Donald Trump as Terrifying Postmodern Fever-Dream

When I started writing this blog post, I thought, “Do I really need to add another note in the strident cacophony of commentary surrounding Donald Trum?” (Yes, I really do think things like these in my private hours. Sue me). But, after discussing the most recent debate with my students in the context of postmodernism (and the postmodern condition more generally), I decided that yes, indeed, I do have to say something.

If you’ve read your Baudrillard or your Lyotard, you know that we are living in a world of seemingly endless meaning(lessness), where objective truth(s) matter less than the “truthiness” of any particular claim. While one would be excused for thinking that we had reached the apex (or perhaps the nadir) of the postmodern condition of endlessly contingent meaning with the myths and misdirections surrounding both 9/11 and the Iraq War–to say nothing of just the whole Bush Presidency–such a thought seems positively naive in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascendancy.

There have been oceans of real and digital ink spilled about the fact that many Trump supporters don’t really care about Trump’s seeming passing acquaintance with the truth. In many cases, they either a.) don’t care that he routinely lies and misrepresents information, since he is so good at saying what he thinks, so that his lack of veracity is always secondary or b.) the followers themselves don’t actually know the truth or the facts. I’m still not entirely sure which of these aspects I find most distressing.

Actually, for me they are both equally damaging to the ongoing health and well-being of our democracy and the body politic. When it comes to the point that none of the metanarratives and sources of knowledge upon which we have come to rely–whether that be the democratic process, the free press, or the intelligentsia more broadly–are able to command the loyalty of the people, we are in the midst of a crisis. And believe me, I do not use that word lightly (it gets bandied about a lot in academic circles). It truly does terrify me that no one seems to have faith in the sources of knowledge that we have so far relied on to make sense of our world.

Somehow, then, we’ve come to a crisis point, the seeming telos of the postmodern crisis in knowledge, a crisis that strikes so deeply into the heart of our citizenry that it’s hard to see how we can manage to climb our way out of it. Does it matter that Trump rarely (if ever) has any solid policy proposals? Clearly not, since his supporters continue to follow him even though respected economists, military strategists, intelligence officials, and other policy thinkers have thoroughly debunked almost every single policy or proposal that he has so far made in this campaign.

Just as disturbing, however, is the fact that the real Trump (if such a thing can be said to exist) has begun to blur terrifyingly into the caricature. One need look no further than the third debate to see this, when his frequent interjections of “wrong” caused me to pause and ask, “Am I watching Alec Baldwin on SNL or am I watching the actual Donald Trump?” As Baudrillard would say, it doesn’t really matter, because the simulacrum has replaced the actual lived reality to a degree that Baldwin is Trump and Trump is Baldwin.

Now, of course, the question always occur to me:  so what? What do we do with the idea that Trump represents some sort of telos of the crisis of knowledge and metanarratives that have allowed us to make sense of the political and social landscape at least since the end of World War II? What can one possibly do to turn back this terrible tide that seems to have swept away any and all certainty about the way that we make sense of the terrors of the contemporary world?

It may not, in fact, be possible to do so, but we have a collective duty, both as knowledge producers and knowledge consumers to hold both ourselves and our sources of information accountable. We must get out our knowledge comfort zones and actually start critically thinking about our own ideas and those of others. While we may still end up disagreeing with those on the other side of the political spectrum, this type of meaningful dialogue and engagement, not just the retreat into affect and overblown emotion, may just allow us as a society to move forward.

It may be too late to stop the rise of Trump, but I’m hopeful–and, dare I say it, downright optimistic–that together we can make sure that he, or someone like him, does not rise again. Furthermore, we can, if we give in to the better angels of our natures (pardon the cliché), perhaps build a better world for everyone.

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