A Brief Treatise on the Perspective and Ministrations of the Artist and His Account of the Years of Discontent Under the Tyranny of the Wretched and Most Uncivil Donald J. TrumpRichard Kraft
From “It Is What It Is”: All the Cards Issued to Donald Trump, January 2017—January 2021 by Richard Kraft. All rights reserved. © 2021 Richard Kraft and Siglio Press.
The operating principle that seems to work best is to go to the landscape that frightens you the most and take pictures until you’re not scared anymore.
I wanted to say something beautiful
How we turn garbage into gold
How we made a swamp fertile land
How we turned a curse, into a blessing.
When crimes begin to pile up, they become invisible.
I grew up in a soccer-obsessed house in London. Such was my father’s love of the game that, during the season, he would take me to matches almost every week. Like my dad, I loved the game, but I was also transfixed by the crowd, by the people (and my father was one of them) who seemed to tap into a vast reservoir of rage in order to hurl abuse at the men on the pitch. There was a special kind of venom for one particular figure — in those days always dressed in black — who was hated by everyone in the stadium. The referee, I quickly learned, was doomed, and I would wait with great anticipation for a decision that would draw cries of outrage and prompt one of my favorite chants: “Who’s the wanker in the black?”
• • •
A soccer referee has three primary tools to control the game: a whistle and two colored cards — yellow and red. Showing a player a yellow card (also known as a “caution”) is intended as a warning. A second yellow card in the same game draws a red and thus dismissal from the field. Particularly egregious breaches of the rules can draw a “straight red,” immediate ejection from the game. Over the course of a season, the cards shown to each player accumulate, and when specific thresholds are reached, a ban of several games is enforced.
• • •
In 2001, I had a run-in with an unscrupulous art dealer that caught me by surprise. Feeling aggrieved with no real means to rectify the wrong, I made a drawing of a yellow card and a red card, mounted together on a gray piece of paper, a humorous talisman through which I sought to exercise a silent — and completely ineffective — retribution. I have moved studios several times since then, and it is always one of the first things I pin up as I organize a new space.
• • •
On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump announced that he would run for the Republican presidential nomination. With music from The Phantom of the Opera blaring, he descended an escalator in Trump Tower, surveyed a crowd described in news reports as two dozen, and proclaimed, “Wow. Woah. That is some group of people. Thousands!” He then proceeded to deviate from the statement his staff had distributed earlier to the press, saying instead: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic]. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists. And some, I assume are good people.”
• • •
Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry was first performed in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Œuvre on December 10, 1896. The antihero Père Ubu leads a revolution against the King of Poland, and takes the throne. Père Ubu is obese, dishonest, ignorant, bombastic, rapacious, sadistic, vindictive, cowardly, and vain. His speech is contemptuous, vulgar, and repetitive. Such is his greed and stupidity, that immediately after taking power, he ignores the pleas of his advisors and plunders the nation; executes the nobles and steals their property; decrees that the judiciary shall subsist on the fines they levy and the lands of those they put to death; does away with the bankers and heavily taxes the peasants. His dishonesty is so great that he is abandoned by his followers, defeated by the Russians, and forced to flee to France. The first performance ended in a riot, and the play was subsequently banned from the stage. Jarry then reconceived it as a puppet show.
• • •
One of the wonderful idiosyncrasies of the British electoral system is that anyone who can muster a quite small financial deposit can run in a general election. One of my favorite stories is of the man who legally changed his name to Margaret Thatcher and ran against the then prime minister in the same constituency. I’m not sure if this really happened, or if I’ve imagined it, but I believe that standing up to, questioning, and subverting the authority of those in power is a civic duty. At the age of eighteen, I walked to my local polling place in London and voted for a person whose name I don’t remember, but who listed himself simply as “Poet.” Sadly, his vote tally didn’t trouble the party candidates (I don’t think he reached double figures), but, in retrospect, my nascent, intuitive sense that the vast majority of politicians — their words, actions, and agendas — require close scrutiny, has been borne out by countless scandals, acts of corruption, and abuses of power.
• • •
On the morning of September 20, 2016, 57th Street in Manhattan was empty of both traffic and pedestrians. When I asked why, a policeman told me, “The president is coming.” Minutes later the roar of motorcycles preceded the arrival of the presidential limousine and there, just a few feet away from me, behind a tinted window, was President Obama. He looked smaller in real life than he had on television. I thought I could see the loneliness, the weight of his office on his face. I wondered if he had entertained the notion that his legacy might be undone by a man with a pathological hatred for him. I have rarely had a good reason to respect anyone in a position of authority, much less to have any affection for them; but at that moment, I was startled to find myself deeply moved.
• • •
By the late summer of 2016, I had a feeling that Trump would beat Hillary Clinton. (I had closely followed the Brexit vote which rewarded xenophobia and mendacity, so it seemed quite possible — even if many thought it unlikely — that he could win.) I obsessively checked the polling aggregates on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website, and while the numbers favored Hillary, Silver was far from confident. If I remember correctly, he was critized for suggesting that Trump had even a small chance of victory. In October, the Chicago Cubs overcame a three-games-to-one deficit to snap a 108-year drought and win the World Series. This was, it seemed, a portent of a Trump victory, one that Nate Silver also sensed. He tweeted, “Reminder: Cubs will win the World Series and, in exchange, President Trump will be elected 8 days later.”
• • •
My wife Lisa and I were in London on November 8, 2016. My father (a lifelong Tory who was incredulous that a man such as Trump could get anywhere near a presidential election) was convinced Hillary would win in a landslide. My gut said otherwise. Around 4:00 a.m., sleeping poorly, I awoke when my phone buzzed with a text from my daughter Mira, who was watching the returns in Seattle: “This is getting scary!” Shortly after that, I heard my father walk down the hall. He confirmed, to his utter amazement, what we’d already seen glowing in the dark on our phones. One of the English tabloid newspapers summed it up with its Cockney-rhyming slang headline: “No, it wasn’t a dream folks … THE WORLD REALLY IS DONALD-DUCKED.”
• • •
John Cage’s Lecture on the Weather was installed at London’s Frith Street Gallery from September to December 2016. The piece was commissioned in 1975 by the Canadian Broadcasting Company for the bicentennial of the United States. In his preface, Cage describes his ultimately futile search for an anthology of American aspirational thought which he could subject to chance operations. Instead, he turned to Thoreau, whose chance-selected words from Walden, the Journal, and Civil Disobedience make up the text of the piece. On the morning of November 9, the preface, indeed the whole work, felt as if it was written for us on this very day (as is often the case with Cage). It drove home the fact that, aside from the obvious dangers, Trump’s election represented a huge step backward. The radical thinking of Thoreau (and Cage himself) only made Trump’s inadequacies — particularly, his lack of imagination — more apparent. If Americans wanted a leader who would shake things up, break through the Washington gridlock, and open doors to new, exciting, previously unimagined or unachievable possibilities, Trump was not that person. Of such deficiencies, Cage writes:
Our leaders are concerned with the energy crisis. They assure us they will find new sources of oil. Not only will earth’s reservoir of fossil fuels soon be exhausted: their continued use continues the ruin of the environment. Our leaders promise they will solve the unemployment problem: they will give everyone a job. It would be more in the spirit of Yankee ingenuity, more American, to find a way to get all the work done that needs to be done without anyone’s lifting a finger. Our leaders are concerned with inflation and insufficient cash. Money, however, is credit, and credit is confidence. We have lost confidence in one another. We could regain it tomorrow by simply changing our minds.
Later in the preface, Cage, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., reminds us of the obligation to resist:
As I thought further, I came to see that what we were really doing was withdrawing our cooperation from an evil system, rather than merely withdrawing our economic support from the bus company. The bus company being an external expression of the system, would naturally suffer, but the basic aim was to refuse to cooperate with evil.
• • •
There were pundits who predicted that Trump would adjust to the presidency, who believed that the rhetoric of the campaign would dissolve as the solemnity of the office became a reality. It was obvious to many of us, however, that Trump would make the presidency adjust to him. This was a man who launched his political career by falsely claiming (and relentlessly reiterating) that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and thus was ineligible to serve as president. This was a man who had taken out several full-page newspaper adverts calling for the execution of five young Black and Latino boys who had been falsely accused of a brutal rape in Central Park. (Despite the ultimate exoneration of these men, all of whom served long prison sentences, Trump has never apologized for his actions and to this day refuses to say the five were wrongly charged and convicted.) This was a man who boasted about assaulting women, who spoke in openly racist terms about immigrants and Muslims, who mocked a disabled reporter, who claimed he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a single vote. This was a man who lied unashamedly and, when caught in a lie, indignantly repeated it over and over again. To the horror, disbelief, and embarrassment of millions of Americans and people around the world, this was the man who, despite receiving three million votes less than his opponent, was elected the 45th president of the United States.
• • •
Perhaps the most enduring of Jewish legends is that of the golem, an artificial man fashioned out of clay by mystics possessing great magical power. There are many different versions of the story but the pertinent one is that the golem eventually turns on his maker, wreaking havoc, terrifying the people, and attacking the synagogue he was created to defend. Benjamin Kerstein writes, “In a culture that revered learning and wisdom, the golem is stupid and incapable of reason. In a culture defined by the rigorous discipline of religious law, the golem is unruly, savage, and incapable of self-control … So contrary is the golem to the ideals of Jewish tradition that in Jewish circles his name eventually became an insult. To refer to someone as a ‘golem’ is, essentially, to call him an idiot and a fool.”
• • •
The Resistance took shape on January 19, 2017, the day before Trump was inaugurated. It was and has remained a grassroots movement — with no central command — that has taken numerous forms. On January 21, the first full day of Trump’s presidency, millions of people gathered in Washington, DC and other cities all over the world for the Women’s March to register their dismay and convey their concerns about the threat that Trump represented to human, civil, and reproductive rights. Republicans have speciously claimed that their refusal to accept the result of the 2020 election is a mirror to the Resistance. In fact, there is no comparison. The Resistance did not dispute Trump’s electoral victory; rather, it was established in opposition to his ideas, his policies, his toxic rhetoric. The Resistance was rooted in the belief that Trump posed an existential threat to both the United States and the planet, that he would stymie progress on innumerable issues, and relinquish the position of the United States (whatever its shortcomings) as a counterbalance to totalitarian regimes in Russia, China, and other countries.
Time has proven this to be correct. In ways both predicted and unexpected, Donald Trump has left the country (and the world) weaker, more divided, and broken. On January 6, 2020, thousands of Trump’s supporters, some of them armed and encouraged by the president, stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to prevent congressional certification of Joe Biden’s election victory. As a result, five people died, and more than 140 were injured. In February 2021, Trump continued to insist that his supporters posed “zero threat” to lawmakers, and that law enforcement was “persecuting” the rioters, while “nothing happens” to those who protested against systemic racism and police violence.
• • •
I like to think of myself as a reasonable, generous person, one who has compassion, empathy, and respect for others, but Donald Trump is a person I disdain. I find his attack on the Exonerated Five (previously known as the Central Park Five), his cowardice, his lies, his narcissism, his demeaning treatment of women, his deep hatred of the other, unforgivable. Walking the streets of London on November 9, 2016, in the afterglow of Cage’s Lecture on the Weather, I resolved I would not allow his racism, his misogyny, his dishonesty, his assault on common decency, to be normalized or go unrecorded. This project, assigning Trump’s words and actions colored cards in the fashion of a soccer referee, was conceived on that gray London afternoon.
✼ natalie’s upstate weather report:
september 22, 2023 — Every day blue skies, 71 degrees, and a slight, saltine breeze. Away from the ocean, into the city: heat that melts tar and soaks the concrete while waiting for a bus that seems to have evaporated. And then the ascension up the hill above the slow ooze of traffic on I-405 to the Getty Research Center where—shoed, socked and sweatered—our publisher delves into the Jean Brown Archive, a wholly other climate.[...]