THEORIZING TRUMP #2: The Ascent of Trump
The presidential election of Donald Trump is absurd but not an aberration. It’s more like an ascent (or descent), a long one.
After all, America once elected a B-movie star (Ronald Reagan) and a former baseball team owner (George W. Bush) as presidents. Before you pigeon-hole me into a political tribe, the above does not mean I am picking on Republican presidents. My politics are far beyond the narrow confines of Republican and Democrat.
At some point, the human species must get beyond its narcissism, planetary destruction, and the tribal-nationalist cultures of Team America and Team Russia. With each nation possessing thousands of nuclear bombs, the future of civilization depends on it. Given the rising tensions between America, Russia, China, and North Korea, it’s hard to tell if the Cold War is really over. Add on the Terror War and the rising religious fundamentalisms (of all stripes) and one wonders if our species is evolving or devolving. Are we closer to the futures of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Planet of the Apes?
It’s 2017, and we have a reality-TV star as president, yet remain far removed from the sleek space station promised in 2001. Given that America and Russia are upgrading their nuclear weapons programs, we may be closer to the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes, in which civilization was destroyed by nuclear warfare and apes were left running the planet.
Progress and Devolution
It is easy to see that having Donald Trump as president reveals a screwed-up America. But at the macro level, larger forces are at play. A long-time celeb, reality-TV star, and Twitter tough talker, Trump personifies our post-Apollo world, where accelerating science and technology are countered by virulent narcissism and tribalism (racism, sexism, theism, etc.). Side-by-side, progress and devolution play out on epic scales. After all, President Trump apparently favors ramping up torture and nukes. Is this even remotely sane?
Trump’s popularity and election is just another example of cultural devolution amidst the global media spectacle, where celebrities reign supreme and wannabe tough guys hold the reins of power. The same is true for Putin and his macho clown show. China, too. Trump just personifies it best. It’s a tribal world for a global village.
Throughout the media spectacle, we see the nonstop antics of tribal panic and pandemonium, triggered by our deepest existential anxieties, operating at the conscious and subconscious levels. Our planet’s advanced simians are unwilling to accept their actual place in the cosmos — as revealed by their most advanced media technologies. That’s right, telescopes are media tech, too. And we ignore their messages at our peril.
As a species, we know we inhabit a tiny planet orbiting an ordinary star among the 300 billion stars in the Milky Way, itself one of two trillion galaxies in the observable universe. The Milky Way has billions of habitable planets, and everywhere our telescopes look, they spot the building blocks of life among the stars.
We face the paradox of our greatest scientific achievements — the universe is vast, ancient, and utterly wondrous, yet we are insignificant simians who might be utterly meaningless in the universe. And we are likely not alone. Like the apes facing the monolith in 2001, we’re utterly terrified, yet we can’t look away from our screens.
This existential condition has been present since Apollo 8 showed Spaceship Earth floating amidst the cosmic void in 1968. With a billion TV viewers tuning in, Apollo 8 astronauts read from the Bible in a stunning leap backward for the human mind at the height of scientific accomplishment.
People have been denying the meanings of Galileo and Darwin for centuries. Why not deny the Apollo and the Hubble images, too? Keeping our pre-Copernican worldviews make us feel special and central to the universe. It’s one way humans try to overcome the fears of cosmic nihilism and meaninglessness in such a vast and majestic cosmos. We also immerse ourselves in the media spectacle, celebrity culture, and consumer tribalism. Trump is a master of all four.
From Apollo to Elvis, Elton, and Ziggy
When seeing Earth from space, the only rational conclusion to draw is that humans are one species, sharing one planet with a single planetary ecosystem. After all, we humans share 99.5% of the same DNA and our bodies are made of the most common elements of the cosmos — hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, etc.
From Apollo’s moment of global unity we could have moved toward a peaceful planetary civilization, but we quickly returned to our tribal narcissism of endless warfare and consumption. After the last Apollo mission, the next global TV broadcast was Elvis from Hawaii, with numerous scenes of celebrity worship and consumer luxury at Honolulu hotels.
With the astronauts grounded and Elton John’s “Rocket Man” burning out his fuse, it’s no wonder Ziggy Stardust soon arrived to transform the space narrative. We weren’t going to other planets, but we have celebs, aliens, and rock stars to entertain us and leave us in awe and wonder. The media spectacle exploded, with consumer society embracing every form of tribal identity, now on sale at your mall, thrift store, and online retailer. Our sprawling electrified metropolises pushed nature ever further away, while erasing the starry night skies from our daily consciousness. Our everyday existence is more or less akin to a human carnival inside a technological shell, where most everyone is scurrying about in a desperate search for meaning and relevance, supposedly satisfied by our tribal identities, consumption, and super-specialness.
With no connection to nature or the universe, today’s dominant secular narratives are devoid of any sense of universal meaning or shared cosmic destiny, seemingly bent upon celebrating consumerism, entertainment, and all forms of diversity, tribal differentiation, and cosmic centrality. These narratives have been reduced to the following: 1) Find and adopt an identity within a tribe; 2) Endlessly consume products and services to reflect this tribal identity and differentiate yourself from the other tribes; 3) Remember that you are unique and super-special; life is all about you enjoying yourself, being entertained, getting it on, expressing your feelings, etc.
Star Wars in the Hubble Images
Meanwhile, the Hubble Space Telescope peers across the cosmic voids to the edge of the observable universe, now stretching across 100 billion light years. And there is no Creator in sight, apparently too busy to bother photo-bombing any of the Hubble Deep Field images. Maybe the Creator has its hands full determining presidential elections, military outcomes, and the mating habits of Earthlings and all the other advanced simians in the cosmos.
The Cold War may (or may not) have ended, but George Lucas and Star Wars show we will extend our religious warfare into the recesses of the Hubble images. Bloodbaths in space, endless wars among the stars. May the force be with us. No wonder so many nations have militaries armed to the teeth, with nukes, lasers, bombers, battleships, and torture chambers. And American police forces look and act like armed soldiers every day, manhandling and shooting citizens with impunity. That’s life in a militarized society, not a sane and democratic society.
Trump, Putin, and the Anthropocene
The overall effects of our tribal narcissism go far beyond global warming and the Cold War, despite the macho antics of Trump and Putin. We humans have polluted almost the entire planet, effecting the Anthropocene and a new geological-ecological epoch, complemented by a sixth extinction event. If we don’t change our ways, we may well face the future depicted by Interstellar where humans have to abandon Earth to survive an ecological apocalypse. The rise of Trump, Putin, tribal warfare, and consumer society’s planetary destruction illustrates that our species is largely in denial. That’s why Trump and Putin will expand our dependency on fossil fuels, no matter what the effect on the ecosystems. The plundering, pillaging, and polluting will continue. Meanwhile, Trump and Putin preen on the world stage like wannabe superheroes.
Maybe some day our species will grow up and embrace its place in the cosmos, seeking its meaning in something other than theism, tribalism, and obscene levels of consumption. Science and technology (especially media and medical technologies) are progressing every day, showing how we could make a sustainable society. We are made of the universe and the universe is in us — that’s the starting point for new narratives for the human species and building a peaceful, planetary civilization.
But such progress is mirrored by denial and delusion on a planetary scale. Rather than embrace our actual place in the cosmos and on Earth as a single species, we remain wedded to tribal identies, nationalist warfare, and delusions of cosmic centrality. America and Russia are upgrading their massive nuclear arsenals. The Cold War is back.
I am reminded of the scene in 2001 in which the apes first touch the monolith. Inspired, they convert bones into weapons and the technological arms race was on. One ape shouts to cosmos as he tosses the bone into the air. In the greatest jump cut in cinematic history, the ape hurls the bone high in the air, and just after the bone peaks in its ascent, the scene cuts to a spacecraft orbiting Earth against the black void of space. The cut from the bone to the spacecraft brilliantly captures in a single moment and in a single thought the entire trajectory of human technological evolution, from the Stone Age to the space age. As shown in 2001, we have the potential to be an enlightened species peacefully seeking new meanings and destinies in the cosmos.
Yet, after four million years of evolution, we still see tribes of advanced simians busy thumping their chests and shouting to cosmos as they build ever more weapons of annihilation. Seventeen years into the 21st century, the ascent of Trump shows Charlton Heston had it right in the original Planet of the Apes — “It’s a madhouse!”
This essay is based on ideas from Barry Vacker’s new book, Specter of the Monolith: Nihilism, the Sublime, and Human Destiny in Space — From Apollo and Hubble to 2001, Star Trek and Interstellar (2017). For more information or to purchase the book in Amazon, click here.
Note: The images used here are not in the book.