What Would Christopher Hitchens Have Made of the Trump Presidency?

Upon encountering this question on Quora, my instinct was that the late Christopher Hitchens would have been mortified by the idea of Donald Trump leading the country that he made his home, and came to love with that special kind of fervor of those who enrolled in the great American experiment by choice. Assuring myself of the accuracy of this assessment afforded me the sheer joy of reading loads of old Hitchens essays. For that, I am grateful, even if with it comes a sense of renewed, profound sadness for the loss of his contribution to the national discourse.

Some will point out that Trump and Hitchens share some similar views. Hitchens was a dogged antagonist of the conventions of political correctness that so animate the modern left. He was also unapologetic in his criticism of radical Islam. But, to the extent Trump and Hitchens are similar in these respects, the resemblance is superficial. They should give us no more cause to assume Hitchens would applaud a Trump Presidency than a shared opposition to communism should make Nazi Germany and America allies. Hitchens’ views on these matters were forged in careful, deeply reasoned thought informed by the accumulated knowledge of an extraordinarily well-read man. Trump’s were cobbled together from a detritus of Fox News segments and an instinct for the kind of boorish nativist populism that Hitchens reviled.

On the occasions when Hitchens wrote about Donald Trump in a political sense, he never took Trump seriously enough to deliver an opinion on his politics, which have evolved considerably in the intervening years anyway. But, when he did write of Trump, he mostly found him ridiculous.

Of Trump’s 2000 run for President, Hitchens wrote this: “Donald Trump — a ludicrous figure, but at least he’s lived it up a bit in the real world and at least he’s worked out how to cover 90 percent of his skull with 30 percent of his hair.“

To approximate Hitchens’ view of the present day Trump, we can turn to his views on earlier analogs in populist nativism, men like Pat Buchanan, who was savagely and regularly thrashed by Hitchens’ pen. “The strenuously nativist and isolationist Pat Buchanan still strikes me, as he always did, as chronically un-American,” Hitchens wrote in a 2005 essay.

And of Sarah Palin’s habit of entertaining zany conspiracy theories and then distancing herself from them, he wrote: “What price the courageous frontier huntress now — an empty-headed echo chamber for rumor-mongers and freaks who shoots from ambush and then runs away?”

One can only imagine what Hitchens might think of Donald Trump, who embraces such nonsense remorselessly.

Hitchens held an intense disdain for conspiracy theories. And he was particularly animated about the Obama birther trope, on the back of which Trump rose to political stardom as its most visible proselytist. Hitchens would find Trump’s complaints of persecution at the hands of the “Deep State” and FBI witch hunts absurd, and more than a little unsettling.

Hitchens saw conspiratorial thinking as a malignancy. He wrote about conspiracist Glenn Beck’s rise to prominence within the tea party movement with considerable foreboding.

”[A] whole new audience has been created…for ideas that are viciously anti-democratic and ahistorical. The full effect of this will be felt farther down the road, where we will need it even less…A large, volatile constituency has been created that believes darkly in betrayal and conspiracy. A mass ‘literature’ has been disseminated, to push the mad ideas of exploded crackpots and bigots…There was no need for this offense to come, but woe all the same to those by whom it came, and woe above all to those who whitewashed and rationalized it.”

Above all, Hitchens despised authoritarianism. He would find Trump’s illiberal tendencies unforgivable. He would have recoiled at Trump’s attacks on the press, the courts, and the FBI. Trump’s consistent admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin would have enraged Hitchens, who was raising the alarm about the threat presented by Russia under Putin long before it was cool.

While Hitchens may have looked on a Trump Presidency with horror, that does not mean he would have been enthusiastic for Hillary Clinton’s assuming the job either. Hitchens’ contempt for Hillary Clinton would not have been mitigated by Trump, it would have been deepened. Hitchens would have blamed Hillary and people like her in the elite political class for their contributions to creating the conditions that caused Trump’s rise. Still, while he would have hated her routine profligacy, he would have despised Trump’s.

During Christopher Hitchens’ life, the words President and Trump would never have been spoken in succession by serious people, or really anyone other than Trump himself. But even then, the underpinnings of Trump’s rise were becoming apparent, a development Hitchens met with considerable unease.

“One crucial element of the American subconscious is about to become salient and explicit and highly volatile,” Hitchens wrote in 2010. “It is the realization that white America is within thinkable distance of a moment when it will no longer be the majority.”

“…More recently, almost every European country has seen the emergence of populist parties that call upon nativism and give vent to the idea that the majority population now feels itself unwelcome in its own country…it will be astonishing if the United States is not faced, in the very near future, with a similar phenomenon. Quite a lot will depend on what kind of politicians emerge to put themselves at the head of it.”

It’s safe to say Donald Trump was probably not what Hitch had in mind.

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