Published March 14, 2016
More than 70 years ago, while on leave from the Royal Marines, Evelyn Waugh penned a portrait of a buccaneering moneyman with political ambitions and a hollow interior, a sketch that rings loud bells of familiarity in today’s presidential campaign.
When Rex Mottram first appears in Brideshead Revisited, it’s not clear what the source of his wealth is. It certainly isn’t old money, like that of the aristocratic Flyte family to whose elder daughter, Julia, he pays court. Rex is very much the Modern Man: Having made his pile, he wants, and gets, the best cars, the best brandy, the best club memberships, the best available seat in Parliament, and the best women, all of which he’s prepared to buy, but only at the cheapest price on the market.
He has a kind of strange charm, as if completely unaware of his essential vulgarity and gaucheness. He’s successful, by a certain measure of success: “I make money work for me. I expect fifteen, twenty per cent and I get it.” And he can be useful, for Rex at his best Gets Things Done: He’s a fixer, and life has taught him that there is very little that money and connections to the Right People can’t fix. Yet even when he proves himself useful, a man who can “rejoice in his efficiency,” he overplays the role: As the novel’s protagonist and narrator, Charles Ryder, puts it, “in his kindest moments Rex displayed a kind of hectoring zeal as if he were thrusting as vacuum cleaner on an unwilling housewife.”
The truth about Rex — that there’s really no there there — begins to emerge when, in order to please the very Catholic Lady Marchmain, Julia’s mother, Rex decides to convert to Catholicism and is taken in hand by an elderly Jesuit, Father Mowbray, “a priest renowned for his triumphs with the most obdurate catechumens.” After three meetings with Rex, Father Mowbray, in something approaching despair, takes tea with Lady Marchmain and confesses, “[Rex is] the most difficult convert I have ever met. . . . He doesn’t seem to have the least intellectual curiosity or natural piety. . . . Lady Marchmain, he doesn’t correspond to any degree of paganism known to the missionaries.”
To please Lady Marchmain, Father Mowbray tries again, and again hits a kind of blank wall. A week later he returns to Marchmain House and describes his trials with Rex:
[He’s] exceptionally docile, said he accepted everything I told him, remembered bits of it, asked no questions. I wasn’t happy with him. He seemed to have no sense of reality, but I knew he was coming under a steady Catholic influence, so I was willing to receive him. One has to take a chance sometimes – with semi-imbeciles, for instance. You never know quite how much they have understood. . . . But yesterday was a real eye-opener. The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what’s been taught and what’s been left out. But these young people today have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into the depths of confusion you didn’t know existed.
Julia, determined to marry Rex and break free of what she perceives at that point in her life to be a stifling traditionalism, learns the hard way about the man of efficiency, new money, and political ambition. After months of unhappy marriage, in which Rex continues to philander while plotting political advancement and making money work for him, Julia finally realizes the truth and describes it to Ryder, years later, in an elegiac tone:
You know Father Mowbray hit on the truth about Rex at once, that it took me a year of marriage to see. He simply wasn’t all there. He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed: something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was whole.
Waugh’s dissection of Rex Mottram (who bears some similarities to Max Aitkin, Lord Beaverbrook) extended to Rex’s politics, which were elastic. At first he’s comfortable with the Tories, whose old money, if not always invested wisely by Mottram standards, nonetheless speaks of a social stature he craves. Later, as the political winds blow from other directions, Rex blows with them, “flirt[ing] with communists and fascists,” moving with dispatch wherever opportunity and power beckon.
At the bottom of Rex Mottram, there is no bottom; or, as Julia puts it: “Rex isn’t anybody at all. . . . He just doesn’t exist,” as least in any humanly substantial way. He isn’t so much stupid as utterly ignorant. He isn’t so much immoral as amoral. He isn’t wantonly cruel; he’s simply callous, unable to understand how others could not perceive that his way is the best way, the expedient way, successful way – the only way, these days.
Republicans are now faced with the choice of whether they want the 21st-century instantiation of Rex Mottram, the man without qualities, as their presidential candidate. In creating Rex, one of the great English novelists of our time unwittingly created a portrait of Donald Trump, who displays just about every attribute of Rex Mottram except Rex’s suave manners. That portrait should be studied carefully in the days and weeks ahead. And while considering whether “a tiny bit of a man” pretending to be whole is a fit vessel for America’s noblest aspirations – or even a plausible repository for anger and frustration – all of us might also ponder just what has happened to us, that Rex Mottram’s doppelgänger has drawn the fierce, and sometimes violent, loyalty of so many.
— George Weigel is distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.