When Henry Miller (1891-1980)--novelist, critic, memoirist--returned to the US in 1940 after a louche but productive decade in Paris, he did so with apprehension.
Although concerned about money, he also had spiritual reservations: "There was a frigid, moral aspect to [America] which chilled me to the bone." His reaction was to travel and rediscover his homeland, the end result being a travelogue--The Air-Conditioned Nightmare--which wears its seventy years extremely well.
The book is very much a critique of American society and rereading it amidst the fervor of this election cycle is a reminder that the upsets of today are not unique to our age.
Having lived in the US for the last seven years, I can relate to Miller's uneasiness about returning to the "rat trap". For America's greatest attraction--the seemingly infinite opportunity and scope for reinvention--runs parallel with a gnawing subtext of dissatisfaction: the pressing need for more, the relentless drive to be fitter, happier, more productive. It is no coincidence that millions of Americans spend what little free time they have each weekend shopping for mulch and ride-on mowers at establishments such as Lowes. The home goods superstore's motto? Never Stop Improving...
And it is in this environment that "President Trump" has emerged, Pandora-like, as an orange-tinged savior. And if there is a better description of the archetype that has propelled Donald J. Trump to the precipice of American politics, I have yet to read it:
"The American type par excellence, ever ready to believe what is written in the newspapers, ever on the lookout for a Messiah."
But these are not the incredulous words of some political blogger trying to understand the Republican Party's fervid embrace of The Donald; they were written during the reign of FDR--Miller's prescience is uncanny.
Wrapping himself in a flag of Law and Order, Trump has herded the bugbears of the American psyche--illegal immigration, crime, race--into a bilious outpouring of fear. These are all issues that could launch a thousand PhDs (hopefully common sense ones), yet Miller cuts through the intellectual brush to deliver an Orwellian rebuke across the decades:
"If at the bottom of law and order there is only a man armed to the teeth, a man without a heart, without a conscience, then law and order are meaningless."
Of course, at the heart of all this discord, at the heart of this wave of vilification upon which Trump is riding high, lies a deep sense of dissatisfaction, over what has gone away and what is to come. The security and status that was the birthright of every non-college educated white man in the US has disappeared, and it is a prime factor explaining why some historically blue-leaning, blue-collar voters have embraced Trump and his own brand of entropic egoism.
There is also a deep dissatisfaction with the "system"--on both sides of the political divide--and a sense that the economy is rigged for a certain class of people, no matter their political affiliation. In one chapter, as Miller describes his relationship with a convict with whom he develops an acquaintance, he touches on a sentiment that both Bernie Sanders and Trump have tapped into, with varying degrees of authenticity:
"He had done a bit of thieving first, not anything however to compare with the operations of our illustrious industrial magnates, our bankers, politicians..."
This passage is taken from a chapter titled "The Soul of Anaesthesia" that at one point asks the question: "What is the most steadfast condition of Life? Cruelty to one another." Again, Miller's 1940s prose speaks to us with immediacy. For cruelty is very much the condition of US political life today. One's opponent is not simply someone to defeat, but a grave threat to the nation and an offense to all that is right and proper.
Were Miller to travel through the America of today, he would no doubt be stirred to write about the current condition of the much-vaunted "American Dream". But given the reality he would encounter, there would still be a nightmarish aspect to his prose.