ill-fated Black Hawk War ended in a massacre of British Band troops and their families. The tragedy afforded the US federal government the chance to clear up some ambiguity surrounding some of its new holdings West of the Mississippi. The Sauk and Meskwaki were forced to the table to negotiate a “peace” that included the succession of vast stretches of land, including the holdings claimed by Dubuque, effectively ending the indigenous contestation of US settlement in the Midwest. All tribes, including those who had nothing to do with Black Hawk, were pushed ever westward at gunpoint, to clear the way for Euro-American settlers to lay claims to their very own plot of private property.
The Key City
Violence and duplicity had laid the foundation for law and order on the prairie and beyond. But controversy surrounding Dubuque’s land claim lingered for decades following his 1810 death. Namely, prospective settlers questioned what role the state would play in the distribution of this land. While a number of claimants declared themselves the owners of the land, the prudent homesteader remained skeptical the US government would honor their claims. This ambiguity populated the area with the kind of rough and rapacious mining town familiar to viewers of the HBO series Deadwood. It was a mode of settlement geared around maximizing exploitation of the land’s resources with no regard for long-term sustainability.
Following the so-called treaty with Black Hawk in 1832, some of the most desirable Dubuque land was unceremoniously claimed by settlers who camped on the ceded land on the wager that the US government would rule against Dubuque’s claim. Initially they were run off by federal troops, including those commanded by one Jefferson Davis, who were charged with ensuring the orderly dispersal of territory by the federal government. Some were undiscouraged, however, and opted to bide their time east of the Mississippi, or else camped out on the river’s islands, crossing the border illegally when the soldiers departed, and seizing the land in explicit violation of federal law. Within a year, the troops tired of this game of cat and mouse, and conceded the settlers’ de facto right to the Dubuque land, based, again, on possession. The settlers chartered their own city in 1837, named Dubuque, after the man whose claim they had usurped by force.
It was a gamble, but the settlers’ wager paid off; in 1846, Iowa formally joined the United States, and the Dubuque claim was nullified by the federal government. The land was aggregated with the rest of the state’s holdings, and precedent for ownership was given to those who were already living on it. Settlers who had seized the land benefited immensely from the illegality at the center of the law, as their property was now sanctified by the same rule of law they had violated to secure it. Julien Dubuque’s inheritors pushed the matter all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1854 that the natives did not have the right to sell Dubuque the land in 1788, since it had been already claimed by the Spanish Crown, whether they knew it or not. More to the point, the court ruled, by 1854, the land was undeniably inhabited by thousands of settlers, who had effectively taken possession of it, and for all intents and purposes, it belonged to them. Almost overnight, brick replaced wooden structures; the settlement was here to stay.
The lead mines which had laid the foundation for colonialism were soon exhausted. Due to its proximity to the Mississippi, and later, railroads, however, Dubuque became in the nineteenth century a thriving mill town, revolving around the export of raw lumber, shipbuilding, brewing, and meatpacking. Intensive government investment in a modern port and railway infrastructure earned Dubuque the moniker “the Key City,” establishing a strong twentieth century industrial economy embodied in a large John Deere manufacturing plant that opened in 1947. As documented in the booster publication Encyclopedia Dubuque, Dubuque’s city government played a key role in lobbying for federal investment in promoting Mississippi River modernization to facilitate competition with railroads and alternative transit routes like the Panama Canal. But industry in Dubuque suffered nonetheless under capital flight and deindustrialization in the 1970s, and by the 1980s the city faced a depression common to the region as the steel belt turned to rust.
In 1985, faced with a collapsing tax base and high unemployment, the city government turned to city-sponsored gambling as a source of tax revenue. The city opened the Dubuque Greyhound Park, which morphed, with the 1995 legalization of casino gambling in Iowa, into a full-fledged casino, known today as the Q. In Dubuque, and elsewhere in Iowa, such arrangements have paved the way for a much-heralded comeback from the scourge of deindustrialization. Revenue from gambling serves to finance local infrastructure investments, and, as local politicians are quick to point out, keep taxes low. This kind of revenue is of course a far cry from manufacturing. From an economic perspective, the money that flows into Dubuque’s coffers through gambling does not represent newly created capital, but merely the siphoning of revenue from players. It is a voluntary form of financing governance by fines and fees that has made towns like Ferguson, Missouri notorious, though losing your money in Dubuque seems at least marginally more fun. Which is not to say I saw anyone smiling.
Trump was headed for the Grand River Convention Center, in a Port of Dubuque that has been significantly overhauled in the past two decades. Whereas in the golden age of Mississippi River commerce the Port of Dubuque was a nexus of manufacture and trade, today its most prominent feature is a cluster of new development, bordered by an ornate river walk, geared toward the extraction of tourist dollars. The new river front also includes a hotel complex and water park called Grand Harbor, the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, a brewery, and the financial engine driving the project, Diamond Jo’s Casino. Unlike Q, Diamond Jo’s is privately owned and operated — though, like the Q, the non-profit Dubuque Racing Association, a public/private body composed of local politicians and business leaders, controls the license. While both arrangements benefit the city budget in Dubuque, Q is the bigger cash cow. As long-time city manager Mike VanMilligen once remarked: “Whoever owns the facility, gains the most.”
This massive redevelopment was spearheaded in the late 1990s by the Dubuque Historical Society, using local funds from gambling and other city revenue, its own America’s River Project, and state funds from the Vision Iowa project. Vision Iowa was funded by selling hundreds of millions of dollars of bonds to the private market, backed by the state tax on gambling. By the alchemy of gambling local economies on the financial market, Vision Iowa leveraged a state investment of $200 million into some $3 billion in infrastructure improvements supporting local commerce.
Diamond Jo’s casino is accessed by an arched viaduct that connects the Port to downtown Dubuque across the busy Route 61. On a weeknight, parking is not difficult to come by. Seniors passing each other in the day-glow parking lot greet by waving cans. The doors are deeply tinted, either to keep the daylight outside, or to keep the neon in. Even low-end casinos like Diamond Jo’s are meticulously designed to disorient the guest and rob them of their sense of time. Mesmerized by importunate light flashes and tinkling sounds and chilled awake by excessive air conditioning, the gambler is pumped full of endorphins as they vainly chase the all-but-impossible dream of getting rich quick, and the slight, more probably but still unlikely, possibility of leaving with a bit more money than they walked in with.
I hesitate in crossing this threshold, taken aback by the obnoxious technicolor on the other side, a bit like the entrance to Toontown in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Sensing my apprehension, an old white woman waiting for her taxi home tells me the place is no good. She had just lost all her money. It was her mistake, she continues, for going to Diamond Jo’s at all. She would have been better off on the Q, which she identifies as an Indian reservation casino down the street. There, she tells me, the odds are better. It’s actually not true that the Q is Indian owned. But it’s likely that the tiny elite of indigenous people who profit off reservation gambling do in fact benefit from the persistent belief among Euro-Americans that whatever they have managed to cling to is still ripe for the taking.
A novice in the world of gaming, I quickly learn that this so-called casino is basically a video arcade for baby boomers. Even casino staples like blackjack are mostly played electronically, with no chips, but plastic cards with value added to them on stationary machines. Most of the floor is lined with flashing video gambling consoles of impressive height, looming above the player as the arcade console imposes itself on the child, and this is likely no coincidence. The game’s control panels are strewn with ashtrays; this is an indoor smoking casino, and those who desire a “non-smoking section” can take refuge in a tiny corner room with a dozen or so games crammed into the corner, connected to the smoking area by a large, breezy, and completely open ingress. There’s a small cluster of human-operated tables in the center of the room, most of which are closed during my multiple visits over two days. This means there are few employees to be found in Diamond Jo’s besides those serving drinks and keeping an eye out for trouble. Even the roulette wheel has been automated.
Outside, in the parking lot abutting the convention center, large trailers full of merchandise boast their contents: memorabilia celebrating the deranged political career of Donald J. Trump. Smirking smugly, larger than life Trump likenesses smile and point their fingers across the largely vacant parking lots of the Port of Dubuque. He is a fitting idol. A decade before Dubuque staked its future on a roulette wheel, and decades before the much-heralded revitalization of the port, Donald J. Trump stood at the forefront of the movement known today as neoliberalism. In the mid-1970s, when Ronald Reagan was still largely considered too fringe for national office, Trump was hard at work capitalizing on the New York City fiscal crisis and putting “trickle down” economics into practice.
As recounted in Samuel Stein’s Capital City, Trump took great advantage of the city’s post-industrial economic hardship, and was a key part of a cadre of developers and financiers who effectively redefined the priorities of city government from crisis-laden Keynesianism to the explicit operation of the public sector for the generation of private profits. In the process, New York’s post-industrial life has been defined by the dominance of the Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate (FIRE) sector of the ruling class, rooted in service-sector employment, tourism, and the private financialization of public funds. The Port of Dubuque is a far cry from Times Square, but has effectively followed the same formula. Trump’s coming, then, as many of his followers generally believe, could be seen as nothing short of Providence.
Among the Goblins
Outside the Grand River Center the following day, the line to see the big man stretches blocks, dotted with MAGA hats and patrolled by peddlers hawking Trump merchandise, including a custom shirt made only for this event, at bargain basement prices. The cheaply-made imported goods contrast sharply with Trump’s legendary rhetoric about revitalizing American manufacturing, but the supporters who have stuck with him this far are immune to contradiction. One man even proudly boasts $5 Make America Great Again hats, “made by Creole Chinamen,” to the general amusement of all within earshot, though even a fairly thorough Google search has failed to explain this particular racist joke to me. And as the dark clouds looming in the Iowa sky give way to rain, the lesser hucksters hawking the image of their leader enthusiastically peddle ponchos to the faithful, who weigh whether they’d rather part with five dollars or get wet. Meanwhile, a dozen or so anti-Trumpers straight out of central casting brandish signs mocking Trump’s hair and comparing him to a Cheeto.
As I check into the hotel across the street, the white boomer woman working the register asks if I’m there for “that thing next door,” a slight lilt indicating mischievous disapproval. I say yes, and ask what she thinks of Trump. “I voted for him the first time, but never again,” she tells me. “I thought he was going to change things, but he just makes everything about himself.”
At this moment a balding millennial man clad in a t-shirt, cargo shorts, and long skateboarder socks with Vans to match walks in, completely drenched from the drain, and asks to use the bathroom. The clerk tells him he can’t, since he’s not a paying customer. Dejected, he slinks out without a word, and I follow. He asks if I’m here for the rally. I say yes, adding I am excited to see Trump, because he “always puts on a good show.” He squints at me incredulously. “Comedically I guess that’s true, but…” He trails off, wincing. Maybe it’s the rain, the overfull bladder, the long line — or maybe Trump is losing him. I ask if he’s seen Trump before, and he says no, but he did see Obama when he came through here in 2008. Lowering my voice, I ask if he voted for Obama. Sure, he says, but he forgot to sign the ballot so it wasn’t counted. Nonetheless, “I would have!”
Meanwhile, a local YouTube duo amateurishly aping the late All Gas No Brakes, jockeying for the market share surrendered by its disgraced host Andrew Callaghan, trawls the crowd for the craziest people they can find to interview. They represent themselves as an advocacy group seeking to raise awareness that Earth-born goblins are in fact piloting UFOs. A man who has been yelling various QAnon-adjacent theories is an obvious mark. He does not disappoint, ranting about goblins and UFOs as they egg him on. The people around him roll their eyes. “They’re just trying to make Trump supporters look stupid,” one woman cautions. Knowingly taking this bait, the e-girl steps in and delivers an impassioned speech about the existence of goblins. Afterward she remarks that of course they are going to edit the video to try to make her look bad. But, simply put, this denizen of Chanworld will not be out-trolled. All the while, a chorus of listeners incredulously exclaims, in the ever-charming Great Lakes dialect, “Gahwblins? Did he say gahwblins?”
I speak at length with a white boomer woman who was in the crowd on January 6th. She assures me it was not violent. She describes a convivial atmosphere, notable for the curious lack of security surrounding the building, which, in hindsight, confirmed her suspicion that the Trump supporters walked into a trap. She did not breach the building, but freely admits she would have if given the opportunity. Instead, her section of the crowd was packed shoulder to shoulder around the inauguration scaffolding immediately in front of the building. Having watched hours of footage of violence in that area, I ask for a second time if she is sure she didn’t see any scuffles. She concedes that there were provocations by a handful of outside actors. “Antifa? Deep state?” I ask. “I think they were CIA,” she responds.
I then try to reconcile this claim with the high-profile convictions of some of these very same provocateurs, who have been identified as established right-wing activists and appear to be serving very real jail time. She waves it all off, saying the trials make her so sad she can’t bear to watch them. She also noticeably winces at the mention of the word “footage,” surely a sore subject among J6 protesters. I can relate.
A few minutes earlier, the e-girl had declared to a small audience that Trump was likely removed from office on purpose to show us how bad things are without him. My new friend agrees. He was even late on January 6th by a numerically significant time, to send a message. He communicates using numbers, she tells me. He is in control of things. I ask what she thinks of De Santis and the other challengers. Is Trump in danger? Absolutely not, she tells me. Trump and the “people working with him” are “twenty-five steps ahead of everyone.” She pauses. “Or at least I hope he is!” At this, she laughs nervously, her eyes widening at the realization this might not be the case at all. I begin laughing too, she laughs back, and we both drag it out for a bit too long, staring at each other, laughing in the face of the insanity of 2023.
At this, a woman behind us, another white boomer, interjects, saying that surely Trump will win, but this is precisely why “they” won’t even let the election happen. “Maybe there will be another pandemic.”
Long before Trump arrives, the Grand River Center has been heavily fortified by the Secret Service, state and local cops, and private security guards, who compensate for their lack of badges and guns by walking around in skin tight polo shirts, tattooed arms flexed to the point of physical discomfort, sporting black leather gloves and looking extremely eager to connect them with someone’s face. The Exhibit Hall, a sparsely furnished trade show floor resembling a processing center for victims of a natural disaster, is packed to less than half of its 2,500 capacity. In a classic case of “hurry up and wait,” those who dutifully arrived at 11am or earlier, and stood in a slowly winding line pelted by rain, will now stand back and stand by until well after 3pm just to hear Trump speak. There’s a few hundred chairs, many roped off for VIPs. Everyone else has to stand.
This is the third time I’ve seen Trump speak and the furthest I’ve seen him stray from his ostentatious airplane, Trump Force One. This gaudy global-warming machine has long enabled the former president to pull up to lonely airstrips in counties like Dubuque, where he last appeared on the runway of the Regional Airport in 2020, rant for ninety minutes or so within a hundred steps of his of his plane, and be back in the air before most of his fans have made it back to their cars, which often takes hours. This time, however, Trump is quite late. Chasing the thrill of yesteryear, die-hards try to get classic Trump rally chants going — “We love Trump” and “USA” — but the lion’s share of the crowd isn’t in the mood. There’s something meaner and more sour in the air; the Stone’s foreboding “Gimme Shelter” would be the perfect soundtrack, assuming of course that their label, BMI, hadn’t already served Trump with a cease and desist order for using Stones music at his rallies in the past.
As the crowd silently shuffles around shaking out the pain of interminable standing, a middle-aged white woman with a prosthetic leg begins to give a speech about our duty to love America. The crowd around her cheers. At this, she raises her voice to a shriek, her entreaties becoming ever-more deranged. High above the piped-in music and chatter of the crowd, she exhorts the crowd to defend America in a desperate wail most befitting someone fighting for their life. Those around her grow quiet, stepping away and looking elsewhere, embarrassed by the grim spectacle. At last, she is summarily escorted out of the auditorium by the Secret Service, a private security guard trailing close behind, obviously salivating for a piece of the action as she shouts at him to keep back.
All the while the PA system has been blasting the uncanny soundtrack of Trumpworld, fusing the quintessential Manhattanite’s love of show tunes and disco with the songs he imagines his fans want to hear. Toby Keith’s sappy right-populist temper tantrum “Angry American” giving way to Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” for no good reason besides that it’s a Trump rally. Large monitors astride the stage flash the logo of the Trump campaign, episodically interrupted by video accompaniment for exactly two songs: Elvis performing “If I Can Dream” from his 1968 comeback special, and the title track of The Who’s rock opera Tommy, with footage taken from the film. Each time it seems to the weary crowd like some kind of pivotal moment in the event, an introduction — undoubtedly a strange one — that will nonetheless herald Trump, or else something, anything, besides more standing around.
But the songs end, Elvis leaves the building, the screaming mods carry Roger Daltry and his comically oversized oxblood Doc Marten boots out of the auditorium, the screen fades back to the Trump logo, and the crowd energy continues to wane with each false alarm. This sense of interminable waiting is made worse by a truncation of the usual Trump rally playlist, likely due to just about every musician played at his rally threatening him with legal action, so that roughly seven songs are looped over and over again for hours, giving the distinct impression of an entire auditorium of people being collectively left on hold.
The emcee is Iowa’s native son Matthew Whittaker, Trump’s controversial one-time acting-Attorney General and part of an ever-shrinking club of Trump Administration hacks who will have anything to do with their former boss. Notoriously enough, Wittaker got that job by campaigning for it on cable news via questioning the legality of the Mueller investigation, but was promptly returned to the world of private sector grifting when he failed to gain the support of the Senate. As hype man for Trump in Dubuque, Whittaker warms up the crowd by introducing a panel discussion with local politicians and a local sheriff. Their topic is the unholy apocalypse that Joe Biden has supposedly unleashed on the Mexican border, ushering in an explosion of crime, gangs, terrorism, and drugs, namely fentanyl, which we are supposed to believe is trafficked across the border by asylum seekers clutching only what they can carry.
This discussion will set the tenor of the entire event, and one moment in particular says it all. Quoting a popular saying among the hard-right, the sheriff declares somberly that nowadays, “Every town is a border town.” The crowd goes wild. They’ve likely heard this many times before, but it strikes right to the heart of what has brought them to this Covid-soaked dungeon of gloom. (Author’s note: I got Covid.) This is not a congenial political gathering in a bland convention center at the center of a sleazy redevelopment scheme in corn country. It is a bunker besieged, from all sides, by a slew of monstrous enemies. Sideways glances cast in my direction suggest that some may even be in the room. And the master of ceremonies is a man who has raised insecurity, paranoia, and the desperate search for scapegoats to a veritable art form.
Let Loose from the Noose
An hour or so passes from the conclusion of the panel discussion, with no other programming on the menu save for waiting for Trump. Moments like these are a good reminder that Trump campaigns have always been shoestring operations, where staffing is sparse and loyalty is prized above experience and skill. As sighs proliferate, Whittaker re-emerges in a huff, accompanied by the fanfare of AC/DC’s crotch rock anthem “Back in Black.” Received with polite applause, Whittaker doesn’t actually have much to say. He tries to hype the crowd but this is not his strong suit. He stalls for a while, noticeably wilting on stage, and ultimately beats a hasty retreat, assuring the crowd that Trump is “on the way” and will be there in “a few minutes.” A half hour goes by. A large section of seats in the front have been reserved for those who made a special donation, and these have sat empty for hours. “Donald Trump doesn’t need my money,” one man mutters, explaining the scheme. “I need some of his!” The emergence of VIPs from a private room is the first credible lead in hours that the event is actually moving along. “Here come the important people!” someone jeers. This heralds the anticlimax to end all anticlimaxes.
Abruptly and without fanfare, after hours of collective anticipation, Trump is hastily announced and plods out from behind the curtain, before his theme song, Lee Greenwood’s maudlin, flag-fondling “God Bless the USA” can even begin playing. Instead of strutting up and down the stage waving and pointing as he has done in the past, or breaking into his signature dance that resembles above all else a person masturbating two men at the same time, the former president stands awkwardly in one spot, hands by his sides, looking lost and defeated, as Greenwood warbles on and on about how he’d sure have liked to serve his country but never got around to doing it. Trump’s broad shoulders curve downward into a distinct slump, and his suits, so expertly tailored to mask his obese frame, now seem overlarge, like the man is melting before our very eyes. Meanwhile, the screens alongside the stage display the latest Fox News poll showing cratering support for Ron Desantis, formerly Trump’s chief opponent, but increasingly just a political has-been with whom Trump has an ax to grind. And Trump has a lot of axes to grind in Dubuque.
As Greenwood fades out, Trump takes a few labored steps to the rostrum, where he will remain for the duration of the event. Caked in more makeup than usual and wincing under the lights, he props himself up with one hand, leaving the other free to gesticulate, albeit weakly and without conviction. And then, no doubt riding high from the fleeting rush of the speed that has fueled his motor-mouthed persona for decades, he put his strongest muscles to work — those animating his jaw. They don’t stop moving for nearly eighty minutes straight. All the while, everything about Trump betrays desperation, vulnerability, creeping and inevitable mortality — all that his tough guy mythos seeks to deny. “This is a big crowd,” he declares, harping on a favorite obsession. “You got a lot of people outside, trying to get in.” Just about everyone in the crowd must know that the number of people waiting outside is exactly zero. And with this, Trump is off to the races.
Gone are the camp, irony, and self-aware humor that constitute Trump’s bizarre yet undeniable charisma, and once distinguished him from a ranting and raving old crank like one tossed out of the rally before it even began. Bitterness, vengeance, and retribution are the order of the day in Dubuque. As the standing crowd shifts from one foot to the other, Trump weaves a complex demonology of America at the brink of annihilation, beset on all sides by the forces of evil from a comic book rendering of Revelation. These are not new themes for Trump, but their exposition is darker, meaner, and positively Boschian in detail. At this very moment, Trump drones ominously, “lawless mobs of unscreened, unvetted illegal alien migrants are stampeding across the border by the millions and millions, including hordes of criminals, terrorists, human traffickers, child smugglers, and inmates emptied out of their prisons and insane asylums and mental institutions.”
Without taking a breath, he adds: “And that sounds bad, but it’s actually worse than that!”
Going for Broke
Perhaps Trump is saying much the same as always, with a bit more of a dramatic flair. But the tone is more sinister, increasingly unhinged, and with the twinkle gone from his eyes, its pure ugliness stands denuded. The “American carnage” of “factories scattered like tombstones” now seems rosy by comparison. All the while, Trump’s deceptively disorganized remarks effectively walk the listener through an extended exegesis of the good old boy sheriff’s earlier remarks, crafting a complete worldview around the notion that “every town is a border town.”
The umwelt Trump outlines with such fanatical gravity is essentially this: The American frontier was once claimed with brute force. A settler democracy was founded on love of commerce, the nuclear family, and Christian, Euro-American supremacy. The hostile natives were supposed to be dead, but it turns out, we didn’t kill them all. Like the all-American Freeling family of the Poltergeist films, the Indian graveyard on which we’ve settled has come back to life. With it, the frontier has returned, and now it is everywhere; the immigrant crime statistics are written on the walls in blood. And the guns that good Americans so desperately need to fight back are being stripped from them, along with the rough masculine values that make guns any good in the first place. The police and border patrol are handcuffed by politicians like Joe Biden. These fiends are not just senile, feeble, wimpy, incoherent, and incompetent to stop the threats (though Trump emphasizes numerous times that Biden, his three-year senior, is all these things), but are actively working in league with the globalists who put America last, an ill-defined cabal that verges into The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, seeking to overrun America’s borders and destroy the country for good. Shadowy enemies like “Chinese Communists” blur seamlessly into Islamist jihadists and refugees seeking sanctuary, to form an amorphous brown blob threatening to absorb all that is good and holy in the United States until it is gone.
But this is not all. All the while, American society is being simultaneously undermined by “enemies within,” like Black Lives Matter rioters, “critical race theory” teaching that the settlement was unjust, gender theory undermining the heteropatriarchal basis of the family, and countless other tentacles of the nefarious “woke” menace threatening to demoralize the young and convert them to the cause of America’s enemies. Trump’s blistering attacks on the enemies within receive some of the most thunderous applause of the day, perhaps especially his vow for an improbable ban on “communists and Marxists entering the country.” Similar hosannas accompany Trump’s promises to defeat “so-called” transgender ideology and defund schools mandating vaccines. In these fleeting moments, the languid assembly truly comes alive.
In this grim spectacle, Trump offers his most faithful a worldview that equally balances imminent doom and opportunistic denial. Any crisis that cannot be saddled on an abject scapegoat — climate change, Covid — must be denied altogether. The mere articulation of these social facts as problems is treated as an enemy assault, so much confusion injected into the pleasing sureties of Fox News bedtime stories for patriotic, God-fearing children. The power of collective denial, and the outrage that must be stoked to keep it simmering, ranks among the strongest political forces that exist. This is because it cuts to the heart of the one thing most people fear most, powerlessness in the face of their own mortality, and invites them instead to collectively hallucinate a world where all is in fact well, save for the naysayers, a Heaven where everything’s fine. And in this same seductive manner, Trump soothes the bad conscience of white Americans, who all understand at some level that the system has been rigged in their favor, inviting them to shed the guilt and shame and to simply embrace this as their birthright, while insisting, with a wink, that white supremacy doesn’t exist at all.
At the center of Trump’s meandering path of doomsaying and denial lies the realm of pure fantasy. Trump invites us to a world where his first crack at the presidency in fact made America great again; where he defeated ISIS, built the wall, and drained the swamp. Not only did Trump build the wall, he adds, but Mexico did in fact pay for it, by sending millions of soldiers to the border, whose salaries were certainly not paid by the United States! And Trump also would have single-handedly prevented the Russian invasion of Ukraine had he not been removed by a rigged election. Similarly, his return to office is now plagued by “election interference” in the form of multiple felony cases. Even these indictments are a testament to how great Trump made America, he insists, which earned him the backlash of his foes. Practically affixing himself to a cross, he bellows “I’m being indicted for you!”
Along the way, Trump makes exactly two boasts that even brush against reality. The first comes when he claims that after fifty years of pro-life activism, he single-handedly ended Roe vs. Wade through his Supreme Court nominees. The room explodes. Dubuque is a Catholic stronghold, after all. In the eyes of the American church, Trump’s many sins might just be forgiven if he is willing to focus on the handful of “culture war” issues that have effectively turned the American Catholicism into a single-minded advocacy organization aimed at limiting the rights of women and LGBTQ people at all costs, all the while standing in broad daylight as real-life pedophilic cesspool that Q-Anon has quite unnecessarily invented out of thin air. (Author’s note: I grew up Catholic.) The second truth comes in his claim to be the first president in decades to not start a new war. Trump surely did not sow peace on the global stage, but the popularity of his isolationist views should not be overlooked. Growing up in the shadow of 9/11, I must register the uncanny feeling of standing in an auditorium full of the hardest-right elements of the Republican Party, draped in cheap reproductions of flags, eagles, and all that is holy, roaring with approval as their standard bearer promises to stay out of wars.
As the show winds down to the final “Make America Great Again!” Trump’s presentation has run about fifteen minutes shy of the other times I’ve seen him. The energy is low. He seems closer to Nixon in his final days in office than to William Jennings Bryan, the populist orator to whom Steve Bannon rightfully compared him when this whole crazy adventure first began. Back then, Trump was having fun thumbing his nose at the so-called establishment, relishing the high which draws all the biggest narcissists to politics. Seven years later, he is a desperate man, painting a desperate picture of the world. Worst of all, the consummate showman is now guilty of a crime far graver than any of the felonies for which he stands accused: Donald J. Trump is boring.
All Bets Are Off
In the classic study Renegades, Mariners, and Castaways, written in immigration detention on Ellis Island, C.L.R. James examines Melville’s Moby Dick as an enduring study of American society, and the disastrous, and seemingly intractable, end toward which it surges. Weighing the carnage of mid-century life, James argues that Melville foresaw the great totalitarian figures of the twentieth century, whose obsession with mastering nature and imposing their monadic will on the world promised to become, like Ahab’s mad quest, a suicide mission for themselves and everyone else. The main question raised by the fate of the Pequod, then, is not what Ahab is after or what it consumes the ship, but why, after numerous warnings that the ship’s disastrous fate looms largely on the horizon, does the crew not rebel?
Donald J. Trump is such a figure as Melville’s Ahab. He is a parasite and predator — economically, politically, socially, sexually — a vile and unserious man who serves his most base impulses at all costs, but lacks any sustained sense of self-preservation, much less a drive to protect those around him. Instead, the realization of his base desires ensure disorder and pain for everyone in his path. He uses people until there’s nothing left, until they’re consumed by the fires he can’t stop setting in his own house, and he seems to have no control over this, much less any wish to make it stop. Instead, he is uniquely adept at capitalizing on the chaos he wreaks, turning each catastrophe into a new opportunity for profit, on the way to the tragic culmination of his ego-fueled suicide mission.
But just as Moby Dick does not concern itself with the singular figure of Ahab, all of this is not said of just one man. Trump is the perfect avatar of his class fragment of footloose financiers possessing no plan for anything but maximum profit extraction in the here and now, hop-scotching the planet from one self-inflicted disaster after another, skimming a little here, scamming a little there, speculating on the dividends of whatever hope still exists and capitalizing that too, as leverage to ensure the next calamity. He has no plans to fix anything or save anyone except himself, for as long as he can until he becomes his own final victim. To Trump’s credit, however, unlike the rest of the FIRE sector scumbags who think what he says while preaching diversity and inclusion and saving the planet, he has really never pretended to be anything else than Donald J. Trump. And among his many sins, nobody can ever accuse Trump of not knowing his audience.
Landlocked in their own tiny Pequods, Trump’s enduring supporters are lesser Ahabs, morbidly obsessed with defending the homeland, the purity of the family, the sanctity of landed property, and the pitiable fairy tale of eternal life after death. Despite his entreaties to “Make America Great Again Again,” this Trump does not speak to those who have been “left behind.” He is talking explicitly to people with something to hold onto. Gone is the talk of manufacturing work; he didn’t bring those jobs back and they’re never coming back. The blue collar Trumper of 2016 lore was not a complete fabrication, but was just as likely to be the shop’s boss, dressed in crisp Carharts and driving a cartoonishly large Ford pickup with a pristine bed. The forgotten American is back to being forgotten. Trump stands in Dubuque as a globe-trotting, border-smashing, hedonist polyglot of the big bourgeoisie, binding small men of local fiefdoms into a cross-class alliance under the ridiculous premise that he represents land-bound capital, closed borders, and traditional values.
Surely these people have real problems and grievances — the famous “economic insecurity” and other symptoms of a social order in decline. The crunch of austerity, capital’s crisis of profitability, and the social chaos of an untenable world order have been defining features of decades of mass movements waged to build a just world for all, and have driven many in the so-called middle-class into the streets, often with more alacrity than those worse off. In contrast, however, Trump’s little Ahabs seek only to save themselves, their families dissolved by capital’s shifting bases, and their communities poisoned by unregulated industry, in the name of some imagined ideal of America that never really existed. And Trump’s enduring popularity is proof positive that they will go down, guns blazing, Rittenhouses of the spirit, on the suicidal quest to make fantasy real again. Perhaps there’s a dark pleasure to be found in willing one’s own annihilation, realizing the violent end foretold by America’s violent beginning. But I saw no evidence of this, only a miserable rage, the self-mutilating glorification of tearing the fabric of asunder.
Trump, for his part, doesn’t give a shit about these people or their problems, any more than he cares about abortion, American factories, or transgender ideology. “It’s amazing how strongly people feel about that,” he remarked incredulously last summer. “I talk about cutting taxes, people go like that [polite applause], I talk about transgender, everybody goes crazy. Five years ago you didn’t know what the hell it was.” Standing at the Port of Dubuque, a public/private monument to the world remade in his image, Trump bears a message from the future. It is a garbled harangue drenched in cynicism, despair, paranoia, and hopeless self-destruction, spoken by a pathetic man driven mad by selfishness, resentment, and fear. He slouches, sweating and panting, at the intersection of settler colonialism’s enduring violence, and the electronic roulette wheel of twenty-first century statecraft, bellowing invectives against the world’s most powerless people, as he and the social order he so deftly represents careen heedlessly toward total destruction. And this time, he doesn’t even have any good jokes.
Illustration: The spirit of Julien Dubuque gazes westward across the modern city bearing his name, by Cyril Ferring (1946).