At a recent campaign stop in Manheim, PA, Donald Trump delivered an hour-long screed against Hillary Clinton, in which he attacked TPP, praised Bernie Sanders, made fun of Bernie Sanders, lamented the low quality of contemporary films, considered what a current season of the Apprentice might look like, ranted about the loss of jobs in America, shared his insights on real-estate deals, suggested that Hillary is disloyal to Bill, lent his insights on the dangers of too much education, and ranted about the mainstream media. In true Trump fashion, his speech was disjointed, disconnected, and random.
But his audience cheered as though everything he said was poignant political analysis and pointed critique of the Democratic Party. Despite the digressions, rants, and lack of coherence, his followers reacted as though Trump were a John F. Kennedy or Dwight Eisenhower, delivering one of those great American speeches of political history. To hear the cheering, one might think Trump were delivering the Gettysburg Address. And this confuses many people about Trump. As the Washington Post headlined in August, “It’s damn-near impossible to make sense of Donald Trump’s many mixed messages these days.”
But that’s the whole point. Trump’s allusive elusiveness is so hard to counter because it is so slippery. Everyone remembers the sheer pleasure of being a child reading “nonsense.” Whether reading Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, most of us recall the delight of rhymes without sense, of limericks and short, punchy pithy statements that don’t really mean much. In fact, much of postmodern literature is infused with a playfully allusive nonsense. There’s an entire genre of so-called “nonsense literature” in which wordplay and discordance are used to destabilize hegemonic meaning-making. Disjunction produces a meaning of its own.
What makes Trump so interesting and dangerous is that he has tapped into these ludic energies, using his speeches as a way to rev up an audience rather than inform them about what he will actually do. Unlike any other candidate in the history of American politics, Trump’s successes can be traced to the precise way he deploys nonsense. He is playing what philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein might call a “language game,” where concepts are not clearly defined but make meaning nonetheless. The cheering crowds derive meaning from Trump’s speeches from his “un-sense,” his deliberately fragmented nonsensical statements that refuse to adhere to the format of such events. These speeches are not clear or coherent in any traditional way, relying instead on digression, invective, and free association; they transmit meaning to his audience precisely because of the transgressive energy of violating the conventions of political theater.
For example, during his speech in Manheim, Trump describes his followers as the smartest people and discusses his own education at Wharton but then states a few minutes later that too much education is dangerous. Or, consider his stance on trade. Hammering Hillary Clinton on TPP, and praising Bernie Sanders for opposing it, Trump seems to forget that his own companies often rely on outsourced labor. Then he praises the member of labor unions who will apparently rise up against their bosses and support Trump. Dozens of opinion pieces have been dedicated to Trump’s contradictions with the goal of “exposing” Trump’s persona as a façade.
But exposing Trump won’t work because Trump’s energy comes from the way he deploys such nonsense. Whereas a previous presidential campaign would have collapsed in the face of such deception or contradiction (one thinks of Mitt Romney’s 47% comment), Trump seems to gain energy from them, turning a poor performance into a victory through articulating it as such. “I got great press” Trump asserts at one point about his poor debate performance, “until, what happened, one minute later, all of the dopes that work at CNN, they say Trump lost and they started screaming…I don’t think half of them watched.” Whether or not Trump actually won seems not to matter to his followers. What matters most is what Trump says about it and how he says it. Calling CNN pundits “dopes” does more for Trump with this crowd than whether or not there is empirical evidence that they are, in fact, dopes.
Furthermore, Trump’s statements are not linked together by any sort of structure. He seems to ramble, wandering from point to point, following asides and digressions wherever they may lead, transitioning from his debate performance to a detailed list of all the “insider” Republicans he’s defeated. Non-sequiturs only seem to rile the crowd up more, and spontaneous chants of “lock her up” break out. This is a crowd who is sick of policy discussions and tax proposals, a crowd who wants blood, not more plans. Trump has trained his audience so well that he can stand on stage and free associate and still be considered a plausible, even more desirable, candidate. Indeed, Trump could be described as the first postmodern presidential candidate, “playing” with his speech in a Derridean way, where endless play replaces concrete meaning.
While fascinating perhaps, Trump is also frightening. He is unpredictable and unscripted, a chaotic force that can’t be controlled. The Republican Party has decided to gamble that Trump can be reined in, that a President Trump would learn to toe the line. What they’ve missed is that Trump’s popularity is predicated precisely on his refusal to behave. Will the American people make the same bet? Only November will decide, but one thing is certain: Trump has forever changed the way American politics are performed.
Matthew Hannah is a postdoctoral fellow at the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa. His research focuses on twentieth and twenty-first century literature, digital technology, and media. His opinions are his own.