Donald Trump’s “smackdown” of his CNN-headed foe might have either shocked or amused this past weekend but what it shouldn’t have done is surprise anyone. It remains the single most potent delusion to think that we cannot fathom this president. Trump is a manifestation of our culture and represents all of us, whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, Americans or foreign born. We are and have always been his enablers. We understand him intimately.
If you find that idea hard to stomach it is perhaps because it goes right to the morbidly congealed heart of the Trump presidency. It is convenient to think that Trump “happened” because of Russia, because of Hillary, or because of a clichéd mid-American supposed rust belt where chicken-strumming yokels had intolerances to grind. It’s also psychologically reassuring to believe, like so many liberals continue to believe, that American democracy abhors a tyrant and will soon find a way to fix itself like some Terminator recently crushed beneath an articulated truck. To explain it otherwise would mean exploring why Trump is the locus classicus of a media rich, personality obsessed, morally hypercritical, hypocritical and hyperbolic age. It would mean explaining why, to put it bluntly, Trump is one of us.
Trump’s success has always been easy to explain in the broadest terms. America’s 45th President rose to power because the public had laboured long under the decadent belief that politics had become dull and disconnected from the interests of the people. Throughout the 1990s and into the early years of the new millennium, this idea was populated everywhere and met with very little resistance, despite it being a crass distortion of the truth. Politics hadn’t changed and neither had politicians. They were as dull, serious and sometimes self-serving as they’d always been. The problem was that people had changed.
How this came about has little to do with politics of either the Left or the Right but, rather, a cultural drift that might only be properly understood through the longer focal length of history’s lens, which will also help us see where this drift eventually leads. The best we can do, trapped in the moment, is use that term “postmodern” which has come to mean something nebulous about our nature, our language, and our systems of meaning.
Postmodernism is a push back against science and our quest for some objective truth. That we have become postmodern means that we can forget the rationalist foundations of America, such as Thomas Jefferson’s plea to “educate and inform the whole mass of the people”. At some point, the ideals of the Republic became tangential to the real impulses that drove the nation and would come to drive much of the Western world. The last half century has seen enormous changes to global culture with America providing outboard propulsion in the form of free market capitalism that liberated businesses from government regulations and produced a competitive era of innovation. We are usually quite quick (if not proud) to recognise this revolution of ideas but we seem less quick to acknowledge how this same revolution also changed us as people.
That same revolution fed down into the lives of citizens who were increasingly likely to be identified (and self-identify) as “consumers”. Ask any teacher or nurse who has witnessed their profession change over decades and they will no doubt remark on how students and patients came to expect a “service”. Exam results are increasingly sold as providing guaranteed outcomes and the same is true of health. Forget the reality of a student’s ability to learn or the unpredictability of a patient’s body: consumers expected the results they had “paid” for.
At the same time, the free market liberated us from socially imposed values and behaviours. It gave us over entirely to the more fundamental impulses of our own appetites. The family that once took The Times, went to church on Sunday (often out of custom rather than belief), and spent every year holidaying in Cornwall, was replaced by the family that took no newspaper, spent Sundays shopping for ornamental barbeque sausage racks at B&Q, and spent two weeks during the summer months bemoaning the local manners from some private beach in Morocco. Less trivially came liberal modernity and the emergence of a new kind of individuality. Sexual liberations were among the many liberations. Tattoos transcended a mere aesthetic fad to become a way of marking difference. Less positively, the “self” suddenly mattered more than anything else, including that outmoded concept of “society”. The “selfie” became both the literal and figurative definition of ourselves and our age. Materialism manifested itself first and foremost in the dominance of the “me” over the “you”.
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With these new politics of “selfdom” came a new politics of expectation. Abraham Lincoln famously said that “you can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. All democracies have struggled to reflect the will of the people but never before have democracies struggled to square Lincoln’s circle: that we have nations of individuals each of whom do expect to be pleased all of the time.
Donald Trump perhaps understood this culture better than most given he was uniquely placed to understand promises more than he understood delivery. The name Trump, alongside names such as Beckham, Kardashian and Hilton, have been so present in the public consciousness that it is easy to forget how they represent little more than the ideal of some liberated self. It did not matter that Trump was synonymous with poor quality products. Trump was “Trump” in the very same way that Beckham is “Beckham”. It does not matter if David Beckham’s son has a book of risible photographs published. The only thing that matters is that the brand continues to represent an elevated state of existence far and above this horrendous world. These are the people who have successfully defined their selves and are lauded for that alone.
Trump knows that people prefer a dream to any reality. It’s why it never mattered that “Low Energy” Jeb Bush was never actually low of energy or that “Little” Marco Rubio, at five feet ten, would have been taller than fourteen other American presidents (and the same height as Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight D. Eisenhower). Traditional politicians were grounded in the real world. Trump offers politics free from consequences and responsibility. “The games of scientific language”, wrote Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition, “become the games of the rich, in which whoever is wealthiest has the best chance of being right.” Trump’s form of “right” involved quips, scandalous remarks, and a reality TV narrative that fed straight into the self-pleasuring worldview his consumer-voter audience already knew. This wasn’t even nationalism he was espousing. It was selfism by which any “other” could become victim.
“I’m President and they’re not” said Trump this week, speaking about his critics. There is no better expression of the Trump doctrine. He claims the title even as he does not adopt the role. The mistake, however, is believing that Trump is a unique phenomenon rather than a manifestation of the culture we inhabit. There are others who covert the title but not the role.
Trump is president of a culture with a short attention span, indifference to history, casual disregard for science, and a fixation on the medium and not the message. He is the president of a culture in which standards slip, shame us, and yet for which we seek no remedial action. He is the president of social media that simplifies, solidifies, and sensationalises. He is President of a culture in which we mock his use of memes by meme-ing ourselves stupid. His is president of a culture in which a broken public psychology fractures in both directions: the Left seeing “truth” as a lie perpetuated by the authoritarian Right; the Right seeing the ‘truth’ as a lie perpetuated by the liberal Left. It is a culture in which relativism on the Left matches an equally squalid absolutism on the Right.
Ours is the culture that elevates personalities and not policies and for that we have, as yet, no real or meaningful answer.