Confronting the Unreal Under President Trump
Hawa Allan Turns to Serious Thinkers to Consider an Unserious Man
“Reality isn’t what it used to be,” I said recently to a friend. We laughed softly together at this statement, absurd as it was accurate. I’m nostalgic by nature, but its wistful lens usually takes years to cloud my vision, gradually softening unflattering HD recollections into a sepia-toned past. It was fitting that we had this conversation in a bar-restaurant renowned (to us) for 1980s and 90s inspired Pandora stations, walls cluttered with the eclectic ephemera of old Life magazine covers, a black velvet painting of Elvis, and (these days) graffiti. We were sitting in the past to mourn the past. But the past we were mourning had gone by only three weeks earlier—that is, before the presidential election.
“When the real is no longer what it was,” writes French theorist Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation, “nostalgia assumes its full meaning.” I felt the full import of this statement on November 9th. Suspended in an anti-gravitational chamber of disbelief, I had been dispossessed, violently stripped of a reality that I’d known only one day before. Adrift in this altered state of grief-tinged incredulity, I remembered a former version of myself—a college senior sitting before yet another kitschy bar backdrop, that time adorned with bamboo and “Polynesian” iconography. Perched at a small table with my roommate and a graduate student in philosophy, I sipped from a green Tiki god as our new acquaintance discussed his dissertation.
“I can’t believe it’s raining,” the PhD student had said. He went on to point out the absurdity of the statement, which is always made by someone who finds herself outside in the rain. Moreover, he tried to explain the philosophical conundrum it presents—despite the obvious absurdity of such a statement, it isn’t contradictory because the speaker’s disbelief is also true.
My roommate and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. We took turns repeating his words—I can’t believe it’s raining—childishly goading each other into escalating fits of giggles. Our acquaintance’s face dropped. That didn’t stop us from laughing, of course. Looking back, the little scenario seems rather cruel. Nevertheless, I remember feeling righteous in my laughter; I just did not have the temperament to entertain that kind of philosophical puzzle. Indeed, a favorite catchphrase of mine and of my close friends’ at the time was: “People are dying.” Any preoccupation that did not directly address this reality through an intersectional consideration of racism, sexism, class, homophobia, post-colonialism, imperialism—and/or did not meet or exceed the standard of what we deemed “cool”—was easily trounced by this declaration.
Now, here I am, years later, reconsidering that very same philosophical conundrum, called a Moore’s paradox. Appreciating its importance, if not as a mere logical curiosity, then certainly as a state of mind—a state of mind that can’t believe that police officers casually, fatally shot Terence Crutcher, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile; that civilians in Aleppo were tweeting their last words while under siege by warring factions; that Hurricane Matthew swept into an already devastated Haiti and killed hundreds; that boats carrying African and Middle Eastern migrants keep capsizing; that Prince and George Michael are dead; that people in Aden, Baghdad, Berlin, Bosso, Brussels, Cairo, Istanbul, Jakarta, Lahore, Madagali, Mosul, Mogadishu, Nice, Orlando and in a church in Charleston were killed in terror attacks. Yes, people are dying, and, on top of it all, Donald Trump is actually set to be president of the United States. I can’t believe any of it.
* * * *
Death—as my meditation teacher repeatedly reminds his students—is an eventuality that can be perceived as so far off as to be practically nonexistent. That is, until the news of it drops on your head like an anvil. No matter the perpetrator or the cause, death is always untimely and violent insofar as it disrupts the reality that we misinterpret as solid and reliable as a sturdy chair. The election of Donald Trump feels like a death, inducing the sudden dislocation and anxiety I would feel if a prankster swiftly pulled back that same chair on which I was about to sit.
Of course, I knew he had thrown his red trucker cap into the primaries. I knew he’d become the Republican candidate. I saw the sizable crowds that had flocked to his rallies, as well as the blue, white, and red signs bearing his name stuck into various lawns in the Suffolk County neighborhood where I grew up. Even so, throughout this past election season, I mostly disregarded Trump’s campaign—treated it like a television show I didn’t care to watch.
Was not the word “sideshow” often used in news reports to describe the Trump phenomenon? A sideshow is not only a circus but a distraction, a diversion from things supposed to be “real” and “true.” When election day finally came, I arrived at my polling station mechanically and with zero enthusiasm. My only inspiration for going through that motion was to re-envision voting as a ritual in honor of so many activists who fought and died for my so-called right; I might as well have stopped at the elementary school threshold and poured libations. In any event, after my ballot was sucked and disappeared into the scanner’s slot, I stepped back out into the bright morning with a sense of solace. The sideshow would finally end, and we could all return to our regularly scheduled programming.
* * * *
Television is an apt metaphor to illustrate the distance I felt—to some extent feel now—from the “reality” of Trump. The screens portraying a bloviating Trump weren’t clear windows into actual lived experience, out there somewhere; they bore, rather, the projection of a pulp horror movie. His campaign was “a pseudo-world apart” that I viewed “solely as an object of contemplation.”
I’m borrowing, above, the words of another French theorist: Guy Debord, writing in The Society of the Spectacle. For Debord, the “spectacle” is not merely the combination of images with which we are bombarded that are supposed to represent “reality”—rather, he says, the spectacle is a social relationship between people that is mediated by these images. Debord posits that the spectacle alienates individuals from one another, that we are each like spokes on a wheel and the spectacle a central hub that monopolizes our attention. We fixate passively on its pseudo-events, the units of “progress” and “history,” set as far apart from these happenings as we are from each other. Spectators, moreover, are also alienated from themselves. Workers by day and consumers by night, our purported wants and needs are always represented to us via the spectacle: “[T]he more readily [the spectator] recognizes his own needs in the images of need proposed by the dominant system,” writes Debord, “the less he understands his own existence and his own desires.”
Media stars are the spectacle’s performers, representing the promise of fame and “power”: toys dangled beyond each of our grasp as if by a taunting older sibling. Debord distinguishes between stars of consumption and stars of decision-making—defining the former as, say, celebrities whose lifestyles and tribulations are tabloid fodder, and the latter as your fill-in-the-blank politician. While the former enthralls us with leisure and bling, the latter personifies the state in its purported power and preeminence. By Debord’s estimation, what I have now experienced as a violent rupture in my reality—a teleportation from the real to the unreal—was actually only a matter of witnessing one of the spectacle’s stars assume a new role. Trump, in other words, simply swapped his consumption hat for a large, red decision-making cap . . . or perhaps has opted to wear both at the same time.
* * * *
“[D]issolution of TV in life, dissolution of life in TV,” Baudrillard writes in Simulacra and Simulation. He was referring there to a 1970s reality television show in order to illustrate his theory on the hyperreal—the total artificiality of so-called “reality.” The hyperreal, he says, is an accumulation of signs and images that do not represent what is real, but rather operate to conceal the fact that “the real is no longer real.”
Let’s put aside, for the moment, the question of what is really real, and assume that what we generally perceive to be real actually is not. Let’s, in other words, suspend our disbelief and accept “hyperreality” at face value. For Baudrillard, “reality” television perpetuates hyperreality by displacing role models with the banality of the average viewer, thereby dissolving the barrier between the medium of television and the one who is watching. “There is no longer any imperative of submission to the model,” Baudrillard says of reality television, rather: “‘YOU are the model!’ ‘YOU are the majority!’ . . . ‘YOU are information! You are the social, you are the event, you are involved, you have the word, etc’ . . .” Instead of regarding Debord’s spectacle from afar, Baudrillard proposed that we are now inside the spectacle; the “screen” has dissolved and we are, instead, existing in a distorted virtual reality.
Now, this displacement isn’t all bad, particularly when those generally underrepresented in various forms of media become “content creators,” superimposing themselves where they otherwise would never be seen. (I’m thinking, here, of so many black women I follow on Instagram and YouTube for their stellar advice on, among other things, natural hair and clean eating). Trump, however, has reflected back the basest instincts of his most enthusiastic spectators, emboldening their vulgarity, catapulting the “YOU” of the Klansman and the “YOU” of the misogynist onto the national stage.
Where Debord would argue that the Klansman and misogynist have voted their avatars into the spectacle’s most powerful position, barging into the center of world attention, Baudrillard might say that the Klansman and misogynist have helped break down the barrier between the spectacular and the spectator, unleashing Donald Trump into our day-to-day lives. Let’s just say that I don’t keep up with the Kardashians. The election of Donald Trump is like opening my front door to the entire Kardashian clan, having them barrel past me, suitcases and all, and move into my apartment.
* * * *
The unreality to which Baudrillard and Debord refers is not wholly illusory, of course—it has actual deadly effects. Whether Trump, for example, actually believes his inflammatory rhetoric is immaterial when his utterances actually result in the escalation of hate crimes (and/or into hypothetical nuclear war). As Baudrillard pointed out, someone who stages a hold up, only pretending to have a gun, has nonetheless set up a scenario into which law enforcement will charge with weapons aimed. In the same vein, the disbelief of an unarmed black person or a reveler on a promenade in Nice on Bastille Day will not shield him or her, respectively, from the bullets of a jittery police officer’s gun or a terrorist-driven cargo truck. Nor will disbelief about this election shield anyone from its result.
To be clear: Trump in and of himself does not shock me. I grew up with Trumps, have gone to school with Trumps, worked with and for Trumps. “Trump” himself is nothing new—what is new is the gaudy, dystopian theme park called Trumpland™ that has been erected all around me and from which there is no exit. (During a recent visit with my parents, driving back home with my father from Trader Joe’s, we passed a pole jutting from a neighbor’s fence that bore two large flags flapping in snowstorm wind: the American stars and stripes and a blue one with “TRUMP” emblazoned across it in white letters).
I’m usually adept at filtering, say, pop-up ads from my field of vision, and can generally tune out the various commercial and tawdry solicitations that continually impose themselves on daily life. I might have—before Trump—responded to my simulated reality with, as Baudrillard puts it, “ambivalence … disaffection, or with an always enigmatic belief,” an emotional disposition brought about by both believing and not believing what passes for “real.” After Trump, however, this selective perception is not only no longer possible, but also dangerous—a post-Trump world requires the vigilant eye of a parent overseeing a toddler learning to walk in a house filled with sharp corners. Moreover, I see my low-grade cynicism as armor that I will have to drop. Always more interested in activism than civics, I have, post-Trump, begun to “take action” by clicking on and electronically signing petitions for submission to various representatives, by reading pre-written scripts to said representatives’ voicemail inboxes. On some level, I agree with Baudrillard—a President Trump does not embody power, but rather masks its absence. Trump is the curtain pulled back to reveal that there isn’t any wizard. Even so, seeing through a bully’s intimidating exterior doesn’t spare you a black eye.
So I will continue in my disbelief and, at the same time, click and sign and call and protest. That said, I have much (as they say) internal work to do as external to-dos. This necessary inner project brings into consideration that existential question that I put off earlier: the question of what is actually real.
* * * *
“This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity,” writes Albert Camus in his classic essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” I would be remiss to consider a prescription for finding meaning—(“the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart”)—in a completely absurd world without re-reading Camus, the Algerian-born pied-noir who acknowledged society’s dreary state of alienation. “Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm . . .” Who further lyricized the altered state that can arise from this alienation. “But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.” Who lamented that waking up in an absurd world—as I awake day after day to find the numbers of Trump voters amassing to more than 60 million—is like living in a zombie movie. “A horde of irrationals has sprung up and surrounds him until his ultimate end.”
Camus—for whom existing in an absurd world is a Sisyphian task—believed the only solace to be found is within, our only hope to cultivate a “silent joy” in rolling each of our boulders uphill, even with the full knowledge that they will keep rolling back down. Calibrating our inner weather, moreover, is a beacon for homing in on what is real.
The real consists of every small, daily opportunity for care and commiseration—each one by itself, so soft and fleeting as to seem insignificant, but which, in combination, across cities, states, nations, and continents, can ultimately overturn mountains. It is real to hold open the door for someone walking behind you. It is real to be patient with the tourist who stops suddenly in front of you on the sidewalk. It is real to catch someone’s eye on the street and flash a quick smile. It is real to remember to water your plants before they droop and desiccate. It is real to actually get to know your next-door neighbor. It is real to neither know nor care where Kanye and Kim are vacationing next. It is real to resist the urge to glance down at your smartphone when out to dinner with a friend. It is real to not assume that the average American is irredeemable. It is real to listen with an open mind and heart to someone trying to explain the topic of his dissertation. It is real to spend less time transfixed by the spectacle, and more time looking toward each other.
If, as Camus said, “the absurd depends as much on man as on the world,” then I have the wherewithal to find and share what is real, whether sitting in bars cluttered with false idols or amid the phantasmagoric horror of Trump—a walking alibi for that howling vacuum of meaning that is waiting to be filled, waiting to be infused by us all.