Back on September 4, CNN photographer Khalil Abdallah was in the right place at the right time to capture this image of lightning striking the White House. Presidential timeline-wise, the thunderstorm raged about halfway between the Washington Post’s publication of excepts from Bob Woodward’s Fear and the chest-thumping of an anonymous White House “resistance” figure in the New York Times.
The first thing this weather event brought to mind was the similar hand-of-God coincidence on July 17, one day after Donald Trump met with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and refused to acknowledge Russian interference in the 2016 election. During an Oval Office press event, the lights went off just as the President professed his “full faith” in the U.S. intelligence agencies.
The second thing the lightning brought to mind, though, was the tarot card The Tower. In the weeks since that strike to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—and especially in the wake of the midterms—the connections between Donald Trump and The Tower tarot could not be more pronounced.
I like tarot cards because of the Arts and Crafts look of what’s known as the Rider-Waite deck—and also because of the story of the woman who illustrated those cards in 1909. An artist whose work received critical praise but brought her negligible income, Pamela Colman Smith had a mystical streak, painting visions that came to her while listening to music. Known as Pixie, she shared an interest in the tarot with William Butler Yeats, who introduced her to A. E. Waite, the mystic behind the deck (Rider was the name of the publisher). Smith converted to Catholicism a couple years after illustrating the 78 cards and then, over time, slid into obscurity, dying penniless in 1951. (Note to tarot folks: In this Year of the Woman, I’d say it’s high time we start referring to it as the “Smith-Waite” deck.)
Do I have any belief in the occult? The New Yorker portrait master Joseph Mitchell described the hero of a novel he had once intended to write as someone whose early exposure to evangelical beliefs has “left him with a lasting liking for the cryptic and the ambiguous and the incantatory and the disconnected and the extravagant and the oracular and the apocalyptic.” Yes to all, say I.
The tarot deck contains four main suits of swords, cups, coins, and wands—correlates to spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs—but also a separate suit of elaborately depicted figures named “trumps,” short for “triumphs ” (trionfi in Italian). Trionfi/Trumps was a 15th-century Italian card game that took images from allegorically themed carnival parades depicting the ups and downs of Fortune’s Wheel (success, reversal, and downfall).
The Tower card—interestingly, the only manmade image in the tarot deck—is associated with sudden, disruptive revelation and potentially destructive change. In the card’s evolution from the 1400s to 1909, it has retained variants of burning buildings and lightning.
The Smith-Waite Tower is based on the medieval Tarot of Marseilles, which depicts a burning tower being struck by lightning or fire from the sky, its top section dislodged and crumbling, and two men falling against a field of multicolored balls. The Smith-Waite card replaces one of the men with a woman and the balls with small tongues of fire in the shape of Yod, the tenth letter in the Hebrew alphabet, considered the starting point of the presence of God—the spark of the spirit—in all things.
The Tower is said to be derived from the biblical Tower of Babel, built by men desiring to reach heaven. God destroys this towering symbol of false hopes and ideas to show that power alone does not make a person great; he or she needs humility and wisdom. The Smith-Waite card depicts the top of The Tower as a crown (yellow, like certain unnatural coiffures), symbolizing materialistic thought being bought cheap and falling from high.
Even those who know nothing about tarot trumps will recognize the cards’ enduring tropes and memes that have permeated Western culture. The Tower tarot remains a bridge between the Tower of Babel story and everyday allusions like the old Gershwin song that most people know from An American in Paris:
I’ll build a stairway to Paradise
With a new step ev’ry day!
I’m gonna get there at any price;
Stand aside, I’m on my way!
Donald Trump is someone who always wanted to get there at any price. Fortunately for Manhattan, he was thwarted in his repeated efforts to build the world’s tallest tower, a personal storyline that went on for decades with notable flame-outs:
- In 1985 he thought he’d get there on the abandoned West Side rail yards of Penn Central at 66th Street—he proposed 150 stories, 1,670 feet high. Times critic Paul Goldberger could not get over how cut off an apartment at 150 stories would be from the weather, “how psychologically distant” from the city below.
- Also in 1985 Trump proposed for the site of the former Coliseum at Columbus Circle a 135-story, octagonal, terraced building that literally spiraled upward. Architect Michael Sorkin said Trump’s proposal looked “like storybook pictures of the Tower of Babel.”
- In 1996 Trump proposed building the world’s tallest building for the New York Stock Exchange at the foot of Wall Street—140 floors, 1,792 feet high. On pilings in the East River.
Trump nursed his wounds sustained from failing to erect a supertall by attempting to brand himself as “New York’s Native Son” with ownership of the Empire State Building—a failed effort that ended in lawsuits and public shaming. Still, he was already fueling the Pinocchio machine pre-Presidency by listing on his website the Empire State Building as a previously owned property.
It’s tempting to see parallels between Donald Trump’s fetishizing of real estate towers as a means to respectability among New York’s elite and the Thomas Hardy character Jude Fawley fetishizing the shooting spires of Christminster as a means to acceptance into academia. It’s also tempting to see Donald Trump in his lunging after the shiny-toy element of achievement as the quintessential tarot Fool (numeral zero in the deck).
But our current President will never be anything more than a sooty tincture of casino capitalism and anti-intellectualism. Even as an old man, he lacks the basic attributes to qualify as the tarot Fool—innocent yet fearless. Because Trump is defined by his fears, he is pure nihilism. But he’s also a parochial stooge, excruciatingly local to American and especially New York City hustle and flow. His simplistic narcissistic desires make it hard to take him as a symbol or working piece of anything larger than our own Anthropocene lives.
And so in December 2018 we await an incoming Democratic House that, according to Axios, will be targeting at least 85 topics in a forthcoming wave of investigations and subpoenas directed at the Trump White House. As former federal prosecutor Ken White put it, “Subpoenas will fly like arrows at Agincourt.”
Its year-and-a-half investigation still not over, the Special Counsel’s office has just revealed that, well into his presidential campaign, Donald Trump was chomping at the bit to build that elusive tower of his—not in Manhattan but in Moscow. That was the glittering prize his jaded eyes had set themselves on; the presidency, by contrast, was gravy.
Every era of national hubris gets the Fool it earns and deserves. Ours has brought us to a constitutional crisis—a leader chosen by our fractured system of non-participatory government who does not have the capacity to lead.
It’s not Donald Trump who drew The Tower; it was us on November 8, 2016. We’ve been caught in a David Lynch dream sequence ever since. As the ramifications of the sixteenth trump card make themselves known, we would be wise to recognize this: Fate had our number 600 years ago, in the wake of the Canterbury Tales.
It might interest a culture that cares nothing about history that we are nothing new under the sun—just more plodding pilgrims who have lost the faith, lost the thread. Our retreat into personally branded politics has made us marauders and despoilers of our very own turf, our very own hearth, caught out in our conceit of playing every angle for an easy win. §