Anyone clinging to sanity deserves a mechanism for coping with the latest Donald Trump outrage. The socially sanctioned default response—I couldn’t imagine him going any lower, but he’s done it again—is too benumbed to feel nearly adequate. My own defensive twitch is to mutter the words “tantrum style” at the iPhone screen when news appears of the inevitable worst-yet presidential utterance, which draws some looks on the bus, but at least I’m not left entirely speechless.
I lifted the phrase from a lecture series Northrop Frye delivered in 1961, which was preserved in a slim book called The Well-Tempered Critic. Midway through a virtuosic explication of the sort of language deployed by the Trumps of this world, the late Canadian literary theorist described the basic transaction: “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.”
Frye was at his best in precisely cataloguing the topics covered in the clichés spouted by the tantrum-throwing ego. “It can express,” he said, “only the generic: food, sex, possessions, gossip, aggressiveness and resentments.” Doesn’t that satisfyingly sum up Trump’s constricted range? He’s aggressive and resentful, of course, and a vicious gossip, and obsessed with possessions. But don’t pass over the seemingly quotidian first item on Frye’s list: food. Trump was never more Trumpian than when—in recounting how he told Xi Jinping over dinner at Mar-a-Lago about a U.S. missile strike on Syria—he gloated that they were, at that moment, eating “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake, and President Xi was enjoying it.”
It’s not the usual line of attack to parse Trump closely enough to grasp how his fixation on the menu fits with all the rest. His racism, his nativism, his populism—these are all aspects of the era’s dominant figure that lend themselves to analysis by writers who come at him through political conviction or even political philosophy. The spate of books and essays that might be gathered under the heading Trump vs. the Enlightenment are almost touching in the earnestness of the authors as they extol values handed down from the 18th-century, like respect for democratic institutions and regard for science, now banished from the White House.
But these approaches can only remind us of what Trump and the rest of the right-wing populists are undermining, not how they’re doing it. In other words, the political thinkers who can help us get clear on what’s worth defending aren’t much help in figuring out what’s put us on the defensive. For that, we don’t need philosophy, but we might be able to make use of a literary critic’s insights in order to fathom how Trump’s crude rhetoric can possibly be working.
He’s a voice, after all, not a mind. If stray scraps of ideology cling to his blather, they don’t add up to much—certainly nothing coherent enough to make any clear-headed listener doubt the basic tenets of democratic liberalism. But he sure knows how to string together clichés—or, as they say on Twitter, make a thread of them—and the world evidently can’t or won’t block him. Frye left us a guide to understanding his tantrum style, and, even better, a way to start thinking again about fostering a culture that hears how empty it really is.
Born in 1912, Frye came of age in the 1930s, and recoiled from the totalitarianism that was on the march in that troubled decade, when he was studying at University of Toronto and Oxford. Hitler’s raving never quite stopped echoing for him, right through to his last big book, 1990’s Words With Power, published the year before he died, in which he describes how the most debased political rhetoric comes down to a “shrieking head” ranting until the “steady battering of consciousness becomes hypnotic, as the metaphor of ‘swaying’ an audience suggests.”
Frye was never swayed by the pull fascism exerted on, to stick to his literary field, Eliot and Pound. As for any tug from the left, well, he once reportedly dismissed rival critic Terry Eagleton as a “Marxist goof.” Frye proposed arming citizens against ideological assaults with educated imaginations, so they would know a verbal bludgeoning when they heard one. “Literary education should lead not merely to the admiration of great literature, but to some possession of its power of utterance,” he wrote in The Well-Tempered Critic. “The ultimate aim is an ethical and participating aim, not an aesthetic or contemplative one, even though the latter may be the means of achieving the former.”
The notion of literary appreciation underpinning participatory citizenship might well land as naïvely bookish. Yet it would be a mistake to assume Frye was out of touch. Despite his tweeds and rimless spectacles—not to mention the intimidating reputation draped over him after his daunting masterpiece, Anatomy of Criticism, appeared in 1957—he never really retreated into his Blake, his Shakespeare, and his King James Bible.
For instance, he dutifully watched countless hours of miscellaneous TV for the Canadian Radio-television Commission in the early 1970s. From the notes he jotted down, which were published much later, we know he was astute enough about popular culture to see that football was the medium’s ideal sport (its “discontinuous and intensely localized rhythm seems to me the rhythm of television”) and to greatly enjoy a segment of a CBC comedy special co-created by Lorne Michaels (soon to break big with “Saturday Night Live”).
He grappled more systematically with his times in a 1967 lecture series published as The Modern Century. Frye spoke of how the liberal ideal of social progress had devolved, at the individual level, to the progress of time ticking toward death. When life feels so pointless, so alienating, many individuals shield themselves by adopting a “deliberately frivolous” attitude, he observed, ignoring news other than tabloid “human interest” pieces. (Imagine if Frye had lived to witness the rise of reality TV.)
At the same time, he detected in advertising and propaganda—and especially their new hybrid progeny, PR—the ascendant forms of language. Decades before the Internet emerged as an all-encompassing digital counter-reality—ushering in a presidency that’s only fully itself on Twitter—Frye sensed something like it coming. “The triumph of communication is the death of communication: where communication forms a total environment, there is nothing to be communicated,” he wrote.
He was never easy to label. Frye insisted that literary criticism must not be an adjunct of any ideology, whether feminism or Marxism or, back in his day, Freudianism. His resistance to isms in his core work was known to sow confusion about where to peg him on the left-right spectrum. On one hand, the RCMP kept a secret file on him, their interest reportedly prompted by his involvement with a “teach-in” on China at University of Toronto in 1966; he also opposed the Vietnam war and apartheid in South Africa. On the other hand, he scoffed at the student radicals of the ’60s, who sounded to him, as a former student of the ‘30s, to be repeating the “formulas of the ignorant and stupid of a generation ago.”
In other words, he was more or less a centrist liberal, which frustrated his detractors during his lifetime. How could such a formidable genius be so politically bland? I think this largely explains why he’s fallen so far out of intellectual fashion. Yet today—with the best parts of the postwar status quo, which we used to take for granted, under siege by the forces of raw stupidity—Frye’s critical preoccupation with cultivating what he called democracy’s “shaping and controlling vision” takes on an unforeseen urgency.
In the roiling spring of 1969, when he was accepting an honorary degree at Acadia University, Frye pleaded for a return to a “revolutionary belief in democracy and equality,” arguing that, at least for Americans and Canadians, “the dynamic of democracy is an inclusive one, and it moves toward dissolving the barriers against excluded or depressed groups.” He acknowledged where North American society was falling short, but believed the solutions had to be found in its own myths. “The old middle-class and white-ascendancy stereotypes are no longer strong enough to hold society together, and of course they were never good enough,” he said that day. “But the recovery of its own democratic tradition is the key to the present identity crisis on this continent.”
What might be impeding the recovery of that tradition? More than 50 years ago, Frye warned that the comfortably prosperous democracies are vulnerable to an insidious internal blight more dangerous than any overt ideological challenge. “The most permanent kind of mob rule,” he wrote in The Modern Century, “is not anarchy, nor is it the dictatorship that regularizes anarchy, nor even the imposed police state depicted by Orwell. It is rather the self-policing state incapable of formulating an articulate criticism of itself and developing a will to act in its light.”
Sensing that their state is paralyzed in this way, citizens grow susceptible to the empty calls to action bellowed by Trump, or the Brexiters, or any number of subsidiary blowhards. When well-intentioned politicians can’t come to grips with climate change or shrink income inequality, reform immigration or fix health care, why keep voting them in? Supposedly enlightened leaders who haven’t been able to muster plausible critiques, or summon the will to act on them, won’t put populism back in its place until they regain their mobility.
Along with recovering the capacity to move on what matters, they’ll need to find the language to regain the respect of distracted voters. Frye wasn’t against healthy rhetoric. In Words With Power, he cited the most redoubtable of classics—Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and Churchill’s 1940 speeches—as examples of “how an ideology maintains itself in a historical crisis.”
Lincoln and Churchill, he wrote, didn’t appeal so much to reason, as to a shared understanding that respect for the rational is integral to an even deeper social bond. “The principle invoked is that we belong to something before we are anything, that our loyalties and sense of solidarity are prior to intelligence,” Frye said. “The sense of solidarity is not simply emotional any more than it is simply intellectual: it might better be called existential.”
And that solidarity was, for Frye, reliant on the vision that makes a society more than a mob. By vision, he meant everything we lump together, in a post-religious era, as culture. He placed the utmost importance on schools and universities doing the work of keeping genuine culture alive in students’ imaginations. That job, however, cannot be reduced to some sort of ideological indoctrination. At its heart, it must be about instilling a familiarity with and a taste for great stories—the sensibility most likely to carry with it a strong distaste for insults and lies.
What goes on in the classroom feels pressingly relevant where liberty is most threatened, and thus most valued. In Hong Kong, the high-school level liberal studies curriculum is being blamed by the Beijing regime and its apologists for creating a generation of pro-democracy activists. Frye would have been fascinated, and even more intrigued by reports that link recent efforts to enhance liberal-arts education at Hong Kong’s universities to the cause of bolstering liberal-democratic values there.
But that’s in a city under severe duress. In complacent North America, skeptics will doubt public education is up to a task as existential as reinvigorating democracy through the teaching of the humanities. Think about it this way, though. Let’s say the question is, “What is needed to keep liberal democracy healthy?” and your answer does not include, “The schools will have to do more heavy lifting.” In that case, the alternative answer escapes me. We need to teach the basic mechanisms of democracy (what we call “civics”) and the literature and art that bind us together as a democratic society (what Frye called “culture”).
Near the end of The Well-Tempered Critic, he described what culture accomplishes at its best, on the broadest, most democratic level. “It does not amuse,” Frye wrote, “it educates, hence it acts as an informing principle in ordinary life, dissolving the inequalities or class structure and the dismal and illiberal ways of life that arise when society as a whole does not have enough vision.” If that sounds utopian, will anything less suffice when dystopia commands a beachhead in the most powerful office in the world?