The Infinite Jest of Donald J. Trump

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For ethically engaged Americans, this presidential election has become an exercise in radical renegotiation. As the list of Donald Trump’s transgressions continues to grow, we have had to throw out whatever we thought we knew about American politics, reorienting ourselves to a world of vulgarity and viciousness in which we’d never imagined we lived. And we’ve begun to express our incredulity with a single question: What more does Trump have to do?

At the start of his campaign it was a question we scoffed. “Hey excuse me? Trump wants to ban all Muslims. What more does he have to do before the GOP rejects him?” But at this point we’re practically screaming it: “He just told people to shoot Hillary, folks. WHAT MORE DOES HE HAVE TO DO?”

I’ve been doing the same thing, thinking ahead to what Trump could say to end his campaign once and for all. But I’ve also begun looking back, wondering why we didn’t do more at any of the moments when Trump had already unarguably crossed the line of human decency. And then I realized who had the answer:

David Foster Wallace.

If you’ve had any experience with the late David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, you understand it to be an epic of the modern age. Infinite Jest is for the 1990s what James Joyce’s Ulysses was for the 20s: a work of unimaginable genius that redefines what it means to write, to think, to live. In the novel, Wallace envisions a future North America plagued by a dozen different neuroses, from addiction to child abuse to political corruption. But the most serious crisis is society’s infatuation with entertainment. The novel roughly follows the pursuit of a film called “Infinite Jest”: a mythical “ultimate” entertainment that so captivates its audience that they literally waste away in front of their screens. And the theme of entertainment addiction is in no way confined to Wallace’s central plot. When they’re not losing themselves in drugs and alcohol, Wallace’s characters escape into their “teleputers” (future TVs), spending every possible moment watching one TP cartridge after another. And in the Enfield Tennis Academy (one of the novel’s central settings), students go to unheard of lengths to be professional athletic entertainers.

The novel’s strongest commentary on entertainment comes, however, in the way we are entertained by the novel itself. Because what you realize as your read is that you’re entertained by suffering. This is first due to the way Wallace writes about pain. Wallace is outlandish with his cruelty, imaginative to the point of absurdity and even humor. Take the following passage, where a cocaine addict kills a cat by suffocating it in a Hefty bag:

After [the bag] stopped assuming shapes [he] would… get up and untie the twist-tie and look inside the bag and go: ‘There.’ The ‘There’ turned out to be crucial for the sense of brisance and closure and resolving issues of impotent rage and powerless fear that like accrued in [him] all day being trapped in the northeastern portions of a squalid halfway house all day fearing for his life, [he] felt. (Wallace 541)

You shouldn’t be laughing but sometimes you are, because there’s something about such scenes that entertains, despite their objective horror. But there’s another reason you turn the pages for Infinite Jest’s atrocities. Whereas Ulysses distinguishes itself by reinventing itself and its literary style in each of its 18 episodes, Wallace’s epic distinguishes itself cyclically. Early in the novel a character tries to commit suicide by overdosing on cocaine during a friend’s party. It’s a horrifying depiction of depression and suicide, but Wallace doesn’t leave the topic there. The things that scare us the most in Infinite Jest are the things we see the most, and that push themselves to become even more horrendous the next time around. Later we see a character kill themselves by sticking their head in a microwave, and then someone commits suicide by sticking “first one arm and then, kind of miraculously if you think about it, the other arm” down a garbage disposal (795). And so you’re captivated by Wallace’s violence because it’s gripping in the moment, yes. But also because once you understand his cycles of sacrilege you can’t help but anticipate the next wave.

Infinite Jest is a powerful reminder that when we train ourselves to crave entertainment, that craving has an insidious ability to seep outside the confines of the entertainment industry. That anything that captivates the mind, brutal or banal, can trigger that craving, and sometimes we watch men beat cats the way we watch House of Cards. And it’s a reminder that cravings are concerned not only with pleasure in the present, but also in the future: how can I have more, and how can I feel even better? When we train ourselves to need entertainment, we’re also training ourselves to need more of it.

Enter: Donald Trump.

We are entertained by Trump––not just by his reality star witticisms, but by his cruelty. We watch Trump mock disabled reporters in the same way we watch Wallace’s character suffocate small animals. How could he do this, we wonder, but we might as well reach for the popcorn while we’re wondering it. And then there’s the question we ask: What more does he have to do? Yes, it’s a convenient call to the GOP, but it gets at the reason Trump’s still around at all. Because after we ask, we wait and we watch and we imagine what he’ll do. We’re showing our cards with our question, because just as we wait for the next round of violence in Infinite Jest, we are waiting for the next round of cruelty from Trump.

So stop waiting. Stop thinking ahead. Because while it might be entertaining to anticipate Trump’s next move, it’s only entertaining at the back of your mind. Bring to the forefront what you’re doing, and any decent American will find the entertainment greatly outshone by the shame.

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