I could probably go into a whole exploratory tangent that tried to figure out how ethics intersect with humor. From Mel Brooks’ quote that “Tragedy is when I stub my toe; comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die” to the old saw that “Comedy is tragedy plus time,” there’s an understanding that comedy often involves something Wrong or Terrible happening, usually to somebody other than you. There’s been tension, or risk, or sheer juxtaposition, and laughter serves to acknowledge that something unexpected and juxtaposed just happened, but to also acknowledge (or assert?) that everything’s safe. There’s a good reason America’s Funniest Home Videos always had the canned audience laughter – without it, even with the goofy sound effects and the stupid voiceovers, there would’ve been uncertainty, discomfort, or even fear.
How soon is “too soon?” What things are too serious and important to joke about? What responsibility does the teller of a joke have for the feelings it evokes in people? Can they take credit for the mirth but wave off the people who are infuriated, insulted, or hurt? What responsibility does the listener of a joke have for the feelings that arise in them, or that they choose to express? These things vary intensely, depending on content, context, culture, and the individuals in question.
He doesn’t have to be a stuffy, humorless, serious politician, because he’s Not A Politician. And because he’s Not A Politician, he doesn’t have to play by the same rules as everyone else has. That very refusal to follow convention becomes a selling point. If you don’t like the status quo, you’re more likely to favor anyone who flouts it.
The trickster figure is important in almost every culture. It’s necessary to have someone who shakes the halls of power, who points out that the Emperor has no clothes, who reminds everyone that social conventions are largely constructed things with only the clout we’ve collectively agreed to give them, and that the more stiff and serious an institution tries to be, the more absurd it becomes. A trickster’s power comes from being able to confuse, stymie, and subvert. It’s the power of liquefaction, like an earthquake turning solid ground to mud.
But can the trickster still serve that purpose if the he attains power? Can he – or would he – still shake the halls of power if he was living in them? Would he point out his own lack of clothes? Would he allow the defiance of conventions to continue? Or, on ascension, would those very same acts of rebellion become strictly forbidden? After all, he’s The Person Who Can Change Things, and he’s in the place of power, and he’s Making America Great Again. No further mockery, satire, protest, or complaint would be necessary.
A trickster’s influence comes from being able to do the unexpected, the unpredictable, and even the unthinkable. But a leader’s influence often comes from the opposite. Because what followers want most often is for today to be more or less like yesterday. Hopefully better, but generally the same. Isn’t that what people are asking for when they say “Make America Great Again?” They’ve seen stagnant wages, outsourcing, corruption, and abuse, they’ve seen a lot of Todays that are a lot worse than the Yesterdays they remember, and they just want a stable world again. They miss being able to have a 40-year career in the same company, with a living wage, cost of living increases every year or two, decent benefits, and a retirement plan. Instead, loyal employees are being coerced into early retirement so that some know-nothing graduate can do their job as an unpaid intern. If they’re lucky, they can come back as “independent contractors” for wages that may or may not make up for the outrageous self-employment taxes. Is this something that a trickster could secure, though?
When someone’s entire public persona seems to rely on saying whatever’s attention-getting at the time, on being prepared to dismiss everything as a joke, on being prepared to rescind every deal, to renege on every promise, to deny every fact – can they actually lead? Can they be followed?
Does it even matter if they deny facts, though?
My concern is that facts don’t matter anymore. I wish they did, but even if someone is shown objective and factual evidence that their belief is wrong, they only believe it even more fiercely. Forget any attempts to argue that Trump’s polemics show him to be a demagogue, a proto-fascist, a narcissist, a sex offender, a misogynist, a bigot, a tax cheat, a potential nuclear bomber / war criminal, or anything else one might hypothetically suggest, based on the man’s own statements: he, and Pence, and his supporters, would all gladly reply NOT that Trump was misunderstood, but that he had never actually said the thing he was recorded saying. Even if I were trying to explain things as some expert in political science, it wouldn’t help, because that’s not how this game is being played. To paraphrase something I’ve read in various forms, trying to counter this campaign rationally is like trying to play chess with a pigeon: no matter how good you are and how well you play, the pigeon is just going to knock down the pieces at random, take a crap on the board, and strut about as if it’s won.
So that’s it. Nobody can be convinced, no minds can be changed, truth squidges out from beneath the boottreads of Truthiness, and I might as well fight absurdity with absurdity:
Donald Trump is a tulpa. An egregore. An entity willed into existence by force of the American peoples’ beliefs. A corporeal thoughtform of the American Fever Dream.
Is it any less ridiculous than some other presumably-joking allegations? Like the one that says he was paid by Hillary Clinton to throw the election (though, ala The Producers, it’s backfiring?) Or the one that says he’s illiterate? Or the one that says he’s Andy Kaufman in disguise? Does it even matter anymore? This all began with Truthiness, so why not take it all the way and assert, even more fully, that the reality of the situation is, and only is, what people have believed it into being.
After all, look at how involved he was in the WWF, back in the day. It’s not so hard to imagine that Donald Trump is still a larger-than-life character, one that he’s completely committed to portraying, never breaking kayfabe in public. That’s a fun argument, but why not go even farther and claim that this character isn’t even HIS character, that there IS no “real Donald Trump” behind the facade, and that the reason Donald Trump seems like an living caricature of The Sleazy Fat Cat Billionaire is because that’s precisely what he is. He’s not an actual person, he’s a psychically-generated avatar of Big Business, of The Rich, of Success, of Capitalism, of Materialism. His focus on gaudy opulence is glamour in both the conventional and the occult senses of the term.
However, those who’ve believed him into being – a group that includes both his adherents and his opponents – do not, as a whole, know enough about business, politics, wealth, or success to know what to imagine in the first place, so there are all sorts of little flaws in the model.
First of all, there’s the name. It’s a little on the nose, wouldn’t you say? “Trump,” in English, derives from “triumph,” and is most used in reference to card games where a card of a certain suit can, regardless of the broader rules, automatically outrank all others. In other words, a trump card doesn’t just have artificially- and arbitrarily-increased importance and success, it has a certain inbuilt privilege, a silver spoon in its mouth. Fitting for an entity that believes he should win because he is A Winner, and because everyone else is a loser, because nobody else is him.
However, “trump” has another meaning of “to fabricate, devise, or deceive,” as in “trumped-up allegations.” That meaning derives more from the Old French tromper, meaning “to blow a trumpet.” As the Online Etymology Dictionary explains, charlatans and snake-oil salesmen would blow horns to try to attract attention – and to attract a new mark to scam. Given the entity’s self-absorption, history of duplicitous business practices, and accusations of outright fraud (as in Trump University,) both these connotations are apt, as well.
As for Donald, the Online Etymology Dictionary indicates that it ultimately comes from the Proto-Celtic *Dubno-valos – meaning “world-mighty, ruler of the world.” I mean, come on now. A self-important, bloviating huckster who’s focused on winning, and is trying to become the leader of the free world, is actually named “World-Ruler, Fabricated, Triumphant, Deceitful, and Loud?” Even Dickens and Rowling are more subtle about the names of their characters!
And look at the ego. You can’t NOT look at the ego, because there’s nothing else to him. Armchair psychiatrists love to point out the failures of empathy and the signs of narcissism. He focuses on his will and his will alone, asserting that he and he alone can fulfill the public’s wishes and “Make America Great Again,” despite a complete lack of experience and understanding. He doesn’t thank, he doesn’t regret, he doesn’t mourn, he doesn’t apologize. He can’t truly understand or feel empathy for any other perspective but his own, because he’s been created a He simply wants whatever he wants and pursues it, regardless of anyone else’s needs, regardless of what anything means.
How can someone so self-centered be seen as someone who’d faithfully serve an entire country? This might seem baffling, but if he’s perceived instead AS a manifested force of will, then there’s no conflict at all. His is the will of the people, because HE is the will of the people. They wished him into being, and into relevance, and he will stay relevant for as long as that belief-in-his-relevance is sustained.
Look, too, at the time a veteran gave him his Purple Heart, and Trump responded with “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier.” That statement strongly implies that he wanted the award for its prestige alone, since that award is only granted to people who’ve been injured or killed in action, circumstances which inherently entail bravery, effort, and sacrifice. In short, he wanted to get the Purple Heart, not to earn the Purple Heart, and so long as he has one, he appears to see the difference as immaterial. Why? Because he, being the American Fever Dream, IS getting-without-earning, being-without-meaning. He cannot be otherwise, and he knows he is the most important, valuable, and flawless entity that exists, so he therefore can’t care about – or even conceive of – a meaningful difference between Getting and Earning.
And then there’s the complete lack of clear plans or policies. The people who’ve created him don’t know what a good policy would be, so neither does he. But people know what they want to feel. They want to feel safe, they want to feel exceptional, they want to feel powerful, they want to feel free. So all Trump needs to do is make noises that perpetuate those feelings, and it keeps the feedback loop going. There doesn’t need to be any truth, any possibility, any reality to the things he says or promises – it just needs to be believed. No matter how unbelievable it seems, it just needs to be enough to resonate, because belief alone is what sustains his pseudo-existence. There may never have been so shameless a demagogue. But, when it is what The American People want to hear, clearly it is reflective of democracy.
Why does Trump speak so poorly, with such mangled sentence structures and such elementary words? Because that’s the vocabulary level of the people who’ve believed him into being, and because sometimes his mishmash of programming causes him to emit a disjointed string of stock phrases that his believers like to hear.
Other more obvious flaws are in the ill-shaped physical form that’s been manifested for him. Trump wears suits, because businessmen wear suits. But his suits are just as baggy as any suit an average guy wears off the rack, because the average American doesn’t know enough about good tailoring to imagine it any better.
This also explains the hair: there’s just enough conflict between whether he should be the stereotypical balding boss or the suavely-coiffed playboy to create a strange middle-ground: Uncanny Valley transplants and a combover with more architectural innovation than any of his buildings.
As for the tan, the collective consciousness still associates paleness with sickness – but recognizes that genuine tanning only happens if someone spends a lot of time in the sun (which is unlikely for a businessman like Trump, who is imagined as either working very hard in NYC boardrooms.) Therefore, to maintain that veneer of youth and accomplishment and vigor, he’s been manifested with an overdone spray tan and/or fell-asleep-on-the-tanning-bed look, replete with pale goggle-spots around the eyes.
Why, if Donald Trump is an egregore, has he appeared to age, then? Two interlocking reasons. The first is that he’s a product of his time – the same 80s-era Yuppie zeitgeist that spawned the ideas of Gordon Gekko and Patrick Bateman, the one fueled by Robin Leach and Reaganomics, Madonna and Miami Vice, Dynasty and Dallas. The second is because his current power relies on the idea that today’s world isn’t similar enough to the world of the 80s anymore – but that it could be or should be. Time needs to have passed, and it needs to have passed for Trump, too. He has to be advocating a return of the 80s, not asserting that nothing has changed.
Furthermore, although he’s meant to seem larger-than-life, Trump also needs to appear “real.” He has to epitomize the American Dream of ascending to wealth and success through hard work and determination – despite that he did no such thing, started off with “a small loan of a million dollars” from his father, and would’ve been more successful if he’d invested all his money and done nothing than if he’d gone through with all his ultimately-failed business ventures.
The result is a collection of physical features which are all meant well, and are all intended to be better than the alternatives of age, balding, relative pallor, etc. – but which add up to the exaggerated caricature we see, a form that reflects its believers’ desperate attempts to reconcile reality and desire – a form that reflects the cognitive dissonance that has brought him into being.
Why the dissonance? Why not make him square-jawed and clean-cut? It’s because he’s meant to reflect the same dissonance we feel as Americans. We grow up inculcated with the American Dream, and it feels un-American, undemocratic, anti-capitalist, and almost obscene to deny it: to deny that everyone can get everything they want if they work hard, and any failure to have what you want means only a fault in you and your work effort, not in anything systematic. Nevermind that the system itself has been set up so that only “the right people” succeed in the first place, so that underdog stories are rare, and so that – once again – things stay mostly the same for as many people as possible.
Unfortunately, whether it’s because of greed, ambition, an erosion of protections, public apathy and cynicism, or the sheer fact that there won’t be any consequences and there’s no need to put up the pretenses anymore, income inequality is worsening and the very wealthiest people are becoming exponentially more wealthy than everyone else put together. Perhaps, even though these same sorts of issues preceded the Great Depression, that doesn’t matter now – because “the right people” weren’t affected by the first Great Depression, so why should this generation’s elite care if there’s another one? Have they ever not made their success at the expense of their inferiors? Why should they shy away from doing so more blatantly? It’s not as if the masses can do anything to change it, anyway.
Besides, thanks to that American Dream, we – to quote that old adage – think of ourselves as temporarily-embarrassed billionaires. We can be rich and successful, we should be rich and successful, and we WILL be rich and successful – we just need to try harder. So whenever any initiative would threaten to increase taxes on the people who can most afford it, we rankle, because that could be us someday. And if we’re getting our well-deserved rewards for being Good Americans, working hard, and achieving the dream, why should we have to give anything up to those “takers?” They say some of them don’t even pay taxes; how useless is that?
Make no mistake, it’s hard for the white, working-class schmos of America. Jobs are being outsourced, and nobody seems to be up in arms. It’s suddenly becoming damn near mandatory to send your kids to college, but tuition is skyrocketing and there’s less and less out there to help. Lobbyists and special interest groups seem to get all the attention, but your industry isn’t big enough or influential enough to sway anyone toward helping you. Yet it seems like other groups are getting no end of public sympathy and support.
A lot of his supporters see patience, compromise, and diplomacy as weaknesses and hurdles, not as integral parts of any process. They’ve lived whole lives being told never to give up, never to back down, never to show vulnerability, never to cry. When shit goes bad – and it always does – they don’t have the money or the resources to just buy a new thing. They’ve got to make do with what they’ve got, use the ingenuity at their disposal, and try to come up with something unconventional that does the trick. Or they use something they heard at their Granny’s knee, and that she heard from her Granny before her.
And what do they get? Jokes about uneducated, inbred hillbillies. Jokes about flyover states. Jokes about outhouses from the same people who advocate for clean water in Bangladesh. Jokes about trailer homes from the same people who advocate for Habitat for Humanity. Jokes about bad teeth and diabetes from the same people who see poor dental care and nutrition as absolute tragedies when they happen to someone on the other side of the planet. Jokes from the people who are so wealthy, so safe, and so privileged that they can afford to throw away money on feel-good bullshit – everything from kale to quinoa, yoga to pilates, “spirituality” to The Secret – and who act as if they and the world around them are actually better off because of their mindfulness and positivity.
So there’s an appeal in the demagogue, in someone like Trump or Sanders who wants radical change. When “The System” itself is corrupt, then playing by the rules of that system can surely only foster further corruption.
But the thing about fascist demagogues is, they don’t care about truth or ethics or legality, just about results. They don’t care about the rule of law. The people who want one in office want him there explicitly because he doesn’t care about the rule of law. But instead of a slow and steady change – instead of electing officials at the local level who can affect things close to home, they’d rather have one person knock everything down from the top so it could all be restarted in one great go. Suddenly, decades of experience become a liability. They don’t want a stable status quo, they don’t want business as usual, they don’t want stability, they want things to change, even if it’s for the worse for a while, because that’s what it seems like it would take to make an improvement. They don’t want checks and balances, they want him to make all the decisions, because he’s a winner, everyone else is a loser, and he’ll make America great again. And he can be as harsh as he wants in the process, because everyone he’s disrespecting and alienating deserves to be disrespected and alienated, because they’re the weird fringes of America – and he’s the only person who’s even paying lip service to Real America, as embodied by the rural blue-collar worker.
We’ve come to accept that politicians are full of bluster and bullshit. So much so that, when we encounter someone whose lies aren’t just stretches of the truth, or lies by omission, or lies by exaggeration, but are wholesale fabrications – or complete denials of ever having said things, despite video evidence or his own prior statements – he can still be embraced because “at least he’s not a politician.” So many promises have gone unfulfilled for so long that, now, someone can promise to create national databases tracking religious minorities, or to keep them from entering the country, or can threaten to deport legal citizens – and have this handwaved away because “It’s not like he’d actually do that; he’s just trying to appeal to his base.” He can brag about sexually assaulting women, and have this handwaved away because “It’s not like he’d actually do that; he’s just trying to appeal to his friends.” That roughness and crudeness and lack of experience become virtues. And, furthermore, the sorts of people who maintain racist, sexist, bigoted beliefs get the reassurance that such things really are normal and reasonable. He can joke about imprisoning someone who, after many thorough investigations, was not found to have broken any laws – but “It’s not like he’d actually do that; he’s just trying to appeal to Republicans.”
It’s been a fact forever that politicians lie. They tell lies to get votes. They tell lies to get campaign financing. They tell lies for strategic purposes, because revealing the truth would be much more destabilizing. Diplomacy is just a lie with a doily on it.
But we’re surrounded by so many kinds of lies now. We’ve grown up with mass media, so we’re used to inaccurate representations of reality. We’re used to reality shows where everything is actually scripted; nobody’s surprised or horrified anymore to learn that they’re fake.
Amid those shows, we’re used to commercials where every product is the best, the greatest, the most important, the most significant. We’re swimming in superlatives.
If we think we’re avoiding entertainment and picking up “real news,” we’re used to sharply-polarized media with a 24/7 news cycle that wrings every last possible plausibility from the most popular, ratings-grabbing story – media that attempts to create stories about outrage and scandal even where none exist. There’s no “fairness doctrine” anymore, so being Fair And Balanced can be the equivalent of having a NASA scientist on to talk about the latest mission, split-screened with a literal flat-earther.
We’re used to a gatekeeperless Internet where anyone can say anything and have equal chance of being heard – which is wonderful, but which helps us forget that not anyone can say anything and have equal chance of being correct. We’re used to bite-sized bullshit in Facebook posts, we’re used to “Like and share if you agree,” we’re used to emails that say Bill Gates will share his millions if you pass along this email; we’re used to seeing people play along with them because “It can’t hurt.” We’re used to Internet comments full of random insults and invective based on no facts, just boredom and the desire to cause a stir.
We’re used to sarcasm and satire.
And even if you think that media rots your brain and education is more important, we’re used to teaching for the test, even when that doesn’t help anyone retain that knowledge or apply it. Even science is marred by biases and the replicability crisis.
As long as things can seem to be the case in some measurable way – even if you’re ultimately measuring something else, and poorly – it can be treated as reality.
Informing is not as important anymore as appealing to the pre-existing beliefs and, through obfuscation, manipulation, and outright lies, making them look more like the truth. And perhaps, on our end as receivers, there’s just so much to parse all the time that we can’t help but fizzle out at some point and begin accepting things at face value. Perhaps, biologically, we just can’t process all the information we take in with as much critical thought as would be necessary to truly understand and to more safely navigate our way in the world. (Assuming we’re so lucky as to have learned how to think critically about information in the first place.)
For all these reasons and a bunch of others that I’m surely not even thinking of right now, the media landscape has become reality-proof. Giant headlines and chyrons can proclaim certain ideas – while the inevitable retractions, if they come at all, are hidden away. One person’s complaint can be spun into outrage, creating its own backlash of outrage. The very idea of “breaking news” has been broken, because that label will get slapped on the most pointless and arbitrary non-events, in the hopes that someone will stop and pay attention, and people paying attention is more important than people actually learning anything.
This is as close as we come to media literacy.
I wonder whether the combination of ratings-driven media, the lack of gatekeepers and the accessibility of alternate sources of information, and the general ethos of postmodernism are all working together to keep people outraged, fearful, confused, and disparate, each with such drastically-different beliefs about reality that communication is impossible. The Overton window might not even explain it anymore: it’s not just moving, it’s undergoing mitosis. I wonder if there’s not enough consensus left to describe one window with fringed ends, but whether some peoples’ Unthinkables have become others’ Sensibles, whether that’s the legalization of gay marriage or the idea of barring all Muslims from entering the country.
I can’t find anything as clear and solid as a study – and, believe me, I’m aware of the irony in referring to anecdotal “evidence” – but it seems to me that, even as sarcasm and satire grow more prevalent, the average person’s ability to recognize them as such is dwindling. I knew college students who’d never heard the word “parody” before. I saw 50-something adults believe that Stephen Colbert was being sincere on The Colbert Report. I’ve seen people not only be unable to take a joke, but unable to recognize them as jokes. And I’ve seen the rise of antihumor, cringe humor, trolling, and other such modes where the humor comes not from what’s said, but from the disappointment, confusion,
So I have an utterly unfounded pet theory that the ability to detect sarcasm and satire might have correlations with political leanings, in that “liberals” might be more willing to perceive additional layers of interpretation in a statement whereas “conservatives” might be more willing to take things at face value. The downsides of this being that “conservatives” might fail to recognize when something is a joke, sarcasm, a lie, a scam, etc – and that “liberals” might create a whole new unintended meaning through their interpretation and erroneously ascribe that to the author’s intent. The fringes on both sides have similarities, though – believing in conspiracies based on bad information that they value over “mainstream” news, which they believe cannot be trusted.
But the point of this seeming digression is that there is an eroding consensus about reality itself now. Not just in distinguishing sarcasm from sincerity, satire from assertion, joke from advocation, but even fact from opinion. This entire election cycle – this entire year – has felt like a coma dream. I have heard, in full sincerity and from multiple media outlets, outlandish phrases I never thought I would hear. Phrases like “Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump,” “the late David Bowie,” “Swedish Fish Oreos,” and “World Series Champions the Chicago Cubs.” And while, yes, I have long loved the idea of subjective reality, and while I believe that we have some ability to influence our perceptions of reality, and while I also believe that there is an extent to which our perception of something as reality can help us behave and believe as if it were reality, and while I ultimately also believe that this sort of subjunctive-case reality helps enable us to, through actual words and deeds, create those conditions in objective reality – a set of beliefs some people sum up as “magic(k added for supplementary potassium,) my worst nightmares are also those where my genuine beliefs and truths, like that the sky is blue, our planet is called Earth, and there are four lights – are treated like insane ramblings and I’m ignored, mocked, or put away.
I’m not arguing here that reality is subjective and that any failure of reality to reflect my subjective preferences is therefore Bad, and people need to learn better. I’m arguing that, whether you try to explain or understand the world through fact or fantasy, science or religion or magic, myth or metaphor or mechanism, you take on some responsibility. That the people who say things have some responsibility to avoid misleading others, but the people who perceive things have some responsibility to think critically and avoid being misled, and that it works best if we’re all aware of how constructed our worldviews are and do a little more to keep our assumptions in check.
In some small way on Tuesday, Americans get to exert their will on reality. The voting process has undeniably many problems – the electoral college, first-past-the-post, the fact it’s on a Tuesday, the long lines. And, yes, one could try to argue that it doesn’t matter, that it’s all decided already – whether you’re a Trump supporter who wants to say it’s all rigged, or a third-party supporter who’s angry Johnson and Stein weren’t in the debates, or a Bernie supporter who thought the primary was fixed, or someone who wants to vote FOR a candidate and can’t support either option, or an apathetic person who thinks everyone’s equally terrible and there’s no point getting involved or speaking out or trying. Who knows, maybe any or all of that is true, and the Secret Masters of the Illuminati have already decided every president through 2032. Maybe we, the people who vote and argue and participate, are dupes, believing in a false reality.
But maybe we just need to act like democracy itself isn’t broken, and this act itself will *be* democratic. One that lets us do what we can to keep that main scaffolding in place while we try to make more significant changes at the local level. Maybe we can try to bring about that change we want in our neighborhoods, help to shape the reality we live in every day, through the people we choose for our Board of Education and our Court of Criminal Appeals.
Even if it does nothing to exert my will on objective reality, I’ll still perform an arbitrary and meaningless ritual by going to vote. Even if it changes nothing but my own perceptions, I’ll value that sense of investment, of participation, of affirmation, regardless of how my state as a whole actually decides or what the electoral college might do thereafter. Perhaps I might as well stick pins in a voodoo doll, or focus on a sigil, or cross my fingers, or pray. But I’ll try to fill the circle next to Clinton’s name – and close the circle on a rite to banish Trump back into irrelevancy.