I can’t quite get past that digression about the beautiful piece of cake. Mostly I’ve found a way—like everybody trying to stave off despair—to push the crazy things Donald Trump says out of my mind. But every so often, like when I’m ordering dessert, I’m reminded of his blithe reference to what he and Xi Jingping were eating at the moment he informed China’s leader about the U.S. missile strike in Syria, and I lose my appetite.
The weird way the U.S. president chose to frame that exchange at Mar-a-Lago last month for a Fox interviewer probably needs no recapping. “We had finished dinner,” Trump said, then added indelibly: “We’re now having dessert, and we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen, and President Xi was enjoying it.” Every normal person of course had the same thought: Why is he going on about the goddamned cake?
It seemed inexplicable, maybe not worth trying to explain. But, like I said, I’m stuck on it. And when I need to get clear on something that’s been written or spoken, I find it helps to turn to the late Northrop Frye, the peerless University of Toronto literary critic. Frye, as usual, comes through on this one. In The Well-Tempered Critic, published in 1963, he itemizes what the pure voice of ego likes to drone on about. “It can,” Frye said, “express only the generic: food, sex, possessions, gossip, aggressiveness and resentments.”
Has Trump ever held forth on anything not on Frye’s short list? Obviously his default mode is to let flow a rhetorical sludge of aggressiveness and resentments. But, often enough, he has resorted to boasting about his possessions, or sunk to puerile sex talk, or merely gossiped, or even, as in the beautiful cake example, lapsed into banal food chatter.
Any of these subjects, naturally, can be discussed engagingly. But Frye explained how they also lend themselves to pre-digested verbiage in a way that makes them irresistible subjects for the voice of ego. “Its natural affinity,” he said, “is for the ready-made phrase, the cliché, because it tends to address itself to the reflexes of the hearer, rather than to his intelligence or emotions.”
It’s worth pausing to take note that Frye drew a distinction between a reflex response and an intelligent or emotional one. Trump is often credited with connecting with his followers on an emotional level. Frye wouldn’t agree; he saw genuine emotion as resulting from genuine communication. The reflex response is something else entirely. One way to begin to grasp the difference is this: individuals have emotions, mobs respond reflexively.
The mob response troubled Frye, who summed it up penetratingly. He said that individuals who form a society try to communicate, at least some of the time, in something other than stock phrases meant to elicit automatic reactions. By contrast, Frye wrote: “A mob always implies some object of resentment, and political leaders who speak for the mob aspect of their society develop a special kind of tantrum style, a style constructed almost entirely out of unexamined clichés.”
I haven’t come across a more apt label than “tantrum style” for Trump’s way of giving voice to aggression and resentments. The Well-Tempered Critic doesn’t supply as pithy a term, unfortunately, for the smug, yet oddly off-kilter, manner he adopts when he’s talking about food, possessions or sex.
But Frye does observe that “the mob’s version of high style is advertising, the verbal art of penetrating the mind by prodding the reflexes of the ego.” Could Trump have been awkwardly reaching, in that strange moment in the Fox interview, for the “high style” of ads? This Tomahawk missile strike, the president was in effect saying, is brought to you by beautiful chocolate cake.