On the eve of Donald Trump’s once-unlikely inauguration at the 45th President of the United States, Christopher Silver reflects on our obsession with the man who just loves to be talked about.
What’s he doing now? Did you see it? What will he say next? How can I rebut his awfulness? Is he mad? What kind of mad is he? What does he mean? Is he serious? Did he really just say that?
Whatever else you might say about the man who will soon occupy the most powerful office in the world, he has a peerless gift for being talked about.
You will have talked about him, I am currently writing yet another “hot take” about him now. He is being translated into meme form by thousands as I type. The best and the worst minds on the planet are equaly transfixed by him.
But opponents ignore this allure at their peril. On every issue he is far too easy to oppose, his is the high-fat, junk-food version of politics. The brutal truth is we’re all hooked.
You don’t have to think to form an opinion about Trump. That is the secret of his success.
There is also an element in all of us that wanted Trump to happen, not out of fondness or agreement, but because we understand that, on some deeper level, he is representative of the era that we live in.
Last week, when he took to the podium for a bizarre and rambling exchange with the press, people stopped what they were doing and gathered round screens, something that’s increasingly only reserved for great tragedies or high-stakes political drama.
He offered sprinklings of news over another helping of crassness for everyone to munch on. But there was no nourishment: no thought, no message, no real story. It was, like the documentation he brought along to prove he was casting off any conflicts of interest, content free. Just Trump. That’s the point.
I suspect that as the world watched it recognised a lot of itself in what it saw. The world looked at Donald Trump and we recognised (how could we fail to?) that even though we all know he’s bad for us, he feeds an appetite.
For over a year now, he has been a dominant topic on newsfeeds all over the world. You can’t not tweet about Trump: he invites, with a seemingly inexhaustible verve, the expression of opinion. There can be few examples of a politician at any point in history, under any regime, achieving such a level of media saturation.
The perversity here should be obvious. This pre-eminent divider: of races, religions, genders – this arch-segregator of winners and losers – has achieved a means of bringing people together.
He has done so in the only way that remains possible in our fragmented hyper-individuated society.
Some laugh, some boo, some holler. It doesn’t really matter. His performance trumps it all. He’s already given people the thing they crave – a common reference point, a series of memorable moments. Connection.
Trump is as at one with the medium of his age, just as Lincoln was. Like Lincoln, whose 272 word Gettysburg Address followed an absurdly self-indulgent (but by no means out of place for the time) four-hour oration, Trump’s success lies in both his brevity and his willingness to break the rules.
At Gettysburg in 1863 Lincoln realised that the moment he occupied was a point of no return and as a result he was prepared to innovate with the standard form. In doing so he shifted what it was possible for a politician to say.
Later, though Roosevelt was said to be the first President to truly master the potential of the new medium of radio, his predecessor Herbert Hoover had already recognised its potential. For Hoover, radio was:
“revolutionising the political debates that underlie political actions under our principles of Government…it physically makes us literally one people on all occasions of general public interest.”
Radio, arriving in an era when electoral politics was still delivered via pulpit and newsprint, seemed especially resonant as a new mass democracy based on universal suffrage and a decisive role for the state brought the demos together. The one could speak to the many.
It may no longer be possible to fathom what it meant to witness Truman, or Eishenhower or Kennedy talk directly to the nation from the Oval Office in the early decades of television. They were moments of gravity, sacred affairs where the eyes of one man was asked to look out and talk directly to the people en masse. The directness of the medium, and the power to convene millions, said far more about the nation than the content of any single address.
The arrival of all new media technologies come with a Faustian disclaimer, in small print. Command of the airwaves, which Hoover saw as inherently virtuous, would soon be spewing forth propaganda that validated the uprooting of a continent and any excess of cruelty for the cry of various motherlands. Evil on such a grand scale needed mass media to function.
But what remains constant across times and media is that you know such evil by its actions – in the past the authoritarian was given away by his familiarity with rabble rousing and incendiary brawling. Today, it is a relentless preying upon the weak, it is a shutting down of all the triggers for compassion and empathy that we now witness on screen on a daily basis. All of our lives have become ever more mediated, including the lives of fascists.
If the great cultural cesspit of reality TV and the rise of social media is now becoming synonymous with the politics of our own time, it inevitably took a candidate genuinely at one with these media to show this to be the case. He is the troll-in-chief, the great boorish hegemon, who almost alone in western politics saw the raw potential of a kind of communication that appears radically unmediated. That which seems unmediated, tends to ring true.
Though many of us desperately do not want to be like Trump, we can’t help but feel envious at the ease with which he seems to conduct himself as an avatar. His aloofness, his charisma, the sheer spectacle that he presents to the world, have become normative aspirations. We don’t want to emulate him, but many of us would like to be retweeted as much as he is. We don’t believe he has any particular gift for selecting apprentices across the table, but we’d rather be in his chair than on the other side.
The saying of Donald Trump, the sight of Donald Trump, the debunking of Donald Trump, the satirising of Donald Trump, immeasurable variations on the theme of Donald Trump, have clogged the arteries of our digital lives, because we like getting fat on them.
But it’s not hard to see the moreish appeal. Compelling characters are only rarely heroic or brimming with integrity. Trump’s character has become the object of unprecedented levels of fascination. It is this celebrity that has made everything else possible. A great number of people will suffer because of it.
So perhaps we should perform one tiny act of resistance and reduce him to a mere concept instead. What is a trump?
A trump is the glory of ratings. A trump is a name, a brand, a sterling performance. A trump is the dominant traits that we ascribe value to as a society — wealth, power, being seen, being liked, getting shared, seeming authentic. A trump is a simple story in mind-numbingly complex times. It is instinct, smartness, derring-do, confidence amidst the doubtful. It is a method of feigning status and importance to avoid obligation. A trump is what we were brought up to be. A trump is what we have become. It looks us all in the eye, straight down the lens, and mouths “you didn’t say you wanted this to be pretty.” But at least it brought us together, to be fixed by its gaze, as we gather round our screens.