Do an Internet search for “carnage” now and the first matches are from Trump’s inauguration speech, in which he invoked “[t]his American carnage” to launch into his standard use of false claims to speak to his misinformed and misguided base.
Setting aside whatever anyone may assume is Trump’s intent—if “intent” even is applicable anymore—this use of “carnage” sends a message I am certain is lost on Trump and his “America first”/”Make America Great Again” crowd.
A century ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby dramatized a scathing message that the American Dream was a wonderful ideal that Americans mostly allowed to slip through their fingers, as novelist John Gardner examined:
That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)
Gatsby is new money in the novel, and portrayed by the mesmerized narrator Nick as the embodiment of the American Dream, as “cheap streamers in the rain”; Gatsby’s money is ill-got and he is a very delusional man.
Having taught the novel for nearly two decades, I think far too often studying the novel (what we do in formal schooling, as opposed to reading the work) becomes lost in idealizing the novel’s technical achievements against the rules of New Criticism (much as Nick idealizes Gatsby)—and as a result, we are apt not to pay adequate attention to the carnage.
The Great Gatsby is a novel about carnage as much as a work deconstructing the American Dream.
By the end, we are confronted with Myrtle left like an animal run over and ripped apart in the middle of the road and with George committing suicide after shooting and killing Gatsby floating alone in his opulent pool.
Among the dead, the common denominators are Tom and Daisy, who Nick comes to understand while talking to Tom:
I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…. (p. 179)
While Daisy and Tom Buchanan flee, essentially unscathed, to Europe, the images of Myrtle dead in the road and Gatsby face-down in his swimming pool haunt Nick’s final lines of Fitzgerald’s so-called American classic:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (p. 182)
In the days after Trump’s inauguration and his pronouncement about “carnage,” if you are looking for the U.S., there it is—Myrtle’s corpse in the wake of Daisy driving a gold Rolls Royce, Gatsby and George Wilson both dead at George’s disillusioned hand.
Myrtle and George as the slaughtered white working class who attract our sympathetic but myopic gaze—let us not ignore that The Great Gatsby is a very white novel, itself a demonstration of how we whitewash even in art.
Trumplandia, however, is all too real and is a free people’s abdication to the ultimate rise of “careless people” who depend on our being as mesmerized by their wealth and delusional as Nick.
“[G]reed and pompous foolishness,” Garnder’s words, ring now in the wake of the grand and dishonest pronouncement of “this American carnage.”
We cannot claim we haven’t been properly warned.