Imagine two things you never ever thought could, would, or should be combined, mixed or somehow fused together–strawberry smoothies and lantern batteries, beaver pelts and pecan shells, reality television and western civilization. This is what the world now presents to us in the form of the Trump presidency–a fusing of the American Empire and the Donald Trump marketing death cult. In the former is the traditional apparatus of global rule controlled or presided over by the United States. This is a world that gives a large percentage of the world all the trappings and trimmings of liberal consumer society at the cost of large zones of economic underdevelopment policed by the American military force or a blue-helmeted UN auxiliary. In the later is the Trump media and branding juggernaut using its weapons of mass promotion to turn celebrity notoriety into sufficient political capital to buy access to the halls of power of this empire. Together they form the unprecedented and strange amalgam of governance that takes shape before our eyes. An assemblage of power here dubbed the Trumpire.
Of course, in the wake of the first weeks of the Trumpire, the observation we are now living in strange and frightening times has become a painful cliché–something akin to being told “well, at least there are plenty of fish in the sea” after sharing with someone the news that your longtime romantic partner has unceremoniously dumped you on Valentine’s Day in the middle of a screening of the movie Titanic. In this sentiment is some variation of this soliloquy Howard Beale gave in the 1973 film Network:
I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth; banks are going bust; shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter; punks are running wild in the street, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat. And we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be! We all know things are bad — worse than bad — they’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.”
Embbeded in these lines when applied to the present unpleasantness is a shrill wail of confusion and a plea for understanding that remains unfulfilled given that the conventional wisdom before the election was that Donald Trump’s celebrity supernova candidacy would burn itself out at some point. Even when Trump’s popularity persisted, an avalanche of numbers and statistics and informed interpretation made it clear he could not possibly win. Now, as our precious facts and figures have betrayed us, all that is left is to retreat into our cloister of consumer comforts and hope that if we binge-watch enough original Netflix and Amazon series (House of Cards and The Man in the High Castle would likely be popular, if ironic selections), the reign of the Trumpire will pass us by.
In the science fiction novel Ender’s Game, Ender Wiggin’s ability to understand and ultimately defeat the insectoid civilization that threatens earth stems not from a pathological hatred of the hideous creatures and a visceral drive to destroy them (as is the case with Ender’s instructors and mentors), but his willingness to study, understand and in the end, “love” them. A similar (if not necessarily identical) approach is the focus of this space. While no one is suggesting we learn to “love” the Trumpire, we ought to study it to learn its origins, behaviors, rules and idiosyncracies to gain an appreciation for its genius. In so doing, effective defenses can be built to protect alternative visions of the world and weak points in the armor can be discovered and exploited in any future counterattacks.
To do this, however, the old conventional wisdoms that proved so wanting in the days when candidate Trump aroused little more than our whimsy must be disposed. It is not that analysis of public opinion polls or heart-tugging interviews with “real” Americans in West Virginia or Missouri don’t have a place in our understanding of this new world, just that they must accompany new concepts that help us wrap our mind around the social and political changes that defy easy explanation. In future posts, this space will offer up the idea of “The Spectacle” (and the research and writing surrounding this concept) as a way of making sense of the Trumpire. This concept, originated by late twentieth-century French radical thinker, activist and ne’er-do-well Guy Debord, offers a means to digest the contradictions and absurdities that flummox purveyors and guardians of the status quo discourse. If, as Debord suggests, the truth is a moment of the false when the world has been turned upside-down, we need a new way of conceptualizing and navigating that world.