Power Made Flesh

Ideology made manifest. Las Vegas, 2009.

The furore over Mr. Trump’s recent visit to Europe has mostly dissipated now. His return to the United States has been accompanied by yet another round of angry and unbalanced tweets excoriating his enemies and wondering aloud for the umpteenth time why it was that the FBI hadn’t seen fit to carry off the DNC’s servers.

But perhaps it is worth our collective time to devote some thought to Mr. Trump’s bogus journey to France.

Although its ostensible purpose was to memorialise the end of World War I, the events of the week just past have rather more to teach us about the present. Specifically, the president’s visit was a clear illustration of the degree to which the society of the spectacle has been colonised by the politics of the ludicrous.

Before proceeding to actual events (and presuming here that such actuality can be ascertained and continues to matter) some discussion of the conceptual framework that frames these remarks will be apposite.

The society of the spectacle, as most readers will know, is a reference to Guy Debord’s Marxisant analysis of modern society. The spectacle, as Debord wrote, “is the stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonising social life”. The mediation of social relations by images creates a situation in which politics becomes a series of competing productions as opposed to the rational consideration of ideas.

The spectacularisation of politics is not new. It is the culmination of a process the roots of which are at least as old as the bourgeois public sphere which it colonised. This process was accelerated and intensified by the rise of electronic mass media technologies in the course of the 20th century, as radio and television vastly augmented the capacity of men to project images across time and space.

Still, even in the context of the spectacular structure, politics in the last half-century have retained many of the contours of the bourgeois public sphere. But the colonisation of the bourgeois public sphere has opened up a space for the substitution of a bizarro version of the older form of politics.

The prominence of clownish personages such as Ted Cruz, Dana Rohrbacher, Boris Johnson, and Nigel Farage is evidence of this process. Mr. Trump’s innovation on this has been to take the fundamentally ludicrous dimension of these other figures and turn it into the operative principle of politics.

The politics of the ludicrous cannot be simply reduced to the assertion of the patently ridiculous. From “separate but equal is a thing” to “in legitimate rape women’s bodies can shut that whole thing down,” American political discourse has often been subjected to assertions that are not merely false, but which actually beggar belief.

The politics of the ludicrous comprises two added features. One is the compulsion of others beyond the individual claimant to participate actively in the ritual. Thus, for instance, the president’s insistence not only on the historical dimensions of the crowd at his inauguration, but also the compulsion of others (Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, etc., etc.) to keep repeating demonstrably false statements in public. A central tenet of the politics of the ludicrous is that one never, ever, backs down.

It should be noted that even a willingness to participate doesn’t absolve one from the requirement of self-abnegation before the emperor of white male fragility. Theresa May learned this lesson when she called up to congratulate Mr. Trump on the results of the midterm elections. This should have been a pretty straightforward exercise in sucking up.

On the previous Tuesday, the Democratic Party had been handing out (what amounted in electoral terms to) ass-whippings and bubblegum, and they had pretty much run out of bubblegum by about 6:30 Pacific Standard Time. By the time the polls closed, even the dogs in the street knew that Mr. Trump’s party had been taken behind the woodshed.

May’s goal was to cement her position in Mr. Trump’s affections by complimenting the emperor on the quality of his new clothes. Instead, Mrs. May was treated to a wide-ranging tongue lashing on topics ranging from her failure to negotiate a Brexit treaty to her failure to antagonise Iran with sufficient vigour.

In any case, the presidential dictum of “not one step backwards” relates to the second, more fundamental element of the politics of the ludicrous. Whether something is true or false is not the issue, at least in and of itself. The point of the exercise is the performative moment of assertion and its capacity to corrode robust public discourse.

To be clear, the power of robust public discourse was never quite what Habermas and his fellow philosophers of engagement made it. Liberal democracies are, and always have been, shot through with relations of power and domination. Yet this is not the same thing as saying that rational-critical discourse is merely the trappings of false consciousness. The power of reasoned public argument was one avenue of political action. One could argue about its actual capacity to effect substantive political change, but its status as the political coin of the realm was one of the mechanisms that kept liberal democracy systemically coherent.

The rise of overt and unapologetic mendacity risks a slide into something else. If it is clear that there are other modes of political organisation that would be superior to liberal democracy in terms of their capacity to produce just social outcomes, the reduction of politics to the production and reproduction of obvious and simplistic falsehoods raises the spectre of quite a different outcome.

The 20th century is littered with examples the consequences of such truth-abusive politics, and their connection with barbarism and piles of bodies is well-established. The politics of the ludicrous is not comparable to Hitlerism or Stalinism in their well-established propensities for systematic and unapologetic mass killing. The politics of the ludicrous contribute materially to the erosion of the capacities of human society to avoid these outcomes.

And so we turn again, not exactly from the sublime, but definitely in the direction of the ridiculous. Mr. Trump, whose avowed patriotism has been made a central prop of his regime and extends to a slightly bizarre physical affection for the American flag, might have been expected to relish the chance to say a few appropriate words beside the graves of Americans who fell at Belleau Wood a century ago.

It was an event almost without pitfalls since the vast majority of Americans haven’t the slightest idea what went on in the First World War, other than a firmly held conviction that we were the authors of Allied victory. But Mr. Trump was deterred by bad weather. Given the parlous state of his hair, who can blame him? Dana Milbank, the redoubtable columnist for the Washington Post described matters thus:

“Consider the international disgrace the United States would have suffered if his hair were to have become matted by rain without adequate measures to protect it. Or if wind gusts had whipped his mane into an orange tornado swirling above a sparse white scalp. A soaking could have been calamitous. (This explains why he sent his bald chief of staff, John F. Kelly, in his place.) Trump, therefore, absorbed the losses at Belleau Wood and on the Champs-Elysees to prevail later, at Suresnes American Cemetery, after receiving hairspray reinforcements.”

Much as this is phrased in satirical terms, what underlies it is the fact that Mr. Trump besmirched the national honour (such as it is), devalued military service, and further denigrated the relationship between the United States and its closest and most important allies because of concerns about the effects that the weather might wreak on his coiffure.

While the denizens of the liberal commentariat have been clutching their pearls and wringing their hands for two years about the disastrous quality of the Trump presidency, one feels that they have not managed to plumb the true depths to which we have descended. The truly terrifying feature is not so much that Mr. Trump is dictating policy, but that his hair is.

The desire to spare powerful men (and presidents not least among them) the thousand natural shocks to which human flesh is heir is not new. This is particularly true when it comes to those stemming from libidinal excesses.

Liberals might well consider the matter of how their willingness to condone Mr. Clinton’s sexual assault (let us give it its proper name) of Monica Lewinsky contributed to a diminution of the overall dignity of the office. But Mr. Trump has taken this, converted it into a vehicle for his white male fragility, and fired it into the troposphere.

Often, but not always, the unfortunate qualities of public men are counterbalanced by some capacity for statesmanship or technical knowledge relevant to the conduct of affair. In the case of Mr. Trump it is as if a thirteen-year-old boy, fresh from daubing his face with Clearasil, has been given the most powerful office in the land, and perhaps the world.

The truly odd thing about the manner in which Mr. Trump confronts his personal insecurities is that he does so in such a lowball manner. Given the amount of capital to which he apparently has access, there is probably no cure for paunch, parlour, or male pattern baldness beyond the reach of his means. Yet he insists on promulgating the fallacy that his hair is non-ridiculous, or that his skin is a colour that can be the result of natural processes, or that the cut of his suits is not rather more appropriate to Ronald McDonald than to a person in serious public life.

This may all seem like a mass of trivia, but these are the small clues in which the larger truth can be seen. The willingness to assert, and to insist that others assert, obviously debunkable untruths is a dangerous political phenomenon. These sartorial matters are unimportant in themselves, but they are of a piece with Mr. Trump’s assertions that Putin’s Russia is our friend, or that the group of ragged refugees limping toward the southern border are an invading army powered up by ISIS, or that there are fine people numbered among violent white nationalist mobs, or that millions of illegal aliens have been mobilised to take time from sucking US entitlement programs dry to vote for Hilary Rodham Clinton.

This, then, is the politics of the ludicrous in outline. While it provides the fodder for endless dank memes and late-night monologues, it gnaws at the entrails of the republic. The institutions of liberal democracy are fundamentally and systematically flawed and certainly in need of change. But their disintegration through unapologetic prevarication risks a slide into some worse condition.

In a state with the capacities for surveillance and control to which the major liberal democracies have access, the risks of an Orwellian outcome which manifest the failings of liberal democracy must pale. As has so often been the case in the era of the society of the spectacle, the devil is very much in the details. 

Photograph courtesy of Håkan Dahlström. Published under a Creative Commons license.