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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The Presumptuousness of Urban Blue America

I had to post this article because it is just too much on the money. There is an historical equilibrium between rural, suburban, and urban life-style preferences in this country – there is no long-term trend in either direction. Our politics mostly reflect that – not the red-blue, sub-cultural civil war nonsense propagated by most of the media.

But for me the truly amusing irony of the self-righteousness of urban blue liberalism is that it turns traditional Marxism on its head. Urban sophisticates who empathize with Bernie/Warren-style socialism now claim that the rural periphery is exploiting the good will of the urban core. “We create all the wealth! We attract all the educated elites! We work and subsidize the ignorant bumpkins!”

This is the exact opposite of how Marx and the neo-Marxists claimed that the capitalist core was exploiting the workers and consumers who lived on the periphery of the capitalist market economy. Today’s neo-Marxist liberal urban sophisticates now claim the opposite to justify their deserved political dominance. Certainly one can see that their presumptuousness is akin to blaming the European colonies for the burdens of their European colonists! Workers of the World, Unite! Well, they have and voted for Trump. Rich.
Now what?

Of course, Marx and the new unwitting anti-Marxists are both half right and half wrong. Periphery and core are co-dependent in a free market economy: imagine Silicon Valley without its Internet users across the 50 states. What is necessary is that the market be free, open, and competitive so that coercive power does NOT determine distributive outcomes. Because humans are power-hungry, that, admittedly, is a persistent challenge.

Outside the Bubble

The Arrogance of Blue America

If you want to see the worst impacts of blue policies, go to those red regions—like upstate New York or inland California—in states they control.

Joel Kotkin

04.29.17 10:00 PM ET

In the wake of the Trumpocalypse, many in the deepest blue cores have turned on those parts of America that supported the president’s election, developing oikophobia—an irrational fear of their fellow citizens.

The rage against red America is so strong that The New York Time’s predictably progressive Nick Kristoff says his calls to understand red voters were “my most unpopular idea.” The essential logic—as laid out in a particularly acerbic piece in The New Republic—is that Trump’s America is not only socially deplorable, but economically moronic as well. The kind-hearted blue staters have sent their industries to the abodes of the unwashed, and taken in their poor, only to see them end up “more bitter, white, and alt-right than ever.”

The red states, by electing Trump, seem to have lost any claim on usually wide-ranging progressive empathy. Frank Rich, theater critic turned pundit, turns up his nose at what he calls “hillbilly chic.” Another leftist author suggests that working-class support for Brexit and Trump means it is time “to dissolve” the “more than 150-year-old alliance between the industrial working class and what one might call the intellectual-cultural Left.”

The fondest hope among the blue bourgeoise lies with the demographic eclipse of their red-state foes. Some clearly hope that the less-educated “dying white America,“ already suffering shorter lifespans, in part due to alcoholism and opioid abuse, is destined to fade from the scene. Then the blue lords can take over a country with which they can identify without embarrassment.

Marie Antoinette Economics

In seeking to tame their political inferiors, the blue bourgeoisie are closer to the Marie Antoinette school of political economy than any traditional notion of progressivism. They might seek to give the unwashed red masses “cake” in the form of free health care and welfare, but they don’t offer more than a future status as serfs of the cognitive aristocracy. The blue bourgeoisie, notes urban analyst Aaron Renn, are primary beneficiaries of “the decoupling of success in America.” In blue America, he notes, the top tiers “no longer need the overall prosperity of the country to personally do well. They can become enriched as a small, albeit sizable, minority.”

Some on the left recognize the hypocrisy of progressives’ abandoning the toiling masses. “Blue state secession is no better an idea than Confederate secession was,” observes one progressive journalist. “The Confederates wanted to draw themselves into a cocoon so they could enslave and exploit people. The blue state secessionists want to draw themselves into a cocoon so they can ignore the exploited people of America.”

Ironically, many of the most exploited people reside in blue states and cities. Both segregation and impoverishment has worsened during the decades-long urban “comeback,” as even longtime urban enthusiast Richard Florida now notes. Chicago, with its soaring crime rates and middle class out-migration, amidst a wave of elite corporate relocations, epitomizes the increasingly unequal tenor of blue societies.

In contrast the most egalitarian places, like Utah, tend to be largely Trump-friendly. Among the 10 states (and D.C.) with the most income inequality, seven supported Clinton in 2016, while seven of the 10 most equal states supported Trump.

If you want to see worst impacts of blue policies, go to those red regions—like upstate New York—controlled by the blue bourgeoise. Backwaters like these tend to be treated at best as a recreational colony that otherwise can depopulate, deindustrialize, and in general fall apart. In California, much of the poorer interior is being left to rot by policies imposed by a Bay Area regime hostile to suburban development, industrial growth, and large scale agriculture. Policies that boost energy prices 50 percent above neighboring states are more deeply felt in regions that compete with Texas or Arizona and are also far more dependent on air conditioning than affluent, temperate San Francisco or Malibu. Six of the 10 highest unemployment rates among the country’s metropolitan areas are in the state’s interior.

Basic Errors in Geography

The blue bourgeoisie’s self-celebration rests on multiple misunderstandings of geography, demography, and economics. To be sure, the deep blue cites are vitally important but it’s increasingly red states, and regions, that provide critical opportunities for upward mobility for middle- and working-class families.

The dominant blue narrative rests on the idea that the 10 largest metropolitan economies represents over one-third of the national GDP. Yet this hardly proves the superiority of Manhattan-like density; the other nine largest metropolitan economies are, notes demographer Wendell Cox, slightly more suburban than the national major metropolitan area average, with 86 percent of their residents inhabiting suburban and exurban areas.

In some of our most dynamic urban regions, such as Phoenix, virtually no part of the region can be made to fit into a Manhattan-, Brooklyn-, or even San Francisco-style definition of urbanity. Since 2010 more than 80 percent of all new jobs in our 53 leading metropolitan regions have been in suburban locations. The San Jose area, the epicenter of the “new economy,” may be congested but it is not traditionally urban—most people there live in single-family houses, and barely 5 percent of commuters take transit. Want to find dense urbanity in San Jose? You’ll miss it if you drive for more than 10 minutes.

Urban Innovation

The argument made by the blue bourgeoisie is simple: Dense core cities, and what goes on there, is infinitely more important, and consequential, than the activities centered in the dumber suburbs and small towns. Yet even in the ultra-blue Bay Area, the suburban Valley’s tech and STEM worker population per capita is twice that of San Francisco. In southern California, suburban Orange County has over 30 percent more STEM workers per capita than far more urban Los Angeles.

And it’s not just California. Seattle’s suburban Bellevue and Redmond are home to substantial IT operations, including the large Microsoft headquarters facility. Much of Portland’s Silicon Forest is located in suburban Washington County. Indeed a recent Forbes study found that the fastest-growing areas for technology jobs outside the Bay Area are all cities without much of an urban core: Charlotte, Raleigh Durham, Dallas-Fort Worth, Phoenix, and Detroit. In contrast most traditionally urban cities such as New York and Chicago have middling tech scenes, with far fewer STEM and tech workers per capita than the national average.

The blue bourgeois tend to see the activities that take place largely in the red states—for example manufacturing and energy—as backward sectors. Yet manufacturers employ most of the nation’s scientists and engineers. Regions in Trump states associated with manufacturing as well as fossil fuels—Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Detroit, Salt Lake—enjoy among the heaviest concentrations of STEM workers and engineers in the country, far above New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

Besides supplying the bulk of the food, energy, and manufactured goods consumed in blue America, these industries are among the country’s most productive, and still offer better paying options for blue-collar workers. Unlike a monopoly like Microsoft or Google, which can mint money by commanding market share, these sectors face strong domestic and foreign competition. From 1997-2012, labor productivity growth in manufacturing—3.3 percent per year—was a third higher than productivity growth in the private economy overall.

For its part, the innovative American energy sector has essentially changed the balance of power globally, overcoming decades of dependence on such countries as Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Venezuela. Agriculture—almost all food, including in California, is grown in red-oriented areas—continues to outperform competitors around the world.

Exports? In 2015, the U.S. exported $2.23 trillion worth of goods and services combined. Of the total, only $716.4 billion, or about a third, consisted of services. In contrast, manufactured goods accounted for 50 percent of all exports. Intellectual property payments, like royalties to Silicon Valley tech companies and entrepreneurs, amounted to $126.5 billion—just 18 percent of service exports and less than 6 percent of total exports of goods and services combined, barely even with agriculture.

Migration and the American Future

The blue bourgeoisie love to say “everyone” is moving back to the city; a meme amplified by the concentration of media in fewer places and the related collapse of local journalism. Yet in reality, except for a brief period right after the 2008 housing crash, people have continued to move away from dense areas.

Indeed the most recent estimates suggest that last year was the best for suburban areas since the Great Recession. In 2012, the suburbs attracted barely 150,000 more people than core cities but in 2016 the suburban advantage was 556,000. Just 10 of the nation’s 53 largest metropolitan regions (including San Francisco, Boston, and Washington) saw their core counties gain more people than their suburbs and exurbs.

Overall, people are definitively not moving to the most preferred places for cosmopolitan scribblers. Last year, all 10 of the top gainers in domestic migration were Sun Belt cities. The list was topped by Austin, a blue dot in its core county, surrounded by a rapidly growing, largely red Texas sea, followed by Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando, and Jacksonville in Florida, Charlotte and Raleigh in North Carolina, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and San Antonio.

Overall, domestic migration trends affirm Trump-friendly locales. In 2016, states that supported Trump gained a net of 400,000 domestic migrants from states that supported Clinton. This includes a somewhat unnoticed resurgence of migration to smaller cities, areas often friendly to Trump and the GOP. Domestic migration has accelerated to cities between with populations between half a million and a million people, while it’s been negative among those with populations over a million. The biggest out-migration now takes place in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.

Of course, for the blue cognoscenti, there’s only one explanation for such moves: Those people are losers and idiots. This is part of the new blue snobbery: Bad people, including the poor, are moving out to benighted places like Texas but the talented are flocking in. Yet, like so many comfortable assertions, this one does not stand scrutiny. It’s the middle class, particularly in their childbearing years, who, according to IRS data, are moving out of states like California and into ones like Texas. Since 2000, the Golden State has seen a net outflow of $36 billion dollars from migrants.

Millennials are widely hailed as the generation that will never abandon the deep blue city, but as they reach their thirties, they appear to be following their parents to the suburbs and exurbs, smaller cities, and the Sun Belt. This assures us that the next generation of Americans are far more likely to be raised in Salt Lake City, Atlanta, the four large Texas metropolitan areas, or in suburbs, than in the bluest metropolitan areas like New York, Seattle, or San Francisco—where the number of school-age children trends well below the national average.

This shift is being driven in large part by unsustainable housing costs. In the Bay Area, techies are increasingly looking for jobs outside the tech hub and some companies are even offering cash bonuses to those willing to leave. A recent poll indicated that 46 percent of millennials in the San Francisco Bay Area want to leave. The numbers of the “best and brightest” have been growing mostly in lower-cost regions such as Austin, Orlando, Houston, Nashville, and Charlotte.

Quality of Life: The Eye of the Beholder

Ultimately, in life as well as politics, people make choices of where to live based on economic realities. This may not apply entirely to the blue bourgeoisie, living at the top of the economic food chain or by dint of being the spawn of the wealthy. But for most Americans aspiring to a decent standard of living—most critically, the acquisition of decent living space—the expensive blue city simply is not practicable.

Indeed, when the cost of living is taken into consideration, most blue areas, except for San Jose/Silicon Valley, where high salaries track the prohibitive cost of living, provide a lower standard of living. People in Houston, Dallas, Austin, Atlanta, and Detroit actually made more on their paychecks than those in New York, San Francisco, or Boston. Deep-blue Los Angeles ranked near the bottom among the largest metropolitan areas.

These mundanities suggest that the battlegrounds for the future will not be of the blue bourgeoisie’s choosing but in suburbs, particularly around the booming periphery of major cities in red states. Many are politically contestable, often the last big “purple” areas in an increasingly polarized country. In few of these kinds of areas do you see 80 to 90 percent progressive or conservative electorates; many split their votes and a respectable number went for Trump and the GOP. If the blue bourgeoisie want to wage war in these places, they need to not attack the suburban lifestyles clearly preferred by the clear majority.

Blue America can certainly win the day if this administration continues to falter, proving all the relentless aspersions of its omnipresent critics. But even if Trump fails to bring home the bacon to his supporters, the progressives cannot succeed until they recognize that most Americans cannot, and often do not want to, live the blue bourgeoisie’s preferred lifestyle.

It’s time for progressives to leave their bastions and bubbles, and understand the country that they are determined to rule.