By electing President an executive who is best known for playing a character of himself on television, American society has accepted its media-obsessed parodic stereotype. The President’s selective press ban, exclusive ‘address to Congress’ and refusal to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner are indications that our self-aware culture cannot avoid internal destruction, as media, politics and criticism collide into homogeneity. The President is as skeptical of the systems of media as he is their content, which may be a revelation for the POTUS, but not a new perspective to have of the world — postmodernism has experienced years of steady growth as an influential but discrete pocket of contemporary society, able to attack politics safely, with cynical humor and satire. But as of recently, postmodernism is no longer qualified to comment on popular culture: it is the mainstream, now operating as society. Under Trump, American culture has quickly recognized its own parody.
Modern America is derivative of the architecture of early American society, which placed profound stress on freedom of expression, isolationism, radicalism, and primitivism. These values, necessary for foundational social structure, are also the bases of modernism.
After decades, that first American design resulted in two postmodern perspectives, as defined by Walter Truett Anderson: a postmodern-ironist sees truth as socially organized and not objective. This is how a majority of the American public has begun to view the world — with knowledge that there are systems in place that prefer and reject certain people, cultures, and movements. Ironic postmodernism is a comprehension of the assets and flaws that affect our current society, and a belief that improvement comes through identification and evolution.
Then there is the social-traditional perspective, in which universal truth is found in the heritage of American and Western civilization — certainly a defining Trump attribute. Traditionalists blame present-day issues on our divergence from 18th century principles. With limited outside influence permitted, the American ethos is reinforced, and patriotism approaches religion. That dogmatic lucidity is best exemplified by “The American’s Creed,” written by William Tyler Page as an entry into a “patriotism contest” (frightening) and passed as a resolution by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1918. America is the only modern nation that is founded on a creed, ordinarily a formal declaration of religious beliefs — the outcome of internalizing early American, ‘City on a Hill’ self-canonization.
A deeply divided nation was inevitable, as the design of ministerial, exceptionalist American culture directly clashes with the American public’s growing penchant toward inoffensiveness, secularism and equality. That is the symbolic perfection of Trump: he is destroying the idea of a Divine America, which birthed and bred him and which he loves appropriately. But as a product and representative for old beliefs in a world that has since moved on, he is the pompous high school actor still taking bows in front of a closed curtain, bringing attention to the absurd theater of American modernity.
Like any enlightenment movement, there have been players before Trump, working in growing pockets of entertainment. Iconoclasts like the late David Bowie and more topically Lil Yachty, whose music is so intentionally a response to the set thematic and formulaic structure of the era of music it exists within — specifically rap, which for years has failed to depart from its “take us serious because we are” stigma. He is testing the limits of an ongoing trend in popular rap that prioritizes catchy melodies and beats over technical ability and lyricism. Popular music’s rejection of humor is unlike any other form of communication, and Yachty’s conscious, bubblegum irony is aimed at exposing that preconception.
A postmodern understanding of American culture also explains the success of The Chappelle Show and Black Mirror, which acknowledge the irony in the mediums to which they are subjugated, and use it to taunt every component of the form, from television, to themselves as actors, to the viewers as participants. These shows have played the role of ridiculing topics that are the real burdens to modern society so the rest of mainstream programming can stay at a distance. That is the shared genius of Chappelle and Yachty: their success comes from critiquing and satirizing American modernism — and its fascination with itself — a bit too well. And by doing so, transcending designation, allowing them to participate in worlds that are not naturally their own.
That is their role, as it is Trump’s.
Clearly, the traditional political stage was not the Donald’s instinctive calling. But in the most recent election, both Republican and Democratic voters proved that they didn’t want a President that looked and acted sterile anymore. Like the rest of media, we needed extreme characters who clearly personified their intentions and values. Bernie Sanders and Trump tapped into the same need for a cultural overhaul, but the latter was willing to explicitly say “what you’ve been watching is wrong” and introduced distrust of media as a pillar of his campaign. He injected the rhetoric into national and cable news, which had the same “take us serious please” theme as rap, and had been begging for any type of sarcasm. It took hold. Most importantly, he exploited the willingness of his opponents to still play by those old rules, to take themselves too seriously. Apolitically, that is why Trump won the Presidency. The nation had been experiencing a comprehensive cultural shift that larger, less focused systems of government had ignored. Trump noticed, and as a guard of old American society, wanted to assure his anachronistic beliefs were not deserted in a progressive America.
Certain remnants of the traditional American culture Trump idealizes — the Stars and Stripes iconography and the calculable old media — are too painfully, strangely proud to bother changing. Some are aware of their declining role, and now seem inappropriate for not making political references. If culture continues as a singular political mass, 2-camera sitcoms and hospital dramas will need to scrap the escapist format that has worked for so long and evolve to include consciousness to remain relevant (I can’t wait for the Flint water crisis episode of Mike & Molly). Most have already adapted. The Church of Late Night has been a solid campaign stop for decades, but in the last two Presidential campaigns has remodeled, with Fallon and Corden playing fun games and segments with candidates to provide the most direct pipeline to online virality.
Though, the best example of cultural coalition is the quick ascension of Saturday Night Live from a satisfactory sketch comedy show to political pundit, outlet, and line of dissent that influences the President’s emotional stability on Sunday mornings.
Policy decisions can be made because of a Pete Davidson sketch.
The consolidation of events and derision is complete — culture can no longer exist without self-reference. Trump has been the final catalyst to a full philosophical revolution, the true end of modernism: culture has consumed itself.
But Mr. Trump is just playing the character he always has: a brash executive who makes bold, and only bold, decisions. And Lil Yachty is the face of Target.