Dr. Lecter and Mr. Trump

Still from Silence of the Lambs.

Silence of the Lambs. Has anyone ever seen The Silence of the Lambs? The late, great Hannibal Lecter is a wonderful man. He oftentimes would have a friend for dinner. Remember the last scene? Excuse me. I’m about to have a friend for dinner,” as this poor doctor walked by. I’m about to have a friend for dinner.” But Hannibal Lecter. Congrats. The late, great Hannibal Lecter…”

—Donald J. Trump, presumptive Republican presidential nominee, speaking in Wildwood, New Jersey

I am beginning to suspect that there are actually two Donald Trumps: one is the hibernating bear you see asleep in court, with his mouth open and eye lids drooping, looking like a bag man who stumbled in from the Bowery in search of a warm place to rest, if not somewhere to riff incoherently about crooked judges or mumble praise about cannibalism; the other Donald Trump—at least to his supporters a functioning adult with sound political philosophies?—is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party to run for president in 2024 and who in the so-called “battleground states” (Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina et al.) is ahead by an average margin of 3.6%. So which Trump reality will define the United States in 2024?

Drifter Trump has to be the luckiest man on the planet. He’s golden-showered with other people’s money (see the billions gifted to him in the Trump Media scam and the PACs he uses as personal slush funds), driven around in a long convoy of Secret Service SUVs, taken seriously in newspaper editorials, and allowed to address campaign rallies from his altered state (none more untethered than his recent speech in Wildwood, New Jersey).

Nor does it matter that Trump’s speech has become slurred or that his mind has become lost in time and place, as when he said in Wildwood:

A lot of people were saying a year ago, He didnt build the wall yet. He didnt build the wall.” Let me tell you. When you have the strength of a party that has the House, okay, hopefully, theyre not going to have the House for long. Well have a wonderful new speaker, will get rid of Nancy Pelosi, nervous Nancy, nervous Nancy. Well have Kevin McCarthy whos been fantastic. We have to win back the House. But think of this. The wall, so many people were saying, Build it.” Well, its not easy when you have the weight of an entire party and they control the House, not easy. We did it and frankly we were building the wall through the help of the military, the Army Corps of Engineers anyway, but you know what? Now we actually have the money and its going up very rapidly.

Clearly cognitively-declined Trump thinks that the Democrats still control the House, that Nancy Pelosi is the speaker, or that Kevin McCarthy (who left the House in 2023) is poised to become the next speaker if Trump is elected in 2024. But to the Republicans who are set to nominate him in July 2024, such incoherence matters not at all.


Not for a long time, if ever, have any of Trump’s supporters taken anything he says at face value. Trump’s language is white noise, part of a vaudeville act in which everyone in the audience knows the punchlines and applause moments. He said in Wildwood:

Together were achieving historic victories for New Jersey families. You see it every single day. The New Jersey unemployment rate has reached the lowest of all time. More people are working today in the state of New Jersey than ever before. I have to tell you more people, almost 160 million, are working right now in the United States. Thats the highest level of employment in the history of our country…..Weeks ago we also signed a fantastic new trade agreement with China that will boost New Jersey exports and defend New Jersey jobs. $250 billion coming in….

I have to say this, America is winning again and America is thriving again like never before. Since the election we have created seven million new jobs. The average unemployment rate under my administration is lower than any previous administration, listen to this one, in United States history. Thats a good fact, the lowest in history.

As Stan Mack used to write in the Village Voice: “Guarantee: All dialogue is reported verbatim.” Maybe Trump secretly has joined the Biden administration?


Trump’s public appearances are bedtime stories to a nervous electorate who are angry at immigrants, inflation, Arabs, transgenders, prosecutors, socialists, journalists, and Mexicans. That he’s incapable of speaking in complete sentences or articulating a coherent thought is beside the point.

If Trump’s words mattered, would he not be laughed out of the election for telling the Wildwood crowd (making it sound as if he was still president):

At stake in our present battle is the survival of our nation. I really mean that, its the survival of our nation. And if you would have had the other party winning this last election, instead of your market being up 72%. Instead of your 401(k)s being up numbers that you cant even believe where your wife or your husband says, Darling, youre the most brilliant person in history. For years, youve been losing your ass with 401(k)s. Now youre making a fortune.” Right? Right? Now youre making a fortune. I have people coming up to me all the time. I had one gentlemen come up, Sir. Thank you, sir. Youve made me look so smart. My wife never respected me for anything, not anything. But now she thinks Im a great investor. Thank you 401(k).”

Presumably understanding place and time is a prerequisite of being president, but in Trump World the only thing that matters is snarky inflection. Trump has to appear as angry and disenfranchised as his supporters, even though he heads home in a helicopter and they are jump-starting their pickup trucks.

Why is a major political party running a candidate for the American presidency who by just about any metric is bat-shit crazy?

I assume that the answer lies in the familiar truisms about power and money. The power part is this: Republicans believe that if Trump is in the White House, the party can fill the judiciary with their judges, pass endless military appropriations (although President Biden has already done that), deport illegal aliens, further restrict abortion, pray in school, and somehow get back to the business of letting white men in a suits run the country.

With Trump in office, it will once again be okay to grope secretaries at work, cook the corporate books, and envision the United States as a variation on Trump National Golf Club in Bedminister (where to get a tax deduction Trump buried his ex-wife near the first tee).

As for the money, the Republicans are willing to overlook Trump’s grifts and schemes so that he will eliminate the inheritance tax, drill for oil in the Rose Garden, scoff at the science of climate change, and tell jokes about inequality.

As Trump said at Wildwood, in a voice of delirious rapture:

If you want your children to inherit the blessings that generations of Americans have fought and died for it to secure, then we must devote everything that we have toward victory in 2020. We have to. And by the way, when we talk about inheriting victory in 2020 in our Nation, just so you understand, under a big tax cut biggest tax cut plan in history, guess what you have? You have a business, you have a farm, you have a small business, no more inheritance tax, no more what we call death tax.

Trump’s model republics are places such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, and Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, where the oligopoly lives well, so long as he remains the don of dons.


After Trump’s Wildwood rally, it was the Hannibal Lecter soliloquy that got the press attention, but what’s most telling about Trump’s speech is that numerous passages and asides were equally unhinged—not that many voters are reading the event transcript, and then coming to their own conclusions about Trump’s fitness for high office.

Here, for example, is what he said about foreign policy. Note the omissions about Gaza, Palestine, Ukraine, Russia, China, NATO and climate change. Instead he turned back the clock in his imaginary world to Iraq in the 2000s:

Weeks ago [it was actually in 2020], at my direction, the US military launched a flawless precision strike that killed the worlds number one terrorist Qasem Soleimani. Soleimani was responsible for murdering and wounding thousands of Americans, and actively planning new attacks, but we stopped him cold. Yet Washington Democrats, like crazy Bernie Sanders and nervous Nancy Pelosi, they opposed our action to save American lives. They oppose it. They oppose it. You know the roadside bombs that you see hurting our people and lots of other people so badly? The legs, the arms, wiped out. No legs, no arms. Soleimani loved that. That was his weapon of choice. We didnt like him. Hes not around anymore.

Is such thinking worthy of a candidate for the presidency? In high school, such an answer on a foreign policy question would earn you a D minus. Instead, come July 2024, the Republicans will nominate him to stand for the presidency, and if the polls for the Electoral College (and all those “battleground states”) remain as they are today, Trump will be returned to the White House. (Heck of a job, Biden Democrats, that it’s this close, when the Republicans are running an adjudicated rapist and serial financial defaulter.) It’s a tragedy just to consider, because Lecter wasn’t the only person on stage in Wildwood who was devouring his own.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.