Make America Austria Again: How Robert Musil Predicted the Rise of Donald Trump


David Auerbach in the LA Review of Books:

To find a personality that captures the sheer vacuousness of Trump’s anti-ideology, we have to turn to literature, and specifically to Robert Musil’s modernist masterpiece The Man Without Qualities. Begun in Austria in 1921 and left uncompleted at the time of Musil’s death in 1942, The Man Without Qualities is a surgical examination of the varieties of European intellectual pretense and folly in the years leading up to World War I. Musil’s work, begun in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, only became more urgent and desperate in the 1930s as events continued to bear out his direst assessments. The novel stands as a testament to the importance of maintaining independent, sober perception and thought in times of mass hysteria and madness.

The character who concerns us here is Christian Moosbrugger, a working-class murderer of women who becomes an object of fascination for many of the characters in the novel and for the Vienna they inhabit. While standing trial for the brutal killing of a prostitute, he becomes a celebrity due to his cavalier and eccentric manner:

During his trial Moosbrugger created the most unpredictable problems for his lawyer. He sat relaxed on his bench, like a spectator, and called out “Bravo!” every time the prosecutor made a point of what a public menace the defendant was, which Moosbrugger regarded as worthy of him, and gave out good marks to witnesses who declared that they had never noticed anything about him to indicate that he could not be held responsible for his actions.

The rationale for Moosbrugger’s behavior, Musil explains, is his overwhelming neediness, his desire to have himself recognized by others as a superior person:

He was clearly ill, but even if his obviously pathological nature provided the basis for his attitude, and this isolated him from other men, it somehow seemed to him a stronger and higher sense of his own self. His whole life was a comically and distressingly clumsy struggle to gain by force a recognition of this sense of himself.

Moosbrugger will gladly go to jail as long as it reinforces and perpetuates his fame. Yet this formal need for public attention is not backed up by any fixed essence.

More here.