The Worst of Times: Our Year in Irreality

John Freeman on the Presidency of Donald Trump

By  John Freeman

By the time you read this, what I am about to remind you of will be old news, but bear with me. The media moves at such velocity these days it is often useful to circle back to recent car wrecks and examine the smoking tangle of metal and human form. Here’s one of those incidents. Standing on the front lawn of the White House just before Christmas 2017, in his trademark blue wool car coat, yellowish hair unmoved by wind and cold, the President of the United States bragged that his party’s tax bill would “mostly benefit the middle class… This is going to be one of the great gifts to the middle-income people of this country that they’ve ever gotten for Christmas.”

This was a lie.

The tax cut Trump signed into law at the end of 2017 will benefit mostly the wealthy, and not just the wealthy, but the obscenely rich. The private jet and tax haven class. Many middle-class families will see almost no benefit at all.

The poor will actually see a tax increase.

Depending on who is counting, it was the 1,629th false or misleading statement made by Trump, and an especially cruel one in these times of bewildering inequality. But this is who we elected—a reality-TV president. The pussy-grabber with record inauguration attendance and catch phrases who sees government simply as the biggest ever season of The Apprentice. The New York Times reported that Trump “told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.” So much of the past year has lived up to this vision. The real world (the viewers) and its problems (health care, jobs, Kim Jung Un) have become a mere stage-set (the White House) for a play (the President vs. anyone, even a dead soldier’s parent) in which all the elements of reality—people, places, actual incidents—are props for Donald Trump to use and turn about for what is essentially a one-man show.

“I alone can fix it,” he said during his campaign.

All theatre is absurd, Ionesco reminds us, and reporters and historians schooled in fascism have been warning that Trump is swiftly ticking off all the boxes for a strongman show. That may be true, but in the meantime it is worth pointing out that this year’s performance of mendacity is a peculiar American kind of bonkers. This comes to you, after all, from the nation that built three of the most inherently fantasist machines on the planet, all of them the topics of recent books. In Fantasyland, the novelist and radio host Kurt Andersen digested five centuries of American life and shows how the ultra-individualism at the heart of the country’s idea of liberty became the nation’s primary form of self-identification. The ultimate liberty being the ability to define one’s own reality, regardless of external facts.

In The Secret Life, the Scottish novelist and reporter Andrew O’Hagan tells three true stories about people who enact this kind of liberty across another American invention—the internet—from Julian Assange to Ronnie Pinn, a man O’Hagan invents and uses as a spade to visit the dark web’s darkest corners.

And finally, Kevin Young, the poet and critic, writes in Bunk about the history of hoaxes and hucksters who profited off Americans’ susceptibility to tall tales, the greatest of which is race: the idea that people of different skin colors are inherently different. This was a key fantasy of early America, which only became a union when the southern states allowed black citizens to be counted as 3/5ths of a human being in the Constitution. Otherwise they would have greatly outweighed the north and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as defined in the founding documents, would have been controlled by senators from Charleston and Charlottesville. Cities back on the map in 2017, but hey, there are “good people on all sides, all sides.”

*

For many in America, what’s happening here is not a surprise. Trump was elected in a racial backlash so profound it has a name—whitelash. He only became a candidate when he began touting an obvious lie—that Obama had been born in Kenya and was therefore not a legal US President. The birther movement, as this conspiracy was called, was a racist magnet. Unable to say they disliked the President because he was black, millions of Americans spoke in code: Obama was illegitimate. The novelist Colson Whitehead summarized this moment in terms many have come to know through videos of unarmed black Americans being harassed or shot by police—Trump stopped and frisked the President. By the time Trump’s claims had been proven demonstrably false, the damage had been done. By 2016, two-thirds of Americans thought Barack Obama was Muslim.

Hatred is not an election strategy. A myth, however, is, and Trump gave voice to many of the worst, not-so-hidden American hatreds by wrapping them in pillowy myth. That the country had fallen on hard times because it had been taken from its actual owners. That only he could bring it back. That America had grown too generous, too keen to be liked, for its own safety. That it was being taken advantage of. He very nearly said fucked, instead he said screwed. Immigrant rapists and Chinese traders were coming to screw us. To do this Trump would turn back the clock. The queers and trannies wouldn’t get their own bathrooms or special treatment. The Mexicans would be kicked out. The time would be rolled back to the 1950s when—and this was all but said—America was a white country.

Which, even then, was false.

“In this country American means white,” Toni Morrison said in an interview with the Guardian, 25 years ago. “Everybody else has to hyphenate.”

*

What happens when mythologies experience a rupture with the truth they are meant to complicate? And what if old mythologies are smuggled in plain sight into a world which is not just estranged from their origins, but inclined to borrow only the parts that suit the powerful? Are they still myths? What exactly are they? Let’s remember that the oldest myths and the muses told us terrible things. Think of Hesiod’s Theogony and the world it presented. A universe in which malice lived inside the heart like a squatter, a place where the flip side of possession’s coin was rape, a cosmology in which the inability of power to persuade is precisely what gives birth to its abuses. These are not comforting stories, they do not affirm. They simply did what the best myths do: they allowed us to commune through the years with the ongoing struggle to be our best selves.

In the last 75 years—with the advent of remote aerial warfare, television, the internet, sophisticated marketing and supersaturated visual culture—we have entered a new world, one in which myths have been eclipsed by persuasion disguised as myth. Many of the great American novelists of the 20th century were on to this—in part because they worked for the machines which produced the persuasion. William Gaddis, who won two National Book Awards for his novels about fraudulence and chaos in American life, was a public relations man for Kodak, IBM and the US Army. Around the same time, Thomas Pynchon was employed as a technical writer for Boeing, the company which built long-range rockets, the likes of which form the heart of his masterpiece, Gravitys Rainbow. Those vengeance weapons. Meanwhile, in New York City, Don DeLillo was a copywriter for the advertising giant Ogilvy and Mather, writing image ads for Sears Roebuck and other companies.

*

In America, myths which were once used to caution or challenge us are now disassembled and repurposed to soothe us—like the myths of American self-reliance in the western film. How else were North Americans to make sense of life on a land they’d stolen by genocide? How could they incorporate that inheritance into their sense of self, of country? Novelists like Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich and DeLillo worked hard to create a narrative out of this broken-ness, to allow Americans to dream in fiction through the ways the country has vandalized its own people. But these beautiful and powerful books were working against an even more powerful amnesiac culture.

And so a new form of myth was born—one built from the symbology of a story that dealt with truth, to tell a falsehood. Evidence of these degraded myths litter the mind’s landscape in America today, and filter out into the world where the West’s influence has reach—which is nearly everywhere. A cowboy smoking cowboy killers in Marlboro ads; an American president, telling the world he wants a terrorist, dead or alive; Levis selling Lonesome Road jeans with Jack Kerouac’s face; Remington selling its 870 Modular Combat shot gun with the slogan, “When Knock Knock Won’t Do.” ISIS selling itself as an adventure to the converted jihadis who go to fight in the Middle East. With each iteration of a degraded myth it mixes and combines others, dragging forward associations. The western frontier becomes the world; the world frontier needs taming. In ISIS’s case, the genre has been reversed.

If these degraded myths existed within a society with a stable sense of reality, their effect would be limited—their leveraging of what feels like emotional truth would be far more obvious and ineffective. But we don’t live in a stable reality and have not for some time. In the last 30 years, with the dawn of cable television and the internet, the near ubiquity of smart phones, even in less affluent societies, the technology by which these degraded myths travel has vast, intimate reach into the lives of millions. We are now exposed to upwards of 5,000 ads per day. If we sleep eight hours, that’s several hundred per hour, or around five per minute. Somewhere in this room, on your phone, whatever you are reading these words upon, you are being sold to.

And the interactive technology of social media has allowed companies and candidates to tailor their messages ever more finely toward the user. Each time you click on a page, after leaving Facebook, those breads crumbs are stored and itemized and later sold and when a candidate or a company wants to reach someone who likes Jon Bon Jovi or Sharon Olds or spends weekend birding, they can find you and speak directly to you. It is how Russians hacked the American election to help Donald Trump: they used Facebook’s ad tools.

Simultaneous to this growth in micro-targeting, there has been a vastly funded ongoing attack on inconvenient truths and the realms of our lives—science and journalism—that deal with them. Oil companies have spent billions on creating doubt about climate change. Right wing think tanks have spent billions sowing doubt about the “media.” Is it any wonder that one of the dominant feelings, in our era, is a constant, rolling sense of confusion? And Trump, ever the opportunist, has capitalized heavily on this state affairs: the number one phrase he tweeted out during 2017 to his 40 million followers? Not Hillary Clinton, not Make America Great Again. Not winning. It was fake news.

The phrase works because we still need coherence. We need some sort of container to express and give shape to our confusion. And so 2017 we watched a familiar cycle of transformation: with greater and greater speed, the powers which need to persuade to retain power have appealed to us with degraded myths we can recognize, repurposing them in a loop that appears and reappears with a frequency that feels—due to its ubiquity, familiarity, and emotive power—like truth, when in fact it is simply, like much of what we are confronted with on a day-to-day basis, a message, or even, a lie.

*

We have entered irreality in America. Pynchon, Gaddis and their descendants—David Foster Wallace, George Saunders and Zadie Smith—have been showing us what this world feels like: the way the speed of contemporary reality has worn thin the gauze overlaying a central truth of existence: Chaos. “Has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding?” one character says to a group in Gaddis’s 1975 novel, JR, which tells the tale of an 11-year-old boy who gets rich in the stock trade through a false identity. “Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from outside. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos. . . ”

In truth, we have been in an irreal state for some time, it has just finally caught up with most of us here in America, where the consequences of irreality have most often only been paid by the weak, the infirm, the poor, the neglected, the so-called marginal. How do you trust the authority, say, of a police officer when everyone you know has stories about police brutality—while meanwhile the culture tells you police officers are good, hardworking family men? How do you believe in the myth of American exceptionalism when you live in a country, like Egypt, recently, or Argentina in the 1970s, or Iraq, in the 1980s, strangled by an American agent?

In 2017, irrealism wasn’t just the form of reality experienced by those under threat, it became the dominant mode of power and its projections, with its showrunner being Donald Trump, the President. This is at once terrifying and familiar. We live, after all, in a world of infinite possibilities. We also live in a world in which we need to categorize and order reality. When seeds of doubt are sowed about our ability to acquire and synthesize accurate information, we are ever more dependent on irreal modes of constructing reality: that is, of creating it through a series of projections. And that is precisely how the incoming President of the United States plans to deal with and ascertain his own grip on reality.

From this point, I think it would be useful to shift to a mode of notes about irreality, to characterize it, because it depends so on a world in which everything can be characterized as something else.

1) Irreality moves fast. The loop at which an irreal world moves is faster than our ability to reassemble or investigate the claims of the previous reality. In this context, falsehoods acquire the dimensional feel of facts because they are often referred back to faster than we can determine their unreality. In essence, irreality is unreality piled upon unreality.

2) Irreality is mediated. It depends on media because we need media to assemble stories, to build narratives.

3) In an irreal world, we are all elements of media ourselves.

4) In irreality the supposition of a continuous reality or a reality that can be updated is broken. Even if we were able to update as fast as the loop moves, we would be at radical odds to the culture.

5) Irreality is a state of cultural psychosis.

6) Irreality benefits those in power who can dictate the predominant stories being told.

7) Paralysis and depression and recklessness and nihilism are elements of irreality. We are powerless to alter reality that moves this rapidly and against reason, so we do nothing, or begin to assume our actions do not have consequences, because reality is a fiction.

8) There’s a creeping sense of deja-vu in irreality because you’ve seen everything, when actually you have merely glimpsed its representation, which is in fact often an image filtered by the degraded myths of that object or story or person or image. The overwhelming response to this feeling is to possess the object, consume it—either with a photograph or a purchase—because rejecting the ringing bell of deja vu is to fall through the crack in coherence. So as Geoff Dyer points out in his book on photography, The Ongoing Moment, you see something and take a picture when in fact you are taking a picture of a picture you have seen before, not realizing you have made a copy of a copy of a copy.

9) An overwhelming feeling of irreality is loneliness.

10) We are alone because shared reality—or shared unreality—feels impossible.

11) In irreal states we deal with this feeling with hyper subjectivity. We strive for coherence of the self since—in a world of incoherence—the self is everything.

12) We become mediated projections of this notional coherent self.

13) We enact ourselves.

14) Even the most adamant attempts to break the loop can reinforce it. In this way, we wind up with poverty porn, war porn, famine porn. We are taught to look to produce an effect we wish to achieve again, rather than seeing what is there.

15) In language the effect of irreality takes the form of a cliche. Forms of and phrases of language so emptied of meaning they no longer signify anything.

16) Overstatement is a problem of irreal systems’ vernacular: amazing, hilarious, epic, awesome, insane, off the hook, crazy, crazy-awesome, crazy-hilarious, badass, bananas, rocking that (insert verb), the shit. A human thing.

17) Irrealist systems often present “realism” as real when it is really presenting willed a-historicism.

18) Consolidated power in irreal systems must constantly vandalize language, to maintain its degradation. So part of irrealism is a feeling of relentlessness assault on meaning.

19) Irreal systems often reward radically subjective projects. Most of us have nothing in common with a Norwegian novelist who writes a 3,000-page memoir and calls it a novel: but this is how it can feel to be alive in an irreal system. You are at the center of a torrential reality.

20) Irreality often feels like a conspiracy. The lack of coherence and its speed feels like an argument that someone, somewhere, must be in control.

21) Irreality produces forms of reality hunger—nostalgia for old modes. It presents nostalgia as fact when it is really an escape from the present. Witness the ride of the neo-19th century novel.

22) In irreality, systems which depended upon on an informed public—like elections or the stock market—are highjacked and turned against the people who are supposedly benefitting from them. Look, consolidated power can say, the market wants this.

22) A primary contraindication of irreality is mistrust.

23) Mistrust produces a hunger for one true source, which often presents itself in the form of an individual with a personality cult.

24) The weak pay for the cost of irreality with their bodies, since the end result of such systems is to concentrate the greatest power in the fewest hands—that includes power over the body that labors.

25) Irreality feels as endless as deep space—the pace of daily life achieves escape velocity again and again and so we leave orbit, never to return to firm ground, an agreed upon sense of reality.

26) The body becomes an ever more important node of experience in irreal systems—if you feel something, somewhere in your body, you know it to be real.

27) Crowds are one of most frightening things for systems dependent on irreality.

28) Social media is a crowd often distracted by the texture of irreality.

29) The spell of irreality can be broken in small groups of people, gathering in mourning.

The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The new issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.

John Freeman
John Freeman
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary biannual published by Grove, and author of How to Read a Novelistand Maps, a collection of poems.





More Story
Can Speculative Short Fiction
Really Work on TV?
We can really only handle our fictional dystopias in short-form; the world in 2018 is enough of a long-form dystopia for most...