Trumpism. What’s Normal Now?

I reprint this article because it discusses a perspective of our current politics that goes far beyond politics. Basically, what’s not normal is the anti-humanism of postmodern culture. The problem I see is that those complaining about our current political dysfunction are the same ones who have embraced postmodernism in all its forms, even if in dismay.

I think the Romans used to call this “bread and circuses,” but the masses have turned and taken over the Republic, which I suppose is their right.

America’s First Postmodern President

By Jeet Heer

The nature of reality is an open question in the age of Donald Trump. As the president regularly decries “the Fake News Media” and journalists catalogue his many lies, the battles of our time seem not just political but philosophical, indeed epistemological: What is real? How do we reach a consensus on the truth? These questions cut deeper than mere attempts to gauge the accuracy of Trump’s own words, or those of the White House staff. Trump’s ascension to leader of the free world still feels deeply strange, hence the common refrain that “this is not normal.” Trump himself sometimes seems seems surprised by his position. “I’m president!” he declared in a May ceremony celebrating the House passage of the American Health Care Act. “Hey, I’m president! Can you believe it?”

In an attempt to make sense of Trump’s vertiginous presidency, critics have made comparisons to contemporary autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or pillaged the history books for analogies ranging from Mussolini to Nixon. Others have looked at imagined futures, as Trump has fostered a vogue in dystopias such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. However illuminating these parallels might be, they ultimately fall short by failing to consider Trump in his immediate context. The president is best understood not as a figure who harkens back to the distant past, evokes other lands, or foreshadows the future, but one who is representative of this very moment in America, where media overload is destroying the sense of a shared public reality.

In examining Trump as a product of our unique epoch, one of the sharpest analytical tools available is the theory of postmodernism, developed in the 1970s and 1980s by a host of theorists—perhaps most famously by Fredric Jameson, the polymathic Duke University literary scholar. In a famous 1984 essay, later expanded into the book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson synthesized the work of scholars from many fields—philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, economist Ernest Mandel, architect Robert Venturi, filmmaker Guy Debord, sociologist Jean Baudrillard—in arguing that the triumph of economic globalism, which he dates to the early 1970s, inaugurated a new cultural era marked by the triumph of populist images over the strenuous elite art that had characterized modernism.

For Jameson, postmodernism meant the birth of “a society of the image or the simulacrum and a transformation of the ‘real’ into so many pseudoevents.” Befitting the “postliteracy of the late capitalist world,” the culture of postmodernism would be characterized by “a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense” where “depth is replaced by surface.” Postmodernism was especially visible in the field of architecture, where it manifested itself as a “populist” revolt “against the elite (and Utopian) austerities of the great architectural modernisms: It is generally affirmed, in other words, that these newer buildings are popular works, on the one hand, and that they respect the vernacular of the American city fabric, on the other; that is to say, they no longer attempt, as did the masterworks and monuments of high modernism, to insert a different, a distinct, an elevated, a new Utopian language into the tawdry and commercial sign system of the surrounding city, but rather they seek to speak that very language, using its lexicon and syntax as that has been emblematically ‘learned from Las Vegas.’”

That final phrase is a reference to Learning From Vegas, a 1972 book by Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour that critiqued “heroic” modern architecture and instead sought to “gain insight from the commonplace,” specifically by analyzing the Las Vegas Strip. Trump, as a real estate developer, was certainly willing to “learn from Las Vegas,” as he proved with his vulgar, now-shuttered Taj Mahal casino. But there’s a deeper symmetry between Trump and the account of postmodern society found in Jameson’s work (not just Postmodernism but subsequent volumes like The Seeds of Time and A Singular Modernity) and in the work of his fellow travelers, like Baudrillard and Debord. These writers describe a world where the visual has triumphed over the literary, where fragmented sound bites have replaced linear thinking, where nostalgia (“Make America Great Again”) has replaced historical consciousness or felt experiences of the past, where simulacra is indistinguishable from reality, where an aesthetic of pastiche and kitsch (Trump Tower) replaces modernism’s striving for purity and elitism, and where a shared plebeian culture of vulgarity papers over intensifying class disparities. In virtually every detail, Trump seems like the perfect manifestation of postmodernism.

For Baudrillard, “the perfect crime” was the murder of reality, which has been covered up with decoys (“virtual reality” and “reality shows”) that are mistaken for what has been destroyed. “Our culture of meaning is collapsing beneath our excess of meaning, the culture of reality collapsing beneath the excess of reality, the information culture collapsing beneath the excess of information—the sign and reality sharing a single shroud,” Baudrillard wrote in The Perfect Crime (1995). The Trump era is rich in such unreality. The president is not only a former reality-show star, but one whose fame is based more on performance than reality—on the idea that he’s a successful businessman. Although his real estate and gambling empire suffered massive losses in the early 1990s, and Trump’s “finances went into a tailspin,” he survived thanks to the superficial value of his brand, which he propped up though media manipulation.

In Baudrillard’s terms, Trump is a simulacra businessman, a copy of a reality that has no real existence. All sorts of simulacrum and decoy realities now flourish. Consider the popularity of conspiracy theories, evidence of a culture where it’s easy for fictional and semi-fictional narratives to spread like wildfire through social media. Trump loves spreading conspiracy theories about his enemies, and his enemies love spreading conspiracy theories about him. This propagation of fictions makes it difficult to build a convincing case against him. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow revealed Thursday that a supposedly classified document containing bombshells about Russia was sent anonymously to her show’s tipline. Her team eventually determined the document was fake. “Somebody out there is shopping carefully forged documents to try to discredit news agencies reporting on the Russian attack on our election,” she said, “and specifically on the possibility that the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russians in mounting that attack.”

Another recent example shows how easy it is to fall into a farrago of absurdity when reporting on Trump. Last weekend, the president tweeted a wrestling video showing him pummeling a man who had a CNN logo superimposed on his face. A Reddit user named HanAssholeSolo, who has a history of racist and anti-Semitic posts, took credit for the clip. CNN discovered the user’s true identity, but decided not to name him, though added, “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity.” This sentence gave the false impression of blackmail, and HanAssholeSolo suddenly became a free speech martyr to the right. As often happens in political battles of the Trump era, his supporters took a few random facts at the margins of the story and constructed an alternative reality, so that the story became not about the president’s endorsement of a threatening video created by a political extremist, but about a powerful news network harassing a private citizen. The entire spectacle shows we’re living in a Baudrillardian funhouse where the firm ground of reality has slipped away.

Postmodernism brings with it the erasure of older distinctions not just between reality and fiction, but between elite and popular culture. In his 1998 book The Origins of Postmodernity, the historian Perry Anderson called attention to the theme of plebeianization first developed by Jameson: the collapse of old bourgeois norms among the rich and powerful, even as class hierarchy remained strong (if not more entrenched than ever). “More widely, in the public sphere democratization of manners and disinhibition of mores advanced together,” Anderson argued, citing the antics of Princess Diana and President Bill Clinton. “For long, sociologists had debated the embourgeoisement of the working-class in the West—never a very happy term for the processes at issue. By the nineties, however, the more striking phenomenon was a general encanaillement”—or slumming—“of the possessing classes—as it were: starlet princesses and sleazeball presidents, beds for rent in the official residence and bribes for killer ads, disneyfication of protocols and tarantinization of practices, the avid corteges of the nocturnal underpass or the gubernatorial troop. In scenes like these lies much of the social backdrop of the postmodern.” Trump, the wealthy president who brags about grabbing women by the genitals and tweets out abuse of female journalists, embodies this “encanaillement of the possessing classes” even better than Diana or Clinton.

The virtue of theories of postmodernism, as developed by Jameson and his peers, is that they link cultural changes with deeper economic transformations. The waves that carried a ridiculous TV celebrity to the presidency are being propelled by a deeper current of globalization: the triumph of the unreality industries, the move of manufacturing jobs out of the developed world, and the proliferation of technologies that saturate us with media.

This analysis suggests that Trump is the product not just of a fluke election or a racist and sexist backlash, but the culmination of late capitalism [This goes far beyond who controls the means of production. Commercialism? Trump is a commercial brander]. This has profound implications for how we see Trump—and how we oppose him. We have to focus less on Trump’s personal flaws and more on the world that has enabled him. His habitual prevarications aren’t simply the result of his defective character, but an effective tactic. In a world where commerce and media (including social media) reward performance above truth telling, it’s not surprising that a figure like Trump rises to the top. Any moralistic condemnation of Trump is incomplete without acknowledging the institutions (notably the media) that both created him and allowed him to thrive.

The danger of a sweeping theory like postmodernism is that it can produce despair. After all, fighting something so pervasive as “late capitalism” is much harder than winning elections. For the Trump resistance, seeing him as a postmodern president opens up the dilemma that the best way to fight him in the short term might be to borrow some of his tactics. (It’s no surprise that another savvy performer-politician, Senator Al Franken, has emerged as a major resistance leader.) The danger is that by imitating Trump, we’ll only create a world where future Trumps will emerge.

But there’s a different way to look at Trump as a postmodern president. Paradoxically, even as Trump exploits today’s media, his politics of nostalgia show that his own followers want to escape the postmodern world [I’d say they want to preserve, not escape]. Trump’s appeal is based on his promise to return to an earlier, simpler era, where jobs were rooted in physical activity (manufacturing, coal mining) and the economy was governed by the imperatives of nationalist solidarity (“America First”) and not globalization. There is a genuinely utopian dimension to Trumpism, suggesting a widespread desire to reverse late capitalism. So the logical response to Trumpism is to counter him with someone who can truly challenge the economic status quo, rather than being a mere avatar for such hopes. [Good luck with that, since the intellectual class is mired in an obsolete political-economic paradigm of 20th century class conflict and laborism. The solution they’ve come up with? Cheap credit fueled by the promises of a fiat money governing regime.]

Michael Ramirez / Daily Signal

Michael Ramirez / Daily Signal

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A Game of Political Chicken

crash_test_z

A good quote from former Sec. of State James Baker III:

Presidents always negotiate in order to get an increase in the debt limit—its their job. “It’s a failure of leadership to say, ‘I’m just gonna sit here while the government remains closed,’ or, with respect to the debt limit, ‘I’ll sit here and not negotiate and the catastrophic consequences I warned you of will just have to happen.’ . . . He has the burden of moving forward. He’s the leader of the country. He has to get the debt limit raised to avoid default.”

Yet the GOP too bears responsibility for the impasse. “I don’t think it was a very wise strategy for we Republicans to say we would not fund the government unless we defunded ObamaCare. I don’t think that’s a smart political strategy, and I think we’ll pay a price for it. . . . If you’re gonna make your stand, make your stand on something you can accomplish.”

Criminal Intent

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From the WSJ:

How Congress Puts Itself Above the Law

The only way to finally end the sorry tradition of congressional exemptions is with a 28th Amendment.

By GERALD D. SKONING

For years, some have argued that we need a 28th Amendment to the Constitution providing that all members of Congress have to comply with all laws that other citizens have to obey. “Congress shall make no law,” the amendment might read, “that applies to the citizens of the United States that does not apply equally to the senators and/or representatives; and, Congress shall make no law that applies to the senators and/or representatives that does not apply equally to the citizens of the United States.”

Others apparently have faith in the high moral character of their elected officials and argue that we shouldn’t have to enact a constitutional amendment to make sure Congress follows the same laws all Americans do.

Yet history shows that is definitely not the case. Over the decades, Congress has passed innumerable statutes that regulate every aspect of life in the American workplace, then quickly exempted themselves.

In 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act established the minimum wage, the 40-hour workweek, and time and a half for overtime, Congress exempted itself from coverage of the law. As a result, for decades congressional employees were left without the protections afforded the rest of Americans working in private industry.

In 1964, with great fanfare, President Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act, including Title VII, which for the first time protected all Americans from employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. But the law exempted Congress from its coverage, so thousands of staffers and other employees on the Hill were left with no equal-opportunity protection. Staffers could be discriminated against or sexually harassed with legal impunity.

Some will remember Bob Packwood, the former senator from Oregon who resigned his seat in 1995 under threat of expulsion for alleged serial harassment of female staffers and lobbyists. The women who alleged they had been repeatedly victimized by the senator had no legal recourse under federal law. Had Mr. Packwood been a corporate executive instead of a lawmaker, he likely would have been sued for millions.

The same blanket congressional exemption found in Title VII was contained in a total of 10 other federal statutes regulating the American workplace, including protections from age and disability discrimination, occupational safety and health rules, family and medical leave, and many other issues that Congress felt important enough to impose on American industry. These federal laws apply to all civilian employees in the U.S., except those working on the Hill.

Critics advanced the rather sensible and straightforward proposition that U.S. lawmakers should live by the same laws they impose on private employers and state and local elected officials.

Nonetheless, when the comprehensive reform of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 was passed, efforts to eliminate the exemption failed. The immunity of members of Congress from lawsuits for compensatory and punitive damages in cases of employment discrimination continued.

Instead, the federal lawmakers enacted a toothless, self-policing system whereby Congress investigated and enforced its own compliance with civil-rights laws.

Given the choice, private employers no doubt would welcome the opportunity to police themselves on matters of equal-employment opportunity. Who wouldn’t prefer self-regulation over dealing with government enforcement agencies and federal court juries considering punitive damages? However, unlike the Congress, private employers don’t have the option of self-regulation.

Pressure on Congress mounted and finally, in 1995, with Republicans in control of the House and Senate, the Congressional Accountability Act was passed, eliminating the congressional exemption for all workplace laws and regulations. Some thought passage of the law marked the end of congressional exceptionalism through exemption. They were mistaken.

Insider trading (the buying and selling of stocks based on insider information not available to the general public) has been a violation of federal securities laws for almost 80 years. Yet it was never illegal for members of Congress. Not, that is, until a November 2011 report by CBS’s “60 Minutes” shamed Congress into changing the law to prohibit members of Congress and their staffs from trading on inside information. The report was largely based on research conducted by the Hoover Institution’s Peter Schweizer for his book, “Throw Them All Out,” published that same month. Speaking about the legislators capitalizing on their positions, Mr. Schweizer told Steve Kroft on the program: “This is a venture opportunity. This is an opportunity to leverage your position in public service and use that position to enrich yourself, your friends and your family.”

Six months after the “60 Minutes” segment with Mr. Schweizer aired, Congress passed and the president signed the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act of 2012, which bans insider trading by lawmakers and their staffs. But just last week, while voters were focused on emotional issues such as immigration and gun control, House and Senate members voted to repeal a key provision of the so-called Stock Act—the one that required online posting of their financial transactions.

It’s not yet clear whether the president will sign the repeal, but it shouldn’t be necessary to take a piecemeal approach to rolling back congressional exemptions, ending them—as with the ones for workplace rules and insider trading—only when they become embarrassing. Nor will blocking exemptions here and there prevent members of Congress, particularly those who serve numerous terms, from developing a sense of privilege that makes them think they’re above the law.

America shouldn’t need to amend the Constitution to ensure that elected leaders comply with the laws of the land. But given the sorry history of congressional leadership by exemption rather than by example, a 28th Amendment doing precisely that makes sense.

The Games Politicians Play

shell-game

In case you were wondering about what our government is doing in Washington, this from Ron Fournier of the National Journal:

 

Obama’s sudden burst of public outreach coincides with a drop in his approval ratings, noted first by Democratic pollsters advising the White House last week and now surfacing in a spate of public polls. This raises the uncomfortable question: Is this schmooze-a-thon a legitimate act of humility and leadership or a cynical public display?

I can’t answer that question because I don’t pretend to know Obama’s state of mind. I can tell you that some of his advisers are no more convinced that this strategy will work than they were a few days ago.

“This is a joke. We’re wasting the president’s time and ours,” complained a senior White House official who was promised anonymity so he could speak frankly. “I hope you all (in the media) are happy because we’re doing it for you.”