Wow. It didn’t take long for that to escalate. “Post-truth” has now found itself instantiated as “alternate fact” in popular media discourse. Trump’s press secretary did not (strictly speaking) lie, he expressed an “alternate fact”. Not only have we gone beyond an investment in the integrity of at least partial credibility or claim to verifiable truth but we have sidestepped into a parallel Universe in which “alternate facts” might just become as meaningful as genuine, verifiable facts and their actual Truths. The current surreal (and not just a little bit Orwellian) situation is not in some respects surprising: falsity in rhetoric and political misdirection have been around for as long as politics itself. This current American spectacle certainly resonates with other historical moments; in a similar context we can find Umberto Eco making a salient observation about the role of responsibility in the rise of Berlusconi:
History is rich with adventurous men, long on charisma, with a highly developed instinct for their own interests, who have pursued personal power – bypassing parliaments and constitutions, distributing favours to their minions, and conflating their own desires with the interests of the community.
But these men haven’t always achieved the power they aspired to, because society did not always permit them. If society has permitted him, why should we blame the man rather than the society which has allowed him to have his way?
(Source: Don’t blame Silvio Berlusconi, says Umberto Eco, it’s the fault of all Italians.)
It is uncertain the degree to which “charisma” could ever possibly apply in the current American monodrama but the bluster and boorish behaviour which has seen Trump become so successful clearly resonates with a large demographic; notable also is the sheer (or apparent – perhaps also fake) self-confidence he seeks to project at every opportunity. We could certainly ask of a country in which the narrative of self-determination and freedom is so prominent and highly celebrated, why is it that only 58% of the population actually voted in 2016’s election ? It might be possible to say that American society has allowed this to happen in some respects, or even in some respects that American society had been skating in this direction for some time and that the thin cultural and political ice was bound to break sooner or later.
The most interesting thing about the Trump presidency is not the Trump presidency itself but more what this political arrival has to say about the culture and historical moment from which it has emerged.
Trump has not arrived because he was allowed to emerge as the figure he has become, he has arrived because the culture and narrative of America has been preparing the way for this kind of event and political figure for many years. This situation is no one’s fault, it is more the inevitable endpoint of one particular solution to the equations embodied in a simulated reality that has managed to suspend itself by its own bootstraps; it has done away with the requirements for a bedrock of fact or truth and now finds itself free-floating, directionless and seeking meaning while professing to have already found it in a revisionist fantasy of historical self and greatness. (Any notional “greatness” or superlative value is always already something to be journeyed towards, not to be in any sense revisited or resuscitated; retrospective fabrications of self-importance are purely wishful thinking and represent an anxious denial of the realities and complexities as they actually exist). The real, true, verifiable and (actual) factual world is still there but it has lost its attributed popular value and meaning in the current information economy; there are many Americans who see this political theatre for what it is but they may have waited a little too long to do anything concrete about it now that it has fully emerged from its cocoon.
US media as a whole has been flirting with fake realities and pseudo-news for some time. Fictional narratives are often enough the staple diet of a diverse and healthy cultural vocabulary and the burgeoning dependence on moral allegory through a shared culture of mythology, literature and film has perhaps taken a singularly unique form in the USA. Fictional and mythological narrative as generated by mass culture and media is a necessary element of cultural or national self-definition. The fantasy and simulated reality constructed around a world, around an actual reality, embeds the (often harsher) realities and truths of that world in a simpler and friendlier narrative, made intelligible by its simplicity and proximity, sanitised by financially opportunistic and ideologically-biased fictions.
From sit-coms, through soap operas (themselves now largely supplanted by so-called “reality TV” and it’s tributaries), to major movie franchises and the associated mythologies of celebrity and wealth – the story being told is of a fabricated world. This is where a threatening frontier wilderness of Unknowns and Others which can be made safe through the production of the superficialities and trivialities of commercial television (or other similar communications media). Through this representation the shared, cultural reality acquires a superficial gloss with all the sophistication and insight of a kindergarten pantomime in which the audience and the actors are largely indistinguishable and their roles are shared. The larger part of the commercial culture-machine, being driven as it is by investment and profit, seeks to produce what will sell over what is real and what will sell is usually the artificial and improbable, while reality and concrete documentary or journalism is perpetually starved of resources and devalued. Facts and their truths have been made destitute and homeless by this commercial impulse.
Even science and verifiable fact is fabricated in a sense and is always aspiring towards its object. Fact is that towards which it is directed – it accepts its limitations and progressively refines its maps and images of the territory represented by the consensus and verifiable reality. The culture of false realities orbits and observes only itself and is held together in some sense by the enormity of its own mass, its own consequences, its attributed values and self-referential meanings – all of its maps were once based on a real territory but are now shaped by wish and by desire more than truth – it is a map drawn from a fictional world.
A popular culture is that most readily accessible system of images, narratives and concepts through which a culture knows itself: it is the self-representation of a culture. The channels and vectors of that self-representation are manifold and dynamic – they include media, entertainment, news and communications technology or social-media, and they include all the ongoing rapidly evolving technologies, economies and social conventions available to a population. The culture of hyper-reality and celebrity, the merger of spectacle and fiction – from wrestling, through Jerry Springer (that more recent iteration of the Punch and Judy idiom), the machismo of the gun and the hero who wields it, the monster-trucks totally devoid of actual utility (and a million other fantastic and entertaining absurdities) and now devolving into the “pussy-grabbing” bragger of the President who’s associates and advisors are so besmirched and enamoured of a fictional ideal of their country and its reincarnation that they have managed to almost completely devalue the international image and reputation of a country they believed they were making stronger. This has been an arc of narratives and of narratives transformations which has found itself unravelling rapidly, perhaps – embarrassingly and at the whim of a medieval court royal family.
American popular culture is a special case or instance of popular cultures more generally considered because for any number of reasons (historical, economic, artistic or creative) it exists as an immense gravitational center of gravity for the production of entertainment, information, news and associated technologies. There can of course be many cultural or political gravitational centers at play at any one time (both between and within countries), many divergent and antithetical assertions, fabrications and narratives. The ability for so many diverse opinions and beliefs to coexist and to not implode the culture or political existence of a country is what democratic success looks like – the buzz and hum of difference is just as important as the representation and proliferation of sameness. This healthy diversity of opinion and belief only truly becomes extreme and problematic (in essence – unhealthy, pathological) where one interpretation of reality, one fabricated narrative becomes more prominent than any other. History (itself a narrative not without significant bias or fiction) has no reason to look favourably on the self-destructive extravaganza of a nation which sealed its borders and introspectively denied the importance or significance of anything beyond a particularly narrow self-representation and interpretation.
Having relied so heavily on falsity and outrageous scandal for the popular impact and success of their campaign – they now find themselves unable to control the (media) system that propelled them to power. The irony is staggering.
There are of course many Americas and many American narratives. There is the narrative that America shows itself, in the mirrors of its popular culture and the unfurling disaster of the blossoming autocracy. There is the narrative that America has projected to the rest of the world and of which economic, technological and military power are clear aspects. There is the narrative that other cultures and peoples construct around the image they have of America. Then there is the Real America and this is the most difficult conceptual arrival of all – the Real America has now been portrayed, remade and projected as a concept free-floating and without basis in fact. The spectacle of the simulated Real has folded back and engulfed the notional bedrock of actual reality that it was built upon, it is a signifier without signified – or at least there is only other signifiers and nothing beyond them, just smoke and mirrors. Where the image is of the image, the simulation is of the simulated, there can be no depth other than layers upon layers of misleading, free-floating opinion and belief-based assertion. There is no greatness to be found in falsehoods and a successful campaign to sell what is fundamentally an isolationist plutocracy as the solution to Everyman’s problems is a guaranteed devolution to a probable political, economic and environmental catastrophe.