Trump, Deconstructed

Confession: until the present election season — and, actually, until I started thinking seriously about Donald Trump and his supporters — I have never really understood poststructuralism.

Poststructuralism is messy, and its claims about the ontology of presence and utterance have always struck me as getting unnecessarily far from the text (after all: the text — and the explanatory rhetorical structure that we as readers impose upon it — seems to me to be the point of literary criticism; poststructuralists usually respond to this assumption of mine with a condescending little chuckle). In spite of my earlier misgivings, though, I must admit that there is no more convincing explanatory lens for the present American political situation — and in particular, the Trump phenomenon — than the framework offered by poststructuralism.

Disclaimer: I’m about to present a radically simplified version of poststructuralism as a kind of primer for those of you who aren’t familiar, and this will consist of assertions culled from a bunch of competing theorists (who mostly spent the 1960s and 70s arguing with each other) — including some who would maybe not have called themselves “poststructuralists” in so many words. But anyway, at a high level, here are the parts of poststructuralism that I’m appropriating for my analysis:

  • One of the more famous poststructuralist contributions to literary criticism is The Death Of The Author. This is, more or less, a rejection (with, thanks to Roland Barthes, a glib catchphrase) of the notion that a text is a direct expression of a writer’s consciousness — that is, they reject the idea that, if the writer of a work is alive, you can just walk up to her and ask what her text “means,” and that whatever answer she gives would be correct. On the contrary, the claim from poststructuralism is that (1) no one “owns” the meaning of a text, and writers can be wrong about what their texts mean; (2) indeed, writers don’t necessarily even have any idea what their texts mean, because interpretation (in the sense of a sort of synthesis of meaning) is only achievable as a function of distance between the writer and readers/critics; and (3) a piece of written communication doesn’t necessarily have a single, unified, authoritative source — texts sort of coalesce *through* writers, but it’s inaccurate to attribute complete responsibility for this condensation of meaning to the conscious mind of the writer. The idea that a writer is sort of incidental to the creation of a text has always struck me as a little bit insane, particularly for modern writers; I mean, this whole “dead author” shtick is conceptually valuable for discussing texts like ancient Sumerian inscriptions, which were all composed by unknown authors, and which impart meaning that the people writing the scrolls could not possibly have directly intended (e.g., facts about the construction of the Sumerian language, the way their system of numerals worked, and the rules of their society). But The Death Of The Author has always rubbed me the wrong way when it comes to a text like The Great Gatsby; we know that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote TGG, and we understand that the context of that composition is valuable for understanding the text, so I’ve always felt that it’s overkill, if not, perhaps, almost disrespectful(?) to talk about Gatsby in terms of a text that wrote itself, an utterance without a single, unified utterer. But poststructuralism has undeniable utility for talking about certain kinds of texts, and indeed not all texts even necessarily look like books or essays, which brings me to my next point:
  • A corollary of that first point is the idea that anything can be conceived of as a “text.” If we don’t require that a text be intentionally produced by an author, then, well, pretty much anything — even things that don’t conventionally have authors—can be texts. This is important because I’m going to argue later that we can think of campaigns and movements as “texts,” and we’ll see that this assumption starts to make sense when you think of campaigns as big bundles of (often contradictory) assertions and intensions — what semiotics calls “signifiers,” tokens of meaning — without one person sitting at a desk somewhere determining the meaning of it all.
  • So: this is controversial in the field of theory, and as a medievalist (not a literary theory person), I’m really not qualified to make this kind of statement, but: for the purposes of this casual conversation, I’m going to say that “deconstruction” involves looking at a text closely and paying special attention to areas where internal unity or coherence have been falsely construed (or constructed). Specifically, when I say I’m going to deconstruct the Trump phenomenon, I mean that I’m going to try to pry the man from the movement and expose some of the contradictions in the text of the movement that sort of undo our assumptions about both. Real poststructuralist people will tell you that this doesn’t really constitute deconstruction, and they’re right, but the beauty of not being a literary theorist myself is that I can take parts of their conceptual frameworks for my own arguments and leave an unsigned I.O.U. on their doormat on the way out. Also: this is an article on Medium; get over yourself.

Just as “the author is dead” in poststructuralist lit. crit., the candidate is (kind of!) irrelevant to the campaign; the Trump movement does not have a single “author” who can claim ownership of the phenomenon, or who possesses the authority to meaningfully determine what the movement “stands for.” Trump can get up on a podium, or call in to Fox & Friends (which, by the way, why does Trump always call in rather than appearing in person? There’s potentially something deep there w/r/t the retention of control over the visual dimension of his message, but then again, maybe he just wants to be present on as many talk shows as is physically possible and phone calls are the most efficient way to meet that goal), and the man himself can make statements at rallies and issue inflammatory tweets, and those actions are part of the “text” of the campaign. But — crucially — the campaign and its associated popular movement are (1) different entities with different goals, and (2) “owned” by actually a large number of people simultaneously, all of whom have different ideas about what it “means.” In other words, the Trump campaign and the popular movement supporting it are both writing separate narratives (even if they’re working toward the same goal (for now)), and no one person, not even the current figurehead of both the campaign and the movement, is completely in charge of the whole show. And when the Trump campaign ends — especially if it ends in his defeat — the movement will probably keep chugging along. A new figurehead will almost inevitably appear, but the movement is significant enough in size that it will probably obey something like the Law of Conservation of Matter, and over time it will come to resemble the Ship of Theseus, replacing elements (even very visible ones, like candidates), but never really disappearing. All of this is to say that, where the messages of the Trump campaign and the Trump movement are concerned, responsibility — and indeed “authorship” — is distributed not merely among supporters, but even nonhuman factors, like rising unemployment, the dismantling of the manufacturing sector, and a growing resentment toward the American political class. In other words, the Trump phenomenon is at least partially divorced from Trump himself.

This isn’t unique to Trump, and in fact we see a prefiguring and reflection of the course of Trump’s movement on the opposite side of the aisle. I’m referring specifically to the remnants of the Bernie Sanders movement who have refused to follow Bernie’s lead in endorsing Hillary Clinton and yet insist upon calling themselves the “Bernie or Bust” faction. Even divorced from their leader, the movement persists, because it is authorless, a kind of concordance (or “gumbo”) of factors — e.g., rising income inequality, stagnating wages, the culture of young voters (you can call them “millennials,” but I refuse to do so), the success of the Scandinavian policy-model in Scandinavia, the primacy of conceptual dissemination through social media, &c. These factors have come into alignment to produce a manifesto, a candidate, a platform, a “text.” In other words, Sanders himself is no more “in charge” of his movement than Ronald Reagan is; his movement, when viewed as a text, is its own author. And this is how “Bernie or Bust” keeps going even after Sanders himself has publicly disowned it.

But, ok, so — let’s get back to Trump. I’ve already demonstrated a logical separation between Trump, his campaign, and the associated popular movement. Lately, as I read, “HOW IS THIS HAPPENING” is a common sentiment, globally. More specifically, people seem to be bending over backwards to understand why a rational person would support Trump. Anecdotally, I can tell you that this is a common refrain among my friends and coworkers: “just who are these people?”, i.e., who literally are the people thinking that it’s a good idea to put Trump in charge of the country, it can’t be very many people, can it? Don’t they understand that the things he says, on almost a daily basis, range between unacceptable and downright dangerous? Well — that condescension almost certainly says more about us than it does about Trump voters, but ignoring that for the moment — this is where poststructuralism starts to hit pay-dirt. The movement has an agenda, and Trump is a big part of it, but the text of the movement doesn’t rely wholly upon the existence of the man himself, and Trump’s certainly not what you would call the “author” of the whole shebang—if anything, the things he says are responses to a kind of amorphous field of intensions (more semantic “gumbo”), comprised of feelings and diverging fortunes and policies and resentments and personal/shared hopes/fears. As Trump gives more and more speeches over time, he’s feeling out the edges of that field through trial and error, and increasingly playing up big applause lines over time, but it’s reductive to think of them as merely applause lines. Really, they’re kind of highly resonant strands of the text, common chords that Trump is able to strike with significant segments of the movement.

This, though, is how people can support Trump while simultaneously ignoring (or disapproving of) the things he says that are dangerous, or make no sense, or betray a commitment to morals that you’d have to call questionable just from an objective point of view. These people aren’t loyal to the man, because he’s not in charge of the movement; the movement is authorless! Even the cult-of-personality types who refer to the man himself as “Mr. Trump” in casual conversation and wear those bright red hats in a frighteningly earnest way — even they aren’t actually participants in any kind of text where Trump is more than incidental. These people — i.e., the hat-wearers — will talk about Trump’s virtues (bandied-about are “self-reliant/self-made,” “Washington outsider/populist reformer,” “straight-shooter,” and “holds American interests in higher regard than the purported virtues of political correctness and global cooperation”), but these supposed qualities aren’t special or even new for a GOP presidential candidate; if you go back to the campaigns of Romney, McCain, and George W. Bush, I’m confident you’ll find supporters claiming identical points in favor of each of those candidates. Whatever virtues the hat-people see in Trump aren’t unique, but the movement enjoyed pretty rapid expansion and reached a lot of previously-non-voters anyway, so there you go: the man isn’t the author of the movement. He’s just a vessel through which the text is coalescing.

So supporters — members of this movement — can kind of put aside the constant tide of horribly backward/woefully uninformed/racist remarks, because the nakedly petty and occasionally even childish text of the campaign is not the text that they’re participating in; here, I bring you to my deconstruction of the Trump phenomenon. The flawed assumption that many of us make, as observers outside of this movement, is that the Trump phenomenon is unitary, and that Trump is in charge of it, responsible for it, able to direct its course and assign meaning to it. But the campaign exists for the simple purpose of promoting Trump — not even electing him! just generating publicity, through whatever means necessary! Its narrative is essentially hat-based.

The movement, on the other hand, is millions of vastly different people who are drawn to Trump because of the points of resonance between the campaign and the movement — the points that the man himself is so very good at feeling out in crowded auditoriums. Most of these people are not intrinsically interested in promoting Trump; they’re trying to avoid personal ruin and ruin for their communities, and they feel that Washington became deaf to their struggles a long time ago. They’re opposed to a federal establishment that has been singled out in the national discourse as a gun-stealing, tax-and-spend bogeyman; they’re afraid they’re going to be killed by god-knows-who. The movement is everything about the present political moment, for a certain segment of the population; there’s no separation. But, I say again, Trump himself is irrelevant; he just happens to be running at a time when this movement is susceptible to resonance from a political entity, and his campaign happens to resonate best, even despite (and occasionally because of) the things the man says that the rest of us find so horrifying.

There you have it, then: the success of the Trump phenomenon, even among people you might not expect, is readily explicable in terms of key resonances between two separate texts — and the man himself? He was just in the right place at the right time.