Postmodernism and The Donald
My hometown region of Shreveport, LA is an odd place. Children living there are taught to honor it as a place that embodied the frontier spirit. Its scion, Henry Miller Shreve, was half of a renaissance man. An inventor and adventurer, he is immortalized as the man who opened the lower Mississippi river from the log-jam known as the Great Raft. He also designed a few steamboats, one, the Washington, even serving as the predecessor for what would become the party barges of nostalgia and legend. After clearing the river and investing in the highest point of elevation, what was then known as Shreve Town, Henry was appointed the local governor and held the position until he retired to St. Louis in 1841.
He was son of Israel Shreve, a revolutionary soldier in the war for independence, and felt a similar principled fervor during the War of 1812 when he shipped armaments to Gen. Jackson which helped win the Battle of New Orleans. Under the cover of night and ingenious subterfuge, Shreve snuck past British fortifications, resupplying allies, and made it back in one piece. On return, he requested a position in the battle and helped man one of the cannons, earning the respect and friendship of Gen. Jackson. By all accounts I could uncover, Shreve was a daring, industrious man who lived under the principles of integrity and honor for his country. Of course, Louisiana had historically always been a slave-holding region, so those values of rugged individualism is not without its caveats.
Fast-forward to the Reconstruction, and we see a region undergoing a reassessment of cultural values and realigning of social mores after emancipation. Following the end of the Civil War, previous slave owning regions had to deal with an influx of no-longer-free labor and the drastic resulting culture shock. Here, with the region fully settled and established, the cultural values of the frontier no longer applied. In that absence, Northwest Louisiana sought other values to better represent the social needs of its day. Regrettably, this shift did not bring one of progressive acceptance and racial integration. Instead, an arguably progressive mindset of frontierism was replaced with the undeniably conservative values of segregation, simply substituting one version of institutional racism with another.
With legal enslavement abolished, the previous power-brokers desired other methods of coercion to maintain their consolidated power: enter legal and extra-judicial segregation. While the legal codification of institutional racism known as Jim Crow limited the rights of newly-freed black slaves, the more insidious threat, the direct threat to black bodies and black lives, remained “extra-judicial” vigilante violence: a.k.a. lynching. This quintessential turn to established power structures, the defining tenet of conservative philosophy throughout history, was championed by my hometown region where, between 1877–1950, Caddo Parish, the “County” where Shreveport is located, lynched the second highest number of black people in the country.
Enter modern day: Shreveport is comprised of a 60% black population, has had a black mayor since 2006 through three successive elections and two candidates — the current of whom is a woman. On the surface, Shreveport is arguably one of the more progressive cities of Louisiana, other than New Orleans of course. But, in the “Deep South,” this moniker is little more than meaningless when state politics bleed crimson red, a dynamic which corresponds to a surprisingly consistent degree of the country at large. For instance, in Ohio, one of the primary “swing states” during the 2012 presidential election, the 10 largest cities voted Democrat (along with a number of smaller college towns), while more rural areas overwhelmingly voted Republican.
This division of cultural values, translated through the political spectrum of governance and policy, highlights a continuing social revolution which has been occurring since the late-1950s. This shift can be argued from a generational perspective, where each successive generation identifies as more liberal than the prior, but this shift is immortalized by the aphorism “bleeding hearts swinging right.” However, even along those lines we find divergence from the past. For the first time since the origin of political parties, more Americans identify themselves as Independent, better known framed as “unaffiliated.” Quite simply, whether liberal or conservative, the prevailing parties’ values no longer represent a plurality of the people over which they inevitably govern.
This shift in the cultural zeitgeist is epitomized with the electing of America’s first black president, Barack Obama. Unlike other presidents who pushed for progressive reform in various ways, including Republican presidents depending on the issue or political pressure faced, Barack Obama his no option to spin his herald as anything other than a dissolution of traditional cultural values. President Obama wears his reminder on his skin, plain for everyone to see, and must continuously prove himself to the culture over which he presides that he is not the end of times, even if he acknowledges that he is the end of an era. This dynamic is arguably responsible for a perceived lack in the President’s adherence to the progressive principles on which he campaigned.
An astute observer of history and hegemony would note that the President actually adheres to his predecessors in policy which affect all Americans and merely deviates in ways which the single corporatist party has sought to distinguish itself and provide ostensible choice: social political issues. The notable exception to this reading would be the ACA. But again, when examined under economic and hegemonic effect, the President’s landmark policy serves as more of a boon to the corporate powers than a curse, as the law essentially guarantees an increase in profit without incurred cost — aside from mandatory coverage which is a sword that cuts both ways since the expanded pool of covered offsets those costs. In short, ACA stabilizes corporate insurance company profits while reeling in the short-shrift revenue schemes. Regardless, for all superficial purposes, Barack Obama represents a changing of the times and cultural values.
In the absence of solidified social values, a vacuum is naturally abhorred. However, to the Postmodern philosophical work of the 1960s-70s, on the heels of Existentialism and the Modern Era, the very idea of monolithic meaning is absurd. With Gender Theory, Queer Theory, Post-colonialism, and a slew of other focused identity ideologies, a single collective culture is no longer the ideal. Different people identify differently, which, while obvious, requires an extra degree of care and nuance when determining how people are appropriately governed. Without clear cultural cohesion, there exists no standardization which can rally all groups under a single banner, so any organizing crest must inherently be non-standard.
…Which brings us to “The Donald,” or Donald Trump. Just recently considered a joke, more carnival barker than politician, Trump’s meteoric rise has left the traditional political pundits speechless. Yet, when juxtaposed with the cultural void, or more accurately, the cultural plenum, The Donald presents an interesting dynamic. He is undeniably tied to conservatism as a member of the Republic Primary, but for the overwhelming majority of his life he was a registered member of the Democratic Party and has given more money to liberals over the course of his life than conservatives. However, The Donald embodies a trait far more relevant to contemporary cultural value than any political stance: authenticity.
In an ostensibly meaningless world of superficial image and false presentation, one of the few true values which garner respect among all members of society except the most perversely psychopathic is authenticity. When it is often much easier and more profitable to simply misrepresent oneself to get what he or she wants, the integrity to stay honest in face of perpetual temptation is not just commendable but almost surreal. This doesn’t refer to tone’s casual self-allowed the light of day around family and friends. This refers specifically to someone’s personage, warts and all, on display to others without the context or empathetic relationship to not pass judgment — or at, at least, to only do so in equally safe company out of earshot.
It is this troll which we all hide, that becomes almost admirable when one is brave (or callous) enough to let the world see. Of course, this scenario is predicated on the idea of not being said troll’s target should poop and fan meet. This is part of The Donald’s appeal — especially in a still predominantly white society like ‘Murica. However, The Donald’s persona is not simply a one trick pony, though substantively he actually is; no, The Donald also has another big draw which captivates Americans, perhaps uniquely so when compared to other cultures. See, without intangible values to anchor people and provide a sense of pride and meaning, Americans rely on tangible value to define themselves: money.
And, as anyone who listens to The Donald speak for more than five minutes can attest, The Donald is rich, really rich, like billionaire rich. It doesn’t matter that he would be wealthier by over a billion dollars had he never touched the money and simply allow interest to accrue — a strong argument against his self-reported intelligence or business acumen. All that matters is that he is rich and with that wealth holds a favored position. In his defense, The Donald has also done a stellar job positioning himself within one of the few quasi-intangible values Americans still respect as well: fame. Through his television show, The Apprentice, The Donald has become a fixture of American culture.
Moreover, one could argue that The Apprentice is the vehicle through which The Donald’s authenticity first gained traction. As a man who has filed bankruptcy four times, some may find it ironic that The Donald lectures random D-Level celebrities on the finer points of business management when his likely best skill is that of delegation; however, to any rationally analytical person, The Donald is a master of image manipulation — even more ironic considering his supposed greatest difference between himself and the other candidate is that of authenticity. Still, money and fame really has only one precedent for political success in Ronald Reagan, but The Donald carries with him none of the previous political experience or perceived gravitas of The Gipper.
But an idol must represent more than ideal values of themselves to gain influence over others, the idol must present a value which others can obtain as well. While most people, even those enamored with The Donald, are aware they are unlikely to achieve wealth or fame within their lifetime, The Donald’s authenticity presents a (technically) obtainable goal. Combine that with his willingness for self-aggrandizement, and the postmodern public has a hero of sorts who is both able to be himself and proud of that product — something many who lionize The Donald do not currently feel. By way of transference, supporting The Donald, a fairly warty troll in many respects, is as close to supporting oneself as the American public is likely to get.