The image sent a shock of terror through my core.
Trump, the boy soldier. Drew Angerer / GETTY IMAGES

And then it happened. Trump walks up a White House staircase, pulls off his mask, and from the balcony salutes the departing military helicopter that transported him from the military hospital. At the moment of seeing this, a shot of terror struck my core. My mind tried to figure out the source of this terror and began its detective work.

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Trump, I thought, was like a boy trying as best as he can to be like a grown, battle-tested soldier. But was this thought (Trump the boy solider) not similar to something a 20th century German philosopher said about the one time they saw Hitler in person? Was it Wittgenstein? I searched the web and came up with nothing. Was it Heidegger (who was a Nazi)? Again, I came up with jack. Was it Gadamer, Heidegger's student? And then... bingo: I found the line that triggered the shot of terror.

I do not know where I first read it. It was just one of the many fragments that, like the floaters in my eyes, remain dormant and mindlessly move this way and that through the spaces of my mind for years and years until some event electrifies them. On the day I first read the passage and unthinkingly preserved it, the meaning was not in my past but in my future. The day in the past is unknown, but the one in the future is: October 6, 2020. Trump salutes the helicopter.

It was Hans-Georg Gadamer, the philosopher who made hermeneutics into a thing of his day. The boy line I had in mind about Hitler I found repeated in a London Review of Books article, "A Kind of Integrity," by the English philosopher Jonathan Barnes.

[In] 1936 Gadamer [who was not a very good Nazi] voluntarily registered at a Nazi ‘rehabilitation camp’. Doctrinally, life in the camp was mild and undemanding, and Gadamer satisfied his examiners without difficulty. He was also able to join in the ‘gymnastics, competitive games, and marches with nationalistic singing’, which enriched the emotional life of the inmates. During his training, he was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the Fuehrer himself, who impressed him ‘as being simple, indeed awkward, like a boy playing the soldier’.

This, I think, is the key to the dictator's power. It's not that they are actually adults or have brilliant military careers and skills. It's more that their understanding of real-world tanks and destroyers is no different than that of a boy with war toys on a rug or in a bathtub. Indeed, the more professional a soldier is, the less likely they are made of the stuff that makes a dictator deadly on a world-historical scale.

Let's turn to these tweets by two thinkers I deeply admire, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Doug Henwood.


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and...

Here we have Trump's stunt (helicopter arrives, president walks across the lawn, walks up the steps, pulls of mask, breathes, and salutes the helicopter) as the stuff of a "dime store dictator" (Taylor) or "Walmart Riefenstahl" (Henwood). But in fact, the quality (or essence) of the most deadly dictators this world has known has been nothing more than "dime store" or "Walmart."

Leni Riefenstahl was picked by the boy soldier, Hitler, to make art out of offal. Walmart does something similar for the American consumer. With a dictator, the more fake, the more effective. No one in their right mind will believe that Trump is well and has beaten COVID-19. But from the very beginning, he has needed nothing more than sellotape to hold together or a sharpie to draw the scenes of his awesomeness.

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