This is the time when the major dictionaries disclose their “word of the year”. In 2016, two candidates were awarded this designation, namely, “surreal” and “post-truth”.
It is easy to say, as many media outlets have done, that the election of the Orange Man and the Brexit vote were surreal. But in truth they were not. Both reflected a kind of “backlash” politics, and given that so many people have been screwed by neoliberal governments for decades, there is absolutely nothing surreal about these two outcomes.
The only thing surreal about the US presidential election is the choice of the two candidates who contested the final vote– one a megalomaniacal chancer who looted his own “charitable” foundation to pay for portraits of himself, the other a craven opportunist with no deep convictions except for her entitlement to rule. Both are crooked and avaricious.
What is surreal, then, is how a country with so millions of highly talented and deeply compassionate people could not come up with alternatives to these two hideously flawed candidates. Yes, there was Sanders and Stein, but they never stood a chance. Moreover, both were problematic as candidates.
When it comes to “post-truth”, a clarification is needed. The “post-truther” is not the liar, or even the habitual liar. For as Harry G. Frankfurt points out in his well-known On Bullshit, the liar still exists in a relation to the truth, because he or she must negate or contradict the truth in order to tell a lie.
Instead, the “post-truther” is akin to Frankfurt’s bullshitter, that is, someone who is indifferent to any concern for the truth (or falsehood). While the liar, qua liar, necessarily deviates from the truth, the bullshitter may sometimes say something that, perchance, happens to be correct.
Politics is replete with post-truthers/bullshitters. The most notable current example is of course the Orange Man. The more serious media organizations made initial attempts to fact check Trump, but soon gave up. There is a stubborn free-associative quality to his pronouncements that renders fact checking irrelevant. How many different things has he said about his putative Mexican Wall, almost none of which can be lined-up, in terms of coherence or factual compatibility, with his other statements about the Wall?
If Trump is the master post-truther/bullshitter, the pioneer in this regard was undoubtedly Ronald Reagan. His testimony at the Iran-Contra hearings was a farrago of bullshit. Reagan was clearly senile, but in any event, it was impossible to say, from his statements at the hearing, what he thought he was up to during Iran-Contra.
Reagan’s confusion seemed boundless. Yes, he was sure he couldn’t remember detail X; No, he wasn’t sure if he could remember X; He might have remembered X in the past, but alas couldn’t remember X now; He was sure he never had the slightest notion of what X was about; He might at one time have had an inkling of what X was about, but today his recollection couldn’t confirm this; and so forth. His testimony went on and on in this vein.
Being a post-truther/bullshitter serves a politician well in one respect– when coupled with the ability to manipulate the media, this kind of politician finds it relatively easy to summon the “Teflon” effect. Both Reagan and Trump are cases in point.
The UK’s master post-truther and Teflon politician is the ex-Prime Minister “Dodgy Dave” Cameron. When the leaked Panama Papers revealed he had family wealth stashed away in off-shore tax havens, every explanation he provided diverged in seemingly random ways from the previous ones. Fact-checking became moot– Dodgy Dave seemed clueless about what he actually believed about his family fortune.
Bullshitting has an important self-cancelling dimension. Seemingly, the bullshitter intends this or that, but once embarked upon the bullshitting enterprise, the discernible clues to this intention evaporate. What was Reagan intending during Iran-Contra? What was Dodgy Dave Cameron intending to convey about his stashed-away family fortune? Who the hell knows?
At this point, all that becomes available are appearances, and these are crucial.
Reagan oozed a kind of “aw shucks” sincerity in his honey-toned cadences, and the expensively educated multi-millionaire “posh boy” Cameron somehow exudes an authoritative panache even when he is talking piffle.
Enough words have been spilled about Donald Trump to render extraneous anything I might say about his politics.
Or rather, his anti-politics, since as a quintessential post-truth politician Trump has any variety of radically contingent positions on this or that issue, some making very little sense (even to Trump himself, one suspects). And yet all of this nonetheless partakes of the political.
Far more interesting is the conjuncture which supports the form of consciousness bearing the name “Donald Trump”, and the similar forms constitutive of those who support him.
Thinking about the above led me to revisit Jean Baudrillard’s extended essay “Amerique”, which can however be mistaken for a coffee table book, published in 1986, with the English version “America” appearing in 1989. Part travelogue (albeit of the instant snapshot variety), part philosophical disquisition in the French aphoristic tradition, “America” itself unsurprisingly makes no pretense at being a successor to Alexis de Tocqueville’s masterpiece, though this has not saved blurb writers from the mistake of aligning the two.
In his American sojourn, Baudrillard spends a lot of time driving around aimlessly, or seemingly so, and his America is very much that of the 1980s barouche sedan, those monsters on wheels, or so it must have seemed to someone coming from the land of the deux cheveaux, with side mirrors containing the inscription “objects in the mirror may be nearer than they appear” which somehow fascinates Baudrillard. By contrast, de Tocqueville seemed to move around with a greater fixity of purpose, and in any event his America is that of the horse and carriage.
“America”, a fevered mélange of banalities, howlers, and spot-on observations, has more in common with the impressionistic American cameos provided by Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, and Genet, than it has with the measured comprehensiveness of de Tocqueville’s text. Like the former group of writers, Baudrillard misunderstood America, but somehow also got a great deal of it right.
Baudrillard’s spellbound revulsion at what he encounters in the US— i.e. “the great hologram” with its “‘tactile, fragile, mobile, superficial culture” – captures in nuce a certain mood, and for me it is a mood reflective in crucial ways of the America to be found, or rather projected in the Freudian sense, in the persona of the Orange Man.
Baudrillard’s “America” has no people, or at any rate, he does not mention them. He confronts a vast and empty landscape, which his critics say was perfect for a jaundiced Parisian who wanted to populate this purported barrenness with his own postmodern imaginings or ravings, in a way akin to those imperialists whose fantasies about “empty continents” abetted so conveniently their conquests of those supposedly empty spaces.
Nothing however could be further from the truth.
Baudrillard’s America is empty precisely because it is a bottomless receptacle or hologram for unrealities or surrealities (though Baudrillard himself opts for the pomo term “hyper-reality”, there being for him no decisive way nowadays of contrasting reality with anything that may be posed against it). This hyper-reality allows the talentless Kardashians the sway they have, makes it possible for rapacious plutocrats to profess a thoroughly bogus concern for “ordinary people” and “hardworking families”, and dragoons Americans into supporting futile global wars in the name of “freedom”, and so on.
Baudrillard, had he been around today, would probably have a rejoinder to his numerous American critics: anyone who can’t see that Trump is an absolute post-truth phony, in fact merely confirms what Baudrillard wrote about the land of “futuristic primitives”.
For the American future desired by Trump’s supporters is really that of a dead past, that is, a past in which whites held sway, when slavery and Jim Crow existed, and when white low-skilled workers still managed to earn a living wage. Their longed-for future is this past they now say they have lost.
A dead past, certainly, but still living inasmuch as, with the aid of Fox News and the rightwing radio chat shows, it continues to haunt white Americans and animate their nightmares and compensatory fantasies of a manifest (white) destiny.
This putative loss of America’s “greatness” isn’t, or won’t be, due to the US’s internal multiculturalism and its matching politics, that is, to immigrants, welfare recipients, wearers of hijabs and turbans, gays, lefties, trade unionists, environmentalists, abortion rights activists, urban blacks, proponents of Black Lives Matter, vegetarians and vegans, peaceniks, believers in evolution, gun control advocates, those in favour of universal healthcare, members of Occupy, practitioners of yoga, etc., but rather to that good old-fashioned staple known as the falling rate of profit.
The loss of “greatness” so trumpeted by the Orange Man, and the hysterical white nationalism declared as the remedy for it, is in fact a screen for the social and economic depredations accompanying this falling rate of profit and all its associated mechanisms, such as job-offshoring, the casualization of work, growing precariousness as social safety nets are dismantled, Republican boots placed on the necks of union members, and so forth.
It was a rib-tickling moment to see the “made in China” labels on the self-professed patriot Trump’s own line of clothing, since there is of course an obvious connection to be made between America’s loss of “greatness” and what such labels have been portending for the US’s economic well-being since the late 1970s.
Away then with Trump, and the Clintons and Bushs who are his pale substitutes, and in with Baudrillard (and Marx). To quote the author of “America”:
“America is powerful and original; America is violent and abominable. We should not try to deny either of these aspects, nor to reconcile them”.
There is no official American politics today capable of acknowledging the force of this proposition– it’s much easier to have a post-truther/bullshitter president-elect blame Mexicans and Muslims for the country’s predicament.