On Blake Bailey and Philip Roth

One morning in April, I was a quarter of the way through the new Philip Roth biography, contemplating Blake Bailey’s take on Roth’s first marriage. I had been a huge fan of Bailey’s work for years — I’d read all his previous biographies, I’d read Richard Yates’s novels largely because he had been Bailey’s subject, and I’d long believed that that Bailey’s life of John Cheever was one of the four or five best biographies I’d ever read. But the Roth book was beginning to unsettle me. As best I can tell, neither Roth nor his first wife covered themselves in glory during this marriage. Still, I was beginning to be a little annoyed that Bailey seemed to not quite understand how unkind and self-centered Roth’s behavior toward his wife was. He seemed much more forgiving of Roth’s excesses than his wife’s. The perils of an authorized biography, I thought. But I was beginning to actively dread the Claire Bloom section.

Then–that very morning–this news broke. Credible accusations against Blake Bailey — that he’d groomed his middle-school students, that he’d harassed and assaulted them when they were older, that he’d raped two women. I felt sick. But the news explained so much! More than that, it cast an entirely different light on Bailey’s depiction of Roth’s first wife, and it made me question the portrayal of all the other women in all the other biographies. I found myself in the perverse position of wishing to reread and reevaluate all of Bailey’s books, and yet also not wanting to read another word by him.

I’ve seen some people argue that Bailey’s sins have nothing to do with the book he wrote. A stranger posted a grumpy Oscar Wilde quote on my GoodReads commentary on Roth and Bailey: “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” That may be true as far as it goes, but when you are looking for someone to offer an analysis of an author’s life — and especially when that author has had, let’s say, contentious relationships with women — surely his own attitudes toward women are relevant. How can you look at the very plausible accusations against Bailey, and think, yeah, this is the guy I want to declare that Philip Roth is not misogynistic? How can you trust Bailey when he assures you that Roth’s first wife was an unreasonable shrew?

W. W. Norton dropped the Roth book within days of the accusations. But Bailey’s found a new publisher: Skyhorse Publishing, the house that has also brought you the memoirs of Woody Allen and Roger Stone. One wonders what Bailey thinks of being among such illustrious company–certainly being published by Skyhorse won’t do much to burnish Bailey’s destroyed reputation among the literary elite; all hope of a Pulitzer seems to be gone, and it’s unclear whether Bailey will ever again have the opportunity to write another of his magisterial biographies.

For myself, I haven’t read a word of the Roth bio since that morning in April. But I think it should be read, though not right now, and perhaps I will even finish it myself one day. Roth was, despite his many faults, an important writer of the twentieth century, and Bailey did have access to sources that no one may ever see again, or at least not for a very long time. Still, Bailey’s take on Roth can never again be thought of as definitive, and in the future it should be read with an eye toward what we are willing to forgive of men we consider geniuses, and how we determine who these geniuses are in the first place. Because it seems to be the case that the gatekeepers who anoint our brilliant writers are often themselves men who treat women very badly indeed. It is just possible that this clouds their judgment when they come to consider misogynists who happen to construct sentences well.

Robert Mueller Did Not Save Us


Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash

So it turns out that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was not, after all, coming to save us. Don Jr. will not be indicted (at least not by Mueller); Hope Hicks and Kellyanne Conway were similarly spared. Mueller — at least according to the Attorney General — concluded that although Russia assisted Donald Trump’s presidential bid in 2016, it was not in coordination with the campaign. More nebulously, Attorney General William Barr and his deputy Rod Rosenstein made the decision that the president did not commit criminal obstruction of justice, although the AG did quote Mueller’s terse assessment that “he is not exonerated,” and the summary of the report released by Barr doesn’t conclude that the president did nothing wrong but that all the elements of the crime were not met. This is pretty weak tea from two Trump appointees!

Still, this wasn’t terrific news for Democrats and Trump and his fans, including his press secretary, are declaring not just a victory but “total EXONERATION.” (This victory lap feels premature to me; I think I would have held back on the gloating until more of the full report was available, since even the summary literally says “he is not exonerated,” but who am I to stand in the way of a good football spike?) It is frustrating to deal with people who apparently did not ace the reading comprehension portions of the SAT. I, too, enjoyed the impressively edited “Russia with Love” montage of Mueller arresting all the most repellent members of the Trump administration. And I, too, long for a Jared Kushner perp walk. (Confidential to my boss: if Kushner is ever arrested, I will absolutely be late for work that day, and it will not be due to an accident on I-96.)

But I do think any criticism of Mueller’s motives is misplaced. I said when Mueller was first appointed that I would trust his conclusions, and I stand by that. I continue to believe in his integrity. If Mueller says he could not find evidence that Trump’s campaign actively worked with the Russians, then I believe him. I have a lot of questions, and I would like to see his evidence, but ultimately I believe him. (I never thought Trump colluded personally, on the grounds that he is too dumb to collude.) On the other hand, I do not trust Barr or Rosenstein, and I cannot take on faith their assertion that obstruction of justice could not be proven. They are going to have to give me something other than their word.

If you were hoping that Mueller’s report would contain so many bombshells even the Republicans would be willing to dump him, then you are entitled to be disappointed. But let’s keep some things in mind:

  • We now know for a fact that the Russians sought to influence the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. It was not so long ago that this idea was dismissed as a liberal fantasy. We now have a former FBI director and a Republican attorney general telling us it is fact. That is important, and we cannot allow Republicans in government to ignore it. It is crucial that we do everything we can to prevent this from happening in 2020; and it is equally crucial to remember that Trump’s narrow win is forever tainted by this actuality. We do not know what would have happened without Russian meddling. Do not let anyone tell you the Democrats cannot win in 2020. We absolutely can.
  • The special counsel did not declare the president innocent of obstruction of justice. He declined to make a decision. This is perhaps the most critical reason why the public needs to see Mueller’s 700-page report. There is at least some evidence against the president, even if every element of criminal obstruction cannot be proven. The American public must see it. Call your senators and representatives and tell them you demand it. No matter how you think they will be voting, it is important that they hear from you.
  • The fact that Trump did not actively conspire with the Russians while running for president does not mean that Trump is not currently in Putin’s sway. We know he has complicated financial entanglements with Russia. We know that his campaign insisted on changing the Ukraine plank in the 2016 platform (that was the only plank the Trump campaign cared about); we saw the disgraceful press conference with Putin in Helsinki. Maybe there’s no criminal conspiracy, but you would have to willfully ignore everything Trump has said about Russia in the last two years to believe that Putin has no undue influence on the president.
  • This report does not end the investigations into the president, his businesses, his charity, his inauguration, and his family. Those investigations will continue for the foreseeable future. Trump has also already been implicated in financial crimes by Michael Cohen. The SDNY is still investigating these crimes. They are not going to go away. It’s very possible that Don Jr. and Kushner and even Ivanka and Eric are going to get swept up into these investigations as well. And the House of Representatives is also investigating a veritable smorgasbord of Trumpian misdeeds; the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has already said he will ask the Attorney General to testify about the report.

Nothing Barr says in his summary of the Mueller report changes the fact that Trump is a terrible president who should be drummed out of office as soon as possible. He is a cruel, selfish, narcissistic grifter who repeatedly embarrasses our nation on the world stage. And so we need to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get on with the business of electing Democrats in 2020. Defeatism is the enemy. I do not believe for one second that the Democrats who are running for president are panicking over Mueller’s conclusions. I do not believe that they have been pinning all their presidential hopes on the special counsel. Now we have to stop daydreaming about Mueller riding in on a white horse, and we have to get to work. We have an abundance of talented candidates running, and they have a lot of impressive ideas and policies and reasons for your vote that have nothing to do with Robert Mueller. I urge you to find and support your candidates of choice, while also pledging to support the ultimate nominee. We need this win. And this race is absolutely winnable. (And don’t stop with the presidential race! We also need to flip the Senate if we can at all.)

Mueller didn’t save us. That is okay. We can save ourselves.

Felicity Huffman, Ross Douthat, and the Corruption of Aristocracy


Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

It’s been a week now since the startling news that a few dozen wealthy parents, including an Oscar nominee and Aunt Becky from Full House, had been arrested in the wee hours of the morning, accused of committing varying types of fraud to get their children into their college of choice. Some of these parents went so far as to manipulate photographs to make their children look like athletes capable of competing at the college level, while others employed the almost quaint method of paying proctors to change answers on their children’s SAT exams.

If I’m being honest, after I’d satisfied myself that I was not reading an Onion article, my very first thought was, dammit, I will never again be able to watch an episode  of Sports Night without thinking of this. But my second thought was of a pair of remarkable columns Ross Douthat wrote in December (and I mean “remarkable” in the least flattering way possible), pegged to the death of George H. W. Bush, in which he bemoaned the rise of the meritocracy and the fall of the WASPs.

Douthat’s first column, “Why We Miss the WASPS,” argues that “if some of the elder Bush’s mourners wish we still had a WASP establishment, their desire probably reflects a belated realization that certain of the old establishment’s vices were inherent to any elite, that meritocracy creates its own forms of exclusion — and that the WASPs had virtues that their successors have failed to inherit or revive.” Douthat does not, at any point, offer evidence for these WASPish virtues, just asserts their existence as an article of faith. This first column contains some truly astonishing passages: he laments that the WASP aristocracy “couldn’t muster the self-confidence to hold on to Yale and Harvard” (meaning, I suppose, that it did not try hard enough to keep the unwashed masses out of ivied halls) and brushes aside concerns about diversity by arguing that “for every Brahmin bigot there was an Arabist or China hand or Hispanophile who understood the non-American world better than some of today’s shallow multiculturalists.” The second column complains that his first column was misunderstood; he is happy that the American upper class is more diverse, he says, but meritocracy is a failure because it lacks the “sense of duty, self-restraint and noblesse oblige” that he believes marks the oldest WASP families.

Douthat, not afraid to triple-down on his argument, responded to the arrests this week with a column called “The Scandals of Meritocracy.” His answer, as best I can understand it, is that dynasties are good, and everyone who wasn’t born into a blue-blooded family should concede the Ivies to the better sort, and go to state schools. In short, the true sin of the families trying to buy their way into universities was not fraud but a failure to know their place, which is decidedly below the New England aristocracy. (Hilariously, Douthat believes that this would make instruction at elite schools more rigorous because professors would be unafraid to fail students, as if universities that rely heavily on donations from wealthy donors would be willing and eager to flunk those donors’ children.)

If Douthat were younger than he is, his starry-eyed admiration of the “nobility” of aristocracy might be forgivable; as it is, he seems naive and willfully blind. Infuriatingly, he argues that meritocracy is inherently selfish and self-interested; apparently a ruling elite that desires to hold onto the privilege into which it was born is not. He takes it on faith that if the United States would simply formalize a ruling class, the families who make it up would naturally raise their children to be self-sacrificing, benevolent, and civic-minded.

That is not how it would work out. Take the British royal family, which should be the pluperfect example of an elite family with a long legacy of noblesse oblige. Let’s be fair: most members of the British royal family are pretty good at their job, which seems to consist of dressing well, showing up to various ceremonies, waving, and being charming to the small children who hand them bouquets. (I realize that sounds sarcastic, but I would be constantly tripping over things and looking at my phone and rolling my eyes at the wrong moments, so I am being quite genuine when I say I could not do what they do.)

Having said that, the British royal family? Is a hot mess. They do not exude wisdom and they should not really be in charge of anything more important than their wardrobes, their horses, and their dogs. Let’s take the Duke of Edinburgh, who at 97 should be the most sage of them all, and yet could not be bothered to give up driving even after he caused an accident that left one woman injured. And even after that it took a few weeks to coax several members of the family, including the Queen, to wear their seatbelts in accordance with British law. (The Duke did finally surrender his license when a police investigation failed to clear him of blame.)  The Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, was famously dissolute, imperious, and rude. Prince Andrew was pals with Jeffrey Epstein. Prince Edward had to give up his involvement in a dilettantish television company after he was accused of secretly filming his own nephew at college. Prince Charles was caught on tape wishing to be reincarnated as his lover’s tampon. (Apologies for the visual.) Prince Harry wore a Nazi uniform to a costume party. And when Prince Harry announced his engagement to an American woman of mixed race, Princess Michael of Kent wore a blackamoor brooch to the annual Christmas lunch. These are not people to whom I would look for moral guidance or sound judgment. I believe they are dedicated to the limited roles to which they were born, I don’t think they’re necessarily bad people (Andrew might be a bad person), but I wouldn’t trust most of them to run a lemonade stand, much less a country.

Closer to home, the actual Bush and Kennedy families do not resemble Douthat’s idealistic image of them. I can forgive Barbara Bush for calling Geraldine Ferraro a mean name in the heat of a presidential campaign, but there is no excuse for saying, after Hurricane Katrina, that evacuees “were underprivileged anyway, so . . . this is working very well for them.” George W. Bush was an alcoholic with a drunk-driving arrest under his belt before he found Jesus. Neil Bush ran a string of shady businesses and was accused of insider trading. The Bush patriarch himself was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal and in Richard M. Nixon’s attempts to obstruct the corruption investigation of his vice president. Meanwhile, the Kennedy scandals are even more numerous: what seems like dozens of drug and drunk driving arrests; the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick; the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith. Robert Kennedy Jr. uses his position as a scion of American nobility to promote conspiracy theories about vaccines and autism. The well-documented philandering of various Kennedy men seems relatively tame in comparison.

So this is the “intergenerational continuity” Douthat longs for — a stew of scandal and entitlement and antisocial behavior. Why on earth does he believe that putting such families on a pedestal, believing uncritically in their “memory and obligation, wisdom and service and patriotism” would lead to a better outcome than the current system? Would a nation with more Bushes and fewer Lincolns be an improvement? These families are not brought up on the idea of self-abnegation and civic virtue, but on the idea that they deserve the best — the best clothes, the best cars, the best colleges, and ultimately the best cover-ups — just by virtue of who they are.

No, what a formal, inherited ruling class would be more likely to give us is exactly what we saw this week: spoiled rich kids who learned long ago that they had no need to work hard, because their success and financial security was inevitable, an immutable law of the universe; and wealthy parents who wanted to secure not their children’s future–because these kids are going to have plenty of money no matter where they go to college–but their own reputations as people who not only succeeded personally, but also raised accomplished children. It’s not the mythical meritocracy that is to blame for this scandal; it’s the parents’ belief that they and their children should be treated like aristocrats.

I know this seems like a lot of time and energy and pixels to devote to a briefly newsworthy scandal and a trio of foolish columns, even if they were printed in the New York Times. But this thinking goes to the heart of an important question: what kind of country do we want to have? Do we want dynasties? Do we want a system that differentiates between the highborn and the low? Because that is essentially what the families involved in this mess were paying for, and what Douthat is literally suggesting. He doesn’t object to different families playing by different sets of rules; he objects to these particular families doing so, because they have no centuries-old dynasty to fall back on. He isn’t troubled by the corruption involved; indeed, he wants to formally enshrine it, to make de jure what increasing income inequality threatens to make de facto. And that is a problem, because the promise of the United States is that anyone can be anything. Yes, it’s a promise that often goes unfulfilled, that is plagued by hidden pitfalls, that is much thornier and more difficult to keep than it seems on the surface. But it’s still a central American ideal and if we explicitly abandon it then we are explicitly changing the country’s core principle. In exchange for what? For generational stability? For a formalized system of haves and have-nots? I am not at all sure that is a trade I want to make.

The Traitor in My Family Tree


Confederate Memorial Day 2012, Loudon Park Cemetery, Baltimore. Photo by Sarnold17.

My great-great-great grandfather, Asa Ladd, was shot by the Yankees. This happened for two reasons: first, he adamantly refused to declare his allegiance to the United States when given the opportunity to do so; second, he and five of his fellow Rebels drew an unlucky black bean. His death, then, can be traced to both a certain stubbornness in political opinions (some might say this is a family trait) and unhappy fate, an adverse decision by God or the universe or a simple unfortunate arrangement of random events.

Asa Ladd’s grandson-in-law, my great-grandfather, was named Jefferson Davis Rogers, from which I conclude that it took a few decades for my family to become fully reconciled to the Southern defeat. My older son, having grown up well north of the Mason-Dixon line, was so mortified by his ancestor’s name that he insisted on replacing it with “Jeff” in a school family tree project, and in general my children regard Asa Ladd with an air of embarrassed resignation. (“At least he didn’t own slaves,” one of my sons said ruefully. “He just *aspired* to own them.”) My parents would no doubt be chagrined to learn this.  I wasn’t raised to think of Asa as a hero, exactly, but he was certainly not to be considered a villain; he was more of a tragic figure, someone who may have made some mistakes but did nothing worthy of his ignominious death.

I’ve been thinking about Asa Ladd the last couple of weeks because of Hoda Muthana and Kimberly Gwen Polman, two American women who flew to Turkey to join ISIS and now want to come back home. The government does not want them; Muthana had the dubious honor of appearing in a Presidential tweet (“I have instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and he fully agrees, not to allow Hoda Muthana back into the Country!”). Both women were befriended by Islamic militants online and convinced to leave the United States, neither seems to have done more for the cause than spread propaganda, and provide medical care. (A British woman in similar circumstances, Shamima Begum, also wants to return to her native country, and is also being kept away.)

These women made such outrageously foolish and misguided choices that it’s hard to feel a lot of sympathy for them. But there are practical reasons to repatriate these women, and other repentant refugees from ISIS: most importantly, taking a hard line against repatriation strengthens ISIS’s ability to hold onto regretful recruits, since they will believe they have nowhere else to go. It’s hard to believe these women are actually dangerous; the worst thing Muthana seems to have done is tweet intemperately, which, it must be admitted, the president does on a daily basis. It’s possible that that the women can offer intelligence on how ISIS operates and how radicalization happens. And Muthana is willing to face the prospect of American prison, if she is allowed to return and give her infant son to her parents to raise.

Was Asa Ladd any better than Hoda Muthana? In our minds we’ve sanded down the fury and oppression and sheer wrongheadedness of the Confederates to a simple disagreement on principles: they weren’t traitors but devotees of federalism. But the historical evidence does not bear this out. They believed in states’ rights, sure, but only when it was rhetorically useful to them: you don’t find any Southerners denouncing the Fugitive Slave Act in a fit of intellectual consistency. We have to be honest with ourselves even if it doesn’t make us feel good about our forebears: the South did not secede out of an excess of ideological purity. Southern appeals to ideology were purely pragmatic. The South seceded because it was a slave society and so determined to remain one that it was willing to abandon the United States.

Asa Ladd and his fellow soldiers took up arms against the United States and swore allegiance to another country, and then when that new nation collapsed, those Confederates who were not hanged or shot or bayoneted were allowed to return home and rebuild their lives. And when the survivors returned home, some of them helped form a terrorist organization: the Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized communities and beat people and photographed lynchings. In fact, 150-plus years later, white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan are still more likely to cause death and destruction in today’s United States than Islamic extremists, even if it’s the Islamic extremists that many Americans tend to fear most. And yet for the most part we don’t regard our Civil War ancestors with scorn. We put up statues in their honor and name schools after them, and we resist mightily when others suggest that maybe honor is not appropriate.

If Asa Ladd had abandoned the Confederate Army and fled north, should the North have taken him in? Muthana has a child, an infant living in a detention camp, whose future is no more than a question mark, whose citizenship is unclear. Asa Ladd’s children lived to be Americans, to have children of their own, and now 150 years later I am typing this paragraph in a comfortable American home. One hundred and fifty years hence, what will the lives of Hoda Muthana’s great-great-grandchildren look like? (And if Muthana’s grandson were named after an ISIS leader, how would we feel about that?)

It seems that so many of us — up to and including the president — are content to abandon her and her baby to the fate she recklessly chose at nineteen. It’s an understandable human impulse. But how many of us would have the lives we have today if our ancestors had been dealt with the same way we want to treat Muthana? You’d think we’d find more sympathy, since so many of us have traitors in our family trees.

Hillary Clinton and The Cult of True Womanhood

The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors, and society, could be divided into four cardinal virtues – piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Put them all together and the spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife – woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame, achievement, or wealth, all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power.

— Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820 – 1860”

I agree w/Hillary, it’s time to elect a woman for President. But I want that President to reflect the values of being a mother. #MothersDay

— Jill Stein, Twitter, May 8, 2016

What’s important about Hillary Clinton? She’s been a Secretary of State, a senator, a partner in a law firm. She has a much stronger understand of policy, both foreign and domestic, than any of her opponents. But that’s not what’s really important. What’s really important, Jill Stein tells us, is her fitness to be a mother, which is apparently lacking, despite the fact that her only child seems to have turned out just fine.

One of the many, many infuriating things about Stein’s tweet is that it’s impossible to imagine anyone saying something similar about a man. Does anyone think that  either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump “reflect the values” of being a father? Would anyone even ask that question out loud?

I think what Jill Stein is getting at — although it’s impossible to be certain from this tweet — is that Hillary is too “hawkish.” It’s true that Hillary favors a more interventionist foreign policy than Stein (or I) would like. But why frame that in terms of motherhood? Denigrating Hillary’s maternal qualities, doesn’t make Stein’s message any clearer; indeed it makes it harder to understand. And this kind of framing plays into True Woman stereotypes: all real women are gentle, demure, peaceful. No True Woman would willingly go to war.

I grew up in Arkansas; Bill Clinton is the only governor I remember. I learned the definition of the word “lesbian” because I overheard my mom speculating about Hillary. It’s not that there was any reason to believe that she was a lesbian; it’s just that she didn’t seem like other women. She was bossy, pushy, opinionated. She talked back to people. She made no bones about the fact that she thought she was smarter than, well, most everyone. “You have to admit,” my mother said darkly when I tried to defend her, “she’s an awfully strong woman.”

It’s been common, in this electoral cycle, to joke about the double-bind Hillary finds herself in (Brett Arends compiled this helpful list for MarketWatch, and Jimmy Kimmel assisted Hillary with her speech delivery on his show). But it’s not just about Hillary, and it’s not just conservatives and third-party outliers. In 2008 even feminists disparaged Sarah Palin for campaigning with a young baby and joked about her teenage daughter’s pregnancy. Palin was running for national office and wasn’t clear on the fact that there was both a North and a South Korea; there was a lot of room for criticism. There was no need to bring up her maternal success. But people did. What kind of a father is John McCain? I have no idea. I don’t remember that the topic ever came up.

Welter argues in her essay that the True Woman explicated in the ladies’ magazines of the nineteenth century eventually evolved into the New Woman–a woman who was strong, independent, and ran her own life. “And yet,” Welter writes, “the stereotype, the ‘mystique’ if you will, of what woman was and ought to be persisted, bringing guilt and confusion in the midst of opportunity.” It’s been two hundred years, and the evolution isn’t complete. The guilt and confusion still linger. You have to wonder if, as a country, we’re ever going to get to a point where a woman’s motherliness is not the overwhelming criterion for how we judge her.


The Perils of Criticizing Donald Trump

melaniaHere is something that is happening in 2016: Julia Ioffe, a Jewish journalist, wrote a profile of Melania Trump for GQ, and she incorporated less-than-flattering facts about Melania Trump’s father, and now she has a bunch of Trump supporters tweeting her with references to the Holocaust.

In this profile, Ioffe included three paragraphs about Melania’s father, and specifically about the fact that he supported financially but never had a relationship with Melania’s half-brother, the product of a youthful dalliance. Other than that, the profile was generally positive. Sample passage:

…[U]nlike her husband, Melania is reserved, polite, and steady, say those close to her. “There is a peace in her,” one old friend from Slovenia tells me. She is a homebody. She’s rich, but not a socialite; she prefers family to the It set and retires early after events.

Now, had I been the writer of this profile, I would not have included the information about Melania’s father. I get that it’s a scoop, or at least a scooplet. But as a reader, I would be far more interested in three more paragraphs about the elusive Melania, for whom, full disclosure, I have an inexplicable fondness.1 I think she is probably a fairly interesting person, and I would like to know more about her. And so to me the whole mess with Melania’s father and the son just felt extraneous. He did support him, after all; more to the point, what does a half-century-old private scandal once removed have to do with the presidential race in 2016?

Melania Trump didn’t like the profile, and hey, fair enough. Let’s be honest: even if I thought it were relevant I wouldn’t appreciate having my dad’s wild oats strewn across a national publication either.2 But it bears repeating: it is a generally positive profile. If everyone had just remained calm the profile would have been a net win, if a small one, for the Trump camp.

Of course, the Trump camp being the Trump camp, there was no calm. Here’s what happened:

Melania Trump tweeted her displeasure, as is her right. And then all hell broke loose. Over the next several days, Julia Ioffe received an anonymous call from someone who played a Hitler speech in her ear. There was another call from an outfit called “Overnight Caskets” (I don’t know what that is, but it certainly sounds vaguely threatening). She got another call from a company that specializes in cleaning up after homicides. (Points for creativity, I guess?) She got emails suggesting that her face would “look good on a lampshade.” Someone tweeted a picture of her with a yellow star photoshopped onto her blouse. There is a bunch of other truly vile anti-Semitic nonsense that was tweeted, but trying to summarize it just made me sad about the world and I eventually gave up. The Daily Stormer, an online bastion of white supremacy, wrote a blog post with the charming title “Empress Melania Attacked by Filthy Russian Kike Julia Ioffe in GQ!”3

Again, I don’t blame Melania Trump for not liking the profile. I wouldn’t have liked it either. But that’s not the story anymore. The story now is that Trump’s supporters have horrifically overreacted to a very mild affront, and Trump has, to my knowledge, done nothing to disavow this. And one has to wonder, what happens if Trump becomes president? Is every journalist in America going to face this kind of invective every time he is criticized?

I am currently reading Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain. She cautions against referring to American politicians as totalitarian:

In popular speech, the word “totalitarian” isn’t so much self-serving as overused. Democratically elected politicians are described as totalitarian (e.g., “Rick Santorum’s Totalitarian Instincts”), as are governments or even companies (one can read of “The United States’ march toward totalitarianism” or learn that Apple has a “totalitarian approach to its app store”). Libertarians, from Ayn Rand on, have used the word to describe progressive liberals. Progressive liberals (and indeed conservatives) have used the word to describe Ayn Rand. The word is nowadays applied to so many people and institutions that it can sometimes seem meaningless.

So far, I agree with her. Constantly invoking the names of Hitler and Stalin every time an opposing politician says something we don’t like only cheapens the narrative and allows us to obscure the horrific number of deaths and ruined lives in the wake of true totalitarianism. Yet I admit these passages gave me pause:

Everywhere the Red Army went–even in Czechoslovakia, from which the Soviet troops eventually withdrew–these newly minted secret policemen immediately began to use selective violence, carefully targeting their political enemies according to previously composed lists and criteria. In some cases they targeted enemy ethnic groups as well. . . .Soviet authorities, again in conjunction with local communist parties, carried out policies of mass ethnic cleansing, displacing millions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and others from towns and villages where they had lived for centuries. Trucks and trains moved people and a few scant possessions into refugee camps and new homes hundreds of miles away from where they had been born. Disoriented and displaced, the refugees were easier to manipulate and control than they might have been otherwise.

Is it really so hard to believe that a Trump inauguration might usher in that kind of trumpviolence? I would never call Trump a totalitarian, if only because I find it difficult to imagine him implementing the kind of centralized economic control that was the hallmark of totalitarian governments. But I think some of his rhetoric and behavior taps into a totalitarian impulse in his supporters–a desire for strong authority, a desire to show people who’s boss. They’re attacking bystanders at Trump rallies; they’re sending anti-Semitic death threats to journalists. And what does Trump say about the attacks? At a press conference in March, he said, “The audience hit back and that’s what we need a little bit more of.”

This is a thing that is happening in 2016. It may not be totalitarianism, but I think it might be the thin edge of the wedge.

1 At least, I do not think she is dumb, as some have implied, and I do not think that her posing on a bearskin rug should disqualify her husband from the presidency. return

2 My dad’s wild oats consist, in their entirety, of a youthful scrape with the law for hunting without a license. Also I think he failed a class in college. return

3 Of course, the great irony of all of this is that Trump’s daughter Ivanka–with whom he is clearly besotted–is a Jew by choice and is raising her three children in the Jewish faith. You have to wonder (a) does the Daily Stormer know about this? and (b) does Ivanka know about the Daily Stormer? return