24 February 2016

The ultimate post-modern candidate

This past week witnessed the much-mourned passing of the great Italian social theorist and novelist Umberto Eco. This passing makes the following analysis all the more poignant, as he would have been among the first to warn of it. He understood as few others do, the preference Americans seem to have for ‘the ultimate fake’, untethered by any grounding in history, to a reality which is either inaccessible, incomplete or damaged. He saw it particularly in Disneyland, but he would have recognised the search for ‘the ultimate fake’ in all too much of our modern consumer culture. A search for meaning that isn’t necessarily available, and is therefore supplanted at a cost by a full-scaled facsimile.

I mention this because I value the real. I want to see a society that has a surer sense of itself, of the best of its own traditions, which holds as valuable the wisdom of its common people – the ones who stay in one place, work, go to Church, marry, have children and generally live ordinary and decent and real lives, perhaps occasionally subject to the ordinary and decent and real vices. I want to see a society that, at the risk of an overwhelming irony that is not lost on me, is not averse to kneeling before its Frodos. I believe many Americans want the same things. But what is frustrating to see is that they are turning instead to something that only bears a resemblance to the real, that is more ‘reality show’ than reality. They are turning to what Eco would no doubt recognise as the ‘ultimate fake’.

Trump does stand for some policies that I think are worthwhile: economic nationalism, foreign-policy realism, a robust immigration policy with sensible limits. He makes some populist noises (mostly unsubstantiated by what I would recognise as a genuine populist politics, but even so) which are of vague interest to me. And – Lord Christ, have mercy upon me, a wretched sinner – I truly enjoy, with unabashed schadenfreude, the way in which he is leading the GOP establishment and the American news media around by the nose. But towering above it all (uh, no pun intended) is the persona which he puts forward for their benefit in particular, and this is what is most troubling about him.

This persona has been deliberately cultivated, over a period of decades, and it is the persona which is both touted as the biggest draw, but which repulses me the most deeply. The major broadcast media are drawn to this persona as moths to a flame – Trump makes a ‘yuuge’ display of his distrust for the media, but he uses them like an expert, and that’s precisely because he is a media expert. And because it takes one to know one, he uses the narcissism of the American journalists and punditry to feed his own. He is entirely a creature of the media – he understands self-promotion as very few others in American life do. He understands perfectly well that his outrageousness gets him free publicity. He understands that contrition and shame are punished in the modern public sphere, and thus he refuses to show any. In a broad field of fake statesmanship, Trump is the true ‘ultimate fake’, in the full Ecoesque sense: Trump’s presence in politics is not as a politician, but as a reality TV star.

The appeal in this is not hard to understand. America’s elite class has failed, hard, on multiple fronts: failed to achieve a decent standard of living for the mass of Americans; failed to deliver functional public services; failed to ensure the security and well-being of the elderly or of the very young; failed not only to improve school outcomes but even to measure them effectively; failed to kick the country’s fossil-fuel habit; failed to keep American interests safe at home or abroad; failed to effectively care for the soldiers they sent abroad to do it; and failed to tell us the full extent of the truth about any of these things when it might have mattered from a democratic standpoint. And they continue to posture as though they still know what’s best for the country. This angers people. It angers me. And I can understand the reasoning: why not vote for someone who has the guts to call out their failures in the way they’ve fully earned, who is willing to tell them ‘you’re fired’ from us? (By the way, to say my sympathy is limited for someone like Ezra Klein, who complains about Trump’s popularity and says he’s dangerous in the field of ‘real live politics’ when Klein himself – and those like him, like Chait, Savage, Pollack, Friedman and Zakaria – in ‘real life’ has the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on his liberal-hawk hands and has never been held to account for it, would be an incredible understatement. The political establishment who oversaw the murderous folly of 2003 are precisely the wrong messengers about the dangers of Trump-as-president.)

And yet, Klein has a very salient point to make. Trump seems more ‘real’ to us because in actuality he’s playing the political game by a very different set of rules than what we’re used to from politicians. He seems more understandable to us because we’re familiar with the ‘zero-sum’ logic of Survivor, and we tend to think it’s more ‘honest’. We like the fact that Trump doesn’t care about push-polls, focus groups and campaigning in the traditional sense. Liberals and establishment conservatives like to make fun of the excuse that ‘he says what he’s really thinking’, or else intimate darkly that it represents some racist-sexist-xenophobic undercurrent in American thinking – but that’s not the appeal at all. The character he plays is enjoyable. But at the same time, we fully understand that Survivor is entirely acting. It’s a facsimile. (Pass the popcorn.) Do we understand that Trump’s presidential bid is likewise factitious? The worry for me is that, because it’s being played by a different set of rules, it acquires a self-protective layer of irony. Why shouldn’t we take Trump seriously, even if he’s a fake? The whole system, after all, is fake! It’s better to have a ‘real’ actor as president, so the logic goes, than any of the other bad actors occupying the stage with him.

And yet. I keep coming back to this classical analogy – Kleon was an entertainer too. A highly successful one, at that, if we are to believe Aristotle. And Athens and her political situation suffered immensely when Kleon gained power.

As a nation, we cannot live healthily on the illusions of acting. It is truly tempting, particularly for us Americans with our short history; our ever-clearer dearth of genuine civic traditions; our veneration of celebrity; and our preference for the ‘hyperreal’, to punish the bad acting of the establishment conservatives and establishment liberals alike by lifting a ‘real’ actor into their places. When politics fails to deliver for the common good, both the methodological and teleological bases for that politics are brought into question. This is, not just a, but the post-modern temptation. And this temptation is something to resist. Trump makes for an entertaining campaigner – and why wouldn’t he? He’s the ultimate post-modern candidate. But, as the ultimate post-modern candidate, he won’t make for a good president.

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