I suppose we must talk about Michael Caputo, the Trump bootlicker who’s been orbiting the Trump team like a fly on a bowl of moldering fruit: he’s worked on the campaign, he’s an “admitted small-time thief” who was once employed by Russian conglomerate Gazprom Media to shore up the reputation of Vladimir Putin, and multiple outlets have reported concern regarding his “deep Russian ties.” But what shall we talk about? In Caputo, you can see all the moral disfigurement and suspect motives, unspeakable allegiances and careless sloth that riddle the Trump administration through and through. He is our national nightmare writ very small.
Caputo was installed at the Center for Disease Control as Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs in April 2020—surprisingly, since he has no background in health or science. He promptly began to meddle with the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Reports (a crucial metric in charting the spread of Covid) attempting to retcon them into the Trump narrative that This [gestures expansively] Is Fine.
Caputo is only the latest of many lackeys to demonstrate that their loyalty to Trump exceeds both their duty to country and to their fellow humans.
But, okay, then he showed up in the news because he took to his Facebook page last weekend to proclaim that his own agency had been infiltrated by the “Deep State,” and spoke with unanticipated elegance of being haunted by “dark shadows” in his home. He asked those who were watching to prepare for armed conflict.
This rich melange of paranoia and Trump-enabling conspiracy is dangerously captivating. It drives page views and shares and commentary. I clicked on the headline about Caputo’s Facebook rant right away. I noticed only toward the end that the original video in the post had only 400 viewers when he’d broadcast it. Does it matter that his viral contagion was multiplied by the mainstream media, and not Reddit? The President has been hinting at the same plotline of antifa insurrection for months; he’s stopped short of issuing an explicit instruction to harm protestors, but only barely. Who knows how long that restraint will last.
In any case, thousands, if not millions, have now heard reports of the antifa revolution, absolutely devoid of evidence though they are, and I presume many if not most are those who, like me, devoured the news of Caputo’s Facebook rant, and found it outlandish, chilling and bizarre. The kind of people who consider entirely unfounded accusations of intended violence “crazy.” That’s the word that kept popping up in my Twitter feed, anyway, sometimes as a single-word marginal note to the report. “Crazy.”
I happen to be crazy. Like, I have a mental illness. Two, if you count bipolar disorder and addiction separately. I have spent time in two psych wards as a guest and volunteered at one in Saint Paul for a few years. This by way of saying that I know a lot of crazy people, and here’s the thing: Not one has evinced a delusion of a specific scheme stemming from a particular paranoia about a single political ideology. Very few of them were bigots. In stark contrast to the myriad delusions and paranoias of actual IRL crazy people, the canon of QAnon is as encyclopedic, as consistent and as revered as that of the Marvel Universe. And it is even more steeped in white supremacy.
It would be nice if saying antifa is coming for the suburbs were a “bizarre” thing to say, but… the president regularly says it. Says it all the time.
When a significant subpopulation all believe the same thing, no matter how outlandish or unlikely it may seem to outsiders, you can’t call them crazy. Please: don’t call them crazy. It’s an insult to my fellow lunatics, who are by and large the victims, and not the perpetrators, of bigotry and marginalization. Second, it’s dangerously misleading. It’s a way of putting a real and shared belief system—perhaps a dangerous cult, even—at a comfortable, containable arm’s length. It would be nice if racists were crazy, but they’re not; they’re just racist.
Caputo’s rant wasn’t a symptom of madness, after all: It’s a quite coherent distillation of Trump’s message, whenever he talks about the election and whatever may follow it. These people are not crazy, they are soldiers, taking orders. Or—so they appear to believe themselves to be.
Now, internal coherency and congruence with reality are entirely separate things, as most Marvel fans would agree. That some not-insignificant chunk of Trump supporters — and staffers, and government officials — seem to earnestly believe we are headed toward an active civil war—is of immediate concern to all of us.
The violence in Kenosha and Portland aren’t fanfic, and those are just the most well-reported and immediate examples. Multiple would-be murderers in the Trump Era have cited Trump and his white nationalist vision as inspiration. Bullies use his catchphrases as taunts. There are likely countless acts of casual violence and assault we haven’t yet heard about. During the protests at the White House in June, the Defense Department regional police chief requested from the National Guard an infrared “heat ray” banned from use in war as inhumane. And have you heard about the police?
Since his Facebook performance went viral, Caputo has apologized to his colleagues and taken medical leave. And this is the final brick of evidence for my argument of Caputo as Trump administration synecdoche: Whatever hellscape he may have conjured for the rest of us, for now at least, he’s escaped it himself.