THEORIZING TRUMP #1: Future-Shocked in Post-Apollo Culture
Donald Trump’s election perfectly illustrates three key elements of post-Apollo culture: 1) The effects of what Alvin Toffler called “future shock;” 2) The massive cultural reversal into naked tribalism and ignorance; and 3) The dark side of the deep and profound effects of electronic media technology — the shaping of tribal consciousnesses for global villages.
The Premature Arrival of the Future
Alvin Toffler’s sweeping work of social theory entitled Future Shock was published in July 1970. It offered deep insight into humanity’s philosophical plight at the climax of the space age. For Toffler, our fast-paced, “super-industrialized” society had disrupted the traditional social order so dramatically that we had become traumatized. Entering a future that was hurtling toward us at ever-increasing speed with ever-increasing patterns of change, we were finding ourselves overwhelmed by the cultural transformations of the industrialized and electrified world. As Toffler explains:
“Future shock is the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future. It may well be the most important disease of tomorrow.
“Future shock will not be found in Index Medicus or in any listing of psychological abnormalities. Yet, unless intelligent steps are taken to combat it, millions of human beings will find themselves increasingly disoriented, progressively incompetent to deal rationally with their environments. The malaise, mass neurosis, irrationality, and free-floating violence already apparent in contemporary life are merely a foretaste of what may lie ahead unless we come to understand and treat this disease.
“Future shock is a time phenomenon, a product of the greatly accelerated rate of change in society. It arises from the superimposition of a new culture on an old one. It is culture shock in one’s own society.”
For Toffler, technology has launched society so far into the future that traditional values and conventional notions of family, work, education, community, and the like have been drastically altered. It’s as if we don’t recognize our own culture and destiny, plunging us into uncertainty and doubt. In addition, Toffler asserts, the more technology develops, the less stable our culture will be, preventing us from ever feeling fully settled or sure of where we are going:
“In the coming decades, advances in [sciences and technologies] will fire off like a series of rockets carrying us out of the past, plunging us deeper into the new society. Nor will this new society quickly settle into a steady state. It, too, will quiver and crack and roar as it suffers jolt after jolt of high-energy change. For the individual who wishes to live in his time, to be a part of the future, the super-industrial revolution offers no surcease from change. It offers no return to the familiar past.”
Toffler provides an exhaustive number of plausible examples to back up his thesis, although one does not have to agree with all of them to grasp the essential truth of his insights. Future shock is the emotional anxiety and existential dread felt toward a future that challenges all previous cultural narratives. As science and technology advance, humanity too will accelerate into this future — but upon encountering cosmic nihilism and non-centrality, we will become culturally paralyzed and retreat into the security of tribes and the past. (…)
Hollywood Has Long Anticipated Trump
President Trump is not a cultural anomaly. His rise to power has been foreshadowed in Hollywood films stretching back six decades, including Ace in the Hole (1951), A Face in the Crowd (1957), Privilege (1967), Rollerball (1975), Network (1976), and Idiocracy (2006). With the exception of Idiocracy, all of these films show a world where electronic media are central to the creation of a celebrity persona that taps into the emotions and tribalisms of the democratic masses. The films anticipate the role that “reality TV” will eventually play in channeling and shaping viewer emotions and tribal reactions. That being said, none of the films could have anticipated how profoundly television would extend itself to the internet and social media.
Trump’s tribal world is tailor-made for a society preoccupied and obsessed with visual media. On television and on the internet, we can watch Trump’s TV show, his beauty pageants, his talk-show visits, and his appearances at wrestling events; we can also observe his overtly wealthy and sexist playboy lifestyle and listen to his racist trash talk. We can watch him play the numerous tribal roles he’s known for: gangsta tough guy, supposed investor genius, former football team owner in the defunct USFL, and so on. Everything his “empire” produces is ideal for consciousnesses that are wedded to screen-based realities. The only place these roles can make sense and seem coherent is the world of reality TV and social media (reality TV by other means). Trump himself is walking-talking reality TV. He’s a human Twitter feed. And just like TV and Twitter, he can be at once horrifying and hilarious.
The Global Village
As Marshall McLuhan explained 50 years ago in War and Peace in the Global Village and The Medium Is the Massage, electronic media favor tribal behavior precisely because they collapse space/time into instant communication to and from anywhere in the world — a.k.a., the “global village.” We have instant global communication as if face-to-face in a tribe or village. But rather than reflectively embrace the global (and its full implications, which require the new modes of human species-level thinking outlined in Chapter 4), most people reactively embrace the tribal and local instead.
Thus we have tribal villages prevailing in our local and national cultures. Connected by screens and links, electronic tribal villages replicate and proliferate throughout social media, from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram. With their instantaneity, TV screens, computer screens, and pocket screens favor reaction, not reflection; the mediated, not the actual; the tribal instead of the global or universal. The people who most favor Trump are the most delusional (the deniers of evolution and climate change) and reactionary (the “alt-right” tribes).
With people gazing at screens 10 to 14 hours a day, capital and media technology have been able to produce a pre-shrunk consciousness for a world of endless consumption and nonstop entertainment, leaving little room for enlightenment. It’s an instant consciousness conditioned for mediated realities, artificial worlds that favor the personal and tribal, not the universal and global; the viral, not the philosophical; consumption, not consideration; emotion, not reason; fear, not wonder; now, not long-term. In the electronic spectacle, what counts as true and real are “Likes,” slogans, sound bites, factoids, clichés, fallacies, non-sequiturs, instant analyses, shallow profundities, insults posing as insights, TV channels chock full of thousands of images, the echo chambers of Twitter feeds, antics displayed on Facebook, and the crimes and usual “human carnival” events detailed on the Google News reader.
Celebrated on our TV and computer screens is a culture populated with a virulent mix of tribes (racists, patriots, nationalists, theists, fans, celebrity worshippers, etc.) and bigots (sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, etc.). Our screens also feature talking heads, movie heroes/heroines, sports heroes/heroines, rich people, trash talkers, warrior cops, doomsday preppers, evolution deniers, ancient alien theorists, ghost hunters, paranormal believers, the paranoid and conspiratorial, the delusional and delirious, the evil this and evil that, and the unchallenged species-level narcissistic belief that humans are at the center of the universe, even as they wreak ecological havoc all over their only planet. All of this nonsense is the basis for the existential ground of President Trump’s mediated world. Add on Mike Pence, the creationist and evolution-denying vice president, and we have a simultaneous intellectual collapse and winning presidential ticket. That is not a contradiction. It demonstrates the combined effects of TV, social media, and theism, all of which embrace various forms of tribal and cosmic narcissism.
The America of Disneyland
As with the voters who elected Ronald Reagan (the movie star president) and George W. Bush (the tough-talking poseur Texan), it’s clear most of Donald Trump’s voters are future shocked, terrified of a tomorrow accelerating toward increasing complexity and diversity on a planetary scale, a future different from the pure and simple world they were supposed to rule — an industrial America ordered under God, consumption, and entertainment. Now they are desperately clinging to the past, to a “great” America now found only at Disneyland, Sunday school, the shopping mall, and football stadiums. US political culture is showing the full effect of pop culture’s and theism’s continued attacks on reason, science, and general enlightenment. Trump’s successful election represents an intellectual collapse of epic proportions as well as widespread failure of the educational systems — any other conclusion is delusional and involves doublethink.
Just think: Tribes of advanced simians thumped their chests in the Twitterverse because a reality-TV star was elected as their president on the Pale Blue Dot. And it happened in the most scientifically advanced tribal nation on that dot. That’s because Trump’s fraction of that dot is heavily populated by tribes of mediated, future-shocked voters. McLuhan and Toffler saw it coming 50 years ago.
This excerpt is 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 endnotes were omitted from this excerpt. The images used here are not in the book.