I’ve seen Donald Trump run a country before—and it wasn’t pretty. Society was cheapened to its most base money-grabbing instincts, there was constant political turmoil, and superficiality ruled.
Admittedly, I didn’t witness this first hand. Rather, I read it, in a novel.
In Julian Barnes’s postmodern satire England, England (1998), grotesque tycoon and self-proclaimed patriot Sir Jack Pitman uses all the stereotypical essences of “Englishness” to create a theme park on the tiny Isle of Wight, named England England. He persuades the royal family to move to the island, which hosts Manchester United’s soccer games and has endless Robin Hood battle reenactments. Eventually, the theme park image of England ends up overtaking the country itself, with “real” England and its concrete institutions regressing into a rural backwater. Meanwhile, Pitman is eventually undone in a sex scandal and becomes a powerless figurehead.
A philandering egomaniacal billionaire who seizes power by presenting a warped image of a country that never really existed. Sound familiar?
The 2016 US presidential election reflects so much of postmodern theory and literature that it’s often hard to believe we’re not stuck in a dystopian satire. Postmodern thought, which dates back to the 1960s, is based in part on the idea that the growth of mass media has blurred all lines between truth and fiction. As a result of the vast number of conflicting stories presented in the media’s different mediums, we have begun to confuse our sense of truth and reality making everything seem subjective. This cheapens any notions of depth or substance in favor of what Daniel Boorstin calls “the image” in his seminal 1962 book, a founding postmodern text.
Enter Donald Trump, a pathological liar famous in part for a heavily exaggerated book that he didn’t write and a TV show that makes a point of “staging” reality. A man whose campaign manifesto can be boiled down to a handful of childish tweets, who can make two conflicting statements in a day without blinking an eye. In Trump’s world, the “image” is all there is.
“Image preempts reality, so that we don’t even expect there to be a reality behind the claims or the images projected,” says Ohio State University professor Brian McHale, author of several books about postmodernism. “[Trump] is known for what’s not real about him. For the inflated claims about his fortune and his prowess, which we suspect—we can’t prove—we suspect is based on nothing. The fact that his reputation rests on his having been a reality TV star…It’s not clear that he’s a man of anything. If there was an ideology there, we would know how to conduct an ideological critique of his campaign. But there’s hardly a trace of that—there’s no ‘there’ there.”
It may seem ironic that this is one of the candidates vying to replace president Barack Obama, a constitutional law professor with a dynamic, nuanced speaking style. However, Obama’s 2008 campaign understood clearly the power of the image: the “Hope” poster, the “Yes we can” slogan, the constant reiteration of themes of race and skin color (whether by Obama or his surrogates and staff members). Indeed for decades the “image” has been increasingly central to politics. It seemed to reach its peak in the era of spin masters like Karl Rove, when the truth was distorted to fit politicians’ narratives so much that it lost much of its meaning. Incredibly, Trump has moved beyond that, ushering in an era where truth plays literally no bearing on what he says.
“Trump’s not using spin doctors, that’s what’s so interesting—he’s completely the next level. Hillary is still stuck doing this old-school movie and he’s way ahead,” says Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at London’s Legatum Institute think tank and author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. “He says such contradictory things that make no sense at all next to each other, that you end up just taking the one that you want [to believe].”
It isn’t just a question of which narrative you want to believe but which Trump you want to believe. He embodies the postmodern notion of “pastiche:” a technique where artists blend recognized styles and blur them into a grotesque whole that subverts and places into doubt all previous forms of understanding. As he shape-shifts across roles of businessman, TV star, race-baiter, statesman, stand-up comedian, and his campaign’s claim of “blue collar billionaire,” all social roles and concrete identities come to seem like masks he can put on and take off at will. Take this Tonight Show sketch from early in the campaign, in which Trump talks into a mirror at Jimmy Fallon doing an impression of him. The skit seemed so disconcertingly accurate not because it was mocking Trump’s vanity but because this is exactly what Trump is—someone acting out a reality that doesn’t exist.
Nor is this simply an American phenomenon. Italy is still recovering from the rule of its own mendacious media master Silvio Berlusconi. Further east, Russia is subsumed by what Pomerantsev dubbed a “postmodern dictatorship” under Trump’s beloved Vladimir Putin.
Such a gap between image and reality is logical in Russia, Pomerantsev argues, because Russians who experienced the late Soviet period became used to leading double lives. Even though most had lost faith in communism, they had to perform a daily act of believing in the system to survive. For Americans, the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis have combined to create similar levels of disbelief. Basic tenets of American reality and identity are suddenly in doubt: Is the US an effective and righteous global peacemaker? Does capitalism work? Can you plan your life by putting all your money into a house?
“America, I think, actually always did have an idea of progress, they always did have an idea of where they were going as a society but since the crash, since Iraq, so much of that has kind of gone and the purpose of America has been put under a question mark,” says Pomerantsev. “So, suddenly, you don’t really need facts and it’s just pure emotion–there’s an anarchy there. If all the facts tell you that you’re going to be poorer than your parents, why would you listen to them… if the facts say you’re not going to be able to afford a house, why would you listen?”
To the frustrated and disillusioned, Trump is promising a better path. But the America he claims to want to restore never really existed. This is the epitome of what French postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard called the “simulacrum:” “a real without origin or reality…it is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.”
It’s no surprise that people are happy to believe in the blurred fantasy of Trump’s simulacral America when they’ve seen all the established realities around them crumble, says Jonathan Eburne, professor of English at Penn State University. “You can watch these venerable institutions that seem to have been there for 100 years or so, Lehman brothers and whatnot, suddenly just liquidate overnight,” he says. “This idea that the reality seems to be made of stories anyway, I think, redoubles that idea that you can just retreat to your own fantasy.”
When the government shuts down twice in two years without the country falling apart, it’s hard to blame voters who buy into Trump’s alternate vision. But what happens when the fantasy hits reality, when Trump and his supporters find that not every arm of government is a simulacrum? “The thing is that there are real institutions still,” says Eburne. “If you actually nuke something, there are consequences.”
And, as he creeps terrifyingly close in the polls, many of us find ourselves wondering if any of this is real at all. Does he even want to be president? Maybe it’s all just a PR trick. Maybe?
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