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A Culture of Narcissism, a Politics of Personality


I wonder if the battle lines drawn over Trump are deep into personalities to the point that we are missing the movement of intellectual history going on right before our eyes.

There is a link between a neoliberal effort to privatize all things public and personalizing everything. The redundancy of the brand “social media,” (media is a social exchange) is revealing in that it doubles down on precisely what it is not. Facebook, for instance, is a constriction of the social to your friends; it is not public but a gated community, and thus a reshaping of the idea of social as a personally chosen extension of the personal.

This sounds like something Rufus T. Firefly would say; but we are in a kind of Marx brothers’ Duck Soup world now, online and offline. I wonder whether Margaret Thatcher’s pronouncement that there is no such thing as society has been taken up wholeheartedly by “social” media. I doubt if you can say that the multitude of personally ordered cyberspace domains adds up to anything like society as it exists outside its virtual representation.

According to our “democratic group brain’ fount, Wikipedia, “the core characteristic of cyberspace is that it offers an environment that consists of many participants with the ability to affect and influence each other.  … [P]eople seek richness, complexity, and depth within a virtual world.”  I doubt if the virtual world is richer, more complex and deeper than the real world but I do not doubt that a hyperreality whose complexity you can tailor to your own likes and dislikes does not prove to be as inviting as the paradis artificiel of hash and opium was to Baudelaire.

The driving code of virtual “social” media is narcissism, as it is the place you go to where you can update other personalities on what is going on in your personal life. It is a virtual world within which you can extend the visions of your own self conception. As a sop, you pretend to care about their lives so that they can pretend to care about yours, which a skeptic would say is a workable definition of “friend” that applies here.

Imagine these constructions of personalities, privacy, sociability, society, friends, media, and narcissism as the stage upon which the 2016 Presidential election went on, namely a society that is comfortable with personalizing everything. They do so within restricted borders rather than dealing with challenges that a step outside the door of one’s own “Likes” will readily present. A society set against the idea of society and a public space reduced to a private, virtual space is both set up to assess a presidential candidate personally and to produce a presidential candidate limited to that range of assessment.

I doubt that such a narcissistic society could fail to produce, in time, a candidate grandiosely self-created who, as Freud described and Christopher Lasch extended to American culture, (The Culture of Narcissism, 1979) would not consume other people as a source of personal gratification while at the same time craving their adulation and love. Lasch recognized that such narcissism nurtured a fascination with fame and celebrity, a fascination that was no more than a projection of one’s own private grandiose self onto a public figure.

A bloviating of self projected onto a bloviated real world character signified on the deepest level a run from mortality, an expansion of self onto a grandstand too large for death to attack.

I wonder if Donald Trump would now be president if the entire staging of the American cultural imaginary had not already imagined his coming.

For many, Trump is not the projection of their ego, perhaps because they themselves are already at the center of their own narcissism and have no room for Trump. Narcissism remains the extreme end in a politics of personality. A politics of personality emerging from a society that has personalized and individualized itself, and is therefore not any kind of society, rules regardless of whether Trump is everyone in such an a-society’s personality choice.

The liberal’s dilemma in the 2016 election had much to do with Hillary’s failure to present a hyperreal personality in a hyperreal oriented culture of personality. Bernie Sanders was not running in that game but rather in an old fashioned game played within the Western Tradition of Reality and Realism. Not only is that tradition now under heavy attack but Bernie made no attempt to dramatize a personality. Quite the opposite. Early on, he allowed Black Lives Matter to identify him as an old, very white guy who no longer mattered.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, fulfilled all the expectations of those entrenched in a culture of personality but lacking themselves an expanded Reality TV personality that satisfied their yearning. Trump was made for this a-social, all things personal politics, although it was transparent that he was a real estate huckster, a con man who sold us on his fitness for the presidency.

You could say that his inflated personality is the latest fulfillment of the latest version of the American Dream, which is to project your own diminished personality onto that of a man who has sold the world on the reality and truth of his own hyperreality.

We are now paying the price of giving up the social and personalizing everything, including politics, with absolutely no respect or patience for any authority beyond our own personal determinations. A politics of personality that has led to a Trump presidency has at the same time kept us focused away from what a more expanded politics reveals.

If we get beyond distress, anger and reviling of those who voted for Trump, which is very difficult when politics is absorbed so totally in personalities, we can observe that Trump did not create these voters nor did he create the frustrations and bitterness that propelled them to vote for someone who promised recuperation, i.e. make American great again. However, what lies implicit in this promise is what Steve Bannon called a “deconstruction of the administrate State.”

What those who felt cheated and left out wanted was a tearing down of everything that had immiserated them. Bifo Berardi speaks of a precarization and fractalization of work and reward that results from the dispensations of a globalized techno-capitalism that could do no more than enrich greatly some while discarding and discounting many.

This 39-42% of Americans is not moving away from Trump regardless of what mainstream, legacy media reveals because what is at issue here goes beyond a politics of personality. 42% say Trump is doing a good job and only 2% of those who voted for him now regret that vote. The conditions of precarization of a class, who, under a less fiercely engineered financialized capitalism were nether embittered or revolutionary, remain. It is of course tragically ironic that the personality chosen to redeem the lot of this 39-42% of Americans is no more than a Bernie Madoff now operating in the White House.

Although those seriously panicked by Trump’s presidency take some comfort in the fact that 53-55% disapprove of Trump, wealth divide figures show that it is only a solid top 20% who are benefiting from the present economics in play. We must face a face some 80% who have been and continue to be ill-served by our economic and our politics.

45% of eligible voters did not vote, placing the U.S. as 33rd among 35 developed countries in voter turnout. While the reasons are varied,  including obstacles to voting mostly laid on people of color who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, a paramount reason must be a dysfunctionality and disassociation produced by a Monopoly game economics of dismissal of those who fail to win.

Here once again a politics of the personal confines accurate interpretation to the personal, namely, assuming personal responsibility for failure.

Because society has been replaced by the personal, societal conditions, beginning with a rapacious, inequitable economics and extending to the politics that it shapes, cannot be cited as in any way responsible for the determination of Winners and Losers. Winners assume total personal responsibility for their winnings, which therefore should not be taxed or their ways of winning regulated. Losers, in their turn, must assume total personal responsibility for losing and not expect or have any claim on the winnings of the Winners, most directly in the form of taxation.

Thus, our turn to a politics of personality and a culture of narcissism, both derived from an economics of individual competitiveness undeterred by any societal claims or interference, has been and continues to be a pernicious development, not only for a society with democratic, egalitarian pretensions but also for the ecological system of which we are a part.

When personality of individuals is all, Nature is without both and so falls between the cracks of our concerns. There is scant chance that such a politics can attend to both the frightening eventualities of a monstrous wealth divide and a continuing global warming.  I doubt that a retreat to the personal spaces of “social” media will turn us away from our economics of individual battle and our politics of personality. To do this, we need to rediscover the public space and our own faces without updates and selfie sticks.

Trump will disappear, probably by impeachment. He is not going to breakdown, mentally at least, because this behavior is his lifelong norm. Impeachment is not a matter of legality, pace Liberals who are compiling his impeachable offenses. It is a vote and even if Democrats take over the House and the Senate in 2018, 2/3 of the Senate and a majority in the House are required.

However, getting Trump out of there does not in any way mean that any of those abiding economic forces, which have turned a middle class into a precariate, and a hopeful working and underclass into frozen economic and social mobility, will go with him. A politics of personalities, which works well in detouring attention from plutocracy, will also not go out with Trump. I wonder whether, in a final analysis, what Trump has dramatized openly is what a long unattended wealth divide has done to a sense of an imagined American community. Zizek is not alone in hoping that a vote for Trump would do just this.

We now stand on battle lines, one side in a state of fearful panic of losing a gentrified lifestyle fronted by all manner of civilized concerns which  cleverly do not threaten stock portfolios, and the other side down but not out and unable to identify from where their hurt comes. What both sides share is a politics of the personal which defines neither beyond the kind of vitriol fertile on Twitter, Reddit and elsewhere, or offers any hope of redemption.

Liberals will breathe easier with Trump’s departure; panic will dissolve and they will join Republicans, Libertarians, and Independents in a return to business — that is, dividend and interest accrual — that has given them economic and therefore political power. The Trump throng will, however, remain, their reasons for supporting Trump remaining unaddressed.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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