I feel very privileged that, in Volume Six, Number One (January 2009) of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (IJBS), my essay on Baudrillard’s amazing book America appears in tandem with Gerry Coulter’s essay on America. Yesterday I re-read Gerry’s essay, and surely this text is extremely helpful in thinking about the contemporary phenomenon of Donald John Trump, to see the “total social fact” (Marcel Mauss) emanation of Trump in the cultural context of what Gerry calls the vast fiction which is (the United/Divided States of) America. I began a Baudrillardian reading of President-elect Trump in an essay which I published in February 2016 called “Donald Trump Casino Owner: seduced to losing by the lure of winning.” I drew a parallel between the situation of the gambler in an Atlantic City casino in the 1980s and that of the supporters of Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. “The gamblers are seduced into the casino by the promise and lure of winning easy money,” I wrote. “They are told that they have a good chance to become winners. In reality, the casino only cares about itself. Nearly 100% of the players end up as losers. They get fleeced and come away with less than nothing.”
Unfortunately – mea culpa – I have wandered erroneously since last February away from the worthy project of understanding Mister Trump in Baudrillardian terms, allowing myself instead to fall too much under the influence of the Huffington Post-style view of Trump as a “fascist” (thanks to my friend Tom Moody for making me see this). Not to say that Trump does not have authoritarian ambitions, but I think that it is of much greater theoretical benefit to emphasize the aspects of simulacra, simulation, virtuality, hyper-reality, object-orientation, Reality TV (“telemorphosis” in Baudrillard’s vocabulary), the Twitter “jargon of authenticity” (T.W. Adorno) and instant forgetting, and the twists and turns of the artificial life intertwined reality-fiction reversible flows of America. We need analyses carried out from the vista of a Baudrillardian and software-based media theory.
I see an op-ed piece in yesterday’s Washington Post (January 2nd, 2017) by Greg Sargent. It is called “Yes, Donald Trump ‘lies.’ A lot. And news organizations should say so.” This article is typical of the entire approach of the “liberal establishment” towards Trump. During the election campaign, journalists and commentators kept pointing out that Trump is a liar, a snake oil salesman, etc. (see the brilliant 1964 Philip K. Dick novel Lies, Inc.) That may all be true, but it doesn’t make a dent in the number of his supporters. Baudrillard comments throughout his work on the difference between critical theory discourse (which liberal journalists like Sargent are stuck in with respect to Trump) and what he called “fatal theory.” Critical theory discourse is ineffective. Trump is the candidate of Reality TV, of the celebrity culture, of media hyper-reality entertainment, of everyone’s 15 minutes of fame (Warhol), of the “trans-political” (Baudrillard), and of object-orientation (OO).
OO: Trump will be the Presidency and not the President – end of the distance between human agent and office –Trump is misogyny itself and not a misogynist, he is racism itself and not a racist, Trump hates no one [“nobody loves Group X more than I do”], he simply associates himself rhetorically with the social-psychological “object” which is hatred). Beyond the epistemology of the human subject, Trump will identify with any iconic or mental-image “object” necessary as he performs “the art of the deal” and the practice of “winning” in larger and larger arenas. Trump identifies with the political-science-object that is the historically dormant China-Taiwan conflict itself (and its reawakened provocation). The “social actors” (Bruno Latour) of China and Taiwan are irrelevant.
In other words, Trump is the candidate of the era of simulation. Invoking “the truth” against him does not work as a strategy. Trump is already more advanced than the discourse of truth. We are in a hyper-reality where there is no more truth and no more falsehood. Carl “The Truth” Williams, a former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, passed away in April 2013.
Alan Cholodenko comments: If hyper-reality was born for Baudrillard during or just after the Second World War, then there have already been several simulation-Presidents: JFK the first televisual President, Reagan the Hollywood actor and first TV show host (of the General Electric Theatre)-President. Trump takes his place in this lineage. He is the second TV show host (of The Apprentice)-President, the first live show, reality TV show CEO host become live show, reality TV show CEO host-President of the live show, reality TV show America, Inc.)
The mistake of the multitudes of journalists and editorialists like the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent is to not understand that the system of “truth and lies” is not some eternal, ahistorical or “scientifically objective” reality. It is an historically constructed cultural discourse or arrangement tied to an epoch which is finite in time. As Foucault might say, the concern with “true” and “false” is an epistème – an epistemological a priori, an expression of a specific power-knowledge constellation within an era – whose time has come and gone. The insistent belief in “truth and lies” is also embedded in the Plato-initiated “metaphysics” of the “human subject,” the subject-centered worldview, the sovereign (democratic or scientific) subject who “knows” and can therefore judge and determine when “knowledge” or a “fact” has been betrayed.
In the new epistemological system beyond “truth and lies” to which Trump is finely attuned, of which he is the master, and which liberals do not get, the object itself is the hot thing. The spotlight is on objects (conceptual not physical), and they are a relationship, an association which knows nothing of whether they are real or fake. They transcend and straddle true and false. “Things have found a way of avoiding a dialectics of meaning that was beginning to bore them: by proliferating indefinitely, increasing their potential, outbidding themselves in an ascension to the limit, an obscenity that henceforth becomes their immanent finality and senseless reason.” (Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies; p.7) When Trump says something, it becomes true because Trump says it, and there is nothing that the New York Times and the Washington Post can do about it. Trump will change what he says on any given topic from day to day, or on any given Sunday. The liberal media will “prove him wrong” with evidence, but this demonstration will have an effect exactly the opposite than that intended upon and for the “silent majority” of half of Americans for whom they are the liars. The institutional bases for consensus or legitimation of “the truth” have disappeared beneath the sheer load of mountainous piles of information, and the virtualization, delocalization, de-physicalization, and disembodiment of discourse. When did this happen (when was the “Canetti point”)? Impossible to say. To know the point of origin of that would be to overstate the claims of knowledge, to violate the methodological recursivity of our awareness of being lost within the culture of simulation (as Baudrillard has taught us in his fascinating lengthy discussions of the “Canetti point,” and as Gerry Coulter has taught us, for example, in his essay on America).
When Trump said that thousands of Muslims were celebrating on rooftops in Jersey City, New Jersey on 9/11, he was right. 100% right, as he later tweeted. Within the epistemology (theory of knowledge) of the humanist-democratic subject and of truth, the alleged rooftop event of course “did not take place.” Yet in the hyper-modernist epistemology, the rhetorical and emotional power of the words invoked and the mental images evoked by Trump (the advent of hyper-imagination) carry the weight and dynamic force of the image-immersed beyond-chimerical “object” of those evil Muslim celebrators. Probably Trump saw on TV in September 2001 some cynical celebrations in the Palestinian territories. The clandestine wormhole connection between physically remote points in space is plausibly extant. In the culture of virtual images, it is perfectly OK to transpose the bin Laden-sympathetic revelers from one geographical location to another, the hyper-space of Trump’s creative memory mingled with the hyper-dimensional expanding televisual space on the interior of the flatscreen.
Fantasy is possible in a world that is still real. A fantasy could be said to be not true, some sort of illusion (in the non-Baudrillardian meaning of this word) or deception. But when images are everywhere, and they are universally exchangeable with each other, the made-up mental images become hyper-real. Which now (literally) means (hyper-means) more real than real. Meaning becomes hyper-meaning.
Would not the ubiquity of video documentation and recording devices of every kind increase the availability of truth? Whipping the cam around, looking amazing from every angle? No, the effect is just the opposite. When documentation and recording are everywhere, then they are nowhere. They cease to exist in any meaningful sense. They serve no purpose whatsoever anymore. They are pure technology fetish in the bad sense, decoupled through their excess from what they were supposed to enhance or invent. As a hybrid radical-leftist-and-mainstreamer, I do believe that there is a good side to surveillance, a deterrence of crime. But if surveillance is everywhere, then this good side no longer functions. This is the same paradoxical logic that is operative for all virtual and digital media technologies. Yes, all of these wonderful new things are available to us, but we omitted the step of thinking carefully about the appropriate measure of their application. We forgot to humanly judge this. Hybrid posthumanist and humanist. We never took seriously the great thought of Albert Camus, that in almost every area, we need to have a sense of limits (as Dominick LaCapra pointed out). Academic referentiality – which Baudrillard was opposed to – is like this too. If you overdo it, become obsessed with footnotes, then you enter into the twilight zone of hyper-referentiality and then the whole business does not function anymore. You do it because you have to do it and the original purpose is lost.
The “proof” (ha ha!) is now upon us that Baudrillard was right all along. We are now fully in the era of simulation and telemorphosis, of the New Truth of the omnipresent image (both picture-image and word-image – the multi-media of the screen having transformed written words from texts into images). The New Truth is not a lie – that would be too easy and the claim is retrograde. The New Truth institutes its own hyper-reality, which is at present our only reality. The only way to contest simulation and the New Truth would be a strategy or perspective of “taking the side of objects” (see, for example, my most recent IJBS essay, for an elaboration of this). We would have to get to know the codes which underlie and instantiate simulation and reverse them. Reversibility of the code comes from “objects” within the code which want more objecthood. Until we can start to do that, to paraphrase David Cronenberg’s Videodrome: LONG LIVE THE NEW TRUTH!
Bernie Tuchman writes: “Your piece on Trump has great power because his election has defeated deniability. Something is Happening and You Don’t Know What It is Mr. Jones. The media continues to ‘analyze’ what it cannot understand. It is like a world which has entered into dementia — where the dream life is more real than the ‘awake’ life, and where no one can say which is which. It is the nervous breakdown of hierarchical order.”
Alexis Clancy comments: “I would ask you for the purposes of clarity to distinguish the difference between ‘truth’ and ‘fact’. In my own schooling around the ‘truth’ – to quote Popper – truth can only be disproved… I would not say that Trump was not bound by the truth – but more so I would say that he was not bound by facts. Sure you can prove anything with facts… ”