Caitlin Moran put it perfectly on Saturday night. Interviewed by Róisín Ingle for the Irish Times's Big Night In, she invited us to "Imagine what it would be like just to have [Donald] Trump erased from our minds." The necessary leap of the imagination is prodigious. Trump's genius, and his toxicity, lie in his uncanny ability to annex our minds, even – perhaps especially – if we despise him.
They say in the US that a particularly bumptious person “sucks the air out of the room”. Trump sure does that but also much, much more. He invades the inner rooms, occupies the remote cloisters of our interior selves. There is a corner of the field of consciousness that is forever Trump. Today’s US election is not happening only on the world stage. It feels, also, like an event in our synapses, at least as neurological and it is psephological.
Last month, the American Psychological Association released a survey that showed two-thirds of Americans reporting that the election is "a significant source of stress in their life". The APA felt obliged to offer advice: "Realise that we might not know who won the election on Election Day. If you think this will raise your anxiety, keep busy… so that you aren't continually checking for what could be viewed as 'bad' news."
Trump, though, is as yet a weak authoritarian. He would love to be, like his exemplar Vladimir Putin, president-for-life of a mafia state
When election day is a clinical, as well as a political, disturbance, it marks how far gone the US is on the road to autocracy. One of the great differences between democratic and authoritarian regimes is that, in the former, politics is a public, civic sphere. Its tracks run on lines parallel to personal life. It wants us to think public thoughts but is content to leave our private ones unmolested.
Authoritarian systems, on the other hand, can’t bear to grant us this inner space. They fear what, in the Newspeak of George Orwell’s 1984, is called “ownlife”. This distrust of interior freedom is not specific to governmental regimes – religious ones invented it. Those of us who grew up in Catholic Ireland can remember how successfully it deployed its thought police inside our minds: the insistent voice of shame.
Trump, though, is as yet a weak authoritarian. He would love to be, like his exemplar Vladimir Putin, president-for-life of a mafia state. And, given four more years, who knows? But, in reality, he has had to operate in a contested arena, where, despite the best efforts of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, he cannot create a closed circuit of information and opinion.
This is where Trump’s particular genius comes into play. Fully formed dictatorships gain control of ownlife through fear and propaganda. They use violence to plant terror in the brain and complete domination of media to generate both adoration among their followers and despair in the possibility of an alternative among their would-be opponents.
Trump revels in both of these methods. But he knows he cannot (yet) deploy them to their full effect. His great innovation is his exploitation of the opportunities created by new technology to get inside the heads even of those who abhor him.
Conservative right-wingers often wish that Trump would stay off Twitter but, in this regard at least, he is much smarter than they are. What he grasps, and they don’t, is that social media are designed to permeate the barrier between the outer and the inner worlds.
Trump has almost literally got on the nerves of the majority of Americans. He squats on their brains like a giant, orange toad, belching out indignation
Trump realised that in the always-on, hyperconnected virtual world, there is a third way of infiltrating ownlife. As well as terror and propaganda, there is outrage. To adapt Machiavelli to the social media era: let them hate me, so long as they are retweeting me.
Trump is a media invention, a figment of the tabloids and reality TV, a creature of the world of postmodern celebrity, in which the difference between fame and infamy evaporates. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the hero or the villain – it’s all about the ratings.
Giant, orange toad
In what is still, just about, a democracy, this is the nearest you can get to total domination of ownlife. You dominate 40 per cent through the old-fashioned cult-of-personality methods of fervent devotion and unquestioning loyalty. You dominate the rest through the addictive power of non-stop provocation.
Trump has managed this brilliantly. But it may also be his downfall. The very success of his seizure of intimate interior space has made him, not just a political opponent, but a psychological burden. He has almost literally got on the nerves of the majority of Americans. He squats on their brains like a giant, orange toad, belching out indignation.
And all Joe Biden has been saying, regardless of the outward subject, is: Imagine what it would be like just to have Trump erased from our minds. Big policy questions like healthcare and the environment matter, but even for those who are not engaged with them, there is the powerful attraction of a different kind of brainwashing, a spring-clean for the private rooms of private life.
This is why, if (a big if) the votes are counted fairly, Trump will lose heavily. He inadvertently offers voters a double pleasure – the joy of getting him out of the Oval Office and the sheer relief of getting him out of their heads.