Category Archives: politics

Well, That was Just Super

We interrupt our regularly scheduled post on genres to bring you this dispatch from the edge of despair.

electoral-map

For the past several days I’ve been making notes toward a post-election post, the title of which was to be something like “Now, the Long Slog Back From Trumpism.” I meant to talk about the radical divisiveness in America that Trump’s campaign made glaringly obvious, and the painful fact that the opposing sides in this divide might well prove to be incommensurable—but that it was the primary task of a Clinton presidency to try and heal that rift.

Well. That would have been nice.

I woke up this morning in a world where “President Trump” isn’t merely a terrifying prospect, but a reality … and it is taking a long while for that reality to sink in. Possibly it won’t—possibly while Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office, I will still be investigating the backs of wardrobes, searching for a way back to the reality I left when I went to sleep last night.

I cannot recall a time in recent memory when I have been so relieved to be Canadian, though even that relief is marred by my fear that Trump’s victory will be a gust of oxygen for the revanchist embers smoldering in this country.

For the last few months, I have been reading a lot in an effort to wrap my head around the Trump phenomenon—more specifically, to try and understand his appeal to what has turned out to be a plurality of the U.S. electorate. I’ve read a number of books and a lot of articles; possibly the most interesting one, and the one I would most recommend, was Alexander Zaitchik’s The Gilded Rage. In it, he follows around the Trump campaign and speaks to his supporters—basically, just letting them talk and listening. Most striking in the stories he records is a remarkable cognitive dissonance. To be clear, Zaitchik did not sit down with any of Trump’s most rabid and nativist supporters, but people who have felt left behind by Washington and by the economy, and who see in Trump an outsider not beholden to a broken system. But then, after preambles venting about Washington elites and Obama’s “disastrous” presidency, more often than not they complain about the erosion of the social safety net, about income inequality, and health care. To a person, all who mention it deem Obamacare a massive failure, but then voice a desire for a single-payer system. They want better educational opportunities and to improve the schools we have; and while many echo Trump’s sentiments about immigration, all of the people who live by the border articulate a much more nuanced reality, expressing compassion for the Mexicans who suffer at the hands of the drug cartels and who come seeking a better life, and disdain for border agents who behave, in the words of one rancher, as little better than thugs.

That they would put their faith in Trump as someone who would address any or all of these problems is frankly baffling, but is likely a measure of their alienation from the “establishment”—they want to throw a bomb at the government, and Trump is the grenade most ready to hand.

The biggest problem with Zaitchik’s book is its brevity: at 125 pages, it necessarily provides a highly selective sample, presumably chosen for how compelling their accounts are. And however reasonable they sound, I could not shake an oft-recounted experience of Trump rallies, at which attendees are often described as affable until the shouting starts—and then the venom and hatred emerges, given voice and license by Trump and his lackeys.

It is this very vitriol that defeats an attempt at a rational understanding. Most recently, I read Thomas Frank’s book Listen, Liberal!, which is a concise and lacerating critique of the Democrats’ shift from being the party of the working class to neoliberal boosters of the professional class. As I read it, it felt like one half of an explanation for Trump’s popularity: though Frank never puts it in racial terms, what he describes is the Democrats’ abandonment of White middle America. The second half of the story, of course, is the Republicans’ successful courting of southern and Midwestern voters, appealing to their social conservatism and their racial anxiety, soliciting and getting their votes while slashing the social safety net and implementing policies that facilitated the concentration of wealth at the top at the expense of the middle class (a process, Frank points out, that was not hindered by Bill Clinton but accelerated).

This erosion of social programs, it needs to be noted for a point I will make momentarily, was itself racially coded: as Heather McGhee of the Demos Institute points out, middle- and lower-class Whites accepted these depredations more often than not because they were sold as cuts to programs that disproportionately benefitted inner-city Blacks (think, for example, of Reagan railing against “welfare queens”).

Meanwhile, both parties oversaw the busting of unions, trade agreements that sent jobs overseas and denuded the country’s manufacturing base, and fiscal policies that increasingly benefited corporations and the wealthy.

One way to understand Trump’s appeal to this cross-section of White America is to see them as an economically dispossessed group who woke up to the Republican long con of appealing to their social conservatism, either because they no longer cared about those issues, or because they saw jobs as the more important consideration, or (most likely) because they saw the long con for what it was, a bait-and-switch perpetrated by hypocritical political elites with more in common with their fellows across the aisle than the people whose votes they court.

Enter Trump: a swaggering bully who spoke intemperately, gleefully slapped around the Republican establishment, and confirmed all their politically incorrect suspicions about Mexicans and Muslims. And promised to restore what they had lost.

But again, as much as laying it out in socio-historical terms provides an attractive narrative, it falls short. Indeed, while for a time I was most of the way to believing it, I now call bullshit. Back in March, Thomas Frank wrote an article in The Guardian in which he offers his own explanation for Trumpism, which is more or less consonant with what I outlined above. He writes:

[T]o judge by how much time he spent talking about it, trade may be his single biggest concern—not white supremacy. Not even his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, the issue that first won him political fame. He did it again during the debate on 3 March: asked about his political excommunication by Mitt Romney, he chose to pivot and talk about … trade.

It seems to obsess him: the destructive free-trade deals our leaders have made, the many companies that have moved their production facilities to other lands, the phone calls he will make to those companies’ CEOs in order to threaten them with steep tariffs unless they move back to the US.

This much is impossible to deny: Trump is obsessed with the U.S.’s various trade deals, invariably referring to NAFTA as disastrous, and frequently banging on about how China and Mexico take advantage of America. Frank continues:

Now, I have no special reason to doubt the suspicion that Donald Trump is a racist. Either he is one, or (as the comedian John Oliver puts it) he is pretending to be one, which amounts to the same thing.

But there is another way to interpret the Trump phenomenon. A map of his support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America.

Again, as with Listen, Liberal!, I don’t think Frank is wrong, per se—just that the economic narrative is deficient in and of itself. One reason it loses traction is because the tacit media perception that Trump supporters are disenfranchised blue-collar workers is basically wrong: Trump voters have a median income of $72,000, which is ten thousand more than the U.S. national average. Which isn’t to say that you can’t be earning a comfortable income and not feel disenfranchised, but the reasons for that feeling are also where the economic narrative runs into problems.

Simply put, Trump’s insurgency is—to quote Danielle Moodie-Mills on CBC last night—“white supremacy’s last stand in America.” The economic narrative is attractive—and has been adopted by many in the media—not least because it helps paper over the discomforting racist dimension of his popularity. Thomas Frank’s argument about trade elides the fact that Trump’s preoccupation with trade and trade deals is not somehow a separate issue from his racism. Rather, he consistently conflates the two. Free trade is not something he abhors solely because of economic reasons, but because it entails a conception of an America with open borders. The rhetoric is of a piece with his signature policy items, the building of a wall and the banning of Muslims. Anyone identified as Other must be either removed or barred from entry. Those Others inconveniently in possession of American citizenship must be policed with more rigor. Since he first rode down that escalator to announce his candidacy, Trump has consistently advocated for a Fortress America, one that would somehow restore its “greatness.”

“Make America Great Again.” As I have written previously, Trump’s slogan is rank nostalgia, and I mean “rank” in the sense of the odor it emits. He of course does not specify when America was great—he lets his followers fill in the blanks. But his rhetoric of jobs and manufacturing, of bringing companies back to the States and punishing those that leave, speaks very obviously to the few decades after WWII when the U.S. was ascendant—when there was little economic competition because the rest of the world was rebuilding in the aftermath of a war that never touched continental America. When there were high-paying jobs available to men without college degrees, and a family could flourish on a single income.

But to again quote a professor I once TA’d for, “The problem with ‘the good old days’ is that they were invariably bad for someone.” The America Trump evokes is a White America, one in which all of the opportunities enumerated above were predominantly available only to Whites. Thomas Frank is not wrong when he outlines the ways in which both the Democrats and Republicans have dealt in bad faith with working-class Americans, but the rage and resentment, the vitriol and virulence of the Trumpistas, is rooted in that cultural shift of the late 1960s when Nixon recruited former Democrats with the Southern Strategy. Well, to be certain, it’s rooted in a much longer tradition of racism in America, but the voters who gave us President Trump last night are the scions of Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater.

As the saying goes, “to someone with privilege, equality feels like a loss.” A section of a speech by President Obama keeps rattling around in my head today. Remember when he was in the midst of a bitter primary fight with Hilary Clinton eight years ago, and for a brief time it looked like his candidacy was over because of intemperate words spoken by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright? Obama turned everything around, and ultimately won the nomination, by delivering a speech that is—to my mind—one of the greatest pieces of American political oration. At one point in the speech, he said:

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

It’s a sad thing to realize that the election of Obama did not do much—or anything, perhaps—to salve this resentment. Instead, it has only grown. While live-blogging the Republican National Convention, Andrew Sullivan wrote hopefully that perhaps Obama has functioned as a poultice, “bringing so much pus to the surface of American life,” which would allow for the cleansing and sanitization of America’s racial wounds. I’ve long harboured the same hope, which rested to a large extent on this election and the possibility that a Clinton victory would have provided a space in the aftermath to address the ugliness that had arisen.

Instead, America has embraced the ugliness.

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The Trumpocalypse Fallacy

We interrupt the planned blog post on the zombie apocalypse for the following rant about the Trumpocalypse (and why it won’t happen).

I watched the highlights of the vice-presidential debate this morning, expecting to be amused by the spectacle of (as one person in my Facebook feed put it) watching your homophobic uncle argue with your nerdy science teacher. Or the epic fight between mayonnaise and margarine. Or … well, choose your own analogy for bland vs. blank.

Instead, I find myself deeply disturbed.

Part of this discomfiture proceeds from other thoughts that have been rattling about in my head. If you’ve been reading this blog lately, you’ll know my last few posts have been preoccupied with apocalypse: most specifically of the zombie variety, but I also had an extended riff in my Pop Culture class last week on disaster films apropos of Independence Day. One of my recurrent points, which I made in my last post, was that narratives of apocalypse reflect a desire for radical change, coupled with an inability to imagine that change short of wholesale destruction. And I reflected parenthetically that this might account, in part, for the rise of Donald Trump.

Why? Because while there is a certain, deeply deluded segment of his supporters who seem to believe that he is a genius businessman who will use his deal-making acumen to fix the country, and another segment who embrace his racial politics to the exclusion of everything else, there are also those who are just so disgusted with the current U.S. government on all levels that they just want to burn it to the ground (to be certain, these are not three mutually exclusive categories—a Venn diagram would show massive overlap).

I had been mulling over a possible blog post exploring this idea: that a large part of people’s desire to see Trump elected proceeds from what Susan Sontag called “the imagination of disaster,” but which many ostensible Trump supporters have likened to a Heath-Ledger-as-Joker desire to “watch the world burn.” Which is itself not nihilistic, but apocalyptic in the true sense of the word: a purgation that would destroy a broken system and open space to erect a new one. Indeed, the most common mantra of Trump supporters is the assertion that “the system is broken” or “Washington is broken.” Thinking in these terms, it becomes easier to see why Trump’s many egregious enormities, his lies and erraticism, and his obvious incompetence, do not count against him—in this scenario, in which he is a bomb thrown by voters, his incompetence is his greatest asset.

Among his supporters, the sense is that he would eradicate the edifices of the smug elites, the politically correct, the “establishment.” And in some sectors of the left, Hilary Clinton is seen as anathema because she would just be a continuation of a broken and corrupt system, whereas—as Susan Sarandon said to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes—“Some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately, if he gets in. Then things will really, you know, explode.” I make no claims for Sarandon’s credentials as a political expert, but she does give voice to a not-insignificant number of disaffected Bernie Sanders’ supporters, for whom Hilary is unacceptable specifically because she will not tear down the system as they believe Bernie would have (which is its own quaint delusion, but that’s a post for another day).

Ever since Trump became the nominee—well, since he first descended that escalator a year and a half ago, but more intently since his nomination—I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this phenomenon. More specifically, I’ve been trying to understand the mindset of people who would vote for him. One thing I’ve settled on is that the only rational reason to prefer him over Hilary (if competence and rationality factor into your decision at all) is if you embrace this nuclear option: that you think he’ll actually explode the system. I understand that line of thinking. I find it morally indefensible, but at least it has a basis in logic.

But here’s the problem: it won’t happen.

This was my realization upon watching Mike Pence’s debate performance. There will be no Trumpocalypse, for the simple reason that for all Trump’s incompetence, bluster, attention deficit disorder, and inability to absorb even the most basic elements of American civics, he doesn’t have the wherewithal to wreak the kind of havoc the apocalypticists desire.

John Kasich’s campaign performed a great service when it revealed that Trump’s people had offered to make him the most powerful vice president in history, giving him oversight of foreign and domestic policy. What would President Trump concern himself with? they asked. “Making America great again.” This offer was a confirmation of something Trump critics had suspected from the start: that he’s uninterested in the actual business of governance.

Whether Mike Pence was made a comparable offer remains unknown, but there seems to be near-unanimity among the punditry that last night Pence looked and sounded more “presidential” than Trump ever has. Indeed, one piece of wisdom that has been floating around is that Pence’s performance was good for Pence, bad for Trump—namely because, probably for the first time ever, we watched a vice-presidential candidate demur from endorsing any of his running mate’s policies, and indeed seemed to inhabit an alternative reality from Trump as he simply denied a host of things Trump has said and done in recent months (and then had the audacity to suggest Tim Kaine was the one in an alternative reality for “imagining” these things).

Conversely, I don’t see Pence’s performance as bad for Trump at all. Trump’s supporters won’t care one way or another, but I can easily imagine Republicans leery of Trump being reassured: Pence’s entire shtick was about suggesting there will be an adult in the White House, and that while Trump is out and about making America great again, he will take care of the important stuff.

Of course, it is impossible to accurately predict what a Trump White House will be like. It may be that he is so bored by the day-to-day details of governance that he essentially abdicates to Pence. On the other hand, it is just as easy to imagine him getting his hackles up at the suggestion that his VP is the one in charge, and capriciously throwing spanners and executive orders into the gears. Certainly, the biggest and most exhausting task in a Trump administration would be damage control every time he holds a press conference or inadvertently insults a foreign dignitary.

But what we need to remember is that the American ship of state is not a sprightly frigate, but a massive and fully-laden oil tanker. It does not change course except by slow increments. I’m not speaking here of policy decisions, but of the deep structure of the federal government, which employs nearly 2.8 million people; there is a huge apparatus of civil servants carrying out the business of government on a daily basis, to say nothing of juggernauts like the Department of Defense and U.S. industry more broadly, none of which would be subject to revolutionary change—certainly not by way of anything Trump (or for that matter any president) could effect.

All of which is by way of saying that Trump’s histrionics in the west wing would wreak havoc, but not with the Republic’s elemental structures. They would adversely affect the most vulnerable: the poor, immigrants, people of colour, Muslims, women; and as for what Trump didn’t inflict, it’s a good bet that Mike Pence, working in concert with Paul Ryan, would pick up the slack, dismantling Planned Parenthood, eviscerating Obamacare, rolling back gay rights, facilitating more draconian law enforcement, slashing taxes on the 1%, doing away with environmental and financial regulations, denuding access to abortion and birth control—enough of which would be consonant with President Trump’s platform that it’s hard to imagine a complaint emanating from the Oval Office (presumably redecorated in gold leaf and Roman statuary).

To say nothing of the fact that everyone standing politically to the left of Attila the Hun would spend four years offering up novenas for the longevity of Justices Ginsburg, Kennedy, and Breyer.

I have little illusion that when I share my political perspectives, I’m doing little more than preaching to the choir of the forty-odd people who read my posts. And given that most of them are Canadians, this makes my editorializing that much more futile. Still: if you know an American, left or right, who sees the Trumpocalypse as a revolutionary possibility, please feel free to share my rant with them.

***

We will return to our regularly scheduled blog posts soon.

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From the Decay of Lying to the Velocity of Mendacity, or, The Fiction that is Donald J. Trump

C YRIL. Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.
V IVIAN. I assure you that they do not. They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just as well speak the truth at once.
—Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”

oscar_wilde_portraitLike most people, as I have watched the U.S. election, I have frequently wondered what Oscar Wilde would make of it. And more specifically, what he would make of Donald Trump.

Wilde published his elegant essay “The Decay of Lying” in 1889, and then again with significant revisions in 1891. He composed it as a dialogue between aesthete Vivian and skeptic Cyril, and argues (through Vivian) that a preoccupation with reality and realism has corrupted and denuded art. What, he asks, has happened to the beautiful lie? He laments,

Facts are not merely finding a footing-place in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of Romance. Their chilling touch is over everything. They are vulgarising mankind. The crude commercialism of America, its materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals, are entirely due to that country having adopted for its national hero a man, who according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a lie, and it is not too much to say that the story of George Washington and the cherry-tree has done more harm, and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature.

Like much of Wilde’s writing, the apparent frivolity of his tone and glib assertions of his narrators are just window-dressing for profound insight into our relationship to and with art and literature. What is fiction and poetry, he basically asks, if not a series of beautiful lies? Lies which, Vivian is careful to observe, transform reality itself: it is in this essay that Wilde formed his famous axiom that “life imitates art.” A superficial reading of this aphorism suggests the ways in which people chase after the latest trends in fashion as created by popular culture. Wilde’s point is however more nuanced, and makes a semiotic argument decades before semiotics was all the rage in English departments: namely, that art and literature facilitate and expand a vocabulary of expression that potentially transforms the way we perceive the world. Challenged by Cyril to prove his point, Vivian responds,

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to this particular school of Art.

Again, we have the distinct impression of a tongue stuck firmly in a cheek, but Wilde’s argument—lurking subtly underneath Vivian’s high-handed and ostensibly absurd assertion—troubles the assumption of art as straightforward representation, of Hamlet’s pompous direction to the players that the purpose of art “both at the / first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the / mirror up to nature.” Hamlet comes in for some excoriation from Vivian for this line, as do those who quote it unironically, not understanding “that this unfortunate aphorism is deliberately said by Hamlet in order to convince the bystanders of his absolute insanity in all art-matters.”

But what does this have to do with Donald Trump? Well, that goes to my musing about what Wilde (or his mouthpiece Vivian) would make of this moment’s most magnificent liar. I think we might be operating now outside of Wilde’s wheelhouse, for it isn’t so much that Trump lies as that he embodies untruth. Wilde, I suspect, would be less concerned with the decay of lying than with the sheer velocity of Trump’s mendacity.

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Donald Trump Did Not Take Place

One of the greatest frustrations supporters of Hillary Clinton and those with an affection for Civilization As We Know It have had in this campaign is the double standard for honesty being applied to her and Trump. By any objective measure, as was observed by Ruth Marcus on Slate magazine’s most recent Political Gabfest, “Hillary wins the transparency Olympics.” Which isn’t to say she hasn’t prevaricated, embellished or downplayed the truth, or outright lied—just that when you tally up her untruths and juxtapose them with Trump’s, it’s a molehill dwarfed by a mountain. For a long time it seemed to me as if the media was grading the respective candidates’ honesty on a curve, with Trump benefiting and Clinton suffering from different standards applied across the board.

I’m no longer convinced by that analogy, however, because it suggests that Trump and Clinton exist on the same epistemic continuum, one in which truth and falsity are givens. To be certain, that’s where Clinton is. Trump, however, is no longer there, and it’s doubtful whether he ever was. Rather, he has come to be the embodiment of the postmodernist moment when a fictional character steps off the page or screen into reality, and in so doing troubles “reality” as stable category. As the saying goes, if Donald Trump didn’t exist, we would have to invent him. Except—and here’s the rub—we did.

Donald Trump is a fictional character, and this is why the normal epistemic rules we apply to presidential candidates have been more or less irrelevant to his candidacy. I want to be clear: when I call Trump fictional, I am being wholly unironic. I’m not questioning his empirical, physical reality—he is a person with a history, a body, a passport and (we assume—he’s never showed us) a birth certificate—but asserting that his candidacy, and the frighteningly real possibility that he may be elected, can only be properly understood in terms of fiction.

It’s not that Hillary Clinton is being held to a different standard of truth so much as inhabiting a different epistemic paradigm entirely. She traffics in reality, and is preoccupied with policy and the quotidian details of governance, preoccupied with politics in its classic definition as the “art of the possible.” The experience she has accrued as First Lady, Senator for New York, and Secretary of State is matched by a comparable accrual of secrets, lies, gaffes, scandals (real and imagined), half-truths and embellishments, enmities and connections, losses and victories—in other words, the baggage that anyone of her prominence with so long a tenure in public life amasses. The arguments made about her dishonesty, or her cozy relationship with the 1%, or any of the other issues arising from her life spent in politics are however different in kind from the most basic principle animating Trump’s rump: that it is precisely this experience, which tars her as “establishment,” that is her disqualifying quality. Trump will fix things because he says he will. Nothing factual pertaining to his history of bankruptcies, grifting, shafting contractors and investors and banks, his mob ties, or to the very real likelihood that his net worth is nowhere near what he claims, gains any traction with his supporters, because in the end he is a fictional character.

To help explain what I mean, it’s worth remembering that Hillary and Bill Clinton have a fictional dimension themselves, but one that ultimately serves to solidify their place in the world of truth and falsity. The Clintons have provided fodder for a host of filmic and televisual depictions of the presidency, from direct fictionalizations like Primary Colors and Political Animals, to shows that have been more obliquely informed by the Clinton political saga like The West Wing and House of Cards. Such parallels don’t make Hillary Clinton herself a fiction in the same way as I’m characterizing Trump, however. Indeed, they provide a contrast to reality in the way they idealize (The West Wing), satirize (Veep), or dystopianize (House of Cards) the political life (no, “dystopianize” wasn’t a word, but it is now. Use it in good health). This contrast serves to reinforce the distinction between fiction and reality: these narratives are by turns fantasies of what we wish the Clintons could be, or what we suspect they really are.

Trump, on the other hand, emerges on the political stage fully fictional, built out of the many mendacities of his life-long self-fashioning: posing, over the phone, as his own publicist in order to mythologize his supposed playboy lifestyle; his transformation from builder to brand; his serial marriages to women whose beauty flatters his image; his emergence as a reality TV star. Trump as a human being is about as real as his hair. His persona is a carefully wrought bit of artifice that employs extant, popular American tropes that serve to paper over the inconvenient truth of his silver-spoon upbringing. He’s Horatio Alger and P.T. Barnum, and about as honest as both of them combined. But like Alger and Barnum, he has the innate ability to enthrall an audience, even those who might actively loathe the spectacle. Let’s be honest: we can’t discount the fact that at least part of Trump’s success resides in the same horrified fascination that fuels the box office numbers for disaster films. Even those of us objectively appalled at the prospect of him in the Oval Office kind of want him to win in November, just to see what happens. But that’s because we’re narrative junkies, and that’s one of the reasons for his success: he’s a fictional juggernaut now, writing a story as he goes that none of us—Doonesbury and The Simpsons excepted—could have predicted, but which continues its postmodern encroachment of fiction into reality every day.

I won’t be the first person to ascribe Trump’s candidacy to the pernicious effects of reality TV, and it’s safe to say that his ascendancy is a perfect storm of historical and cultural factors (something made risibly clear by Andrew Coyne in his recent National Post op-ed, in which he literally blames everyone). But it is painfully obvious that Trump is the embodiment of the dissolution of entertainment into reality, something reality TV has been priming us for since it first declared that it wasn’t here to make friends. Every reality TV competition has a villain and a blowhard—those characters that drive up the ratings—and Trump is both. He operates according to those rules, which have nothing to do (ironically, I suppose) with reality, and everything to do with besting the other contestants. The problem in this election cycle is the mind-numbing number of voters who are more than willing to give credence to this logic.

But why? In part because, more than anything else, Trump’s ongoing reality TV candidacy speaks to what people feel is reality rather than any empirical knowledge.

 

GOP 2016 Trump Echoes of Wallace

Make America Great White Trump Again

One can argue endlessly about whether elections have always been more about emotion than thought, truthiness rather than truth, but it is hard to deny that Trump is the ultimate candidate for feelings over facts. The entirety of the 2016 Republican National Convention was given over to how America “feels”—the speeches by the Republican not-so-luminaries who deigned to participate did not cite statistics about a crumbling economy or rampant crime, but asserted instead that Americans feel the economy is tanking, and how they feel threatened by rising crime rates. When confronted in an interview with the objective fact that crime rates are at a thirty-year low, Newt Gingrich doubled down, saying, “As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel, and you can go with the theoreticians.”

And when the people delivering speeches weren’t saying that people felt afraid, they went out of their way to scare the shit out of them. “The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe,” Rudy Giuliani thundered at the start of his speech, and then went on to suggest that Obama’s tenure emboldened terrorists and criminals, and that Clinton would, if elected, blithely allow terrorists to enter along with a massive flood of Syrian refugees. “The cost of Hillary’s dishonesty,” declared Newt Gingrich, “could be the loss of America as we know it.”

“America as we know it” is an instructive phrase. It is of a piece with the “America” of Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” The America that people “know” is invariably different from the America that is, for the simple fact that it is too big, too complex, too disparate in every category from income to ideology, for any one person to have an objectively true perspective. But the closest one can come requires empathy, an open mind, and a grasp of history, something actually demonstrated by the current president when he addressed the blinkered nostalgia animating Trump’s slogan:

Here, President Obama puts into historical context the nostalgic idea of America evoked by Trump: the ascendant, dominant America, with a thriving manufacturing sector in which his aggrieved white supporters would have found well-paying blue-collar jobs. The problem with nostalgizing this Golden Age is twofold: first, it represents a fleeting moment in U.S. history, about thirty years—or 12.5% of America’s lifetime. The suggestion that it was some sort of prelapsarian moment ignores all of the historical factors enumerated by President Obama: that the U.S. emerged from WWII unscathed, with all of its manufacturing capabilities intact, while the other major powers in the world lay devastated by the war. (If you want to talk about American Exceptionalism, this was a time when the U.S. was genuinely exceptional, for the simple reason that its cities had not been pounded into dust). There was an economic vacuum into which the U.S. stepped, overturning its prior inclination to isolationism and embracing and facilitating the expansion of globalization. And in so doing, it prospered hugely—but sooner or later, its dominance would inevitably by challenged as other world powers dug themselves out of their postwar holes. Or in Trump parlance, they started “winning.”

Secondly, the tacit idealization of this period ignores one crucial factor, something a former professor of mine pithily summed up in the axiom “the ‘good old days’ were inevitably bad for someone.” Yes, the postwar years comprised a time of great opportunity and prosperity, provided you were white and male. Even if you ignore the blatantly racist drivel that has dropped from Trump’s mouth, his supporters have embraced a nostalgia for white America.

All that being said, Trump has been entirely vague on what version of America was “great” compared to his depiction of a fallen, postlapsarian nation that has forgotten how to “win.” Again, it’s all about the feelings: the historical facts and the contemporary reality of lower crime and a growing economy are irrelevant to a narrative of decline and fall requiring a strong man to turn the nation around. All of Trump’s critics who modify his slogan to “Make America White Again” aren’t wrong, at least not where his supporters are concerned; but for Trump himself, the slogan should really be “Make America Trump Again,” and the fact that it never was is entirely beside the point.

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A Probable Impossibility

I keep coming back to Aristotle’s principle than a writer of fiction “should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities” (Poetics XXIV). By which he means it is better to have something unreal behaving logically (a faster-than-lightspeed spaceship, for example, inhabited by believable characters) than something real behaving in unlikely fashion (an everyday Joe winning the lottery three times in as many days). Readers and audiences accept impossibilities, provided they obey the laws of story and narrative.

For some time now I’ve viewed Trump’s success as an improbably possibility: all the way along it has been technically possible for him to rise to the top of the Republican ticket and have a realistic shot at the White House, but possible in the same way that if I started training tomorrow I could win the Boston Marathon in five years. Possible, but infinitesimally unlikely.

I have now changed my thinking. A Trump presidency—or for that matter an America in which 40% of its voters think a mendacious, self-aggrandizing businessman with four bankruptcies and the attention span of a goldfish is qualified to be president—should be impossible. And indeed, the very prospect of his nomination was almost universally considered absurd on the face of it by the media’s brain trust. Those few people, like Rep. Keith Ellison, who warned that it could happen were literally laughed at.

But in the present moment, Trump’s rise has all the implacable inevitability of a disaster film. For a candidacy that privileges feeling over thought, “President Trump” feels probable, as impossible as it should be. It is tempting to joke that “he’s not the president America needs, but he is the president America deserves,” but there would be too much collateral damage in that eventuality. Whether the electorate deserves it or not, American popular political culture has been laying the groundwork for years. Keith Ellison defends his warning by citing the fact that in Minnesota, they elected Jesse Ventura in defiance of all common sense; he could just as well have pointed to the nomination of Sarah Palin as a VP candidate, the two-term reign of the Governator in California, and of course that time the country elected a former B-movie actor as president—twice.

Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” allegorizes what happens when fiction becomes all-consuming and persuasive. When the imaginary world of Tlön captures the world’s imagination, its fiction trespasses into reality:

Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly plant? It is useless to answer that reality is also orderly.

Donald Trump, as I have argued in this post, is wholly fictional. He does not merely lie, he is a lie, one that operates according to the rules of the “reality” of reality television. With this in mind, however, there is one ray of hope: the villains and the blowhards of reality TV may get the most attention and drive up ratings, but statistically they rarely win. Most often, the winners are the innocuous contestants, the ones who stay off the radar while working hard to make themselves valuable without drawing attention. Blowhards and villains eventually piss too many people off, and find themselves voted off the island or out of the house … or fired.

Fingers crossed for that kind of narrative inevitability.

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Winners and Losers

I watched all four nights of the Republican convention in Cleveland. All four. I did it in part so I could follow along as Andrew Sullivan liveblogged it: since he retired his epic blog The Dish, I’ve been in serious withdrawal from Sullivan’s incisive, insightful, and often entertainingly cantankerous perspective on politics, American and otherwise. But mostly I did it to bear witness to history in a way not available to those who watched the Reichstag burn down. They could not have known what was coming, that a comical Chaplinesque clown would use his influence over populist rage to vanquish the forces of the moderate establishment. The Junkers and the bourgeois conservatives assumed that Hitler would be malleable once in power, that he would be a useful cudgel to hammer the socialists, and that ultimately they could use him to their own ends.

Well, we know how that worked out.

Don’t go calling down Godwin’s Law on me. Smarter people than I have pointed out the similarities between Trumpism and fascism, including Adam Gopnik (twice) and the aforementioned Andrew Sullivan. Read them and come back to me with a denial on this point.

But that’s not my primary concern in this post. In this post, I want to talk about the idea of winners and losers, something near and dear to Donald Trump and his idiosyncratic rhetoric.

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After everything that went down over the four nights of the RNC, I find it interesting that one of the things that continues to rankle for me is his Beyonce-like entrance on the first night to the strains of Queen’s “We Are The Champions.” I’m not alone: there was a chorus of anger that the putative figurehead of the Republican Party would appropriate Freddie Mercury to his own ends. Trump’s brief shout-out to the LGBT community in his keynote speech on Thursday night does nothing to obviate the GOP’s systematic opposition to, and attempts to roll back, gay rights; it certainly does nothing to counter the fact that he chose one of the Republicans’ worst offenders to be his running mate. That he would use the music of a gay icon to accompany his entrance is tone-deaf at best, and actually obscene at worst.

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All that aside, it is utterly unsurprising that Trump would favour “We Are The Champions.” Taken entirely out of context, the song articulates what is quite obviously something close to Trump’s sense of self. If I had to guess what his favourite lyric is, I’d have to say “No time for losers!” Even if you ignore his biography to the point of his announcement on June 16th, 2015, there is no avoiding the fact that Donald Trump’s primary method of interacting with the world is to divide it into winners and losers. He, obviously, is a winner. Those people he likes and approves of are also winners (though this is a redundant observation, as one assumes being a winner is a prerequisite for the Donald’s approbation). His opponents and enemies, just as obviously, are losers. He chose to run for president because America is no longer a winner, and that is unacceptable. America has been losing for too long: to China, to Mexico, to Russia, to ISIS. His entire candidacy is about being a winner again. “We’re gonna win so much,” he famously declared at a rally, “we’re gonna win at every level, we’re gonna win economically, we’re gonna win with the economy, we’re gonna win with military, we’re gonna win with health care and for our veterans, we’re gonna win with every single facet, we’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning!”

The rhetoric is childish and risible, and has justifiably come in for a great deal of mockery, but we make a mistake to dismiss it out of hand. It is less Trump’s actual words than his world-view that resonates: there are winners and losers, and if you stand with me you’ll be a winner like I am. Trump is essentially the schoolyard bully writ large, who inevitably attracts a sniggering entourage of toadies eager for the bully’s approval, people who really are just desperate to not be the objects of bullying themselves. There is no sense that making common cause with the others being bullied is an option, because winners vs. losers is a zero-sum game: if you are to win, someone else must lose, so best to hitch your wagon to the hugest, most bombastic star in your firmament.

The irony of Trump’s use of “We Are The Champions” is that, in spite of its soaring anthemic chorus, the song contains a distinct measure of pathos in its slower, quieter moments. It speaks of paying dues and suffering, of making mistakes, and—that great mark of the loser!—having sand kicked in one’s face. And let us not forget that the struggle is ongoing: “We’ll keep on fighting till the end!” Mercury sings, suggesting that “champion” is less an achieved status than a state of mind, and that the struggle never ends—a sentiment made all the more poignant by his high-profile death at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Perhaps if Freddie Mercury was still alive, still touring with Queen and headlining shows alongside the Rolling Stones; perhaps if “The Show Must Go On,” which now indelibly inflects “Champions” with an elegiac quality, wasn’t the last song Mercury recorded before succumbing to his illness; perhaps if his career had not been a great, glorious, campy fuck-you to the voices of censure, of disapprobation, of authority; perhaps then “We Are The Champions” might fit a bit better into Donald Trump’s ethos.

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But of course none of those things are true, and we can add Trump’s use of Queen to the long list of politicians completely misapprehending the nuances of songs they use while campaigning (the ultimate example of which is perhaps Ronald Reagan’s use of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” in 1984, though Paul Ryan’s professed love of Rage Against the Machine is even more cognitively dissonant). And in the long run, playing “Champions” to accompany his entrance on stage is small beer compared to his countless other outrages: fomenting anti-Islamic and anti-Hispanic sentiment, playing upon people’s fears and anxieties to further his personal brand, and basically reinventing the Gish gallop by an order of magnitude such that fact checkers quite simply can’t keep up with his mendacity, all of which have immediate and pernicious real-world effects.

But the rhetoric of winners and losers as a zero-sum game really should disqualify anyone seeking high office—or really, office at any level. If government has a responsibility, it is to the “losers.” This has been the guiding principle of all our great humanitarians and humanists, and is the central tenet of almost every single religion in history—including the Christian faith to which Trump pretends. I am an atheist, but was raised Catholic, and to this day the part of the Gospels that resonates most for me is Matthew 5:3-11, the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus celebrates the meek, the poor, the peacemakers, and so on. As a witness to American politics, I have yet to see the right wing square their devout Christianity with their dismissal of the people Christ specifically sought to elevate.

Despite his ultimate fame, Freddie Mercury was a loser: a shy young man born as Farrokh Bulsara in colonial Africa (in the British protectorate of Zanzibar) to Parsi parents, whose savant-like musical skills made themselves obvious at an early age. As his fame grew, his sexuality asserted itself more and more, becoming something akin to an open secret. But it was something he reveled in in his public persona, and he was as frequently vilified as he was celebrated. In the world of social conservatism, Mercury is doubly suspect: not just gay, but foreign. And not just foreign, but born in Africa to parents of Iranian extraction.

It is perhaps no wonder that the music of Queen speaks so frequently to the underdog. Not that this is unusual in the history of rock and roll, which has so often given voice to society’s losers, as has so much of rap and hip hop. And what is blues music, if not the cri de coeur of the downtrodden? It puts me in mind of the wonderful speech Jon Stewart delivered on the occasion of Bruce Springsteen receiving the Kennedy Center Honor. He talks about working in a bar in central New Jersey, hinting at his aimless and angst-ridden youth, but that when he listened to the music of Bruce Springsteen, “everything changed … and I never again felt like a loser.” When you listen to Bruce’s music, he says, “you aren’t a loser. You are a character in an epic poem … about losers.”

I have no pithy end to this post, no rhetorical flourish. At one point I thought I could end on something like “But if Trump wins, we’re all losers,” but I think if I wrote a sentence like that in earnest I might actually have to stab myself in the eye with a knitting needle.

I came relatively late to the music of Queen: they weren’t on my radar in high school for the simple fact that no one I knew listened to them (or admitted to it). I chalk this up in part to the fact that a Catholic high school in the 1980s is about as homophobic a place as you’re likely to find. I watched the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992 almost in its entirety, largely because of all the guest musicians, and ended up being transported by the Queen songbook.

After night four of the GOP convention, as I thought about going to bed, I felt I needed a life affirming anthem.

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