‘How Can This Be?’ The Surreal New World of Donald Trump

When he heard the news of Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, Portsmouth University cultural historian Dr Van Norris was forced to reckon with an uncomfortable new reality that feels weirder and more surreal than the weirdest and most surreal of films.

Increasingly, these days I feel like Jack Nicholson at the finale of the excellent Noir movie Chinatown. All I can honestly say to the current Western political climate is: ‘how can this be?’ That Donald Trump has been elected as the President of the United States feels like being trapped in the middle of an 80s straight-to-DVD science-fiction film. But I don’t think Arnie is going to come in save the day here. In truth he may well just audition for a place in Trump’s cabinet instead.

Since Trump’s surreal run for office began in June 2015, terabytes of information have been passed around the internet. And over this past year we have witnessed a campaign like nothing any of us have ever seen (and in many ways hope to never see again). It has been like watching the very political system being dismantled and rendered as absurd before our very eyes. As Trump seems to be the very embodiment of that curious phenomenon that seems to cloud the populist worldview that fears any progressive, cautionary or, (in truth), intelligent, rational, narrative. He is a soundbite in human form. That a candidate can openly lie, blatantly contradict himself (within hours of each statement), survive a litany of highly credible accusations of sexual abuse, be openly racist, disablist, sexist and confrontational and aggressive to anyone who holds a different view to him is simply astounding. The demolition of language alone has been staggering.

Tellingly as ex-The Daily Show presenter, Jon Stewart, says, the current President can’t even be left in charge of his own Twitter account without coming across like a particular thin-skinned, sulky, chivvying frat boy. And one does wonder that if Trump was to interview himself on his own show for the job of ‘President’, then he’d probably turn him down on the basis of being temperamentally unsuitable for the role. But then, of course, quietly offer him a post in the PR department once the cameras have been turned off: ‘liking the cut of his jib’.

Donald Trump’s major skill (quite evidently) is sales. Whether this translates to the stamina and focus required to be POTUS is another issue. This skill is what cemented his oddly untarnished reputation in the early 1980s, when he was central to the gentrification of New York. This is also the prime narrative that has informed his ongoing television show, The Apprentice (NBC 2003 – to date). As a business man who inherited a vast family fortune and who’s business interests have been declared bankrupt six times now, seemingly Trump is one of the few people able to somehow circumnavigate “truth” and “fact” and is in the position where he is able to self-perpetuate his own myth, a story built on narratives of “success” and “dominance”. Indeed “Myth” seems to be the key word here. So seemingly disconnected are we today, that it seems we are more prepared to believe in myths now, than we do in “truth”.

The Brexit vote in June of this year has been cited, of course, as a parallel with the US election. Whereby the unexpected happened, the “unthinkable”. Where the masses spoke in a voice that the “Liberal Media Elites” were either uninterested in listening to, or were simply incapable of deciphering with any clarity and projection. That campaign was helpfully summed up by the post-factual ex-politician Michael Gove, (who of course was on the winning side), as the pinpoint where the populace had supposedly rejected expert opinion. A campaign where the voting public had seemingly become disillusioned with information and informed opinion. This is a curious point for anyone to consider who has argued on-line with a rabid polemic pulling fragmented, unsourced statistics from the air to settle a “lively debate” about immigration (…this one could be the setting for another blog maybe). So yes, the hitherto “silent” American majority seems to be afflicted with a similar dissatisfaction with the political system to ourselves. Sadly, they have followed suit and used a key vote as a howl of indignation and as a protest statement, rather than a constructive, ideological position. The “myth” of the neo-liberalism project is rejected, but not engaged with in terms of any lucidity or indeed within any credible scheme of genuine problem-solving. Throwing the toys out of the pram is a start, maybe, but not a solution.

So how did we get here? For me, a large number of cultural shifts have been aligning over the last 20 years. As a lecturer in this area it is understandable that I would feel that the institutional ‘Meeja’ do have to take a major responsibility here. Certainly as Danielle S. Allen noted, the perpetration of “The Donald” as an easily-transmissible construct, ideally suited to media coverage and endlessly reconstituted and re-mixed in memes and status headings has embedded him as a cultural force of unshakeable power.

‘All publicity is good publicity’, goes the cliché and, my God, has Trump proved that one right to the power of ten. As much as the media claim to hate him, he is a reliable fountain of endless quotes and outrage that actually has opened up that divide between the views of those in power and the views of the everyday person on the street. He is the end result of a self-serving media institution that has devalued political debate and intellectual thought and this streamlining, highly-mediated process has willingly reduced ideology to “personality” and not “policy”. Remember you never heard David Cameron talk about what Conservative ideology really is, as he probably would have lost loads of votes if he had. Nigel Farage, (probably soon to be one of the most powerful men in the world, though his association with Trump), recognized this point entirely. Just tell a simple lie, tell it often and be ‘a bit of a cheeky character’ while you do it and you’ll cut through the chatter. We’ve heard that before though, haven’t we, back in the late 1930s…? (I bet, in retrospect, Nick Griffin wishes he’d been down the pub with a cameraman by his side bit more often).

For me, the big narrative underpinning the success of characters like Trump is social networking. When Andrew Keen prophetically warned us all about the dangers of letting the ‘monkeys run the internet’, (as he put it), there was undoubtedly some uncomfortable truth in that polemic on the death of the ‘expert’. Albeit perhaps not exactly in the way that he predicted. For sure, the role and nature of ‘gatekeepers’ has shifted and this concept has become more fluid and more incredibly complex and difficult to assess. Today I genuinely do feel that we’re in a state of flux, as our (now global) social sphere still struggles to deal with the sudden mass of confusing and contradictory information, opinion, polemic and representation that typifies our on-line world, in direct contrast to the pre-digital climate. We are in a painful transition period between social and philosophical states. Hopefully this will be one we can negotiate before, as comedian Frankie Boyle recently wrote on Twitter, ‘Trump falls face first onto the nuclear button.’

Certainly as stated earlier, Trump functions as the perfect social network icon. Simplistic, immediate, open to any reconstitution that can stand any photo-shopped interpretation and yet still retain shape and instant recognition. He is a ‘surface’, a component in our on-line world, a funnel for comment and for self-reflection and, (as has become apparent this morning), for self-definition.

Part of this transition between states, i.e. the pre-social networking and a world where this medium has been fully quantified and rationalized, is that we have now become aware of our world and it’s workings in ways that we could never have been prepared for. The other larger profound issue that has undoubtedly affected our individual lives is that we have become face-to-face with the sheer chaos, the overwhelmingly fragmented nature and day-to-day injustice of our world. This tidal wave of information is also filtered through media organizations struggling to find a voice and a market position in this fast-paced traffic of images, opinion and pseudo-events. And this conflicting, highly intense, sometimes confusing and occasionally frightening view of our global hive mind is beamed straight into our palms, daily, minute-by-minute. Shifting. Colourful. Contradictory. Immediate.

Trump is ideally suited to this climate. His speeches read like an independent news feed or the Twitter ramblings of a lunatic, i.e. fragmented, sensationalist and often misleading and inaccurate. (Remember, up until fairly recently Trump openly thought that the Republican electorate were gullible enough to exploit and that his favourite politician was Bill Clinton!). Understandably, perhaps, faced with such confusion many retreat into nostalgia and imagined certainties, (a la Frederic Jameson’s ideas on postmodern culture). The Trumpian cry to ‘Make America Great Again’, certainly suggests this inward-looking trajectory underpins most political opinion these days.

Through social networking we have been experiencing and hearing oppositional political voices on a daily basis. For many coming to this landscape, they are hearing views that they either don’t like, don’t understand or find too challenging to engage with (and this is on both sides of the political spectrum, remember). Ideas appear with such speed that we barely have time to digest them and work through, before yet another screams in our face. Certainly if you’re working a ‘zero hours’ contract, have a family, are doing shifts or are simply overwhelmed in this increasingly nasty post-Crash work climate then who honestly has the time to think? Who has the time and capacity to be idealistic? If you’re still struggling to eat and pay the bills in this employment setting, then a principled rejection of this political system and a valorisation of gender, ethnicity and fairness may well appear particularly hypocritical and seem very much as another affection offered by the coffee swilling chattering classes. Especially when it comes from “an elite” who have done well from the system overall. Indeed I always have to remind myself that just because I’m hearing an opinion that I don’t agree with on-line, it doesn’t mean that that’s all there is out there. So potent and so distorting can our perceptions of this sphere of commentary be.

The social networking environment, as we know, is all about instantaneous and boiled down commentary. It is perhaps understandable when the only political dialogue that holds any traction today is the simplistic and the reactionary. You can’t really boil down a nuanced debate in 140 characters (and God knows I’ve tried), all you can do is shout and rage and reach out to similar voices – which does rather confirm Adam Curtis’ view of Twitter as a ‘hollow, conservative echo chamber’ whereby we only reach out and include in our networks those who hold views similar to ourselves.

An issue that intersects with this phenomenon (and I think most profoundly here), is that we are experiencing a rejection of “political correctness” by a generation who don’t seem to know what the term actually means, or what purposes it served in the 1980s into the 1990s as an all-important societal mechanism to deal with social injustice and issues of reduction around race, gender and sexual orientation. To me this is the very heart of the issue. Today’s conception is informed by a distortion of that very positive idea, as the term now seems to embody dialogues of constriction, reaction and over-sensitivity. Rather than attack PC, it might be more prudent to deconstruct the true landscape of litigation, fear, ignorance and half-formed and inconsistent views on personal space that this current refraction of that term is in fact addressing. What we’re witnessing here is, of course, individualism. This is all about ourselves and separation: isolating and insulating ourselves from a scary life ‘out there’ that we experience through photographs and news feed hook-lines. An idea too easily twisted into a condemnation of anyone who has a progressive bent, but one that has undoubtedly shifted the nature of our on-line value system.

What profound role social networking has played in the rise of the demagogue also hinges on another important factor. Charlie Brooker’s excellent Black Mirror (currently on Netflix) addressed this phenomenon in the conclusion to his episode, ‘Nosedive’. For as we hide behind avatars and become more and more socially atomized and distant from each other, as we are freed from the constrictions and almost sociopathic need to be “liked” and “approved” in our daily lives, as we seek to attain “success”, views and ideas that could never have been expressed in open conversation in past decades are aired in this removed, unforgiving and unfiltered space on a regular basis. Opinions that would have never been offered in daily conversation, for fear of instant vilification, are expressed so often that they have been taken for a ‘norm’ and as a signifier for “reality”, rather than as part of a rational,  nuanced, interactional discussion between two people.

This has created an odd parallel consensus, one that has increasingly become divorced from empathy, whereby our real lives have been subsumed by our internal, on-line lives. We are now face-to-face with ourselves as a people and our own darkest thoughts. The Twittersphere has revealed our own collective psyche in its glory and in its ugliness. We are now privy to the foaming instant reactive rages of the mentally tormented, the disassociated, the afraid, the isolated, the uninformed, the polemics and their opinions, which used to be hidden or contained behind closed doors. As overwhelming and potent as they are, they now hold equal prominence with the informed, the adjusted, the expert, the idealist and the positivist. This flattening out process might be what Keen (maybe hysterically) warned us about, but it has brought into being an oddly contradictory climate that shrieks and howls over racism and sexism but then does little to go out in the real world and do anything about it.

In truth Trump is the manifestation of Adam Curtis’s ideas on individualized protest whereby people rally round for a brief glorious moment, revelling in the chance to overturn the system and make themselves “heard”. They complain, they stamp their feet, they demand “change” and they then oust the focal point of their rage. In this case it’s the “Political and Liberal Elites”. Soon, I have no doubt, it will be intellectuals, academics and anyone who seems a bit “untrustworthy”. After that? Who knows? After this moment of catharsis then the same system reassembles itself but becomes better equipped to deal with resistance and challenge. Real change comes in increments, certainly the kind of change necessary to make a difference, and that doesn’t mean people get hurt in large numbers. Change doesn’t happen pressing a button to vote for your favourite personality. It doesn’t come through a Twitter post. It comes through engaging with your surroundings, with your system and indeed with ideology. Without constructive thought we get Trump. We get reaction and no real solution. As Alexei Sayle said in interview with the comedian Stewart Lee about his disillusionment with politics, sadly the Right don’t keep making the same mistakes the Left do. He was very, very right there.

It could well be that Trump signifies a difficult transition period, as we struggle to deal with the complexity of our world and to shape a globalized culture that is still, remember, in its inter-connected infancy. It could well be this is a momentary reaction and that the generation that follows will be much more adjusted to negotiate the tidal wave of information that we now have to deal with on a daily basis.

Although as one of the “Liberal Elites” typing away on my yacht, I’m now away to watch the rest of Black Mirror. So, of course, you really can’t believe a word I say.

This essay originally appeared on Van’s blog Onion Milk.

Images by Jack Caramac.