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The main problem with zombies is that they lack self-awareness. The opening words of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals— “We are unknown to ourselves”—could serve as a zombie manifesto. Driven by little more than the impulse to consume, zombies shamble along from meal to meal without ever pausing to wonder if there is, or should be, more to their glassy-eyed existence. Above all, zombies do not know that they are dead. Believing that they are still alive, the undead cling to the mere forms of life: going out for a walk, mingling with their colleagues and meeting up with friends, having a quick snack.
The zombie is, in its essence, a creature of habit.
In Ling Ma’s remarkably prescient zombie novel, Severance (2018), “the fevered” are highly domestic. They turn the pages of books, sit down to dinner, and fold clothes. Their attachment to quotidian ritual culminates in a resistance to any and all self-awareness that their material existence has drastically altered. Similarly, as 2020 draws to a close, a lumbering figure that refuses to acknowledge that things have changed is stalking the political landscape, while still performing acts associated with life: tweeting, golfing, and filing lawsuits, to name a few.
That figure is, of course, Donald Trump, our first zombie president.
In the movies, zombies never come to terms with loss: they can’t. Thanks to make-up artists and special effects, a lost limb or missing eyeball does nothing to deter the revenant from its single-minded purpose. In the world of Severance, the living dead “loop indefinitely,” unable to move beyond a life of shopping and work that no longer exists. Similarly, in today’s White House, a lost election means nothing to the President. The more than 50 lawsuits that Trump and his enablers have filed alleging large-scale fraud—all but one of which have been tossed out of court—represent a refusal to see that his bid for reelection is now dead.
Our first zombie president, a creature of habit, seems poised to reenact all the invidious activities that defined his time in the White House. According to reports, Trump intends to announce his candidacy for the 2024 presidential election the same day as Joseph Biden’s inauguration, January 20, 2020. It is not just that Trump has failed to concede the change in his status despite a popular majority of 7 million people that says otherwise. Rather, the horror story in the making here is that this one-term President remains cathected to the power and rituals of his presidency even after his term expires. Like the afflicted in Severance who continue to act out their domestic roles they followed while alive, Trump is likely to remain attached to holding rallies, sending inflammatory tweets, playing golf, raising gobs of money, and throwing red meat to his base.
While Ma’s novel might help us understand the psychodynamics of Trump as a political embodiment of the living dead, Severance’s true aesthetic power lies in diagnosing nostalgia as an affliction. (For a range of short takes on Severance, see a collection of essays in Post45 (October 13, 2020) edited by Jane Hu and Anjuli Raza Kolb.) After witnessing one of her friends succumb to Shen Fever, an event that will transform her into a zombie, Candace Chen wonders, “What if nostalgia triggers it?” Yet nostalgia is all that attaches them to the before times. Among her group of survivors, Candace’s role is to feed this nostalgia by foraging not for food but for media entertainment so that they can binge watch Ross, Rachel, and Monica in Friends. Like the zombies whose suburban houses they ransack, those who are supposedly uninfected also exhibit symptoms associated with “a fever of repetition, of routine.”
Candace is already afflicted with nostalgia well before the mysterious fungal infection arrives from Shenzhen, China. On the radio, she listens to Eighties Night, on the screen she watches Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and in her photography, she captures the rusted-out spaces that were once thriving American industrial cities. “Memories replay, unprompted, on repeat,” she observes, exhibiting a bit of momentary self-awareness that is unavailable to those around her, both human and zombie. Yet Candace has been stuck in time long before the city of New York shut down. Trapped in a dead-end job, she hosted dinner parties where shark-fin soup, made from dried ingredients left over among her dead mother’s effects, is both the pièce de resistance and a threat to a species survival.
Perhaps Donald Trump was always a zombie president. It hardly needs be said that Trumpism thrives on a similarly toxic strain of nostalgia. Is not “Make America Great Again,” a phrase born in a 1980 Ronald Reagan campaign speech delivered in New York, the purest condensation of nostalgia, a feverish belief that nothing, most especially white supremacy, has changed—or needs to change?
Unlike COVID-19, the fictional Shen fever is not communicable between persons. Its mode of transmission is through aggressive and undetectable fungal spores unleashed by the supply chains of global capitalism. Nostalgia, however, is a different sort of contagion that, as Shen Fever takes hold, manifests as “a disease of remembering.” In this respect, the title of Ma’s novel issues something of a challenge. How can people sever their attachments to nostalgia, routine, and other habits of memory that impede change?
But we know the answer because we have lived it for almost four years: when political subjects turn into creatures of habit, they ensure that another kind of zombie, the inequalities of a fading status quo, survive to shuffle among us.
Russ Castronovo is the Dorothy Draheim Professor of American Studies and Tom Paine Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is also the the Director of the Center for the Humanities