Enacting a pathetic blind apathy, I’m accustomed to saying something along the lines of, “I don’t care about politics,” which is, of course, a telltale sign that hegemony is working its magic on the public. Breed a citizenry that (a) expresses indifference or indignation about the system that governs it, or (b) gets caught up in trivial “correctness” battles with values framed and dictated by that system, and you have a smooth machinery going about its business. Note that I’m not holding any individual or nebulous group responsible for this machinery; what keeps a hierarchy in place is the hierarchy itself. Or that’s just a convenient way of absolving any accountability I might have for challenging and changing it.
Beyond the satirical window I get into politics thanks to the likes of John Oliver (and formerly, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert), I invest very little energy into what happens politically in America, and even less into what happens globally. To be fair, the insight I’ve gained from Oliver feels more trenchant and meaningful, but it’s couched in a humor that disguises its ultimate importance or impact. His show is a gummy vitamin of political nourishment. It tastes better, but I’m still going to crap out most of what I consume, only feeling like I’ve made myself healthier and more aware. This is a dangerous placebo when it comes to active social justice.
Donald Trump is out there right now either (a) enacting a frightening warpath, or (b) performing a farcical circus. Or I’m just stuck creating dumb binaries in this post to make it sound like I’ve thought any of this through. I read two articles on Trump’s ongoing political spectacle (this and this), so naturally, thanks to the ways of the Internet, I’m feeling like an expert on his machinations.
In the first article, Judd Legum brings in French philosopher Roland Barthes to help us understand what makes Trump such a compelling watch.
It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theater.
Legum explains how Trump is the professional wrestler to every other politician’s professional boxer. The latter acts as if everything it does is genuine, as if it’s not also pure artifice and performance; the former knows, embraces, and fully enacts the artifice and performance as though it were the only genuine thing to do in a world of artifice and performance. A wrestler knows the act is real, so let the acting go on. The audience is in on this “lie,” which quickly turns into a strange new truth that both performers and viewers accept. Boxers (politicians) pretend otherwise. They forget that they’re acting and feign greater virtue in what they do. Their viewers foolishly follow suit, expecting higher integrity and accountability, forgetting that as spectators the main thing they really want is “the image of passion.” The representation of it. Who cares if it’s actual passion? Give us the show already, and if you promise something else, pulling us out of our grand illusion, don’t be surprised when we turn against you. If you promise us nothing, except that which we all know we want and don’t have to state explicitly, we will love you for it. Of course, we won’t love you, we’ll love our own desire, which is for the image of the thing, not (and perhaps never) the thing itself.
In a world dominated by representation, what we represent is far more important than what we are; what we represent is what we are, and when we pretend otherwise, we’re threatening…what exactly? This is where I hit a wall. But there are real dangers to this worship. With Trump, he represents more than mere spectacle. He represents a worldview and ideology grounded in white supremacy, as Randy Blazak highlights in the second article. So when we support him, or simply observe him with curiosity, we are tacitly (if not explicitly) promoting this problematic worldview. The America he wants us to return to, that mythical “Great” America of days that never really existed, is an America that flourished through white supremacy; its endurance was secured by the elaborate veil it draped over this reality. Trump clings to this veil. He’s turned it into a supreme performance.
If we’re content to watch and be amused by his antics, we should not be surprised when what he represents continues to manifest itself in reality. He’s not just putting on a show; he’s setting the stage for real tragedy.