In today’s political landscape, where news about many of the world’s political leaders continue to shock us senseless, reality simultaneously seems surreal and all too obvious. Donald Trump’s regime appropriates political phenomena like a powered Pac-Man munching fruit, turning meaning into nonsense in the blink of an eye. Living through a Trump presidency feels like walking through a bad dream. But for some, it’s a dream come true. This divided perception of Trump and his rhetoric has caused a culture war waged by millions of memes. For many, making sense of the situation seems to be a matter of how one fills in the phrase: make ___________ great again.
Sunday, 4 March 2018 was the 100th day of Donald J. Trump’s presidency that he spent at a golf club. Exactly 25 percent of his time as the 45th President of the United States of America so far. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Facts like these are both shocking and totally believable at the same time when an idiot like Trump is the Commander-in-Chief.
In the wake of the devastating school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, when 17 high-school students fell to the wrath of an ex-student’s AR-15, Trump received waves of criticism for his ludicrous ideas on fixing America’s gun problem, mostly his suggestion that teachers arm themselves. Even with video foot-age showing the only armed police officer on the school grounds cowering behind a cement wall during the shooting, Trump continued to repeat the pre-manufactured message of the National Rifle Association: the only solution to school shootings is to “harden our schools”.
In a farce of government action, the White House invited students, parents and teachers affected by school shootings to share their stories and offer solutions to America’s gun problem. The whole affair seemed like an awkward brainstorming session in which the elephant in the room — the obvious solution of increased gun control — was entirely ignored by Trump. His handwritten prompts for the occasion included just five unbelievable items, including an incredulous reminder to tell the survivors, “I hear you”.
What many people don’t understand, or don’t want to understand, is that Wayne, Chris and the folks who work so hard at the @NRA are Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our Country and will do the right thing. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 22, 2018
Since he’s clearly in the pocket of the NRA, one would think that a political puppet like Trump could get a speech writer to handle his notecards for him but Trump — a reptile who can’t shed a single crocodile tear — is a special case. An enigma, really, unless you consider that Trump’s rationale on just about any sub-ject sounds like an entitled 13-year-old rich kid bully bullshitting his way through a class presentation on a book he forgot to read. It’s the epitome of thought in our post-truth world; a world where political actors and the voters who elect them rely on their intuitions rather than facts to construct a picture of reality.
While some feel that Trump must have some sort of political prowess — he is POTUS, after all! — there’s no clear sign of any Machiavellian political genius in him. Is he just that much of a lucky bastard? A rich, greedy American man who was determined to be the world’s most powerful person and, in a crazy turn of events, actually pulled it off? Or is there more at play? Delegitimising the press, tweeting gibberish to distract from deeper political scandals, setting international diplomacy on fire while he divests his citizens of their hard-won rights — these are straight from the despot’s playbook. So is he inadequate or does all this nonsense add up to something?
A glance at the interviews he’s given over the decades reveals his longtime fantasy of becoming president. Doing a lot more than day-dreaming, he’s made donations to both Republican and Democratic politicians throughout the years and routinely flirted with the idea of running for president — he even functioned as a spoiler candidate in the 2000 presidential election for the out-sider Reform Party. Credit for much of Trump’s success goes to Roger Stone, a true Machiavellian political player and advisor to both Richard Nixon and Trump. But it still seems like his success is an anomaly — right?
The whole world waking up to the nightmare that is a Trump presidency has ushered in a zeitgeist of disbelief not only about the political process of Western liberal democracies but also reality itself. A sort of Cartesian dream scepticism where we doubt if we only dreamed that we woke up. It seems our scepticism about the authenticity of Trump’s presidency is a product of witnessing Trump’s scepticism about the most serious, life-threatening issues, like climate change, nuclear warfare, hurricane relief and gun control.
As the brute reality of Trump’s all-too-real power causes perfectly healthy people to question their connection to reality, an increasing number of clinical psychologists across America continue to question Trump’s mental health. His behaviour is a clear case of narcissistic personality disorder. His cringe-worthy name calling sounds like a little boy’s: “Rocket Man” for Kim Jong-Un, “Killary” for Hillary Clinton, “Mr. Magoo” for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Mr. Magoo?!
Trump and his regime’s constant creation of oxymorons, which challenge meaningful language itself, is cause for a collective sigh: “alternative facts”, “a small million dollar loan”, “I have the best words”, “we’ve fulfilled far more promises than we’ve promised”. Even Trump’s own Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had to admit he was a “fucking moron”.
Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me "old," when I would NEVER call him "short and fat?" Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2017
Trump’s mind-melting political commentary is endless fuel for late night television fodder and massively shareable social media memes. Yet even with his nonsense rhetoric — not to mention the countless scandals — he somehow still has a hefty base of loyal voters and numerous allies in the Republican Party. Why? Because, while his rhetoric is interpreted as absolute nonsense by some, it’s hailed as “the answer to our problems” by others, revealing the efficacy of coded language harnessed by many politicians, most significantly American presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Nixon’s “Law and Order” agenda and racist “tough on crime” rhetoric generated false narratives about crime waves and perpetuated negative stereotypes of Blacks and Hispanics as peoples prone to criminality. Trump appropriated the same agenda and rhetoric for his campaign to delegitimatise the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement and validate the racist All Lives Matter response. In doing so, he gained support among police officers and the millions of white Americans who are apparently incapable of following the simple logic that the statements “black lives matter” and “all lives matter” are not mutually exclusive.
Of course, Trump thinks he came up with his campaign slogan “Make America great again!”, but it is, in fact, a rip-off of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again”. Crazy how simply dropping the “Let’s” and capitalising every word transformed Reagan’s rather positive sounding, community-oriented call to action into an absolute authoritarian injunction. However, for Reagan and a majority of white Americans the statement made reference to a delusional belief in the peace and stability of the country before the Civil Rights Movement and race riots of the 1960s. For Trump and his supporters today, “M.A.G.A!” assumes fresh connotations which question the legitimacy and historical importance of the Obama administration.
Before Trump magically teleported to the very top of political power with his virulent hate speech, he was a mere B-level pop culture icon, known for playing a caricature of himself in random cameos like Home Alone 2. His greatest claim to fame used to be as the big boss man who says, “You’re fired!” on The Apprentice. “Trump” used to be a popular trope for success and big riches in dozens of gangsta rap lyrics by the likes of Nas and Raekwon. Mac Miller’s 2011 bro-rap song “Donald Trump” idolised his billionaire status, too — a song which, funnily enough, Trump initially praised until it started making money on You-Tube and Trump demanded royalties from Miller on Twitter.
Trump embodied the American Dream in its most extreme. And for his supporters, he still does. However, his current megalithic monstrosity is motivating his critics to push a different narrative about his true identity in the public sphere. Some are taking great pains to present just how grotesque and vile he truly is while others express their disgust with a simple yet effective “fuck you”. For many creative minds, making any sense of this post-truth world seems to boil down to how hard one can embrace the dark side of reality and rage against the machine. After all his hate speech, Trump is no longer an idol in hip-hop but it’s most targeted figure. YG’s “Fuck Donald Trump” had all of Compton bashing his existence and became a popular protest rap. And who can forget Eminem’s furious freestyle “The Storm” from the 2017 BET awards?
Arguably, the most adept in the art of sending off a giant fuck you! to the patriarchal order is feminist punk band Pussy Riot, famous for playing an impromptu punk show in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. They released “Make America Great Again” just prior to Trump’s election, featuring lead singer Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who spent two years in prison for her participation in the Cathedral protest, being abused by white cops. The video blends dark comedy and horror in its depiction of a sick, fascist Trump regime.
In the fashion world many designers have taken aim at Trump as a symbol of sexism, feeling compelled to bring politics onto the runway with an explicitness the industry generally avoids. After Trump’s election, fashion designers such as Sophie Theallet — a favourite of Michelle Obama’s — refused to dress Melania Trump; other industry giants like Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford quickly followed suit. Pissed off with Trump’s remarks about Mexicans, designer Raul Solis jumped on the fuck-you-Trump-train and sent models with “Fuck Your Wall” and “No Ban, No Wall!” stitched into their underwear in his AW 17 show. Recent Central Saint Martins graduate Edwin Mohney’s mission statement for his work at this year’s London Fashion Week was to “make fashion great again”. Mohney’s “Trumpettos”, high heels with grotesque Trump masks covering them, referenced the ugly nature of Trump and the fashion industry at the same time.
A naive critique of right-wing ideology might argue that it lacks a fundamental appreciation for aesthetics—citing, for example, Trump’s thoughtless graphic design in anything with his name on it. But, believe it not, alt-right trolls make art, too. Trump inspires almost as much propaganda praising him as he does political art damning him. His alt-right fans, who were banned from the crowd-sourcing service Patreon, have moved to Hatreon, where sponsors make monthly donations to identitarian EDM producers who crank out “fashwave”. For some, Brexit hack Nigel Farage’s voice sounds like nails on a chalkboard but for alt-right musicians living in a bizarro world, it’s the perfect complement to an 80s inspired synthwave track.
The grim reality of our post-truth world is that engaging in dialogue with the Trump regime and his supporters is a whole nightmare in and of itself. Families across America have literally stopped talking to each other owing to their inability to accept one another’s different points of view. Trump’s nonsense has pushed language to its limits, so much so that we’ve reached a communicative impasse. It’s a nightmare whose orchestration is in large part due to Russian fake news accounts — another terrifyingly complex geopolitical phenomenon too big for most to fully make sense of right now.
That’s why today, when the delineation between art, propaganda, political protest and entertainment are all too blurry, a sharp, unwavering focus on community goals and organisation is necessary for grasping any sense of reality. The backlash has to be active: it has to try to make sense of it all. The success of the #MeToo movement is owed to thousands of women’s voices, speaking together, speaking coherently and speaking up to allay the illogical and absurd sexist assumptions and systems that have too long plagued Hollywood and most of America’s industries besides — not to mention the White House itself.
But the horrific reality seems to be, at least for now, that Trump is too big to fall, even with all the incisive narratives that speak out against him. His adoption of “fake news” as a term for virtually all media that criticises him has turned his base into blind sheep who refuse to engage in any kind of fact-checking, much less soul-searching. We can only wonder what type of evidence would possibly make his allies question his character. New AI technology like deepfakes forces even more difficult questions: how will we construct an account of events when the entire medium of video can no longer be used as a valid record of who did what? This is a natural development for our non-sensical dystopia.
Popular philosopher and inadvertent YouTube guru Slavoj Žižek suggests that times of authoritarian rule are best spent huddled away in the library reading long, difficult books. He argues that we should embrace our hopelessness and let a profound pessimism guide our way toward a new reality previously un-imaginable within the blinding, artificial light of optimism.
One last harsh realty might help in making some sense of our situation: Trump, and all his nonsensical propaganda, is not in fact an anomaly. Trump is not a special case, an error or fluke that America’s political system somehow let slip though. He’s the product of a system that has efficiently produced dozens of other awful presidents like him before; a system that we keep referring to as “Western liberal democracy”. A system which clearly needs to be reconsidered for progress to make sense.
Art LISA ANNE AUERBACH
Taken from INDIE NO 58, THE NONSENSE ISSUE – get your copy here.