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Trump’s Last Act

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On January 14, 2017, six days before the inauguration of the current president, Hyperallergic Weekend launched a weekly image-and-text series, Drawing in a Time of Fear & Lies, with a work by William Powhida called “Various Dismal Futures.”

Based on imagery from sci-fi films and laid out as a set of 22 portrait tondos, “Various Dismal Futures” was made in July 2016, the month that the Democrats nominated Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Republicans did the same for Donald Trump. In the accompanying text, the artist wrote that he used “these existing narratives of future dysfunction to begin to consider the unthinkable.”

Fear & Lies, its title taken from a statement by Malcolm X, was conceived as “an arena of metaphor, texture, reflection, even ambiguity,” as I put it in an introduction to the series, “fueled by the same moral outrage that drives the protests in the streets.” It ran weekly for roughly two years, ending with the conclusion of the 2018 midterm elections, which handed the House of Representatives to the Democrats and hypothetically ushered in a new period of accountability. But the unthinkable was just getting out of bed.

I had planned to write a post marking four years since the launch date, taking the temperature of what had been expressed then and how it resonated now. On Tuesday, January 5, with the vote count trickling in from the Georgia runoff as background noise, I began reading through the installments and was caught up short by a passage from the late, great Matt Freedman, who had contributed a 16-page visual chronicle of the 2017 Women’s March — an eyewitness account of the first act of mass resistance to the looming catastrophe. 

Describing the vertiginous swirl of crowds, placards, and pink hats, he wrote:

No one has the experience at events like these that compare to the visuals on TV. We walk around, get lost, cold, bewildered. Can’t see the stage. But at the end of the day, we felt better than we imagined possible.

Matt’s optimism on the night of the march seemed to scatter the clouds that have enshrouded us for four years, and a few hours later, the Georgia race was called for Reverend Warnock. Then came January 6, and the most incandescent invectives hurled by the Fear & Lies artists felt like simple statements of fact, summed up in a line by Kate Kretz, “This mouth is oblivious to its own stupefying ignorance.”

Thomas Cole, “The Course of Empire: Destruction” (1836), oil on canvas, 33 1/4 × 63 1/4 inches; New-York Historical Society, Gift of The New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Donald Trump has worn his vileness like a snakeskin tuxedo ever since he first stepped onto the public stage, where, in 1980, he demolished the gracious Art Deco Bonwit Teller building on Fifth Avenue to make way for his clichéd black glass Trump Tower, and in the process instructed his illegal immigrant workers to jackhammer the decorative friezes he had promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His last act on the public stage, four decades later, has left the Capitol smashed, looted, and smeared with blood and feces. 

That day in the Capitol Rotunda, the mob fought the police in a pitched battle beneath the life-sized paintings by John Trumbull depicting four turning points in the country’s revolutionary history: the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the surrenders of Burgoyne and Cornwallis, and Washington resigning his commission. 

In 1825, one year before the Rotunda canvases were unveiled to the public, Trumbull came across three landscape paintings by an unknown artist named Thomas Cole in the shop of a New York picture dealer. He snatched one up for $25 — $560 today —and declared, according to an account in the New-York Evening Post (November 22, 1825), that he would not part with it “for 25 guineas” (more than $3000).

Eight years later, Cole embarked on a cycle of five paintings called The Course of Empire (1833–1836); in the fourth work of the series, “Destruction,” the neoclassical city that arose from what Cole termed “The Savage State,” inhabited by hunter-gatherers, into a bucolic idyll (“The Arcadian or Pastoral State”), and then a teeming seat of political and economic might (“The Consummation of Empire“), is consumed by smoke and flames, with rampaging hordes tearing down its idols and temples. That image is what entered my mind’s eye on that Wednesday afternoon, and hasn’t left.

The last painting in the cycle, “Desolation,” is a twilit scene of ruins nestled into mountainsides and mirrored in a placid inlet, dominated by a bone-white column, its Corinthian capital crowned by a heron’s nest. It’s the most haunting and beautiful of the five pictures, suffused with an otherworldly violet light, emptied of the trappings of wealth and power, forsaken, exhausted, and at peace.

This post will be published shortly after midnight on January 16 — the start of a weekend menaced by unparalleled threats of extremist violence in capital cities across the nation. An era that began with fear and lies is ending in sedition and terror. The president has been impeached for a second time. His trial date, and the depths of his destruction, are yet to be determined.

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