The Spectacle

When lightning strikes on the horizon, we stand and gape for a moment, no matter how predictable it was, and no matter how prepared we thought we were.

The hardest part about reconciling with the present moment — not submitting to it, of course, but finding the right way to exist in relation to it — is going to be resisting the spectacle of it all. We are all, even unto the most cynical and steady, vulnerable to the distraction that comes from bearing witness. Our own need to gaze awestruck upon the bigness of history, and the bigness of our own imperfection, is going to leave us dazzled.

Enter Trump, a personality for whom leverage and visibility are fundamental values. For Trump, the presidency seems to about these two forces, and their intersection. His way of dealing with us and manipulating us will be to keep us transfixed.

First, and most obviously, Trump is governing the country like it’s a reality TV show… or, let’s be more specific: he’s governing as a celebrity businessman. Victory parades aside, he’s successfully made a spectacle of mechanisms that were previously kept private and procedural. Every news outlet reports on his cabinet position interviews, which are sadly resembling an extended episode of The Apprentice. They’ve covered his negotiations with Carrier, and they’ve gleefully amplified his Twitter snipes at Boeing, accepting their role in a bizarro postmodern business negotiation.

But before that, there was always scandal, and that’s Trump’s deeper and more insidious glamour.

There’s been a lot of talk about normalization. It turns out that this won’t be a problem… Trump has an incredible knack for keeping just outside the bounds of normal, to remain just outrageous enough to hold our collective attention. His art is to create situations (i.e. scandals) that his opponents think are outrageous, but that his allies can forgive, because they’ve already normalized him. The rift between these ideologies will only benefit him.

This is an incredible, almost miraculous infrastructure of scandal, funneling the whole culture’s energies into the Trumpian spectacle. He is the first politician in history who’s known how to light that fuse.

And while we’re caught up in Trump’s fireworks show — his Command theater, his centrifuge of antagonism — what will the opportunists (especially on the right, but even on the left) be able to do to our country?

I think a certain strategic cynicism is probably a useful weapon here. We can’t normalize Trump, but we should let our outrage burn out as quickly as possible.