Trump’s appeal relies on performance, branding and a world of mindless entertainment
Like many, I find myself observing the American election unfold with a mix of fascination and horror, as though witness to a slow-motion political train wreck that will have dire consequences not only for those on the train, but for everyone everywhere.
One of the main casualties will almost certainly be free and open markets, if not individual freedom across the board. Trade wars, closed borders, increased tariffs and taxes. Trump and Clinton seem to be competing on the issue of how much freedom and prosperity they can promise to eradicate in order to buy votes.
There are many explanations for how politicians have become such caricatures, and how public policy discussion has become so stylized and debased. One of the most compelling explanations for the sad descent into mindless populism is that politics now emulates the arts. Or, more specifically, politics has become entertainment.
One classical theory of imaginative creation is that the arts "mirror" (or seek to mirror) reality. A piece of art was considered worthy to the extent it accurately represented what we see around us. Hence, Michelangelo is praised for his David (1504) and Vermeer is justly admired for The Geographer (1669) because these works capture some essential element of what we see in the real world. During the eighteenth century, Romantic theories argued that art was, or should be, "expressive" (like Monet's Water Lilies) rather than mimetic. M.H. Abrams' superb study, The Mirror and the Lamp (1957) explores the evolution of these ideas from philosophical and aesthetic perspectives.
But with characteristic originality, Oscar Wilde went still further and argued that art does not mirror reality—no, reality mirrors art! He argued that we read stories, observe paintings, admire stage plays, and, over time, change our behaviour to emulate these new and stylized things.
All this brings me back to our train wreck, and in particular, the phenomenon of Donald Trump rising to such political popularity. People on all points of the political spectrum are incredulous. But the key lies in Wilde's formulation: Trump (and, in reality, most politicians today) are entertainers. They do not deal in ideas or rational policy decisions based on evidence or analysis. Like entertainers, they deal in performance and branding. The specialty of the entertainer is to elicit emotion, exploit prejudices, appeal to base interests and seduce viewers into watching more.
As Neil Postman observed 30 years ago in his prophetic study, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), we live in a world most threatened by superficial, discontinuous, disconnected and decontextualized information. Postman was an astute critic of contemporary American culture, and particularly concerned about the way that modern information technology—particularly the television—is changing the way we think, talk and behave. While Postman was not necessarily friendly to free markets and capitalism (economics was not his core strength), he was a champion of individual autonomy and the personal liberty that arises from independent critical thought. Postman's work is of particular importance now as his work explored the way entertainment has crept into every aspect of contemporary communication, and has debased serious conversation about culture, art and politics.
The fears of Orwell's totalitarian state have not come to pass in the West, argued Postman, but Huxley's world in which we are enslaved to mindless entertainment has.
Postman was writing before the Internet, before reality television, before smartphones and social media. But his knowledge of how technology changes behaviour, and how high-speed information technology, in particular, changes the way we think and communicate, would have prepared him for Trump. Postman knew that the borders between art, entertainment and serious matters dissolve in unsettling and dangerous ways in the world of popular high-speed communication, and Trump was merely the logical conclusion of a mode of discourse set in motion many years ago.
In these weeks before the American election, it will be both fascinating and chilling to see, amid all of the oversimplification and sensationalization of intellectual debate, how much liberty is sacrificed on the altar of politics and entertainment.