Trump Rant: a poetic work of nonfiction

Chris Agee reflects on the imaginative origins and technical devices of his recent poetic work, Trump Rant

Although I’ve always been a highly political person, as a poet (in four previous collections) I’ve fought shy of ever conflating the ethically engaged with the overtly engagé.

Because, ironically, (it seems to me), the thing about successful political poems is that you must really feel the politics. Emotion, deeply allied to an attitude or felt ethic, is a must: opinion, sentiment, position, lifestyle or identarian choice, may be necessary, but they are surely not sufficient alone. But such allied feeling is sufficient, if also informed by a truly politico-ethical imagination.

So why and how my sudden explicit pivot to the “total political assault” (or Brechtian street-fight) called Trump Rant?

Apart from a really visceral hatred of the man himself, one thing is certain: we’re not dealing here with “hard politics”, the stuff of journalists, politicians, policy wonks of the sort we hear every morning on national broadcasters – it’s much more of a psycho-social, cultural portrait of Trumpists and Trumpistan (including their media) as well as, of course, a picture of this strange man’s highly complex temperament and life psychology, a “poetic work of non-fiction” (my preferred description) and genre-bender full of satire and comedic aphorism.


More in the vein – one might say – of Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove (Group Captain Lionel Mandrake to General Jack Ripper: “I would say, sir, there was something dreadfully wrong somewhere”), Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, Sacha Baron Cohen in Who Is America?, and maybe at points the English comedian Stewart Lee.

Indeed, I would even concede that there is a bit of “literary stand-up” in the whole thing, as is acknowledged in the italicised personal sub-commentary (a sort of “Borges and I”) where I speak of my Irish high-wire “Voltaire act” and draw upon Huck Finn and Jim in Twain’s classic.

In fact, one of my favourite aspects of the work is exactly this authorial self-commentary in italics which slowly builds up into an image of Huck Finn as my performative alter-ego (“republican Huck on his Irish high-wire”; but nota bene: “republican” meaning of course the Irish variety).

One might say further – as with Trump the self-conscious circus performer, or ringmaster – that the Rant is my own high-wire act, with each passage in this unfolding parataxis like the next careful foot put forward – with absolutely no conceptual tumbles or false-sounding slips allowed . . . This was certainly my image of the work as I dismounted early on Election Night 2020, with Huck’s final change into “mufti” having the intended Belfast overtone.

That circus trope is by no means the only thematic point where the text acknowledges a New York cultural formation cognate with Trump’s (my Bronx, his Queens: both wealthy and reactionary suburban enclaves therein, isolated from the generality of those boroughs). But it is precisely the diametrically opposed personal responses and outcomes – mainly around the key question of “culture-as-education” in America – that points to the “Civic Civil War” which Trump has fully launched and continues to expand, though it has been gearing up since the sixties. (Will there be real blood? Maybe, Belfast strongly suggests . . .)

So there is also a real sense in which the Rant reaches back into my childhood in New York (language, images, 1960s details, etc.), as if I was suddenly excavating the phenomenon of the emigrant’s “severed self”, or first narrative, buried on departure.

Brecht once spoke of the need to include Plumpes Denken (“crude thinking”) when dealing with fascism – and so the book has intentionally some of that, too.

Trump Rant is equally a cultural commentary on the pandemic and (especially) the Black Lives Matter movement. Touched upon also is a long family history in Appalachian east Tennessee (including my grandfather), during which one direct ancestor fought on the Union side against Confederate “copperheads” similar to Trump.

Finally, the book is surely informed by the strange fruit of four decades of experience in Belfast, with all the concurrent lessons about the dangers of violence and rabble-rousing (as on January 6th, 2021) if Trumpism continues to take hold in the American polity. This is especially evident right at the end.

If you wish to hear the thing, there’s actually an online You Tube recording of several sections of Trump Rant, which was prepared professionally as an event in 2021 for Imagine Belfast: A Festival of Ideas and Politics. We then added a percussive musical theme by Benjamin Britten and the book’s cover image by Grant Wood, Death on The Ridge Road (1935).

When I finally listened to the finished oral product, I was surprised how well the recording worked. I didn’t expect that the slight shifts in my voice – tone, irony, mockery, emphasis – would have such a close-up impact. So, in one go, the recording gives the essential aural impression: the work’s pervasive percussive music, puns, natural rhyming and alliteration, parataxis, Brecht’s Plumpes Denken, weird cultural politics, et cetera.

Also, the percussive theme – the relentless trochaic drumbeat of “Trump” and its verbal variants – does complement (I think) the work’s distinct martial ambience, with this intended effect or subtext: that (as one of the passages puts it) “Trump Has Launched a Civic Civil War”.

Given my first-hand personal experience of both the Soviet Union and the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the American federation itself (certainly in its current form) now seems to me genuinely imperilled by Trump’s neo-fascism – his huckster-mobster snake-oil version of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.

Alas, Trump, Trumpists and Trumpistan are not going away at all – and are set to get much, much worse over the next two years. “Re-election” is a real possibility, likely involving much more subtle means of misinformation, dark money, inflammatory language, culture-war provocations, etc., than mere denial of election results and deranged, madcap legal stunts. Trump and the ultra-ultra-extremists now re-distilling around him are already at work on such mobster strategies . . .

Chris Agee is editor of Irish Pages: A Journal of Contemporary Writing and The Irish Pages Press/Cló An Mhíl Bhuín ( ). His previous poetry collections are In the New Hampshire Woods (1992), First Light (2003), Next to Nothing (2009) and Blue Sandbar Moon (2018). He has lived in Belfast since 1979, and now divides his time between Ireland, Scotland and Croatia.