On Donald Trump and Franz Kafka


I don’t write (and try not to think too much) about politics these days, for health reasons.

So this has been a stressful few months, what with this Donald Trump stooge making a mockery of what I thought couldn’t be more of a mockery already. It seems there is no end to his willingness to say or do anything that guarantees the spotlight continues to shine on His Most Spectacular Self. I don’t blame the media for being moths to the flame, any more than I blame rubberneckers for gawking at a bad accident.

[This is not to exclude the rest of the cast of characters from derision, but this is not a political essay, see infra.]

When he finally entered the fray this time, my wife and I groaned and said, “oh no, not this asshole,” and reassured ourselves that nah, he was in it for the entertainment, he wouldn’t – he couldn’t possibly! – be taken seriously.

But the Capuchin jumped up on the barrel organ and the crowds began to gather, and now they’re packing stadiums, for crissakes, to get a look at this guy, to get close to him, to listen to his…his what? I don’t know what it is. He’s not a Presidential candidate, he’s a freaking spectacle.

Anyway, that’s not my point (although I feel much better having made it).

If you’re like me at all (God bless you), when you look at the world today and what politicians are willing to say and do to clutch power, sometimes – for amusement’s sake alone – you might try to compare this phenomenon to some of the world’s great literature.  Les Miserables comes to mind. It Can’t Happen Here. The Manchurian Candidate!

I found myself musing on this recently, thinking what was appropriate to Trumps continually massive crowds and polling data (which he will only be so happy to tell you about, whether you want to hear it or not!), and it came to me. I found that I had been using the adjective “absurd” a lot, and that brought me to thinking about A Hunger Artist, a brilliant allegory written by the great absurdist, Franz Kafka.

And with that discovery, I began to feel some sense of hope that he would eventually go away. Or more accurately, that the crowds would go away. That he would be ignored. Like the hunger artist, people would eventually tire of his performance and move on to the other attractions.

I mused for a while about the prospect that on the morning of the next debate Trump boycotts, he wakes up to discover that he is a giant beetle. I wondered how his outsized ego would deal with that.

As Trump’s antics rolled on unabated, and people who I know to be educated and intelligent continued to support and defend him, Kafka’s work came to mind again.

I reread In the Penal Colony, and now I have a mental image that will help me persevere in these trying times:

An explorer visits the penal colony, where an officer demonstrates to him the Harrow, an instrument used to inflict capital punishment. The Harrow is an extraordinarily elegant instrument (as the officer is only too proud to explain): the condemned man lies face-down on a Bed, while a complex system of needles inscribes the commandment he has broken (e.g. HONOR THY SUPERIORS) on his back. The needles pierce deeper and deeper until the prisoner dies. In the process of dying, however, the condemned man finally understands the nature of justice and his punishment. His face is transfigured, a sight edifying to all those who watch. The officer begins to demonstrate the Harrow on a prisoner condemned to die because he was sleeping on duty.

The machine was conceived and developed by the former Commandant. It soon becomes clear that the explorer does not approve of the death-machine and that he feels morally bound to express this disapproval to the new Commandant, who is already known to have serious questions about using the Harrow as a method of punishment. Suddenly, the officer removes the condemned man from the Bed and takes his place. Before doing so, he adjusts the machine to inscribe “BE JUST.” The Harrow begins its grisly work on the officer’s back, but malfunctions and goes to pieces–but not before the self-condemned officer has been hacked and torn to pieces.


Of course, I wouldn’t want this to really happen, I just want him to go away. But a man can dream.


2 Responses to “On Donald Trump and Franz Kafka”

  1. I fully agree with this commentary. I keep thinking people will wake up and he will go away but the similarities to Hitler and his rise to power continue to nag at me.

  2. For a guy who doesn’t do politics, you have written the sanest, most human response to Trump that I’ve yet seen. I don’t know what’s going to happen with him, but I feel better having read this. Thank you.

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