Famous author Joyce Carol Oates is known for the number and length of her fiction output. But she’s also a Twitter-user, and yesterday she retweeted this pithy thought:
“I could shoot 24 million people on Fifth Avenue & I would’t lose a vote”–#TheirFuhrer
It seems to have stirred up a predictable tweet-storm. But aside from the “Trump=Hitler” insanity—which is so common now that it’s become a cliché—I wonder what on earth this statement is trying to say and why anyone (even a Trump-detester) with an intellectual and/or literary reputation to uphold would approvingly retweet it.
And yes, that’s a rhetorical “wondering” on my part. I understand that among the intelligentsia, these sorts of statements about Trump and Hitler are regarded as not only acceptable, but true and courageous.
But does a joke in which a person says he could shoot someone (obvious hyperbole), and that even then his loyal supporters would still vote for him, have anything to do with a desire to actually shoot someone? Of course not. We used to say much the same thing about Obama—that he could strangle a puppy on the White House steps and his supporters would figure out a way to defend him. But even those who disliked Obama the most probably didn’t think he was actually into strangling puppies.
It was a joke of Trump’s, people. Not a very funny one, perhaps, but meant to illustrate a point about the devotion of supporters and nothing else. Dinosaur that I am, Trump’s original comment reminded me of all the flap around John Lennon’s 1966 (fifty years ago!) remark that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus:
During an interview, [Lennon] argued that Christianity was in decline and that it may not endure longer than rock music, explaining “We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity…
When Datebook, a US teen magazine, quoted Lennon’s comments five months later in August, extensive protests broke out in the Southern United States. Some radio stations stopped playing Beatles songs, their records were publicly burned, press conferences were cancelled, and threats were made. The controversy coincided with the group’s US tour in August 1966, and Lennon and Brian Epstein attempted to quell the dispute at a series of press conferences. Some tour events experienced disruption and intimidation, including a picketing by the Ku Klux Klan.
Shortly after the controversy broke, Lennon reluctantly apologised for the comment, saying “if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it”. He stressed that he was simply remarking on how other people viewed and popularised the band. The events contributed to the Beatles’ lack of interest in public live performances, and the US tour was the last they undertook, after which they became a studio-only band.
Revisiting that Lennon quote just now for the first time in all those years, I notice that his remarks were actually potentially more offensive to Christians than I had known, because he had added:
Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.
On the other hand, Trump seemed to be sticking to the subject of his popularity and the extreme loyalty of his supporters. Trump’s comment was uttered in January of 2016, over a year ago, so why it’s being recycled now I have no idea. But as relatively unfunny as Trump’s original joke was, multiply that by ten and that’s how unfunny and/or unwitty and/or illogical the retweet of Oates’ is.
How does Trump’s “I could shoot someone…” joke get translated into the mass murder of millions? And is this retweet a comment on Trump, on his followers (are they all supposedly intent on mass murder, too)? Or on both?
These also are obviously rhetorical questions, because the answer is that it doesn’t matter to those who love to tweet or retweet this sort of thing. And although I shouldn’t be the least bit surprised at the intellectual pretensions of those who do love to retweet this sort of thing (Oates, after all, was a Princeton professor for 36 years), sometimes I am surprised.