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”
Like 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.
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.
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.
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.