Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

Exaggerated Exaggerations: Trump's Voice, Nihilism, and the Infinite Scroll

May 04

by Noah Kumin

"He is like a man who listens intently to a stream of suggestions in a whispered voice from a mysterious source, and then acts upon them."—Carl Jung on Hitler, 1938

“They take everything I’ve ever said and exaggerate it . . . It’s all exaggerated. My exaggerations are exaggerated.” —Donald Trump on the media, quoted in Fire and Fury, 2017

Early on in Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s account of the first year and a half of the Trump presidency, Trump openly wonders why he should care about Bashar al-Assad’s April, 2017 chemical attack against Syrian rebels. The President’s handlers have told him that he must respond with violence. But Trump does not understand. What good would an American bombing of Syria do for him, or for anyone? Wolff summarizes Trump’s initial reaction thus: “Why do anything, if you don’t have to? Or, why would you do anything that doesn’t actually get you anything?” It is only after prodding from his daughter and son-and-law, dubbed the White House’s “Goldman Sachs Democrats,” that he realizes one must launch a missile strike now and again in order to appear presidential. The attack turned out to be one of the few Trump decisions for which the mainstream liberal press inched toward praising him.

It is a telling anecdote about a man who by all accounts sees the world (as perhaps we all do, to a greater or lesser degree) only as an extension of his own individual psyche. Trump’s former ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, the man who had to research Trump’s “inner life” and ought to know it best—in so far as it exists and can be known—has said that Trump “doesn’t have any core beliefs beyond his own aggrandisement and power.” His politics are a mere hypertrophication of his personal grievances and desires. He thinks NAFTA is a rip-off because he personally does not like being ripped off. He thinks America deserves more respect in the world because he personally does not believe that he gets enough respect. He wants to build a wall because he personally wishes to feel and to appear invulnerable. 

It is an observation that seems to hold the key to the problem of Trump. No wonder the President’s policies are helter skelter. No wonder he puts the threat of nuclear holocaust on the same scale as the number of people who attended his inauguration. Everything is personal, from press criticism to the continued existence of the planet. Just as when, supposedly, Andy Warhol was asked his thoughts on the Vietnam War and responded, “I prefer I Love Lucy,” solipsism (like television, like the internet) mercilessly flattens the distinction between that which is trivial and that which is grave: On the President’s twitter feed, comments about daytime television and about the fate of the world fly in one on top of the other, separated only by a time span of minutes. And the former is likely to get more retweets.

But then how is it that a man who is in the game only for himself can make a nation believe (almost by accident, if one believes Wolff’s contention that Trump never meant to actually win the Presidency, only to lose and create a new TV network with Roger Ailes) that he is in it for them? The first thing to point to is Trump’s ability, noted by nearly everyone who has spent time around him, to read a crowd and tell them what they most want to hear. When his proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border thrilled the tens of thousands who attended his rallies, he made it the central focus of his platform. When people complained about Hillary Clinton’s mendacity, he branded her Crooked. When they griped about NFL players kneeling at the national anthem, he took note, and stage-managed a drama that captivated the country.

The smug explanation of Trump’s success, illustrated by the election season’s most famous New Yorker cartoon, is that the people who voted for Trump are stupid, that they’re easily duped. That the average Trump voter, poor and uneducated, is too foolish and easily manipulated to know that he is voting against his own interests. (This theory is belied by the fact that, according to exit polls, Trump’s voters are not so poor or uneducated. The President appears to have won voters who made $50,000 a year or more, as well as white college graduates.) A sounder theory is the one put forward with characteristic thoroughness by Ta-Nahesi Coates—namely, that racism is Trump’s one core belief, and he won the election on the strength of it.

But even if this is so, and it’s a compelling argument, the fact is that the split among whites and non-whites along Democrat/Republican lines was not so different in 2016 than it has been in any other election over the past 30 years. In fact, Trump actually got a slightly lower percentage of the white vote in 2016 than Mitt Romney did in 2012. So this theory hardly accounts for the uniqueness of Trump’s presidency, nor does it explain how a person so apparently self-involved could succeed so well in inspiring tens of millions of voters. 

***

In October 1938, a correspondent at the American Omnibook Magazine interviewed Carl Jung, asking for insight into the rise of Adolph Hitler. “There were two types of strong men in primitive society,” Jung explained, “[o]ne was the chief who was physically powerful, stronger than all his competitors, and another was the medicine man who was not strong himself but was strong by reason of the power which people projected into him.” Hitler, Jung argued, was the latter sort of leader. Jung continued: “[Hitler] himself has referred to his Voice. His Voice is nothing other than his own unconscious, into which the German people have projected their own selves; that is, the unconscious of seventy-eight million Germans. That is what makes him powerful. Without the German people he would be nothing.”

Without the American people, Trump too would be nothing. But in the case of Trump’s weird shamanism, there is a new element made possible only in the modern era. It is something that became evident early on in his candidacy, as soon as his blustery provocations began to be national news. To wit: whether intentionally or not, he tapped into the collective unconscious not just of his supporters, but of those that hated him. It was easy to see what great utility Trump had not just for the right but for the left, too. After all, every thoughtless utterance, every callow tweet, had the opportunity to become a lightning rod for his opponents. Every wild claim was an opportunity for those on the left to mobilize, to read analyses, to contribute to causes. Accordingly, New York Times stock prices rose steeply with the advent of Trump. Correlating with Trump’s rise, CNN had one its best years ever, taking in a billion in 2016. With the aid of the Donald, even Twitter managed to right its ship.

Trump’s provocations, it seems, fed a desire in pundits from across the political spectrum. Not only did he give the right a supposed strong man onto whom to project their desires, and the left a scapegoat onto whom to project their hate, but he also gave us all permission to speak freely—which is to say, instrumentally, hyperbolically, without regard for the truth.

It’s hard to say to what degree the age of social media abetted Trump’s rise, and to what degree the rise of Trump abetted our worst tendencies on social media. Most likely, it is a good deal of both. Trump reflects and is constituted by our attitudes—and not just the attitudes of those on the right. One can see instances of Trumpism in the outlandish claim of leftist George Sciciarello-Maher, who, in a silly generalization, claimed that the Las Vegas shooting is what happens when white people and men don’t get what they want. (That Stephen Paddock was a particular individual, the son of a con artist and sociopath, ought to be considered relevant). It is present in once-rising left-wing writer Sam Kriss’s “In Defense of Personal Attacks,” in which the author argues in favor of “crude, cruel, spiteful rhetoric.” (Kriss’s argument hinges on the fact that supposedly ennobling ideas can be murderous or otherwise bad. But there’s a clear fallacy here: Just because one can use genteel language to put forward bad ideas does not mean that it’s better to express good ideas spitefully.) 

But it’s difficult to show evidence for a broad cultural shift that’s happening faster than we can pin it down. The examples above are unsatisfactory, as it would be easy enough to cherry-pick instances of bombast or hyperbolic generalizations from anyone on the left or the right. What I’m trying to point to as constitutive and reflective of Trumpism is a broader shift, taking place on Twitter, on the comments sections of Youtube, on the front pages of once sober-minded periodicals. It’s the joy of tearing someone down, which is so easy to effect on the internet—which is, in fact, becoming the lingua franca of the internet. It’s the inferior sense of ourselves that wants to come out on top, no matter the truth. It’s instrumental reason. It’s the love of the charismatic embellishers over the prosaicism of anyone humble enough to be honest. As with Hitler and the Germans, we feed Trump’s “Voice,” and his “Voice” feeds ours. 

But what precisely is this “Voice” of his? What exactly is its appeal? More so even than his joy in winning, what makes Trump an object of attention his all-American joy in vulgarity, in flouting genteel mores and taking the air out of grand ideals. This ostensibly “anti-establishment” attitude clearly constitutes a large part of his appeal. And it is this quality that finds as strong a counterpart on the left as on the right. The great leveling of values preached by the anarchist or the communist is put into practice by the true vulgarian, the man with no values at all. As Marx wrote in the Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part. The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade.

In this sense, tearing down the social order is an effect of capitalism, of nihilism (in the old-fashioned sense of rationality without any transcendent principle), of the strictly modern notion that any thing can be exchanged for any other thing, as long as there’s enough of it. But trying to tear down the social order—a task which needs no prior qualifications—used to be the onus of the left. Now the spirit of destruction has come to possess everyone from right-wing internet trolls, who revel in the chaos their nonsense is able to create, to Silicon Valley tech barons who fashion themselves disruptors. What has ceased to be apparent is precisely what all this chaos and disruption—the maverick spirit that spurs on the collective unconscious of the United States—is actually for. Destroy, disrupt, mock the pompous, cast aspersion on outdated mores: But to what end?

Toward no end, it seems, but only for the sake of happiness. For the joy that is to be found in disorder, in erasing everything that has come before. It is no accident that the internet era has made the “take-down” supreme, that YouTube lectures are edited and re-titled to give the impression that one speaker has “DESTROYED” the other. One of the most revealing passages from Fire and Fury is the one in which Michael Wolff describes Trump’s angry tweetstorms as beginning as insult comedy. First the President would come up with a spiteful epithet for his enemy—just for fun. Then he’d repeat it throughout the week until it solidified, however consciously, into true enmity. Then he’d unleash his anger into the world.

Back in 2015, before Trump’s political ascent, a young, liberal, Ivy-educated woman I knew had one of his tweets pinned: “Never have I seen a skinny person drinking a diet coke.” It’s not too bad a joke. (And it’s made poignant by the rumor that Trump, who, by several accounts, is extremely sensitive about his weight, drinks a dozen of them a day.)  This was Trump before the Presidency, when he could still be enjoyed, with an ironic distance, for his boorishness. Before his nihilism and his egoism—something like modernity in its most naked form, existence untethered from any sort of tradition or duty—had calcified into policy prescriptions. I remember a left wing protest rally that took place during the primary season, when the woman with the megaphone declaimed: “Trump is not funny any more, you all. He’s not a joke. This is serious.” I wonder if this was the kiss of death, to have to take a clown seriously. 

It’s a good recipe for pathology: taking seriously, taking as final, all those things in life that are inconsequential or frightfully one-sided or downright false. And I can’t help but wonder if Trump’s boosters and critics alike have taken on his pathology. On the internet, at least, we’re living in a world where day is called night by the President, and then we all must respond, Trump-like, that it is not only day but the brightest, most diurnal day in history; that night threatens to engulf the world permanently and that we all must unite against it. Moreover, our outrage at the lie is used to keep us addicted to to the news, both day and night.

Thus it is in our daily lives, our nightly tweetstorms, our moment-to-moment relations with others and with our selves—in what Jung would call our collective unconscious—that the pain of the Trump Presidency is always prominent. Like the children of disturbed caregivers, we've been caught up unawares in the President’s psychodrama, yet in our attempt to escape we sometimes merely repeat his behaviors. We’re becoming more and more like him with each unfurling of the infinite scroll. There seems to be no sane option but to tune out. But these days one couldn’t escape the news if one tried. The best we can hope for, perhaps, is a media landscape still colored with every shade of fear and rage (after all, these are the emotions that drive page views), yet not so relentless and consuming as to crowd out the features of our honest, everyday unhappiness. I mean those varieties of human unhappiness that we can feel grateful for—betrayals brought on by weakness and paid for in guilt, mistakes made in ignorance, suffering and death in the natural course of things—which are direct in the pain they bring and thus can be learned from, unlike the corkscrew twists of pathology. And this is to to say nothing of the features of life—say, courage, faith, humility, friendship, hope, mercy—that may even make our world bearable.

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