Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as mediator between this strange hostile world and us. . . . It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.
I think it’s a terrible shame that politics has become show business.
– Sydney Pollack
Metaphor is the lifeblood of all art.
To call the ever-shifting decisions and actions from Donald Trump and his team of Billionaire Big Shots a dark comedy is a natural defensive response. I do it all the time. But it may be time to recognize it has become inadequate to address our condition as citizen/victims of a looming train wreck. Donald Trump is not funny anymore.
As a New Yorker review of Stephen Colbert’s Late Show painfully suggests, the satire/journalism of a Colbert and a Jon Stewart, while sanity-saving, come up short in the face of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Bill Maher works better, because he has much more edge. It’s also true that superlatives like preposterous begin to fall short.
As we watch classic authoritarianism seep into what’s glibly touted as a constitutional republic, how does journalism respond? In a “post-truth” intellectual environment where a presidential adviser can with a straight face propose “alternative facts,” how does one report anything? When absolutely everything is in question, how can answers be anything but opinions? What does journalism do when the ground underneath it is destabilized and all the truth-seeking oxygen is sucked out of the air by a Mother Of All Bombs set off in the middle of the country’s most revered faith in a free press?
The real news is the Trump phenomenon makes sense only as dark theater or evil art. This President has roots and experience not in the Law or the Military or Governing — but in the world of Finance and Entertainment. He’s a self-proclaimed master of the Art of the Deal. He made himself a TV star by his willingness and relish for firing people. He deals in superlatives; when he likes you you’re wonderful; when he doesn’t, you’re a worthless dog subject to the cruelest ridicule. The pivot from one to the other is “transactional” and can be virtually instantaneous. One minute he’s strangely sucking up to Vladimir Putin who can do no wrong and in the next he’s condemning him and bombing Russia’s close protectorate in the Middle East. For such a narcissistic Artist Of the Real, the nation itself becomes a personal canvas. Dawn Tweet storms and monstrous bombs become like concentrated daubs of cobalt blue or violently flung gobs and slashes of cadmium yellow onto the canvas of state.
Picasso and other artists have echoed the idea that “all art is sham.” Is the observer or critic able to ferret out and articulate that sham? The most brilliant artist can be a self-centered monster whose sham is above and beyond the grasp of ordinary people. Consider the master Picasso, whose views on women were akin to Donald Trump’s. “For me,” Picasso said, “there are two kinds of women — goddesses and doormats.” Trump boasted how celebrity permitted him to grab women by the crotch, the doormat types, while his wife Melania is a classic goddess. Consider film director Sydney Pollack’s lament, above, about politics and show business. In the age of social media, the line between pop culture and politics is fuzzy — if it exists at all anymore.
What’s going on here? Writers like Daniel H. Pink, in a 2005 book titled A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, think it has something to do with the nature of the times in relation to the nature of the human brain and how they work together. “[T]he keys to the kingdom are changing hands,” Pink writes in his introduction. “The future belongs to a different kind of person with a very different kind of mind — creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people — artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers — will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.” Charles Kenny in The Right Brain Way: Drive Your Brand With the Power of Emotion feels the same way; he runs a marketing and advertising service that focuses on getting deep into consumers’ and voters’ right brains to find what really moves them, so one can attach one’s product to that emotion.
Metaphor is critical. The fullness of existence is beyond our grasp as human beings, so we design metaphors to get a grip on it. Metaphors amount to the overlap with familiar things we can get our mind around; they help us make sense of things we can’t understand without them. But they’re a two-edged sword. In the hands of the amoral, the power-hungry and the ruthless, metaphoric thinking can be oppressive and dismissive. For example, Make America Great Again as a metaphor for a better future hinges totally on how one defines great. If the metaphor is associated with the “greatness” of America’s past of Manifest Destiny, Jim Crow and the power of keeping people in line by bombing them, then, it’s a case of one man’s nostalgia is another’s nightmare.
How should journalists respond to this phenomenon? The “resistance” among elements of the mainstream media has been amazing to witness. The New York Times and The Washington Post have been at war with the new president; there’s no other word for it. But can that last? Following the Syrian tomahawk raid, it’s common now to hear a sense of relief that Trump has come around and is acting like past presidents. There are adults in the room is a favored metaphor. The trigger for this was the tomahawk raid against Assad. Now the Mother Of All Bombs in Afghanistan.
Bombing as a “final solution” to problems has become a particularly evil aspect of American Exceptionalism. Mr. Trump is suddenly “presidential” because he’s killing “bad guys” en-mass by bombs. It’s a major metaphor of power that will assuredly bite us in the ass somehow in the future. We all know by now that one American life can count for much more than the agony of the many anonymous lives we snuff out, out of sight, out of mind. As metaphor, one dead American may equal or even transcend a MOAB strike. After all, it was shock and awe and the US killing campaign in Anbar Province, Iraq, that spurred the pathology of ISIS in Sunni Iraq. As this new reactionary regime finds its footing, how long will the “resistance” hold out in the mainstream? One can only hope the political opposition finds and organizes its real grassroots power as the 2018 mid-term elections approach. It’s hard to see much hope in a revolution.
Given the right-brain realities associated with the power of emotions, art and story, maybe it’s time to develop outright, open artistic hostility of the sort we’ve seen in oppressive regimes around the world. Street theater and art has always been at the barricades. In the United States, we do still have freedoms. True, they may be over-mythologized and contingent on having money and resources; but, still, this is not Soviet Russia or even Putin Russia. Murder isn’t a tool of purging, here. Yet.
On one of my trips to El Salvador in the late 1980s, I had the privilege of sharing refreshments and papusas (tortillas stuffed with cheese and meat, a Salvadoran delicacy) with Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez. Weeks earlier, he had been snatched off the street by masked men in a car; he was beaten and humiliated as they drove him around the city. He thought he was a dead man. I will never forget the lesson this deeply human, humble man told us he’d learned from this episode. They scare you and intimidate you, expecting you to do the natural thing, to hide and keep silent. But the smart thing, he said, is to do the exact opposite: become as public as you can and make as much noise as you can. Raise the stakes of killing you. It was why he agreed to speak with me and my gringo friends. We had blue passports and maybe we knew US congressmen. The message was profound for me; it made me a better, stronger person facing the less violent, but equally exacerbating politics of North America.
If nothing else, Donald Trump is a powerful reality check that hopefully will influence the left to trim the fat from its self-indulgent, identity-focused politics that can cripple the effort to forge a unified, pragmatic left that includes the full range of middle and working class needs, things like public infrastructure, an education system that includes more critical thinking, a fair criminal justice system that corrects past injustices, the deconstruction of US militarism and empire without relinquishing security in a dangerous world and a dedication to straight talk in campaigning and governing. One aspect of “straight talk” is to recognize the ways past US actions have made the world more dangerous. Of course, this is a very anti-Trumpian idea that involves dialogue and a practical devotion to truth.
In 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, Norman Mailer ran a flamboyant campaign for mayor of New York. Jimmy Breslin was his running mate, running for president of city counsel. A labor leader friend of mine would call them “two-fisted guys.” Mailer’s slogan was simple: “Cut the bullshit!” They were tricksters then; now would be different. If Donald Trump can tell crowds over and over he wants to “bomb the shit out of” people, “cut the bullshit!” would be a great 2018 campaign slogan — in conjunction with better use of right-brain tools of art — to wipe the metaphoric scat from the cracks and crevices of our national brain.
NOTE: As always, the term “bullshit” is used here in the sense established by Harvard philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt in his little gem of a book titled On Bullshit, which opens with: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”