I’d like to offer up Emily Dickinson’s poem #764—her “Loaded Gun” poem—as a trope for Donald Trump’s (thus far successful) hack of the Republican Party—and his threat to do the same to the American presidency. I’ll deal with the poem, stanza by stanza, and put a contemporary political spin on it.
My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –
For this first stanza, let’s start with the narrator. Who is she?
She’s a person in the grip of loss, grief, and rage–“a Loaded Gun”–and she’s offering her conversion testimony to a congregation. She’s bearing witness.
And notice that the narrator testifies to having once been an outcast, without use, “In Corners – till a Day / The Owner passed – identified – / And carried Me away.”
To be carried away suggests religious ecstasy: she was lost, but now found; blind, but now sees.
We are thus dealing with a person in a cultish relationship to her “Owner”; she is someone akin to the Trump enthusiast.
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply –
The Owner in this second stanza has given the narrator purpose–but it is a rough-edged purpose, and so we are witness here, in the hunting of a female deer, to the death of gentleness.
And in unhindered roaming in “Sovereign Woods,” we have libertarian freedom accompanied by hardness of command, control, and ownership. Don’t tread on me.
So we half expect this to be the realm where Dick Cheney–a Trump endorser–shoots somebody in the face.
This second stanza is thus about the romance of being a free individual; an individual away from the city, independent of all human governing, save for the governance of the Sovereign, who is obeyed.
Notice also the insularity in this second stanza; the blissful indifference to the fact that outside voices and perspectives are lacking. The sounding out in the poem takes place, as it were, in a narcissistic fishbowl, and “for Him” alone–and certainly never against him. It is a firing off, but there is no reciprocation or pushback; no listening or yielding to others. The voice is monological, singular; not diverse; not dialogical.
So there is no room for doubt here, only certainty. And in this echo chamber the mountains function as high walls that keep out contrarian voices. They repeat back and affirm what the believer and Master have declared (“The Mountains straight reply”).
The heavens and earth declare the glory of the Master.
So this is Rush Limbaugh Land, with mega dittos reverberating. By long conditioning, Limbaugh, like John the Baptist, has prepared the way for
the Lord Donald Trump. (“There’s a messiah born every minute.”)
And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through –
In this third stanza we have our Tangerine Messiah uninterrupted, his “Vesuvian face” flush with recent eruption. No political correctness here. Make way for Dionysus as President! Let his “pleasure through.” The Master is flush with passion–as are his followers.
And in the next stanza–the fourth stanza–the narrator participates in the Master’s power, which we can read in 2016 as a phallic symbol for Trump’s many towers. The narrator belongs to something greater than herself, and concludes that it’s better to share the hard head of this Master than succumb to the complexities of an ill-defined, squishy plush–a symbol of our multi-cultural, multi-racial America:
And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared –
“Don’t let me get too deep,” sang Edie Brickell (ironically) in the 1990s–but this might make for a serious theme song at Trump rallies.
And perhaps, on first reading, this fourth stanza actually sounds nice to you—even idyllic—yet when one looks again, one sees the beginnings of trouble: an excess of zeal that cannot be sustained. The narrator is awake. But she’s always awake. She’s on guard 24/7, policing borders. As in the biblical formula, “no rest for the wicked,” this stanza depicts the narrator as suffering the fate of the wicked–and so she is hapless, and therefore most to be pitied.
Lack of rest and excesses of seriousness absent the least irony. These are symptoms of both psyche and cult gone bad. They are signs of paranoia brewing. Vigilance never lets up.
To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –
In stanza five the narrator’s problem is made explicit–if not to the narrator, at least to us. What started as a proud confession of conversion has lapsed into the fiercest and crassest Manichean dualism: “To foe of His–I’m deadly foe.” No argument. No thought. Only fight. A wall.
We thus reach the tragic and climactic final stanza–stanza six–in which the testimony of religious conversion has proved itself a trap:
Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without – the power to die –
Giving herself over to the Master has proved to be the narrator’s undoing. The last stanza becomes, not a testimony to a salvation, but a plea for a salvation–salvation from the authoritarian mode of salvation.
It’s buyer’s remorse. The narrator has succumbed to the authoritarian temptation, and now regrets it. She has outsourced her agency to another, exchanging her very human Hamlet Syndrome (to be or not to be, to do or not to do, to think or not to think) for the singular and solidifying option of being akin to stone or metal: to be without the threat of substantial change. Call this latter state: the Grand Inquisitor Syndrome (after the authoritarian religious apologist in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov).
The narrator in Dickinson’s poem has denied her independent agency and adopted a rigid, defensive, and nostalgic relation to her own identity. She has exchanged her freedom for a lie that comforts–and for belonging. And she has reserved her inner power, not for love and change, but to battle and lunge on behalf of the Master’s cause. She has thus surrendered, in her hysterical excess of armoring and the taking up of arms, her power for metamorphosis; her power “to die.”
When in the grip of Grand Inquisitor Syndrome, discussion ceases. There is no grappling with plurality or complexity. Problems are solved only in appearance, artificially–or by brute force and exclusion.
But now the narrator finds herself trapped. Her avoidance of the existential pain of living with her freedom, being a Hamlet navigating a complex world, has led her to an uncompromising and unbending relation to that world. She has been hoisted by her own petard. There’s no space for new life if she cannot, like Hamlet, Jacob-wrestle with time, complexity, competing goods, diverse relations, and death (change). To escape these into a con-man’s fantasies and half-baked and simplistic ideas, is to live out a kind of living death, akin to being a vampire; akin to following The Grand Inquisitor (who gives people miracle, mystery, and authority).
So here’s what the Trumpsters, akin to the Loaded Gun narrator, are not facing squarely: a shifting reality. In 2016, that shifting reality is this: America is too diverse for European-style ethnic nationalism and isolationism to prevail in its politics. Whites in America have to live with blacks (and Asians and Hispanics) exactly as Jews have to learn to live with Palestinians. And global trade isn’t going away. Americans have to trade with the Chinese. And Christians have to live alongside Muslims and atheists. And let’s not forget climate change. It can’t be ignored or denied anymore.
If one can’t face the complexities of these contemporary realities; if one is going to build walls and latch onto confidence men with simple answers, then the consequence is the stalling out of new life in yourself and your community. You’ll find that you’ve sealed your fate, as it were, in the amber of your own nostalgia. What you took to be salvation will prove to be yet another symptom of your being stuck–and when the fantasy fails, you won’t know who you are any more, potentially reinforcing an even deeper resentment and cynicism.
I’m thinking now of something Sartre wrote, and so will conclude with it. It comes from his little book, Anti-Semite and Jew (1946). Like Dickinson’s poem, Sartre’s book has many resonances with our contemporary political scene in the United States. Trump’s brand of white ethnic smugness and nationalism, where Muslims and Hispanics have been substituted out for the early twentieth century antisemite’s “Jewish problem,” is unsettling to witness in American politics (to say the least), and the below quote is thus apposite to our collective moment, appearing at the very end of Sartre’s first chapter:
Anti-Semitism, in short, is fear of the human condition. The anti-Semite is a man who wishes to be pitiless stone, a furious torrent, a devastating thunderbolt–anything except a man.
That is, anything except Hamlet (Shakespeare’s most vividly realized and complex man). To cease to be a Hamlet means that one prefers, to grappling with complexity and compromise, becoming instead a “pitiless stone” or metal tool–a Loaded Gun–in service to simplistic final solutions that are driven, not by reason, but passion, and by a cult of personality (a charismatic man, governed by his passions, who attracts a mass following). Life is just simpler that way.
Until you wake up.
I suspect that, after election day in November of this year, a lot of people will be waking up, as if from a hangover, realizing that Trump wasn’t a Magician after all; that the nation’s diversity, complexity, and problems are still present the day after–and Hillary Clinton is now President-elect.
It will be as if they had believed in an end time prophecy that failed to come to pass–and yet they still have to go on living in the real world. Prepare for lots of rationalizing; lots of cognitive dissonance. But the fever of enthrallment to Trump’s Vesuvian face will have passed. Maybe it will pass to another. Maybe this is a new pattern to our politics in America. Maybe some future Trump, in a bleaker economic moment than the merely dyspeptic one we know in 2016, will win.