Do Not Call Up That Which You Cannot Put Down


Several times over the last few days, I’ve come across the phrase “do not call up that which you cannot put down.” Mostly, I saw it in reference to Cruz’s dalliance with Trump people, but it’s been used elsewhere. Here someone uses it with reference to Planned Parenhood’s lawsuit against the people that recorded descriptions of their more grisly practices:

Cruz pandered to them in the hopes that Trump would collapse or withdraw and his followers would see Cruz as the next best thing. Good strategy, right? But now, Trump shows no sign of dropping out and with Cruz as his greatest rival, Trump is using the pulpit Cruz helped legitimize to call down damnation on his erstwhile ally.

The phrase comes from an H.P. Lovecraft novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and its use is a tribute to the triumph of nerd culture. Originally rendered in the story as “do not calle up That which you can not put downe,” it was found in the letters of an 18th-century alchemist and necromancer who had died years ago (or had he?) In more modern parlance, we might say: do not set loose any forces that you cannot later re-bind, if you need to.

In light of Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump today, it’s actually made me think of the whole right-wing populist movement as that which we have called up. We maybe didn’t recognize it at the time, but the McCain-Palin ticket of 2008 was a balance between establishment and insurgency. We didn’t use those terms, and we didn’t think of McCain as truly an establishment figure (he was a maverick, remember?) but that was the effect.  The ticket faltered and Palin “went rogue.” But she only had a platform because the establishment forces called her up, hoping to capture the power of the youth and outsider energy she seemed to represent.

I must admit, I was among the ones who cheered at her calling up.

Palin had a fiery spirit that I thought, along with her record against corruption and crony capitalism in Alaska, would charge up the staid Republican party and win the elections. But, as James Fenimore Cooper wrote, fire is a powerful servant, but fearful master. McCain set loose that populism, but he could not contain it. It’s not what lost him the election–no V.P. could have saved him after the markets crashed–but I’m sure picking Palin is a decision he still regrets.

The spirit is loose among the Trumpkins. Populism has always been with us; it’s the dark mirror of democracy itself, mass participation, but for a malign purpose, often heedless of ideas or ideology. In the absence of a perfectly educated, successful, and virtuous populace, it will always exist. Palin didn’t invent populism, but she was its avatar for a time. Now she’s passed the torch Trump, who is even more powerful.

Populism was always going to erupt in an economy like this one, especially in the face of demographic changes that seem strange to some people, but there was no guarantee of it erupting on the right. There is the glamour of populism in the Sanders campaign, as well. But with Palin as his forerunner, Trump was better positioned to harness populism’s fell power. It will undo him eventually, too, but that it exists in the Republican party is down to all of us who cheered Governor Palin’s nomination in 2008.

3 thoughts on “Do Not Call Up That Which You Cannot Put Down

  1. Islander

    I was darkly amused when Palin was put on the ticket. But I’m a jerk.

    But the real comment I have is my wariness of the term ‘populism’. Not that I’m against its existence but rather its use as a quick excuse to dismiss the ideas of many. The largest problem I have is that the power of government rightly rests in the people and to dismiss the popular view runs the risk of dismissing the people.
    Not that the popular view is always correct or good. But its wrongness should be challenged by arguments. Too often populism is used to dismiss without argument.

    My own personal view on Trump used to be that he was popular because he said things that you aren’t ‘allowed’ to say. The whole idea of shutting things out of debate because they are racist, or anti-muslim, or whatever, has always annoyed me. Maybe they do smack of -ist, but they also may be true. Argue them and see.
    I wouldn’t have thought that alone would have carried Trump this far, so maybe there is some other appeal. It may be populism, but I’m not sure what that means in this case.

    • Kyle

      You’re right. I could’ve defined “populism” better where I meant “personality-based populism” or “idea-free populism”. The Populist Party of the late 19th century actually had loads of ideas, some good, some crazy. They weren’t just rabble-rousers.

      I agree that Trump’s appeal is partly as the man who says what everyone tells people they must not say. It’s like why some people, even in our state, fly the rebel flag when they have no real allegiance to the South or slavery or states’ rights. It’s a middle finger to the polite arbiters of public opinion. “I can’t do what? Fuck you, I’m doing it.” I get that, and I get why it appeals to people who are already pissed off at other things. I just don’t like where it leads. I think it will peter out with Trump, eventually, but I thought that would’ve happened already, too.

      I was glad to see your e-mail address in the comments. It’s been a while! Hope you’re well. I’m not to far from the old neighborhood now. If you’re still around here, too, we should get a beer or two.

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