Volume 14, Number 1 (July 2017)
Author: Michael Villanova
No amount of scrutiny will reach the end of the abyss that is Donald Trump. Looking closer at his image will not yield any more knowledge than one had about him, or his intentions, before undertaking the act of observation. Trump is pure image insofar that he does not actually care about what he says but rather that he can be able to reproduce his image, his voice, and his name everywhere. As Hannah Arendt writes in The Human Condition, the political and the public realm signifies that everything is public. She writes: “The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves” (Arendt, 1989:50). What is done overtime, through our gaze, is that we combine the two; the public realm is political. We no longer find ourselves dependent on ourselves to prove our existence. Rather, the political realm and the spectacle becomes not even an event of enjoyment, but an event to create identity. Everyone is now left with the question from Jean Baudrillard: “Do we continually have to prove to ourselves that we exist” (Baudrillard, 2010:21)? No longer is politics something one enters into as a realm of debate and dialogue. Politics is a non-event; it never ends because we are trapped in the reality show of fake decisions. Politics is used today as an object outside of ourselves in which we formulate our identity. In our postmodern times we are told to constantly assume new identities, to radically be authentic and actualize ourselves. Yet past the image of the political realm, we find ourselves not really existing. Thus the political spectacle, in its image, becomes a projection of our want for existence. The political rise of Donald Trump shows us that we are finally accepting the fact that we are in postmodern times and he is the first figure to successfully manipulate the postmodern political condition.
Trump’s existence and rise in popularity is not only predictable but seemingly has no limit. While certainly an ideological event at some level, Trump’s existence is proof of the postmodern condition of politics, culture, and society. For Trump is also the embodiment of the banality of politics today. He does not need ideology to pin him down in any sense. He can take opposing positions and believe in both of them. He can insult someone and call them his friend. He can claim it is obvious he is winning and yet be shocked at his own performance. Trump, in this way, is beyond politics. He has breached the realm of appearances and molded appearance and reality into one. No longer do people need to look elsewhere for their identity but rather focus on Trump, forgetting all their economic and social troubles, and allowing his existence to create their reality. Trump is beyond politics because he is a reality show, and thus has transformed politics by making appearance not a farcical act, but one which others perceive as a conscious act. This, combined with his inability to pin down what he truly believes, proves to the people that he is a sort of aesthetic sublime object. In the strictest Kantian sense he is this object that once gazed upon, becomes transcendental. How do you describe Trump? When he doesn’t even believe what he says and fully embraces the media circus, he is untouchable. He is an object outside of scrutiny and because of the object’s indescribable and mysterious nature, it strikes fear in us. If we knew what Trump’s actual intentions were we would be calm, and thus the sublime nature of his image would be gone. Yet, the image continually deceives us and we continue gazing upon the figure of Trump.
In this very sense Trump has been able to kill the political by fully embracing transaesthetics. Baurillard writes: “…what has occurred is a materialization of aesthetics everywhere under an operational form” (Baudrillard, 2009:18). Due to this, art has made the very quilting point of reality disappear. The more art we create to simulate our reality the more the Real disappears. This is the very operational form which Trump has mastered because, like the conditions where great art is made, it comes naturally. He exists originally outside politics as a figure whose life was merely a show to begin with. As Baurillard points out, aesthetics creates the spectacle of nothingness, and in opposition to nothing, mirrors perfection (Baudrillard 1986:77). We gather around to marvel at the impenetrable form of Trump’s (non)existence. What is happening, for the most part, is a new experience for most people. We are used to the spectacle and even any person in America today can recite some pap about the “untrustworthy” media. But what the populous is unaware of is the combination of the spectacle as an aesthetic event. So the passionate observer is left chasing the ethereal form of Trump, unable to pinpoint the quality and the enjoyment level factor which drives them to understand the amazing being of Trump. He has no true political intentions he has only aesthetic qualities and characteristics.
Thus a main question remains: How did Trump, as an art piece, come to exist. The answer is one which fuses Hegelian and postmodern theory. Trump exists as the actualization and fullest force of a sublation of a sublation. He seemingly always exists in our memories; he was always-already a figure of authority. But this surely cannot be the case and therefore we are puzzled and from this the enigmatic figure of Trump becomes more mysterious. This level of difference between existence and non-existence in Trump is what Slavoj Zizek identifies as: “The final moment of the dialectical process, the ‘sublation of the difference’, does not consist in the act of its sublation, but in the experience of how the difference was always-already sublated; of how, in a away it never effectively existed” (Zizek, 2008:62). Thus it does not seriously matter how Trump’s rise occurred or if in retrospect he was always a figure and we are now deceived by his image. The negative space of difference in aesthetic Trump creates a “retroactive unmasking” as Zizek says, and we are now forever stuck with the image Trump wants to present to us. In understanding his origins he reaches new heights of influence as a figure that, as Hegel points out, permeates our air like a perfume. Consciously and unconsciously he is an object which has created our current world. He now sculpts our language, our ideology, our talks, our jokes, and ontologically smashes the political “left-right” spectrum. At an ideological level however Trump’s rise is more obvious. Trump still takes the form of a “sublation of a sublation” as he was able to capture the libidinal anger and enjoyment of the Tea Party and capture it. The Tea Party was an attempted sublation by creating a movement against the “establishment” and its order. Once its members were elected into the official positions with power the Tea Party effectively disappeared because its own members could not, for obvious reasons, change politics. Those elected under the Tea Party banner thus became consumed by the game of politics, but the people they had influenced, promising them an era reminiscent of 1776, remained. Thus the same people disaffected by the political process, still engaged at an enjoyment level, looked for a figure truly outside the political sphere. This is why Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, elected with the Tea Party wave, crashed. Trump had captured their “anti-establishment” following, and thus with the sublation of the original sublation complete, Cruz and Rubio were always-already establishment. Trump will have won no matter what happens. If the realm of the politics reverts back to a form of appearances and semblances, it will not matter. In our idioms, in our textbooks, and in our thoughts Trump’s origins will always remain.
Thus without concrete origins we find ourselves without expectations. The level of expectations is so incredibly low that we find ourselves surprised at the simplest of his actions. His ability not to say inflammatory statements is a sort of homage to politics, a remembrance of when politics was pure appearances. It is the very moments when he does not say racist and xenophobic things, we become surprised. Is this the same man? Maybe there is something actually there? His image, even more enigmatic, breaches a further ideological step. It is the “cynical” side of ideology that Zizek identifies and the side of ideology in which someone else does the act of believing for us. In this case a closed loop is formed as Trump does the believing for us. Baurillard writes: “Our images are like icons: they allow us to go on believing in art while eluding the question of its existence”(Baudrillard, 2009:19). He believes in his own views, whatever they are. Our confusion with his contradictory attitudes and statements leaves the public befuddled while he can continue, unbeknownst to us, to reproduce his image. We go on evading the real question of why Trump exists or where he came from. Instead we find ourselves stricken by the iconography, captured tight within its gaze, and thus allowing us to continue the spectacle.
Trump is the very object that Baudrillard identifies as the object that eludes us by killing “real time.” He becomes the object that kills “real time” since we are so obsessed with its image and meaning we cease to know (or care) about where it came from. Baudrillard writes: “Since we cannot grasp both the genesis and the singularity of the event, the appearance of things and their meaning, we are faced with an alternative: either we master their meaning, and appearances elude us, or the meaning eludes us, and appearances are saved. Since most of the time the meaning escapes us, this makes it certain that the secret, the illusion which bind us under the seal of secrecy, will never be unmasked”(Baudrillard, 1986:58). Trump exists as a being who by understanding that it is the media that shapes politics, and not the other way around, he will fully assume the role as someone who can penetrate the political sphere as a media figure. The more we know of Trump in his mythic figure, the less one can be able to understand his origins. The point is that Trump becomes a sort of Thing that is not without a beginning, as it is apparent he must have originated from somewhere, rather he is an object without an ending. Trump will never be unmasked insofar that an unmasking would imply a shift in our understanding of our perceptions and shatter the illusory figure which created our political realities. Thus Trump, standing outside the political arena, outside the realm of his image dying, is able to embrace death fully. He is a force, compounded by technology, media, and ideology, that is entirely death drive. It is this very phenomenon in which the sublime and death drive being of Trump that Zizek describes: “These catastrophic consequences of the encroachment upon the forbidden/impossible domain of the Thing are spelled out in the Gothic novel: it is by no means accidental that the Gothic novel, obsesses as it is with the Thing” (Zizek, 2008:220).
It is apparent that Trump, in his absence of being and being able to exist outside the realm of appearances, is much like a Vampire. He sucks the Real and the semblance of the Real out of the reality of politics and embodies the being which evades death. Every incident he incites and every incident he enters into cannot stop him. Even if damaged he is able to recover and only damaged his opponent by sucking the energy and life out of those that approach him. Trump, therefore, is not a part of the spectacle though. If he was a part of such a non-event it would still signify that he was political in some sense. No silver bullet or stake could be able to penetrate a vampire that is also just a transparent shadow. This illustrates why Trump seems so beyond our political realm. If from a Marxist view a vampire is capital that sucks the life from the working class, as Zizek points out, a vampire of the Real signifies that it is we, the people, who do not understand our own reality. In time, much like the “Tea Party” and their phony parody of the “American evolution” as an anti-establishment movement became enveloped into the American political order, the gap that Trump has created in our political reality will be added into our reality. The “missing link” that Zizek says exists in our reality, exists only later to then be forced into our reality. Far after Trump’s campaign ends; it will be his Gothic figure which lingers on. We may not be able to identify Trump’s beginning, but we know He will never end.
In understanding this, the rub of it all is that Trump is not special. This is the banality of postmodern times because it is not just Trump which murders the Real, but rather it is Trump who has accepted the postmodern technology created by us to help accelerate the murder. Far be it from Trump to be teleologically awe inspiring, he is just the amalgamation of everything that is today’s capitalistic consumption and symbolic order. Trump is both authority and rebel. To an extent, even the prophetic words of Guy Debord could not have predicted how postmodern political times actually affect the political climate. While the spirit of thesis nine in The Society of the Spectacle remains true, Trump using his anti-establishment right-wing populism has inverted the quote. No longer is it that we are “In a world that really has been turned on its head,” and that “truth is a moment of falsehood”(Debord, 2004:14). It would appear that Trump is instead stating that everything is false and that nothing is true. The media is lying to you and politicians are lying to you as well. By fiat and spectacle, Trump instead offers a glimmer of truth where none can be found. Whereas Debord states, correctly, that a spectacle is one which offers only images which claim to be the truth, Trump is a growing phenomenon in which the spectacle disavows truth in order to become the truth.
When Baudrillard remarks in America about the figure of Ronald Reagan one is apt to see the parallels between Trump and the former President. The obvious relation between the two is that they are able to offer what was “greatness”. Essentially much like the God of Gosse which through deceit creates our origins to explain our current conditions, (Baudrillard, 1986:22) so does Trump create “…a system of values that was formerly effective turns into something ideal and imaginary. The image of America becomes imaginary for Americans themselves, at a point when it is without doubt profoundly compromised”(Baudrillard, 2010: 21). Trump is effectively nothing then because he lacks any certain values he actually holds dear. What he then wishes to do is create our beginnings by pushing America back to a time where everything was “perfect and clean”. He assumes the role of the creator which will return America back to a mythic beginning of opulence and safety. The irony is that Americans believing in this will of course destroy the very field of economic consumption and mindless joy they assume from supporting figures like Trump. Reagan promised something somewhat similar but the only difference between Trump and Reagan is timing. Trump comes to us in a wholly postmodern age and one in which no political or military experience is needed to govern. If Regan is a conservative hero in America, Trump will become an even more celebrated hero for being able to stand outside the political realm and totally control it. Trump is effectively praised and accepted as a figure of import because he has no actual qualities and thus can create his identity, our identity, and our history at any time.
So it would be prudent to assume that Trump is not his own creation but rather ours. He is simply the creation of our consumption, of our own filth, and American exceptionalism. He is the accumulation of the postmodern capitalistic ideological order and shows that the way to achieve success in this order is to not think. If your statements are true, it does not matter. If your statements are false, then they are bound to only further create the fiction we are all living in today and are therefore more interesting. Trump’s image is real insofar that it continues the illusion that we are living in and signifies that we are actually never in control of our political situation. So one of two things can be concluded from this. The first is that we are in serious need of a figure to counter Trump to break out of the ideological symbolic order and thus create a new order which will keep this from occurring again. This figure will of course not be Bernie Sanders because he, admittedly, is not running a revolution. It is a “political revolution” and one which only seeks to make the postmodern condition livable, not destroy it. What would be needed is a figure that is even more vampirish than Trump, a figure who can play his game better than him. Of course this is not the ideal ethical method, but considering the fact he can turn falsity into truth, which is more dangerous than Debord’s ninth thesis, perhaps accelerating falsity will smash the illusion. The second is, apparently, what is going to happen: Nothing. Much like the “Tea Party” and Regan before him, so too will Trump with his right-wing populist ideology be further linked into our symbolic order. People with any worry of electing Trump will figure that we survived those movements and we will survive Trump as well. Perhaps these people are right. Trump’s existence is much like the smile that Baudrillard points out is on all American’s faces. “It is a bit like the Cheshire Cat’s grin: it continues to float on face long after all emotion has disappeared”(Baudrillard, 2010:34). Even after Trump wins or loses, nothing much will actually change. The disappearance of things (political order, objects, and truth) will continue. If Americans decide to elect Trump it will only signify consent to what we as a world are already doing through economic and consumerist means. The consent can be withdrawn anytime the people want it to be withdrawn and Trump, in his non-existence, will disappear from the Real. The condition we are in now, however, has made it so it is only preferable to accelerate our demise. The rise of Trump, and figures like him, is proof of a postmodern death drive if there ever was one. So if Trump wins, who cares? It’s not like he is really all there anyway.
About the Author
Michael Villanova is an undergraduate student at the City College of New York currently studying philosophy and history. His writings are influenced by continental social and cultural philosophy, particularly the thoughts of Baudrillard, Zizek, and Camus. He is currently focusing his attention on studying the effect of postmodern capitalism on urban everyday life.
Arendt, Hannah. 1989.The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1986. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso.
Baudrillard, Jean. 2009.The Transparency of Evil. Essays on Extreme Phenomena. New York: Verso.
Baudrillard, Jean. 2010. America. New York: Verso.
Debord, Guy.2004. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books.
Zizek, Slavoj. 2008. For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. New York: Verso.