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Revisiting Baudrillard’s “America” in the Age of Trump and the Kardashians

Photo by continentcontinent.cc | CC BY 2.0

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
Everyone going home lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some of our men just in from the border say
There are no barbarians any longer.
Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

— C.P. Cavafy, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, in Collected Poems, London 1998, p.14

Enough words have been spilled over Donald Trump’s presidency to render moot anything I might say about the candidate and his politics.  Or rather, his anti-politics, since as a quintessential “post truth” politician Trump has any variety of radically contingent twitter-inflected 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 to me 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.

Baudrillard (1929-2007) 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 a certain mood, and for me it is a mood reflective in crucial ways of the America to be found in the symbolic universes that bear the names “Trump” and “Kardashian”.

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 the 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 over American minds, 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 patriotism, and so on.

Baudrillard, had he been around today, would probably have a perfect rejoinder to his numerous American critics:  anyone who can’t see that Trump is an absolute phony, in fact merely confirms what Baudrillard wrote about America as a 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 because, 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 complementary 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 in the current Republican presidential campaign, and the hysterical white nationalism declared as the remedy for it, is in fact a smokescreen 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 but also dispiriting moment to see the “made in China” labels on the self-professed patriot Trump’s own line of clothing during his recent farcical “Made in America” week, 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 Bushes 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 is much easier to blame the barbarians.

More articles by:

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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