The Post-Modernist Appeal of Donald Trump

In his piece “Answering the Question: What is Post-Modern?”, Jean-François Lyotard discusses how post-modernism relates to mainstream culture. Yet although Lyotard focuses on art and literature, it can be argued that people are products of post-modernism as well. A perfect example of this is Donald Trump, who will become America’s post-modern president.

Trump rose from the same cultural mindset that gave society memes of a dead gorilla and a slew of events ending in -gate. Modern culture has become a mix of sensationalist Internet posts and an increased fear of anything potentially dangerous, further exacerbated by a rapid growth of technology. This rise in technology outpaces humanity’s ability to keep up with it, which forms the basis of sociologist Dan Gardner’s distinction between the Head (i.e. logic) and the Gut (instinct). Simply put, fear defies logic, and instead humans fall back on their “inner caveman” instincts. Unlike the Head, the Gut relies on past experience and knowledge, and the more common or easily-recalled that knowledge is, the more likely it is to stick. The Gut is what causes stereotypes; it is what makes people associate African-Americans with crime and anyone who looks vaguely Middle-Eastern with terrorism. It explains everything from the anti-vaccination movement to why people get kicked off of planes for speaking a certain language.

The biggest agent in furthering this society of fear is the media—print, social media-driven or otherwise. In a world already inundated with news of terrorist attacks and shootings, there is no shortage of possible things to fear, and the rise of fake news only makes the situation worse. And Trump’s celebrity status meant he was in the perfect position to capitalize on this culture for his own gain. He told voters what to fear, and then offered himself as the solution.

Lyotard states that “correct” narratives must find an audience that will see those narratives as the solution for its depression, and Donald Trump’s rhetoric has certainly found that audience. Aided by confirmation bias, which boils down to cherry-picking shared beliefs and disregarding everything else, Trump was able to amass a diverse audience of voters. He gained support from those who felt disenfranchised by the government, those who were scared of “radical Islam”, and neo-Nazis who believed they were threatened by illegal immigrants. Again, the increase in fake news only made the situation worse.
A loss of faith in the world is another symptom of this fear culture. According to Lyotard, modernity does not occur without a shattering of belief—that is, without discovering the lack of reality in reality. The barrage of horrifying news, furthered by Trump’s own harsh rhetoric, only widened the divide between those who supported him and those who did not. And for those who didn’t support him, Trump created a sense of hopelessness about the world. As his “reality” became farther and farther from the truth, many people’s already-cracking faith in America’s capacity to choose a leader shattered.

Lyotard also discusses the effect of capitalism on realism, saying that capitalism has “such a capacity to de-realise familiar objects, social roles and institutions” that realist representations can only induce reality through nostalgia or derision. This is clear in the consumerist culture surrounding city life, where wealth and prosperity are the most important goals. But in an economy still recovering from the 2008 financial crash, many people feel unsatisfied or disgruntled with their financial state. This is one reason why Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again”, is so effective. It implies that there was once an optimal golden age, and that the United States of America can be returned to it—and, most importantly, that Trump will be the one to do it. For people in hard times, this can be quite comforting. The problem is that everyone’s golden age is a little different.

Yet the best reason Trump perfectly encapsulates post-modernism is not because he shatters humanity’s belief in the world, or because he invokes and manipulates a sense of nostalgia; it is simply because he defies all rules set by his predecessors. During his campaign, he attacked his opponents personally with the sort of ad hominem attacks one could expect of a middle-schooler. He refuses to release his tax returns or divest himself of his business holdings, and frequently shirks his press entourage, all of which are traditional parts of presidential protocol. Instead, through speeches and late-night twitter rants, Donald Trump tells the world that it is okay to be racist or xenophobic, to make fun people with disabilities, or to be suspicious of people who don’t look like them. His seat as Commander in Chief of the United States is one that comes with a huge amount of prestige and power, and that makes him all the more dangerous. When he makes these new, avant-garde rules, they aren’t just his—they are the entire country’s new standards of behavior.

According to Jürgen Habermas, the rift between culture and reality can only be fixed when aesthetic experience is related to problems of existence instead of judgments in taste. In short, Habermas wishes to bridge the gap between dialogues of knowledge, ethics, and politics in order to create a unified experience, and this may be what Trump is attempting to do as well. Yet one question must be asked: what sort of unity does Donald Trump have in mind?

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