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The Evil Magician Casts a Spell

Donald Trump's eerie likeness to Thomas Mann's Mussolini parable.

Alfred A. Knopf/AFP/Getty Images

“He had very ugly hair” and “small hard eyes, with flabby pouches beneath them.” He “talked without stopping—but only in vague, boastful, self-advertising phrases.” He was “cocksure” and “irritable,” and he dealt sarcastically with those who crossed him. Billed as an “entertainer” and “magician,” he turned out to be a powerful hypnotist, and he embarrassed and humiliated people while the audience applauded him and laughed at his victims. He was, in short, a “dreadful” person of mysterious abilities, yet he also embodied “all the peculiar evilness of the situation as a whole.”

This character may sound familiar to Americans today, but the descriptions above appear in Thomas Mann’s prophetic tale “Mario and the Magician.” The German novelist got most of its details from an ill-starred summer holiday that he and his family spent on the Italian seashore in 1926. Benito Mussolini had come to power, and the signs of early fascism were clear even in a provincial resort, including a prickly belief in making Italy “great” again, a resentment of foreigners and a slavish respect for leaders—especially il Duce, the Leader himself. In 1929, Mann turned the experience into a novella devoted mainly to one of the magician’s shows. Later that year, Mann read aloud from it when he received the Nobel Prize for literature. It was his first public attack on the world’s new nationalists and their cults of personality.

The story is worth revisiting in our current situation, as nationalists seize the spotlight in several countries and as Donald Trump casts his spell over millions of Americans. Trump’s critics sometimes call him a fascist on account of policies such as banning Muslims and building a wall on the Mexican border. But Trump hasn’t just revived some of the bad prescriptions of the twentieth century’s dictators; his whole manner and psyche seem attuned to theirs, as suggested most uncannily in Mann’s account of an entertainer and his hapless followers, of an increasingly frightening magic show that ends in disaster.

The magician’s name is Cipolla, and his show is preceded by a flurry of cheap publicity. When Cipolla himself appears on stage, he spouts a lot of blather about his grand reputation and, after ingratiating himself and reading a few minds, he makes it clear that he leads and commands, while others willingly follow and obey. But could he make a gentleman who challenged him dance foolishly even against his will? “‘Even against your will,’ answered Cipolla, in unforgettable accents.”

Trump, similarly, has bragged that “everybody loves me” and that people do what he tells them to do. “I’m a leader,” he told an interviewer who asked what might happen if America’s military refused to obey President Trump’s order to torture terrorists or carpet-bomb civilians. “I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it.”

Mann’s nameless first-person narrator—essentially, Mann himself—describes the show skeptically but with a growing sense of the showman’s insight into people’s vulnerabilities. The author applies such freighted adjectives to Cipolla as “weird,” “unholy,” “unwholesome,” “monstrous” and even “evil”—all words that have been used to describe Trump. The entertainer is so strangely and negatively charged that Mann keeps saying so, as if he can’t quite believe it, or as if his readers might not believe it, either.

For a while in Mann’s tale, as Cipolla flatters the crowd and mocks his zombies, he reminds the narrator of “the charlatan and mountebank type,” with his ringmaster’s whip and dyed hair, brushed forward. But as the show grinds on and more people submit to Cipolla’s suggestions—including a woman who leaves her pleading husband and approaches the magician as though “moonstruck, deaf, enslaved”—Mann’s vision of a charlatan is overtaken by something much darker. Cipolla makes one would-be rebel double over with an imaginary stomachache. The hypnotized dancers begin to look like puppets, and one young man, a spokesman for civility, is made to stick out his tongue at the audience—“your whole tongue,” Cipolla orders, “right down to the roots.” The mood becomes slightly hysterical and dissolute.

Yet nobody leaves. They’re too fascinated even when they hate him.

Cipolla focuses his climactic powers on a quiet young man named Mario. The magician learns Mario is a waiter, and this occupation sends the menacing showman into a riff on Ganymede, the beautiful young man who served the ancient Greek gods—among them Zeus, Ganymede’s kidnapper, with whom Cipolla identifies. The magician gains such control over Mario’s mind that he makes the young man conjure up his girlfriend, with her arms, hair and beloved face. Cipolla finally deludes Mario into thinking the magician himself is that lovely girl, and leads Mario into kissing him, tenderly, beside the mouth.

The audience is stunned. Mann’s narrator calls the moment “grotesque and thrilling.” And now the story takes a violent turn.

A spectator laughs. Cipolla rustles his whip, breaking the spell, and Mario flings himself back in horror. The youth beats his fists against his temples and staggers off the stage. The audience cheers. Cipolla sits “with his hands on his lap, his shoulders shaking.” And Mario, who we now hear is carrying a small pistol, raises the gun and shatters the applause and laughter with two shots. Cipolla leaps up “with his arms spread out, slanting as though to ward everybody off, as though next moment he would cry out: ‘Stop! Keep back!’” Then he drops to the floor—“motionless, a huddled heap of clothing . . . ” 

And was that the end, the narrator’s children ask? “Yes, we assured them... An end of horror, a fatal end. And yet a liberation—for I could not, and I cannot, but find it so!”

One can imagine what the Nazis thought of all this. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Mann stayed away from Germany for many years and never made his home there again. When he died, in 1955, he was buried in Switzerland.

Talk of assassinations up the road makes most of us as queasy as the prospect of an unstable president with the nuclear codes. But violence is built into Trump’s candidacy, and he has been threatened several times. In March, in Dayton, Ohio, he panicked and seized the podium (as though about to shout, “Stop! Keep back!”) when a protestor jumped the stage and the Secret Service swarmed the candidate. In June, at a rally in Las Vegas, an attendee who tried to take a police officer’s gun said he intended “to kill Trump.”

Violence feeds on itself, often consuming those who instigate or exploit it, and Trump has done that to a degree unseen in American presidential politics. He has talked of beating protesters, punishing enemies and rising up against an illegitimate government. He has also failed to control his supporters’ obscene, misogynist, racist and murderous language at rallies. Most notoriously, at a recent rally in North Carolina, he said of Hillary Clinton as president: “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks—although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is.”

Meaning what? Would Trump’s troops rise up in armed rebellion? Would they assassinate Clinton? That’s what many listeners heard. Trump denied any lethal intent, but his most fervent followers, who feel strongly about defending themselves against the government, surely caught the drift. Like Mann’s “entertainer,” Trump has been toying with explosive passions. One can only hope his horror show doesn’t end the way “Mario and the Magician” does. True liberation will be a resounding vote against Trump in November.