Ironic Escapism

Donald Trump has been called America’s Frankenstein monster. Is this true? The first point against this theory is that Frankenstein’s monster was not a monster, he was a creature (nonhuman rather than subhuman). The second point is that Frankenstein was the creator of the creature, not the creature himself. The third is that the creature had yellow skin, not orange. The last and most important point is that the creature was no more the villain of the story than he was the victim. Rather the creature was a product of an interdependent society that is ruled by violence, fear and perceptions.

Ed Cameron’s essay “”Ironic Escapism In The Symbolic Spread Of Gothic Materialist Meaning” quotes both Sigmund Freud: “Freud’s fundamental insight here, that what is repressed is not something fearful, but rather anxiety itself” and Jacques Lacan: “anxiety never deceives; it is real. Figures, on the other hand, are symbolic and are deceptive by nature.” Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” is perhaps the most essential work on the Gothic genre. In it he defines uncanny as the unique class of frightening that brings us back to the old and long familiar. In his essay, Freud refuses to acknowledge the symbol of fear as real in its essence. Rather, the fear itself is real and it comes from a repression of our old and familiar lives. This fear is projected onto symbols. These symbols may or may not be innocent, but they certainly are innocent of the specific crime that was projected onto them, which is being the symbol in the first place.

Cameron goes on to pull apart his fellow critics for their “ironic escapism.” These critics claim that the Gothic genre’s treatment of the Other (specifically the creature) is callous. The first point that Cameron knocks them for is comparing the nonhuman creature to human Others. The bulk of his rebuttal deals with their misunderstanding of Freud and Lacan. While claiming that the symbol is “good”, they maintain it as real. The symbol is most often projected onto a real body, but the symbol is not real. The fear, repressed and abstract is real, and it finds its symbol.

Trump and his cabinet of goons have reverted back to the most elementary and cruel forms of scapegoating and punishing of the symbol. The immigrant, the nonwhites, the LGBTQ+, the women and the Muslims. To combat this liberals have engaged in hollow “ironic escapism.” Trump makes eliminating his scapegoats a top priority of his base by promising material gains in exchange for their extermination. If we build a wall, you will get your old job back. If we cleanse the street of its blacks and latinx, there will be no more drugs that ruin your communities. Rights for women and LGBTQ become associated with a general decaying of society that has left America in its greatest state of material inequality since the 1920s. Liberals respond by saying that everybody is equal, life is great for everybody, and that anybody who disagrees is a bigot. They fail to recognize that the power of Trump’s words do not come from the differences between his supporters and those he scapegoats but from the familiar anxieties he is speaking to. Insecurity, poverty, hopelessness and longing can all supposedly be solved by the elimination of the Other.

Liberals fail to break free of the dangerous symbolism that endangers the marginalized by relying on the prop of identity politics and maintaining a general appetite for fluff over material. In Frankenstein, the De Lacy family is much like the well meaning liberal. They accept the immigrant, passing the first test of the culture wars. But the De Lacys do not show moral consistency as they are abhorred by the appearance of the creature. The creature is not a metaphor for the immigrant, as the De Lacys pass the test. They are “good” people. Kind gestures to the minority are cool nowadays. While I don’t mean to diminish this, as it is a trend that holds unmeasurable significance, but is also one that the yuppies have coopted from courageous civil rights movements. In the professional class you accept others based on their education level, so any honest display of bigotry is regarded with disdain not because it is iniquitous but because it is benighted. The victims of violence become bodies for battlegrounds. One side sees them as the enemy who must be destroyed in order to regain material desires. The other sees them as the victim who must be protected in order to maintain their cultural superiority.

As long as fear remains repressed, it will find a symbol to project itself on. Little does it matter the actual crimes of the real symbol. They are receiving an unfair trial. Liberals of course are also guilty of unfair trials. Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow: “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.” Similar justification is used for endless warfare in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. We are not fighting the black and brown people, but the criminals infecting their countries, who just happen to be black and brown. Here the most ironic of escapes has been justified. The traditional symbol has been debunked as philistine and has been replaced by a new one in a cheap disguise.

Freud would warn us that we are still repressing our fears. There has been little dialogue about the “old and long familiar” in a post-history and post-fact 24 hour news cycle. For the liberal, the black and brown have been replaced by the criminal and the terrorist. The victims are still the same, save for a few “symbols” such as President Obama (who reaffirmed in a recent interview that becoming the most powerful man within a materialist and militant society does not eliminate racism). Rather than question the old and long familiar laws, propaganda and militarism that rule society, we instead find a new symbol.

Trump is scary. But he cannot just be another symbol of fear to devour or stave off. The De Lacy family proved that finding the symbols was not enough. The fear is still present, and it will control us. It will make us sympathizers of the powerful. The poor white man will soon find that getting rid of the immigrants will not ultimately solve his problems. The terrorized liberal will soon find that getting rid of Trump will not ultimately solve hers. The bigotry and the violence has been lurking in the frightening and long familiar underbelly of American empire. Trump is our creature, but he is not our Frankenstein. The predatory immigrant and apocalyptic Donald are both symbols of the incompleteness of a society that relies on fear as a means of control. To break free of symbols, we must locate that old friend inside each one of us that has normalized violence and accepted inconceivable inequality. Once we resist this fear within ourselves, there will be no creature that can stop us.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com