Volume 15, Number 1 (November 2018)
Author: Keith Moser
In both his early and more recent philosophy, Jean Baudrillard posits that the nexus of power in the postmodern world is inextricably linked to the “vast and extensive media networks and techno-sciences in which our lives are immersed” (Coulter 2010, p. 4). By controlling the incessant dissemination of information through a plethora of divergent screens, the late Baudrillard scholar Gerry Coulter (2010) explains how political figures “make the real coincide with their models of simulation” (p. 2). In other words, politicians carefully manufacture their own hyperreal, symbolic universe that is often quite disconnected from actual concrete reality. Baudrillard contends that bombarding the subject with an incessant barrage of insignificant simulacra in the political sphere is not a novel phenomenon from a historical perspective. Nonetheless, the philosopher maintains that American leaders started harnessing the power of political signs like never before beginning with Ronald Reagan. This essay will demonstrate that the crisis of simulation to which Baudrillard frequently alludes in thirty of his forty-seven works has truly reached its zenith with the Trump administration (Coulter 2010, p. 1).
A Summary of the “Alternative Facts” of the First 100 Days of the Trump Administration
Kellyanne Conway employed the expression “alternative facts” for the first time on the NBC program “Meet the Press” to reinforce Sean Spicer’s assertion that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period” (Bradner 2017, n.p.). In reference to this “pointless falsehood” about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd, David Graham (2017) concludes, “Spicer’s statement required dismissing all available evidence: ridership count, eyewitness testimony, independent crowd-counts, and Nielsen television ratings” (n.p., n.p.). Graham (2017) wonders why any president would “tell easily disproven falsehoods” that collapse under any kind of empirical scrutiny (n.p.). Even though Conway’s explanation and Spicer’s announcement were both ruthlessly mocked by nearly all mainstream American journalists in addition to being satirized on popular television shows like Saturday Night Live, the Trump administration would continue to “deny reality” regarding this rather trite issue (Swaine 2017, n.p.). In the days following the inauguration controversy, it would soon become apparent that Trump’s ultimate goal was not solely to obfuscate the real, but rather to create his own “alternate universe” which operates at a purely symbolic level that is “beyond truth, beyond reality” (Krieg 2017, n.p.; Baudrillard 2007, p. 99). As a later section of this essay will explore in a more systematic fashion, Trump keenly understands the imaginary structure undergirding power and how to wield it in a post-Marxist1 climate in which the unending reproduction of banal images has usurped production as the most salient feature of the capitalist paradigm.
Armed with the knowledge of the origins from which power emanates, Trump would continue to present his “alternative facts” regarding a wide range of subjects after the inauguration debacle. In an aptly named piece “This Week in Trump’s ‘Alternative Facts,’” Jessica Taylor and Danielle Kurtzleben (2017) outline “the Trump administration’s pushback on easily verifiable facts” (n.p.). Although politics has always been a hyperreal spectacle, Taylor and Kurtzleben (2017) affirm that the new regime has taken this phenomenon to an “unprecedented” level (n.p.). To this point in his presidency, a series of peculiar declarations that run counter to readily available scientific data epitomizes Trump’s first one hundred days in the oval office. After the inauguration scandal, the Trump team fabricated voting fraud allegations, inflated statistics related to violent crimes, briefly implemented a thinly-veiled travel ban targeting Muslims before it was overturned by the courts, lambasted the media for their alleged lack of coverage of terrorist attacks, tweeted about unsubstantiated wiretapping allegations, and created a phony massacre (i.e. the infamous “Bowling Green Massacre”). Given that all of these “alternative facts” were perhaps even easier to disprove than the notion that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest in American history, the president has clearly positioned himself to be the ultimate purveyor of the hyperreal. Moreover, it should be noted that these baffling affirmations are considered to be more reliable than journalistic research based on actual proof by his most ardent supporters. For instance, a recent study published in The Washington Post asked Republicans, Democrats, and Independents to look at a photo comparing the size of Obama’s much larger inauguration crowd for his first term with that of Trump’s ceremony. Underscoring the alarming findings of this survey, Brian Schaffner and Samantha Luks (2017) reveal that “41 percent of Trump supporters gave the wrong answers” (n.p.). This research study explains how every time that Trump criticizes the media for trying to peel back the thick layers of his chimerical, hyperreal fantasy world, he paradoxically energizes his radical base. Recognizing that millions of his cheerleaders do not distinguish between reality and its simulation, Trump is fully aware that the fantasy-based structure of his hollow realm of enticing simulacra will never be questioned by his core constituents. For this reason, Taylor and Kurtzleben (2017) are indeed correct that we have entered into uncharted, perilous waters in which even the most absurd representations of (hyper-)reality are rarely examined critically for a large segment of the population. In a political landscape characterized by a self-referential network of empty signs constantly emitted from Twittersphere, Trump takes advantage of the fact that there is nothing to break the hyperreal façade for many of his fans in order to manufacture and impose his own strange version of events.
An Overview of the Erosion of the Political Establishment in Baudrillard’s Early and Late Philosophy
From 1968 to the present, Baudrillard (2007) reminds us that this acute “crisis of representation” has been taking shape in Western civilization for centuries (p. 73). In This is Not a President, Diane Rubenstein highlights fundamental distinctions between the political theories that Baudrillard develops in various stages of his career that help us to understand this gradual evolution more fully. Specifically, Rubenstein divides Baudrillard’s philosophy into two distinct phases, or what she terms “genealogies.” Rubenstein asserts that there is a logical progression in Baudrillard’s thought from the advent of hyperreality in his early works to the inception of what he refers to as “integral reality” in recent essays such as The Perfect Crime, The Intelligence of Evil, and The Transparency of Evil. As Rubenstein (2008) elucidates, in “Baudrillard’s first genealogy, … Signs exchange against each other, rather than against the real. Semiotic processes … accelerate and absorb the real … The second genealogy … has more import for later presidents, such as Clinton and W-Bush, who conform to the theories of Baudrillard’s recent formulations of virtual and integral reality … We can begin with Reagan as a sign that dissimulates something and turn to signs … that dissimulate nothing” (pp. 12-13). Rubenstein explains that the early stages of the withering away of the real in American politics and in consumer society as a whole are a reflection of a ubiquitous semiotic network whose self-referential signs have no meaning outside of an artificial code. In the second genealogy, Baudrillard describes a symbolic realm of floating signifiers that “have lost their referents” entirely (Penaloza and Price 2013, p. 127). Summarizing the political implications of this utter “collapse … of the real,” Rubenstein affirms, “What has been lost in the nonvisible transition from Reagan to Bush is precisely this move from hyperreality to seduction” (Baudrillard 1990, p. 180; Rubenstein 2008, p. 73). Due to the omnipresence and sophistication of virtual technology in the digital era, the philosopher proclaims that the postmodern human condition is concretized by “the final stage of simulation” or “integral reality” (Barron 2011, p. 394, p. 394). From a political standpoint, American presidents now realize that power is a “simulacrum without perspective” (Rubenstein 2008, p. 74). When “the whole of the real” became compromised as a direct result of “the rise of Integral Reality,” American leaders adjusted accordingly to take advantage of this situation even further (Baudrillard 2005, p. 17, p. 18).
In his seminal essay Forget Foucault, originally published in 1977, Baudrillard (2007) already proclaims that “the entire substance of the political is crumbling” (p. 61). In his sharp critiques of Foucault’s theories about power which he argues are “magistral but obsolete,” Baudrillard (2007) muses, “Only now Foucault does not see that power is dying” (p. 34, p. 50). For Baudrillard, power as it has traditionally been conceived in Western society no longer exists. This disappearance is yet another causality of the dawning of integral reality. Baudrillard (2007) asserts that Foucault’s understanding of power is outdated, because it does not address “the simulacrum of power itself” (p. 48). Baudrillard (2007) further clarifies that power “fabricates the real (always more and more of the real) … nowhere does it cancel itself out, become entangled with itself, or mingle with death” (p. 50). In an interview with Sylvère Lotringer, published as a postscript to Forget Foucault, Baudrillard reiterates that the locus of power has shifted to such an extent in the age of information that there is no political institution of which to speak at all. As the philosopher maintains, “There is no longer a scene of politics the way it was organized around the history of power relations, production, classes. Power is no longer an objective, locatable process. This is what I say is lost, if we can speak of the end of something” (Baudrillard 2007, pp. 109-110). From W-Bush to the present, American presidents are cognizant that the strength of their power depends on their ability to fill this institutional void by means of semiosis. In this brave new world in which the signifier has become “unhinged from the signified,” the dominant “sign strategy” is “to let the signs hang” (Root 2012, p. 24; Rubenstein 2008, p. 84, p. 84).
Trump’s Keen Understanding of the Essence of Power in the Postmodern World
With the steady stream of “alternative facts” from Trump’s Twitter account that make international headlines on a daily basis, this is precisely what the president is trying to accomplish with his outlandish tirades that only make sense in the parallel universe inhabited by his supporters. Despite a myriad of pleas from members of his own party to deactivate his Twitter account, Trump obstinately refuses to stop using this form of virtual technology. One possible explanation for this stubbornness is that the president is a narcissistic egomaniac who suffers from a clinical disorder, as numerous mental health professionals have speculated (Friedman 2017, n.p.). From a Baudrillardian perspective, another plausible justification for Trump’s disquieting behavior is that he understands the essence of power perfectly in the postmodern world. Given that he was elected by unapologetically disseminating stray signs with no basis in reality whatsoever, the president has little motivation to modify his style of leadership. In simple terms, Trump has mastered a sign strategy that is quite effective. As a former reality TV star, the president knows how to play the game of politics in the virtual, cinematic space in which the vast majority of his strongest advocates spend nearly every waking moment of their existence.
Nevertheless, it could also be argued that Trump’s blatant disavowal of evidence is so transparent that it might soon jeopardize his capacity to govern. In the aforementioned conversation with Sylvère Lotringer, Baudrillard theorizes that the key to wielding power is to preserve the secret of its disappearance. Illustrating the importance of generating an “optical illusion” to deceive the masses, the philosopher posits, “The political sphere must keep secret the rule of the game that, in reality, power doesn’t exist. Its strategy is, in fact, always creating a space of optical illusion, maintaining itself in total ambiguity, total duplicity in order to throw the others into this space” (Baudrillard 2007, p. 110). Trump’s tweets directly contradict empirical data to such an obvious point that it is hard to imagine that there is any ambivalence at all. If he has any desire to seek reelection, the president undoubtedly needs to fabricate his alternate reality in subtler, more ambiguous ways that do not resemble the theater of the absurd. He is currently revealing the secret that power is nothing more than a giant simulacrum comprised of insignificant signs that represent nothing. He is violating one of the rules of the game from whence all of his power originates. If Trump’s informational warfare via Twitter continues unabated, more voters might start to recognize that the political establishment in the traditional sense has ceased to be. Moreover, as David Graham (2017) highlights in his article “‘Alternative Facts;’ The Needless Lies of the Trump Administration,” certain “alternative facts” like those related to the inauguration do not seem to serve any kind of a purpose with the exception of stroking the president’s colossal ego (n.p.). Trump is exposing the artifice that lies at the heart of the secret with nothing to gain politically. This sort of irrational decision making is not a prudent approach to governing in the postmodern world. In particular, the inauguration scandal is a quintessential example of the kind of media pseudo-event that Baudrillard (1995) would label a “shameful and pointless hoax” (p. 72).
Regardless of whether or not Trump’s inability to follow this rule could ultimately lead to his downfall, the biological predisposition of Homo sapiens to seek refuge from reality in the realm of seductive signs will probably ensure the internal integrity of the mask that cloaks the secret of power, at least for millions of Americans. In the context of our innate inclination to create symbolic universes that serve to keep reality at bay, Baudrillard (2007) declares, “Besides, the real has never interested anyone. It is the locus of disenchantment par excellence, the locus of simulacrum of accumulation against death. Nothing could be worse … Today especially, the real is no more than a stockpile of dead matter, dead bodies, and dead language” (p. 54). Two years after the publication of Forget Foucault, Baudrillard makes many of these same statements verbatim in Seduction (Baudrillard 1990, pp. 46-47). Hence, the philosopher’s reflections about our evolutionary penchant to flee reality should be taken seriously. Once our technological prowess caught up to our imagination, Baudrillard implies that both hyperreality and integral reality were inevitable. The French philosopher of science and epistemologist Michel Serres also hypothesizes that human beings prefer to live in a space of optical illusion. Although they have extremely divergent views about the relationship between power and virtual technology (Moser 2016, pp. 166-172), both thinkers assert that politicians have a vested interest in exploiting this evolutionary flaw to conceal reality and to reproduce their own version of it. In reference to the literal or symbolic “drugs” that enable us to efface unpleasant realities momentarily, Serres explains, “Are we not all drugged? Those who don’t drink alcohol, consume tobacco, or consume narcotics can still drug themselves … Some people drug themselves through the media, not being able to wake up without the radio or to have lunch without the television on … As for myself, am I not hooked on philosophy? … animals don’t take drugs … women and men, do we not drug ourselves because we have a hard time facing reality?”2 (Polacco 2006, p. 20). Serres’s epitextual comments about our biological predilection to escape reality and to create a more comforting, alternative representation of it reinforce the theories that Baudrillard develops in Forget Foucault and Seduction. In a new historical period in which billions of people around the globe are addicted to information as their “drug” of choice, Serres and Baudrillard maintain that it is easy to keep what Chomsky calls the “bewildered herd” in line (Chomsky 2002, p. 27). Thus, no matter how much the media attempts to push back on some of the most obvious factual inaccuracies promulgated by the Trump administration in the coming years, many of his constituents would rather live in the confines of the symbolic universe skillfully manufactured by the president’s inner circle. In Trump’s imaginary realm, a clear distinction exists between good and bad “hombres.” It is unlikely that this substitute worldview will crumble anytime soon, since the integral reality that it represents is quite appealing to those for whom “there is nothing more tiresome” than the real with its inherent complexities, nuances, paradoxes, contradictions, and uncertainties (Baudrillard 1990, p. 47).
The “Real” or Symbolic Opposition of the Mainstream Corporate Media to the Trump Administration’s “Alternative Facts”
At first glance, the moral indignation of numerous international journalists such as David Graham, Alexandra Jaffe, Alexander Smith, Matthew Rozsa, and Nicholas Fandos sparked by Conway’s aforementioned candid admission appears to suggest that the corporate mainstream media is trying to poke a hole in the pervasive web of semiosis spun by the Trump administration. In this vein, a litany of reporters attempted to seize this opportunity to interject a small dose of realism in order to demystify an imaginary realm of stray signs. This passionate and immediate reaction to the Trump circle’s “alternative facts” seems to support Gerry Coulter’s reading of the subtleties of Baudrillard’s early and late philosophy in his article “Simulation is not the opposite of the real-Jean Baudrillard on simulation and illusion.” In this essay, Coulter delves into Baudrillard’s extensive body of work in an effort to answer the question “Are we in Simulation?” Coulter (2010) concludes, “Baudrillard does not believe we have, as yet, fully entered into simulation, because when we have entered into it fully we will no longer be able to speak of simulation. We are however advancing further into simulation at an unprecedented pace … if we were completely in simulation according to Baudrillard, we would be in a world from which all reference has disappearance” (pp. 2-3). Coulter persuasively contends that the ubiquitous network of simulacra through which most of our quotidian experiences are filtered has yet to usher in the final phase of simulation. Given that the media still has a frame of reference and a language to decry Trump’s “alternative facts,” perhaps the “perfect crime” is still somewhere on the horizon in the near future. Trump’s branding of the media as the “opposition party” gives credence to Coulter’s analysis of the present situation as well (Gambino 2017, n.p.). As evidenced by the unending string of parodies targeting the entire Trump team on late night comedy programs, a satirical language also still exists for resisting the imposition of the president’s parallel universe.
However, the issue of whether this aggressive media pushback represents a real or a symbolic opposition in the context of Baudrillard’s philosophy is debatable. In the previously mentioned discussion with Sylvère Lotringer, the philosopher describes the corporate media apparatus as a vestige of a political landscape that has vanished. Instead of being emblematic of a genuine form of subversion, the media discourse concerning Trump’s “alternative facts” could be nothing more than “a symbolic demand for truth” (Baudrillard 2007, p. 98). Baudrillard implies that all of the parties involved in American presidential politics including the so-called “fourth estate” are playing a trite game with the public. In this regard, Baudrillard implores us to ponder if contemporary journalists are fulfilling their traditional role in a political atmosphere that no longer has any real meaning. The harsh rhetoric directed at Trump in media circles could be explained as a remnant of a political institution that has been swept away over time through simulation and the proliferation of hollow images. When reporters pounce on the next “alternative fact,” the lingering question remains whether they are merely exchanging signs of resistance or engaging in actual revolt. For Baudrillard, the media is a symbolic arbiter of “truth” in a political system that has imploded.
This philosophical conviction explains Trump’s longstanding war with the establishment media that began early in his presidential bid. Understanding how the game is now played by all sides in an arena in which antiquated factions or affiliations no longer matter, Trump is always on the attack pummeling his principal symbolic adversary in cyberspace. The president has often been accused of having “thin skin” or being easily offended, but it is possible that his many critics have underestimated his political savvy (Collinson 2017, n.p.). Aware that the presidency is part of a “gigantic abyss” of simulation in which any kind of meaningful distinctions between various parties have faded away, Trump is abiding by the rules of engagement (Baudrillard 2007, p. 98). Highlighting the difference between how politics used to operate in the past and how the game has evolved in the digital era, Baudrillard (2007) declares, “Politics functioned in terms of distinctive oppositions: the left or the right. As in other areas you have the true or the false, the beautiful or the ugly, etc. … It is no longer the dialectic of the two terms that organizes things but the fact that the forms each go their separate ways, meaninglessly, senselessly” (p. 97). Recognizing that being on the left, right, or center is rather inconsequential in the new political climate, Trump is content to play a nonsensical game to the best of his ability from which he has already derived immense benefits in the shape of the prestige that he so evidently craves. When he lashes out at the media for fact-checking, he is playing one of the best cards in his hand. Trump’s simulated war with the media is a confrontation between two symbolic enemies whose influence and continued existence in this virtual space hinge upon their willingness to play the game.
This analysis of the “alternative facts” that define the early days of the Trump administration has demonstrated that Baudrillard’s radical reworking of symbolic exchange also offers a coherent theoretical framework for exploring contemporary American presidential politics. Although Rubenstein and other scholars note key differences between Baudrillard’s early and late philosophy, this evolution is indicative of a social phenomenon that this maverick thinker perceived to be coming to fruition before his very eyes. The bizarre circus act that has epitomized Trump’s first one hundred days in office thus far provides many compelling arguments in support of Baudrillard’s affirmation that the postmodern subject now lives in a state of “integral reality.” Indeed, Baudrillard’s thought is a rich lens from which to view all of the ongoing controversies related to Trump’s “alternative facts.” Baudrillard’s political theory offers invaluable insights into the seemingly pointless games that the president plays with the media and with the American public at large. It might be a disconcerting thought to millions of people around the world that Trump’s odd games serve a larger political purpose, but Baudrillard’s thought illustrates how even the president’s illogical Twitter rants are laden with symbolic meaning. In the wake of the erosion of the political establishment in the traditional sense, Trump could represent the true face of power and a prime example of how it is wielded. Regardless, it is already painfully apparent that “alternative facts” and the symbolic universe that they continually manufacture will reign supreme on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue throughout the entire duration of Trump’s first term.
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1 – Douglas Kellner, Vartan Messier, Emil Røyrvik, and Marianne Brodersen identify Baudrillard as one of the first post-Marxist thinkers.
2 – All translations to English are my own unless otherwise indicated.