A few months after Donald Trump announced his bid for the 2016 Republican nomination, Jonah Goldberg wrote in The National Review that he felt he was living in a weird remake of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Normal, sensible, good people whom he had long loved and admired would suddenly start engaging in the strangest kinds of mental calisthenics to justify their growing love and support for this utterly awful man fluent only in one language: gibberish. They could be anyone: Friends, family, co-workers. It was as if some force invaded their bodies while they slept, replacing their hearts and minds with something that was the exact opposite.
After Goldberg wrote the essay, Trump went on to win the GOP nomination, and then the presidency, and then, for four years, he engaged in one outrageous act after another culminating eventually in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. At every turn, one thought, now he is finished, his supporters will finally see the light, but instead, he’d come back stronger. Even now, despite his role in instigating the Capitol riot, the GOP has not cast him aside. The vast majority of Republicans support him and if he runs again, he’ll get the party’s nomination. No question.
I never watched the Invasion (and have no intention of doing so!), but Goldberg’s analogy seemed spot on as we watched something as ugly as Trumpism take over this fair land. However, I recently re-watched, Rhinoceros, a dark comedy based on an eponymous 1959 play by Eugene Ionesco, and it offers an even better metaphor for our surreal times when the populist authoritarian pandemic is spreading not only in America but across the world and afflicting figures who should have been most immune to it. In France, for example, the rising star of the far-right nativist movement is Eric Zemmour, a Jew who spouts the Great Replacement Theory developed by white supremacists who precisely don’t want Jews like him to replace them. The chair of the Proud Boys, a violent, far-right, neo-fascist, misogynistic outfit in America is Enrique Tarrio of Afro-Cuban background.
Ionesco was born in Romania to a Romanian father and a French mother—a Sephardic Jew who converted to Christianity to assimilate better in France. He was five years old when World War I broke out and he came of age during the interwar period when two totalitarian ideologies—fascism/Nazism and communism/Stalinism—were raging in Europe. Romania itself became fertile ground for fascism with the rise of the Iron Guard, a violent nationalistic and anti-Semitic movement. Getting rid of Jews to create a more ethnically pure Romania was the movement’s express mission; its death squads perpetrated some of the most grisly anti-Jewish pogroms in Europe.
Ionesco had a front row seat to these awful political developments. In his 20s, he was a journalist in Romania before he became a celebrated playwright in France. One of his first jobs was at Axa, a newspaper in Bucharest that he joined at its inception in 1932. But within two months, Axa showed signs of radicalization and a few months later went full-blown fascist, openly pressing the case of the Iron Guard. Its top editors, who originally saw Axa primarily as a literary, not political, publication, stunningly, were the first Bucharest intellectuals to join the movement. Young and full of fervor, they considered it their express duty to not just make the philosophical case for the “native spirit”—the Iron Guard’s mystical description of its virulent blood-and-soil nationalism—against the prevailing liberal universalism that Romania had imbibed from France but also recruit other intellectuals to this nativist cause.
Ionesco at first tried to subtly lampoon Axa in its own pages but then quit after a few months when he realized that the publication was irretrievably lost. He observed that once his anti-fascist intellectual friends accepted a single premise of the Iron Guard, “gave in on one little detail,” it was all over. They would become “absolute, fanatic Fascists.” It would take them, he said, “four to six weeks to definitely succumb, to yield to temptation.” But once they did “[t]hey became men possessed.”
Ionesco’s initial instinct was to stay in Romania and fight this reactionary turn. But he finally gave up as hostility to Jews soared. Around 1938, he returned to France, where he had spent his early childhood, just before the Iron Guard briefly gained power and banned Jews from all intellectual or literary activity in a non-Jewish context. Twenty-one years later, he wrote Rhinoceros, a satire in the absurdist tradition that he, along with Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, pioneered. This tradition is based on Albert Camus’ concept of the absurd—the existential notion that life, ultimately, is without any meaning. But in this play in which normal, regular people suddenly start metamorphosing into rhinoceros—Ionesco’s metaphor for the “stupid and horrendously reactionary” brutes that the Iron Guard was turning Romanians into—this concept takes on a whole new significance. Ionesco seems to be suggesting that the only way to understand a world gone utterly mad is not through reason or logic but by going mad with it.
The play is set in a provincial French town and the movie in a similarly small, non-descript American town. But why did Ionesco choose France given that the play is mainly about Romania’s degeneration into fascism? At least part of the answer is that he was tracing the long shadow that totalitarian ideologies cast all over Europe. France did not embrace fascism early and enthusiastically like Romania and other central European countries. However, once it came under German occupation, its internal defenses shrank to a tiny resistance movement that realistic accounts put at 2% of the populace and the more generous ones 14%. The rest of the country either took an accommodationist approach. Or succumbed to a kind of Stockholm syndrome and told itself that the ideology of continental Europe’s most successful power must have something to recommend it.
But it wasn’t just the ordinary French trying to make the best of it under Nazi occupation that came under the spell of a totalitarian ideology that attacked liberalism—or “humanism” in Ionesco’s parlance—as bloodless, weak and sentimental. French intellectuals like Jean Paul Sartre, whom Ionesco came to loath, were so wedded to their romantic socialist notions that they accepted Stalin’s gulags and murders as a necessary evil to create a workers’ utopia. Rhinoceros is satirizing the hold of all of these anti-liberal ideologies in Europe. Indeed, there is a character representing Sartre in the play called Dudard (Norman in the movie), a pipe-smoking journalist who prides himself on his intellect and rationality, who too turns into a rhinoceros.
But the thrust of the play is about how quickly the Iron Guard’s ideological contagion spread and transformed Romanian society in the years before World War II. “You would run into an old friend, and all of a sudden, under your very eyes, he would begin to change. It was as if his gloves became paws, his shoes hoofs. You could no longer talk intelligently with him for he was not a rational human being…men metamorphosed into beasts, rhinoceros.”
This is the dynamic that the play’s two main characters Berenger (Stanley in the movie played by Gene Wilder) and Jean (John in the movie played by Zero Mostel) capture. Berenger, Ionesco’s alter-ego, is a regular dude with ordinary virtues and vices. He feels in his bones both the goodness of liberalism and the burden of his day-to-day bourgeois existence that he eases by turning to the bottle. He is unpretentious, honest and guilt-ridden over his lack of the willpower to give up booze and find a way out of his dead-end job. Jean, on the other hand, is a confident and supercilious culture vulture whose ambition is to become a high-functionary in the government. He prides himself on his self-control and discipline and, without a trace of embarrassment, holds himself as an example for his friend, Berenger.
When the first few townspeople turn into rhinoceros, Berenger is too drunk to process this startling development and, Jean, the pseudo-sophisticate, rebukes him for his indifference.
Then the tables turn. One evening Berenger, now suitably spooked by the mayhem and destruction that the rhinoceros were causing in the town, visits Jean. The two get into an argument over whether the pachydermic affliction now spreading to their loved ones was something to be lamented or hailed. Much to Berenger’s shock, his erudite friend takes the latter view. But every time Jean defends his position, he starts looking and sounding more like a rhinoceros himself. He grows a snout and snorts uncontrollably while spewing clichés. For Ionesco, clichés, evidently, are the hallmark of a fascist culture because individuals lose their capacity for critical thinking and authentic expression, resorting to platitudes to give a patina of high-mindedness to their defense of the indefensible.
At one point, Berenger objects that succumbing to the rhino epidemic would mean abandoning morality, the great achievement of humanity. But Jean harrumphs that “morality is against nature” and that “nature has its own laws.” Berenger, bewildered and in disbelief, asks: “Are you suggesting that we replace our moral laws with the laws of the jungle.” Jean scoffs that the world needs not morality, but “primeval integrity,” echoing the Iron Guard and its project of returning Romania to its “natural” Latin roots. And then as if to serve this cause, Jean, now half-human, half-brute, rams into the furniture and walls of his apartment, smashing the paintings, sculptures and art he has painstakingly curated over his lifetime, before running off to join the rhino mob.
Finally, Berenger and his love interest, Daisy, are the only two humans remaining. He suggests to her that they together repopulate the human race. But he can’t really compete with the appeal of the mob after all their loved ones have joined it and Daisy too slips away into the herd, leaving him all alone. After her departure, Berenger is wracked with self-doubt. He wonders whether it is possible for a single person to be right and an entire people to be wrong. (Many of us no doubt have had similar moments over the last six years!) He also reflects what the point of hanging on to civilization and its fruits—its morals, music and art—might be if there were no one left to share them.
But he quickly snaps out of it and decides to soldier on alone to save humanity. “I will not capitulate,” he resolutely declares.
Ionesco does not offer insight here into why societies succumb to reactionary ideologies but his basic message is clear: Liberalism might have its shortcomings and discontents but there is nothing romantic about the alternatives, the blood-and-soil nationalism of the right—or the egalitarian utopias of the left, no matter how much poetry or moral fervor is used to sell them. Ultimately, their spread relies on mass conformity and that can only lead to rank stupidity, philistinism, and savagery. Moreover, the defense of civilization requires not high-minded individuals living morally perfect lives, as Jean pretends to do, but just ordinary human decency and the good sense of the Berengers of the world that don’t fall for the hokey rhetoric and empty promises of illiberal ideologies.
That is all worth bearing in mind as the genie that Trump has uncorked on the right sprouts many reactionary heads: MAGAism, nativism, national conservatism, Catholic integralism in America—and other countries flirt with their own versions of illiberalism. The UnPopulist will do its best to play Berenger as this real-life political drama unfolds.
Meanwhile, put Rhinoceros, available at Amazon Prime, on your list of movies to watch in 2022. Mostel’s tour-de-force performance as he converts from man to beast alone is worth the price of the ticket, even though Wilder is a bit disappointing.
Here’s to stopping a Rhino takeover. Happy New Year!