Reading in the Age of Trump
The first time the Trump presidency seemed serious to me was when Slavoj Zizek half-heartedly endorsed Trump for the 2016 election. Zizek’s reasons for supporting such an outrageous candidate were, in a truly Zizekian fashion, complicated. His stance was similar to David Lynch’s: that Trump, while a problem himself, could disrupt US political norms just enough to leave the door open for real change in the future. Zizek’s “endorsement” was enough to make me realize that Americans don’t have to support Trump to vote Trump; Trump, for some, could be a symbol of renewal, despite the man’s obvious incompetence, while Hillary resembled too closely the quintessential politician.
Zizek’s endorsement must’ve bothered me, because I quit working on the novel I had been writing to scribble a few speculative vignettes about a world after Trump. The most substantial piece involved the end of American democracy in favor of a dynastic era based on the Trump family. It was tentatively titled “The Drumpf Dynasty” and featured things like internment camps, mass burials in public parks, the utter erasure of intellectualism, and a protagonist victimized by an inverted process of evolution worthy of Mike Judge’s movie Idiocracy. Apparently, I was fully convinced that the cultural nightmare liberals worried about had the potential to turn real.
Or, perhaps, I was just doing what I always do when faced with unsettling circumstances. Perhaps I was simply exorcising my concerns by pushing them to logical extremes in writing. You certainly don’t have to believe the situations you create in fiction. Often, depicting private and social concerns in gross caricature is strangely therapeutic to both readers and writers. In fact, around the time of Zizek’s statement, I happened to be finishing one of the most extreme American caricatures ever printed: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
As someone who remains socially isolated due to anxiety, the opening scene of Infinite Jest, during which Hal Incandenza faces a group of university administrators while attempting to hide his own utter inability to communicate, struck an all-too-familiar key with me. For readers unfamiliar with Wallace’s masterpiece, the passage is impossible to summarize, as great passages always are. Although it won’t suffice, let’s just say that when Hal is finally driven to speak, he erupts into a series of wild movements and inhuman sounds, despite the fact that he thinks he is communicating “normally.” The university directors are horrified. Only this vastly exaggerated portrayal of isolation, this caricature of real anxiety, could accurately capture the living experience of anxiety in fiction.
If caricature is one of the functions of fiction, what happens to fiction when living caricatures invade our public sphere?
My second strong whiff of Trump came with the first presidential debate. The event was streamed on Facebook live, and I was required to watch it and take notes, since treating it to a discourse analysis was a requirement of a graduate class I was taking at the time (I probably wouldn’t have watched it otherwise). During the live stream, I paid more attention to the outbursts of obscenities and the surreal blend of angry-faced and “heart” emoticons parading across the screen. The debate, I realized, was a fully interactive public event, at least in the context of social media. What I watched was an unruly crowd worthy of the stereotypical public executions of the medieval and Renaissance periods. Vegetables filled the air, carried by outrageous curses or countered by unfettered outpourings of love. Strange, I thought, how little the human heart has changed.
The debate itself was, as I discovered later, unassailable proof of Trump’s infallibility in the eyes of the public. He bungled through Lester Holt’s questions with inconsistent and largely improvised responses that any other candidate would’ve been embarrassed to offer. Clinton, while employing a rhetoric of evasion common to high-profile politicians, was definitely better prepared. Although I left the debate bewildered that so much time could set aside for two adults to say absolutely nothing to the world, it was clear that Hillary had won.
Except, as we all know, she hadn’t. On election day, I followed the results well into the night. As the terminus drew near and Trump held the lead, I posted my bemused realization that “this guy’s actually going to win,” on Facebook.
What seemed like Trump’s weak qualities during the first presidential debate (I watched half of the second and opted out of the rest) turned out to be his strengths. Trump’s “shoot from the hips” attitude, his lack of an identifiable ideological essence, and his blatant preference to speak in strictly financial terms on issues traditionally deemed ethical, were endearing elements in the eyes of his supporters. Above all, Trump had proven the liberal caricature of conservatives inaccurate: if they were just a bunch of dumb bigots, why did they now represent the free world?
I didn’t cry, tie myself to the University flag pole, or contemplate suicide as the media gleefully reported liberals doing in the wake of the election. Instead I shrugged, resumed work on my novel, and consoled myself with the assurance that the system of checks and balances was still securely in place. In short, I pretended that nothing had happened.
But the TV and the Internet loudly insisted that something had happened, something big, dangerous, and potentially inimical to a peaceful coexistence with our domestic and foreign neighbors. My virtual community of authors proclaimed this with a vigor matching that of many major televised media outlets. The more outspoken writers urged their colleagues to rally around the word. “Writing has always proliferated in times of political oppression,” their line of reasoning roughly went, “and now is the time to fight the good fight.” I swelled with a sense of purpose, and even went so far as to include a Trumpish POTUS in my novel. I scoffed at Trump’s paranoia of the Deep State, went into rages against his racist characterizations of minorities, and even embarked on lively debates with my largely conservative family. In short, I became a good liberal.
But something felt wrong. Something still feels wrong. All the while I had continued reading. The popular cry for “literature as resistance” lost its flavor quickly; I thought of the novels of explicit “political resistance” I had read. 1984, Brave New World, and Petals of Blood came immediately to mind. While these are decent novels and worth the read, I simply couldn’t convince myself that they stand next to works like Don Quixote, In Search of Lost Time, and Infinite Jest. I concede that reading literature resists something, but to tie the novel explicitly to politics seemed to undermine the whole artistic enterprise. Even if we attempt to say that reading resists the general culture of anti-intellectualism rather than a specific political agenda, the sense of being short-changed doesn’t vanish: So reading makes us what, intellectuals? Is that the reason we read? Even the most incautious defense of reading would shy from such brashly elitist posturing.
Let’s briefly consider Dante’s Inferno, a masterpiece every bit as political as it is artistically sublime. In nearly every edition of the Inferno published within the last half-century, from Everyman’s Mandlebaum translation to Anthony Esolen’s Modern Library Classics edition, English readers are treated to roughly the same format: the translated text accompanied by copious notes detailing the political and historical context of Dante’s more obscure references. The casual reader can appreciate Dante for the sheer brilliance of his vision, his fearless choice of subject matter, and his agonized rendering of the human capacity to suffer, but if the reader wishes to delve into Dante’s politics, a second Virgil is required. In short, as every Dante scholar knows, the Inferno is a classic despite its political dimension. The humane consolations of reading the Inferno have long outlasted its political counterparts. The Inferno’s footnotes mark, like gravestones, the passage of a dimension of knowledge into the dust of professional scholarship. The Inferno of resistance is dead; the Inferno of literature lives on.
The Danger of Low-Hanging Fruit
There’s an undeniable element of similarity between hard drugs and YouTube. During the early Trump years, I exhumed a passion for rap music that had been buried after exhausting Jurassic 5’s album Quality Control in 2002. I would look up Sway in the Morning “freestyles” by rappers I admired, then proceed with cocaine urgency to associated links of YouTube “reaction” videos. One reaction to Chris Webby’s 2018 Sway “freestyle” (it was clearly a “written,” like most are, although advertised as a “freestyle”) unexpectedly made me stop and think.
Chris Webby had made fun of “mumble rap” through the course of his performance, criticizing artists like Lil Yachty and Lil Pump for their unintelligible lyrics. The YouTube reviewer paused the video in disgust at the first mention of “mumble rap.” He said something like “y’all know I don’t condone picking on the mumble rappers. Y’all know they can’t defend themselves. It takes no talent to call these people out.” This was a surprising departure from the usual vitriol of traditional hip-hop fans against the newer generations of rap, and frankly, it seemed a bit unfair to me. “If they’re going to call themselves ‘rappers,’” I might have replied, “then they should be prepared to defend their claim.”
In a sense, however, the reviewer was right. It is easy to grab the low-hanging fruit. Extreme cases of absurdity are simple to identify; they stick to our memories and lend themselves to ready representation. Low-hanging fruit is the stuff of the viral phenomenon; it spreads like a flame set to a dry field of grass, since, like fire, it’s bright, beautiful, and exciting. Like most exciting things, however, it’s mixed with an element of danger.
The success of Trump is due in no small part to his showmanship. It is no wonder that Trump, presenting himself willingly as low-hanging fruit, possesses all the tenacity of a viral YouTube video. Trump is the ultimate meme, a living caricature, an appeal to the instinctive thrills of unthinking paranoia similar to Alex Jones. No wonder he is a perfect subject for fiction; he arrives with his own parody half-written.
It is all too easy, however, to attribute Trump’s qualities to his supporters. What reading does in the age of Trump is the same thing reading has always done: it facilitates the crossing of interpersonal boundaries. David Foster Wallace parodies social anxiety in Infinite Jest so that readers may experience, as close to first hand as possible, the terrors of communication. Caricature, in the case of Infinite Jest, nuances the relationship between reader and character rather than simplifying it. In a political context, caricature does the opposite; it solidifies misunderstanding and encourages discriminatory practices on both sides of the divide. In times when television and our leaders alike concern themselves primarily with the essentially fictional construct of “image,” we must work diligently to distinguish fiction from reality. Ironically, fiction helps us do exactly this.
The danger of low-hanging fruit is exactly the danger facing the Whiskey Priest in another book I read early in the Age of Trump: Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory. The repression of the Catholic clergy in the Mexican Cristero War was the result of caricature, as are all instances of repression and human injustice on a massive scale. In The Power and the Glory, the fictional Lieutenant’s vehemence against religion is called into question by the presence of the rounded character of the Christ-like priest. The Whiskey Priest’s “realities,” his flesh-and-blood weaknesses, regrets, and loves, puncture the Lieutenant’s caricature of the clergy, leaving his rancor to whither to regret by the novel’s end.
If my purpose here seems simple and obvious, that’s because it is. But media culture, with its unyielding insistence on sensationalism, would gladly have us forget our empathy in favor of outraged responses which tend to inspire shares, views, and “likes,” and we can no longer doubt the powerful sway of ubiquitous media. The age of Trump is rapidly becoming yet another age of thoughtless caricaturization, and we need fiction now more than ever, not for its potential as a political soapbox, but for the same reason that literature has remained important throughout history: its unwavering insistence on our shared humanity.
-Justin A. Burnett