‘. . . a very wise thing to simulate madness.’
- Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, 1517
Madness. Or more particularly, the ‘Madman Theory,’ drives the story I’m about to tell. The ‘Madman Theory,’ that psycho-political strategy, Machiavelli machinated over while writing the Discourses on Livy exactly five hundred years ago, is precisely the same make-believe that famous finagler President Richard Nixon tried to hoist on Ho Chi Min during the Vietnam War. Earnestly, Nixon simulated madness, as a political gambit to force the North to the peace conference table. To be clear, there were others who, at the time, hardly believed Nixon was simulating. And now, with the newest Oval Office resident, a few see ‘Machiavellian-faux madness’ budding anew within the Presidency – especially in his dealings with North Korea – while growing numbers wonder if any of it is indeed an act.
Some level heads have even begun to contemplate the usefulness of the 25th amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides for the President to be removed from office were he or she to become unable to discharge his or her duties. While all of this political dramaturgy and demagoguery is largely the doing of President Donald Trump’s unsteady governance, from our present vantage, it may well be the overture to his own undoing. To the question: Do you believe Mr. Trump is mentally unfit for office?, General James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, offered an answer as naked as the question:
‘Yes I do.’
The 24 August interview continued:
CNN: What should we do?
Clapper: Enough is enough.
CNN: What do you mean?
Clapper: This behavior and divisiveness, the complete intellectual, moral and ethical void that the President of the United States exhibits. And how much longer does the country endure this nightmare?
The implications of General Clapper’s question are clear, and carry gravely serious consequences; the only recourse anyone else like-minded could imagine is the impeachment of the president. Notable is how widespread the unanimity is on this subject. And consistently at the root of the consensus? The President’s recurring disregard for the truth. General Clapper comes from the intelligence community, but former White House senior staff member David Gergen, as well as renowned journalist Carl Bernstein, also share the same opinion about the fitness of the President to govern. Asked to compare the Trump administration’s disregard for the truth and attacks on the press with that of Richard Nixon, Bernstein answered: ‘I think they're worse. Donald Trump has shown himself to be an enemy of the truth. That is the terrible reality that we're dealing with. And every presidency succeeds or fails to the extent that the president is committed to the truth. And that's what we're up against here.’
That’s an assessment of the political side of things, while the cultural interpretation can be summed up in just one newly-minted phrase: Post-Truth. Mr. Trump has played his part in all of this, and was foremost in mind, when the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary christened our recent passing of history last year as the ‘Post-Truth Era.’ Stirred into an of-the-moment-cocktail of theories, the ‘Post-Truth Era,’ and the ‘Madman Theory’ have the potential to become increasingly heady, and ever more recklessly exaggerated; in the way a gleeful clown’s face can become instantly petrifying.
Some background. In 1978, H. R. Haldeman, who served as Chief of Staff for President Richard Nixon, published his memoir, The Ends of Power. Within those pages, Mr. Haldeman recounts a particular discussion, where the President confided his strategy for prosecuting peace in Vietnam. Haldeman quotes Nixon directly:
‘I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I've reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We'll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can't restrain him when he's angry – and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.’
To Nixon’s mind, the Madman Theory possessed unvarnished power exercised through raw torque. That is to say, a President dissembling the appearance of psychosis, and convincingly so for his varied ‘audiences’ around the world, and at home, would ironically enhance his power, at the point where his untethered political ambition, and his so-called ‘psychosis’ became indistinguishable. In today’s political currency think: Kim Jong-un.
One might also, and more generously say, that the Madman Theory is essentially the same deep-seeded ambition driving anyone within the theatrical arts to stay ‘in character.’ Not only for the sake of her audience, but as well, for the other members of her troupe. In the case of the Madman Theory, the President would stay ‘in character,’ to intimidate his political rivals, just another of his ‘audiences.’ Of course, the open question hanging out there is that once the President’s madman drama was underway, how is it that we could ever be certain that Nixon had not indeed slipped from acting psychotic, into a state of clinical psychosis? We couldn’t, and that is the leverage of the Madman Theory. In President Nixon’s case, it was a question that surfaced quickly as his Presidency began to come apart.
One could ask the very same question of President Trump, except that it has already been asked, and answered by 36 psychologists who wrote in the pages of the New York Times on February 13, 2017 that:
1. To assume that President Trump is only acting the madman, is too great a chance to take, and why?
2. He was never acting.
The psychologists conclude: ‘We believe that the grave emotional instability indicated by Mr. Trump’s speech and actions makes him incapable of serving safely as president.’ Such a candid and professional assessment is very nearly unprecedented, in the history of United States Presidents, other than perhaps, for the example of Woodrow Wilson. Certainly there were concerns over President Nixon, especially amongst his staff as reported in The Final Days. Once Nixon had decided to resign the Presidency, he wondered out loud to Henry Kissinger what he would be remembered for, and began to weep, asking his Secretary of State to kneel on the carpet to pray with him. When Kissinger thought the prayer had concluded, he rose, but the President leaned over and began beating the carpet, pleading, ‘What have I done? What has happened?’ According to the account, ‘Kissinger touched the President and then held him, tried to console him, to bring rest and peace to the man who was curled up on the carpet like a child.’ And this image of the President curled up on the carpet like a child, this level of utter dysfunction is why 36 psychologists can reasonably conclude, that to assume President Trump is only acting the madman, is too great a chance to take.
‘Is it better to be feared than loved?’
With the perspective we now enjoy 34 years after Jean Baudrillard unfolded his general theory of Simulationism, we can say with cold confidence that the Madman Theory appears to be just one more revival lifted from Baudrillard’s acute characterization of post-modern life. If, for the moment, we use Baudrillard’s theory like a telescope, flipping it around to look through the other end, we can see distant examples of the art world, in its small change way, entering the game Nixon was playing for keeps. As one pitiful example, there was the Swedish artist Anna Odell, who feigned lunacy when she threatened to jump from a Stockholm bridge in 2009. We could summarize her art as tepid folly, were it not that dozens of first responders had to risk their lives to ‘save’ her from jumping, while other citizens in real emergencies had to wait their turn behind Odell’s phoniness.
And I’ll mention just one last example of this; an artist, I have already held in contempt within these very pages. Adel Abdessemed’s genius, a year before Odell, was to turn on his video camera, and then with sledgehammer in hand, pointlessly bludgeon to death horses and pigs. Echoing the psychologist’s evaluation of Trump’s abilities to serve as President, about Odell and Abdessemed we can effortlessly conclude: ‘We believe that the grave emotional instability indicated by Odell and Abdessemed’s actions makes the pair incapable of serving safely as artists.’ What Odell unmistakably shares with the President is over-acting her dissembled role while putting other people’s lives in harm’s way, and then being able to live with herself. What she will never share, even with someone like President Trump, is any degree of consequence. Odell and Trump represent both the taste and the cost of living in the post-truth era. With each passing day of the new administration the value of truth rises because like any commodity, scarcity only increases its value. And to his credit, Mr. Trump has taught us all one thing; the feats that humans can achieve, once they abandon their dignity.
‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’
- Martin Luther King
Main image: Alec Baldwin as President Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live. Courtesy: NBC