We all heard it. In his 4th of July speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking out over the reflecting pool in the National Mall, the 45th president of the United States praised the brave patriots of the Continental Army who “took over the airports” from the British during the American War of Independence. You know… the one from 1775-1783?
It is difficult to find something to say, really. Laughter seems appropriate, but it is somehow inadequate to fully capture the absurdity of the moment. One laughs not so much because it’s funny – although, it is – but because the fact it occurred at all somehow evacuates any rational response. It is how we laugh when Jean, in Act II of Eugène Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros blurts out “humanism is dead, those who follow it are just old sentimentalists” just as he transforms into a rhinoceros.
It makes sense of course, coming from a rhinoceros – that’s just what a rhinoceros would say, even if rhinoceroses don’t actually say anything. So the stirring tale of Washington’s heroic Continentals seizing redcoat airbases kind of makes sense, coming from this president. What else could we expect? It’s so funny! Indeed, the pure joy of the joke, Freud wrote, “arises from an economy in psychical expenditure or a relief from the compulsion of criticism.” We laugh about it rather than think about it, and it feels so good.
Yet, at the same time, the sheer absurdity of the president’s utterance forces us to actually think about it. It’s a bit like that scene from Star Trek when Kirk and Spock make some poor android’s head explode. “The meaningless combination of words or the absurd putting together of thoughts must nevertheless have a meaning,” Freud notes. But… What if it doesn’t?
Facing widespread ridicule, the president, in truly-presidential fashion, passed the buck. (Harry Truman would have been impressed!) It was not his fault, he claimed today that he was tripped-up by a faulty teleprompter.
You know? I get it. Shit happens. But here’s the thing: Shouldn’t he have enough knowledge to ad-lib something that isn’t utterly preposterous? What we saw and heard yesterday was akin to what Freud would have called a Fehlleistungen (not a “Freudian slip, because that would have been weird), a verbal glitch that reveals something repressed and unconscious. Only what it revealed was not unconscious, but the vast, expansive void of the president’s intellect.
Consider this: Without a script, the president had to improvise, relying on his own knowledge and understanding, and his knowledge and understanding is that it is possible that the British Empire maintained airfields in the 18th century; before, you know, airplanes were even invented. Setting aside the obvious for a moment – that a self-professed aviation expert really hasn’t the faintest clue about aviation – it is worth wondering how the third-most-powerful world leader can lead at all without any knowledge of history and temporality. Does he exist in a perpetual present of narcissistic gratification, like some kind of wailing infant?
Okay… That was rhetorical. I think we know the answer. But there was so much wrong in the president’s speech that although it was clearly a Fehlleistungen, it was no mere slip or glitch; it was an ongoing revelatory performance. The failure was not transient, it is systemic.
It is like he was reciting words with no comprehension of their meaning, or even of the English language. He recited the glorious achievements of the Continental Army, as “at Fort McHenry, under the rockets’ red glare, [where] it had nothing but victory.” It does not seem to have mattered to the president that the Battle of Baltimore, where Francis Scott Key witnessed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in the summer of 1814, occurred a generation after the United States gained its independence. For a man who wants to “make America great again,” the president clearly has a tenuous grasp on temporality and causality!
He also informed America that “they” (the Continental Congress?) named the Continental Army after George Washington. Which George Washington was that? George Washington Continental, Abraham Lincoln Continental’s grandfather? Apparently, this General Washington Continental defeated Cornwallis of Yorktown. That was no doubt Charles Cornwallis, the first Marquess of Yorktown, who surrendered, presumably, sometime after the winter of Valley Forge (was this the winter of 1775-1776?). I can only guess that this was even worse than the winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge.
I have to wonder why stupid people have so much trouble with prepositions. Okay, I don’t have to wonder in this case. Prepositions are those little words that establish the relationship between things; the movie was based on the book, Washington defeated Cornwallis at Yorktown, immigrant children are being held in cages. In order to understand the use of prepositions, one must first be able to differentiate. This is something that the most extreme grandiose narcissists are incapable of; for them, there is no other, no differentiation between themselves and the world, between their desires and their gratification, between the present, the past and the future.
And in his triumphal speech yesterday, the president revealed just how grandiose and pathological his narcissism is. For him, there is no “now and then,” there is no “you and me,” or even an “us and them.” There is only “I want,” like a bloated, diapered, inflatable infant floating over the National Mall.