The nature of reality is an open question in the age of Donald Trump. As the president regularly decries “the Fake News Media” and journalists catalogue his many lies, the battles of our time seem not just political but philosophical, indeed epistemological: What is real? How do we reach a consensus on the truth? These questions cut deeper than mere attempts to gauge the accuracy of Trump’s own words, or those of the White House staff. Trump’s ascension to leader of the free world still feels deeply strange, hence the common refrain that “this is not normal.” Trump himself sometimes seems surprised by his position. “I’m president!” he declared in a May ceremony celebrating the House passage of the American Health Care Act. “Hey, I’m president! Can you believe it?”
In an attempt to make sense of Trump’s vertiginous presidency, critics have made comparisons to contemporary autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or pillaged the history books for analogies ranging from Mussolini to Nixon. Others have looked at imagined futures, as Trump has fostered a vogue in dystopias such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. However illuminating these parallels might be, they ultimately fall short by failing to consider Trump in his immediate context. The president is best understood not as a figure who harkens back to the distant past, evokes other lands, or foreshadows the future, but one who is representative of this very moment in America, where media overload is destroying the sense of a shared public reality.
In examining Trump as a product of our unique epoch, one of the sharpest analytical tools available is the theory of postmodernism, developed in the 1970s and 1980s by a host of theorists—perhaps most famously by Fredric Jameson, the polymathic Duke University literary scholar. In a 1984 essay, later expanded into the book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson synthesized the work of scholars from many fields—philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, economist Ernest Mandel, architect Robert Venturi, filmmaker Guy Debord, sociologist Jean Baudrillard—in arguing that the triumph of economic globalism, which he dates to the early 1970s, inaugurated a new cultural era marked by the triumph of populist images over the strenuous elite art that had characterized modernism.
For Jameson, postmodernism meant the birth of “a society of the image or the simulacrum and a transformation of the ‘real’ into so many pseudoevents.” Befitting the “postliteracy of the late capitalist world,” the culture of postmodernism would be characterized by “a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense” where “depth is replaced by surface.” Postmodernism was especially visible in the field of architecture, where it manifested itself as a “populist” revolt “against the elite (and Utopian) austerities of the great architectural modernisms: It is generally affirmed, in other words, that these newer buildings are popular works, on the one hand, and that they respect the vernacular of the American city fabric, on the other; that is to say, they no longer attempt, as did the masterworks and monuments of high modernism, to insert a different, a distinct, an elevated, a new Utopian language into the tawdry and commercial sign system of the surrounding city, but rather they seek to speak that very language, using its lexicon and syntax as that has been emblematically ‘learned from Las Vegas.’”
That final phrase is a reference to Learning From Vegas, a 1972 book by Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour that critiqued “heroic” modern architecture and instead sought to “gain insight from the commonplace,” specifically by analyzing the Las Vegas Strip. Trump, as a real estate developer, was certainly willing to “learn from Las Vegas,” as he proved with his vulgar, now-shuttered Taj Mahal casino. But there’s a deeper symmetry between Trump and the account of postmodern society found in Jameson’s work (not just Postmodernism but subsequent volumes like The Seeds of Time and A Singular Modernity) and in the work of his fellow travelers, like Baudrillard and Debord. These writers describe a world where the visual has triumphed over the literary, where fragmented sound bites have replaced linear thinking, where nostalgia (“Make America Great Again”) has replaced historical consciousness or felt experiences of the past, where simulacra is indistinguishable from reality, where an aesthetic of pastiche and kitsch (Trump Tower) replaces modernism’s striving for purity and elitism, and where a shared plebeian culture of vulgarity papers over intensifying class disparities. In virtually every detail, Trump seems like the perfect manifestation of postmodernism.
For Baudrillard, “the perfect crime” was the murder of reality, which has been covered up with decoys (“virtual reality” and “reality shows”) that are mistaken for what has been destroyed. “Our culture of meaning is collapsing beneath our excess of meaning, the culture of reality collapsing beneath the excess of reality, the information culture collapsing beneath the excess of information—the sign and reality sharing a single shroud,” Baudrillard wrote in The Perfect Crime (1995). The Trump era is rich in such unreality. The president is not only a former reality-show star, but one whose fame is based more on performance than reality—on the idea that he’s a successful businessman. Although his real estate and gambling empire suffered massive losses in the early 1990s, and Trump’s “finances went into a tailspin,” he survived thanks to the superficial value of his brand, which he propped up though media manipulation.
In Baudrillard’s terms, Trump is a simulacra businessman, a copy of a reality that has no real existence. All sorts of simulacrum and decoy realities now flourish. Consider the popularity of conspiracy theories, evidence of a culture where it’s easy for fictional and semi-fictional narratives to spread like wildfire through social media. Trump loves spreading conspiracy theories about his enemies, and his enemies love spreading conspiracy theories about him. This propagation of fictions makes it difficult to build a convincing case against him. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow revealed Thursday that a supposedly classified document containing bombshells about Russia was sent anonymously to her show’s tipline. Her team eventually determined the document was fake. “Somebody out there is shopping carefully forged documents to try to discredit news agencies reporting on the Russian attack on our election,” she said, “and specifically on the possibility that the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russians in mounting that attack.”
Another recent example shows how easy it is to fall into a farrago of absurdity when reporting on Trump. Last weekend, the president tweeted a wrestling video showing him pummeling a man who had a CNN logo superimposed on his face. A Reddit user named HanAssholeSolo, who has a history of racist and anti-Semitic posts, took credit for the clip. CNN discovered the user’s true identity, but decided not to name him, though added, “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity.” This sentence gave the false impression of blackmail, and HanAssholeSolo suddenly became a free speech martyr to the right. As often happens in political battles of the Trump era, his supporters took a few random facts at the margins of the story and constructed an alternative reality, so that the story became not about the president’s endorsement of a threatening video created by a political extremist, but about a powerful news network harassing a private citizen. The entire spectacle shows we’re living in a Baudrillardian funhouse where the firm ground of reality has slipped away.
Postmodernism brings with it the erasure of older distinctions not just between reality and fiction, but between elite and popular culture. In his 1998 book The Origins of Postmodernity, the historian Perry Anderson called attention to the theme of plebeianization first developed by Jameson: the collapse of old bourgeois norms among the rich and powerful, even as class hierarchy remained strong (if not more entrenched than ever). “More widely, in the public sphere democratization of manners and disinhibition of mores advanced together,” Anderson argued, citing the antics of Princess Diana and President Bill Clinton. “For long, sociologists had debated the embourgeoisement of the working-class in the West—never a very happy term for the processes at issue. By the nineties, however, the more striking phenomenon was a general encanaillement”—or slumming—“of the possessing classes—as it were: starlet princesses and sleazeball presidents, beds for rent in the official residence and bribes for killer ads, disneyfication of protocols and tarantinization of practices, the avid corteges of the nocturnal underpass or the gubernatorial troop. In scenes like these lies much of the social backdrop of the postmodern.” Trump, the wealthy president who brags about grabbing women by the genitals and tweets out abuse of female journalists, embodies this “encanaillement of the possessing classes” even better than Diana or Clinton.
The virtue of theories of postmodernism, as developed by Jameson and his peers, is that they link cultural changes with deeper economic transformations. The waves that carried a ridiculous TV celebrity to the presidency are being propelled by a deeper current of globalization: the triumph of the unreality industries, the move of manufacturing jobs out of the developed world, and the proliferation of technologies that saturate us with media.
This analysis suggests that Trump is the product not just of a fluke election or a racist and sexist backlash, but the culmination of late capitalism. This has profound implications for how we see Trump—and how we oppose him. We have to focus less on Trump’s personal flaws and more on the world that has enabled him. His habitual prevarications aren’t simply the result of his defective character, but an effective tactic. In a world where commerce and media (including social media) reward performance above truth telling, it’s not surprising that a figure like Trump rises to the top. Any moralistic condemnation of Trump is incomplete without acknowledging the institutions (notably the media) that both created him and allowed him to thrive.
The danger of a sweeping theory like postmodernism is that it can produce despair. After all, fighting something so pervasive as “late capitalism” is much harder than winning elections. For the Trump resistance, seeing him as a postmodern president opens up the dilemma that the best way to fight him in the short term might be to borrow some of his tactics. (It’s no surprise that another savvy performer-politician, Senator Al Franken, has emerged as a major resistance leader.) The danger is that by imitating Trump, we’ll only create a world where future Trumps will emerge.
But there’s a different way to look at Trump as a postmodern president. Paradoxically, even as Trump exploits today’s media, his politics of nostalgia show that his own followers want to escape the postmodern world. Trump’s appeal is based on his promise to return to an earlier, simpler era, where jobs were rooted in physical activity (manufacturing, coal mining) and the economy was governed by the imperatives of nationalist solidarity (“America First”) and not globalization. There is a genuinely utopian dimension to Trumpism, suggesting a widespread desire to reverse late capitalism. So the logical response to Trumpism is to counter him with someone who can truly challenge the economic status quo, rather than being a mere avatar for such hopes.