While obvious comparisons have been made to dystopian fiction by George Orwell and Margaret Atwood—1984 is a new bestseller!—Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros offers a subtler commentary on the age of Trump. Published in 1952, the play responds to the rise of fascist and Stalinist regimes in the wake of World War II, exploring the phenomenon by which normal, reasonable people would choose to march willingly in lockstep with obviously oppressive totalitarian regimes. Ionesco’s response to the “herd mentality,” analyzed first by French social psychologists Gustave LeBon and Gabriel Tarde, imagined a provincial French town where the residents transform into trumpeting rhinoceroses and stampede throughout the village.
The play opens with two friends, Jean and Berenger, having an argument about Berenger’s drinking. As they sit and talk at a café, and other characters circulate—a housewife, logician, old gentleman, proprietor, waitress, and a girl named Daisy—a rhinoceros is heard trumpeting in the distance. But shortly after, the number of rhinos in town increases dramatically and once normal people begin to transform. Soon, everyone is altered into stampeding, belligerently trumpeting rhinos, leaving Berenger, his co-worker Dudard, and Daisy wondering how everyone they knew had succumbed to rhinocerism and questioning their own sanity as the last humans in a world of beasts. As Berenger watches his best friend change, he wonders how such radical inhumanity happened. “How can I help thinking about it,” Berenger exclaims, “He was such a warm-hearted person, always so human!” In the wake of the election, so many of us wondered the same thing about our friends and family. How did these people, our fellow Americans, so willingly transform into rhinoceroses?
The dialogue between Berenger and Dudard in the third act of the play accentuates the horrors of watching our fellow Americans turn into inhuman monsters. Dudard resorts to an argument we are all familiar with:
Dudard: I think you’re right to a certain extent to have some reaction. But you go too far. You’ve no sense of humour, that’s your trouble, none at all. You must learn to be more detached, and try and see the funny side of things.
Berenger: I feel responsible for everything that happens. I feel involved, I just can’t be indifferent.
Dudard: Judge not lest ye be judged. If you start worrying about everything that happens you’d never be able to go on living.
Berenger: If only it had happened somewhere else, in some other country, and we’d just read about it in the papers, one could discuss it quietly, examine the question from all points of view and come to an objective conclusion. We could organize debates with professors and writers and lawyers, and blue-stockings and artists and people. And the ordinary man in the street, as well—it would be very interesting and instructive. But when you’re involved yourself, when you suddenly find yourself up against the brutal facts you can’t help feeling directly concerned—the shock is too violent for you to stay cool and detached. I’m frankly surprised, I’m very surprised. I can’t get over it.
I think of this exchange now when conservatives or celebrities suggest we should all give Trump a chance or that we’re poor sports about losing the election or that we need to relax. Having a “sense of humour” about Trump, as Dudard would counsel, does not stop him from enacting racist, sexist, Christian-supremacist legislation that will affect many Americans. But this exchange also reveals something about white liberals. Isn’t Berenger the quintessential bourgeois white liberal? Dudard may suggest getting over it, but Berenger remains shocked that it could happen here. For white Democrats, Trump’s victory is shocking and terrifying. For non-whites, this is more “politics as usual.” The political establishment has never represented everyone. Like Berenger, liberals wish it had happened somewhere else, yet totalitarianism has been spreading around the globe, often as the direct result of American neoconservative foreign policy. Who can say that Iraq is a better country now?
Berenger wishes it had happened somewhere else and is finally forced into action by the very real local threat of a monstrous herd. Trump’s base has also forced normally complacent bourgeois liberals into service, and many are actively participating for the first time in grassroots activism, the kind of activism that was so prevalent in the Bernie Sanders campaign. As Dudard tries to reason his way through the situation in town, in which everyone is joining the herd, Berenger loses his composure, exploding, “What does all that mean? Mass opinion, dogmatism—they’re just words! I may be mixing everything up in my head but you’re losing yours. You don’t know what’s normal and what isn’t any more.” So many of us have begun to feel that reasoning with Trump’s voting bloc is like tilting at windmills. Exposing blatant lies, foreign influence, corruption, nepotism, alternative facts, and historical fallacies has very little effect on Trump’s supporters. Like Berenger, I often find myself speechless at the double-talk, the Orwellian newspeak, that pours out of the White House. The only solution is action.
Furthermore, Ionesco illustrates the dangers of the herd mentality spreading. When Berenger suggests that the rhinos are still the minority, Daisy reminds him, “They’re a pretty big minority, and getting bigger all the time. My cousin’s a rhinoceros now, and his wife. Not to mention leading personalities like the Cardinal de Retz…” Watching the normalization of authoritarian tendencies, of white supremacy and active misogyny, of xenophobia and blatant corruption, I’m struck by Daisy’s response. It’s easy to say Trump lost the popular vote, but he’s still the president. Trump and his followers have authorized behavior that would have been unthinkable even under the George W. Bush presidency. Within a very short period of time, Trump has dramatically eroded the foundations of American democracy with very little resistance from establishment Republicans. Both senators from my state seem content to march behind Trump even as he breaks the law and openly bolsters his wealthy friends at the expense of the 99%. Even the Democrats seem unwilling to fight back, as all of Trump’s nominations have been confirmed, including Jeff Sessions who was considered too racist to be a federal judge, let alone Attorney General at a time when police violence against blacks seems uncontrollable. “You get used to it,” Daisy admits, “Nobody seems surprised any more to see herds of rhinoceroses galloping through the streets.”
Stampeding rhinos wreck the town in short order, breaking through walls and houses. Similarly, Trump is bent on destroying the framework of a liberal society, attacking public services and agencies such as the National Parks Service, Planned Parenthood, the National Endowment of the Humanities and Arts, and public programming. He has nominated radically unqualified people to key positions, and they will likely damage those agencies beyond repair. Like Berenger, we must ask ourselves:
The only solution is to convince them—but convince them of what? Are the changes reversible, that’s the point? Are they reversible? It would be a labour of Hercules, far beyond me. In any case, to convince them you’d have to learn their language. Or they’d have to learn mine. But what language do I speak?
This question of communication is important these days. How do we connect with people who believe that being an actual fascist is not a deal-breaker to be president of the United States? Who believe that racism and sexism are issues that only “snowflakes” care about? Who are comfortable with the Steve Bannons and Jeff Sessions of the world? We can’t even communicate with the GOP political establishment, who run the risk of losing positions, let alone their followers.
And maybe that’s the point. Maybe we should focus instead on our own language community. What are we espousing as progressives? Are we trying to help the poor and improve the lives of working Americans of all races and gender orientations? Are we fighting for economic and climate justice? Are we standing up for one another? Or are we simply retrenching around the same platforms we had before because we’re afraid. I too would have preferred pushing Hillary to the left, but we lost. For too long, the Democratic Party has catered to the corporate lobbyists and wealthy donors, while paying lip service to progressive values. But we now have a chance to create a New Democratic Party. We need to figure out a message that will reinvigorate a militant Left unabashedly committed to the public good and economic redistribution. We are surrounded by a herd of trumpeting rhinoceroses, and we have to define ourselves rather than try to communicate with them.
Matthew Hannah is a postdoctoral fellow at the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa. His research focuses on twentieth and twenty-first century literature, digital technology, and media. His opinions are his own.