The Timid Souls and Their Drowsy Minds

The ample talents of novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have been put to better use than with the short story about the 2016 election she has written for this weekend’s New York Times Book Review. “The Arrangements,” set in the run-up to the Republican convention, centers on a day in the life of Melania Trump as she plans a dinner party for her parents, her husband, and a few close guests. “Melania decided she would order the flowers herself” is the familiar-sounding opening line, and in a close third-person narrative we experience through the consciousness of the fictionalized potential first lady what it’s like to be married to the presumptive Republican nominee—while also dealing with children and adult step-children, florists, Pilates instructors, and the pressures of an unlikely presidential campaign.

A lark? A plunge?  An unneeded exercise—another in an ineffectual but still-expanding regimen—in subjecting the candidate to scorn? As has been noted elsewhere, the likely Republican nominee has shown imperviousness to slings and arrows of this and lower sorts, while proving adept at returning fire and deploying other unsuspected skills on the campaign trail (I will not mention here his flair for apophasis). Besides, would anyone who’s supposed to “appreciate” the Mrs. Dalloway framing (or anyone who’d read Adichie or Virginia Woolf in the first place, or the New York Times Book Review itself) be influenced either way? In empathizing with its protagonist, it necessarily does the opposite with her husband. So who does a piece like this aim to persuade?

The abundance of other, similar material speaks to the broader shortcomings in the coverage of this candidacy. Yes, reputable outlets are turning out more solid reporting on suspicious bankruptcies, overstated charitable giving, and possibly fraudulent business practices. And yes, satire can be an effective mode of puncturing an over-inflated public figure, even when the satire might not be mistaken for Aristophanes or Voltaire, H. L. Mencken or Jon Stewart. Yet there remains a tendency toward complacent dismissiveness, which simultaneously showers with free publicity a candidate regarded as a legitimate threat to stability and security. (It was estimated that as of mid-May, the equivalent of nearly $3 billion in free media had been doled out to him.) Some recent polls may bring comfort to those hoping for a more qualified person in the White House, others may not, but either way polls aren’t election results. If this is no joke, then why the practice of so lazily treating it like one?

It’s probably not fair to pin too much on Adichie, whose literary credentials are established and who has spoken and written thoughtfully and openly on many subjects, including how her Catholic upbringing in Nigeria has shaped her Catholicism since. And it is just a short story in a holiday weekend book review, not to be read like an op-ed but as fiction (a point Adichie discusses here). Still, it seems in some ways suggestive of another phenomenon, recently christened by David H. Freedman in the Atlantic as “the war on stupid people.” In the United States today, “those who consider themselves bright openly mock others for being less so,” Freedman writes, bemoaning a bigotry that is the natural manifestation of a meritocratic culture in which measured intelligence has come to be valued above all else. When test scores and grades (from the right colleges, mind you) have come to outweigh interpersonal skills, critical thinking, and self-awareness in landing a job, it’s little surprise that “gleeful derision” of the “less intellectually gifted” follows. This attitude is embedded in much of the critical commentary on the Republican candidate, unintentionally revealing as well what Freedman identifies as the highly problematic traits of “smart people” —obliviousness to their own biases and flaws, assumptiveness about current trends continuing into the future, and arrogance.

You might worry about where that could lead. Early on in the 2016 campaign it was already old hat to summon the spectre of Buzz Windrip from Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. But remember it’s ultimately not the racist, xenophobic, fascist politician who’s the problem. It’s the smart and sensible Doremus Jessups of the world,

the Responsible Citizens who’ve felt ourselves superior because we’ve been well-to-do and what we thought was ‘educated,’ who brought on the Civil War, the French Revolution, and now the Fascist Dictatorship. . . . It’s I who persecuted the Jews and the Negroes. I can blame no Buzz Windrip, but only my own timid soul and drowsy mind. Forgive, O Lord!

A dangerous candidate may not be as dangerous as those who’d only laugh him away. The New York Times Book Review, meanwhile, is promising another short story on the 2016 election from a different writer this fall.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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