Know Your Little Trump
As the campaign chapter of this election comes to an end and we begin to prepare for the chapters ahead, what comes to mind is the need for a bit of reflection and introspection. What are the lessons here? What can we learn from the Sanders campaign, the debates, the primaries, the wins and losses, and all of the muddled in-betweens? Are we going to remain violently and perpetually consumed by The Donald through the November 8 elections while becoming increasingly [insert adjective depending on your position] about Hillary Clinton, who will presumably be our next president (of course who am I to presume — I don’t have a crystal ball — but the assumption is that she will)? Beyond gossip, catchphrases, Janet Jackson song references, and memes of kitty cats “fighting back,” what are the lessons here?
One lesson is this: There’s a little Donald Trump in all of us, and that’s one of the reasons we love to love or hate him so much. Some folks do their best to respond to his calculated provocations with a kind of rejection, be it by denying the severity of his venom (if you’re a Trump supporter), or by working themselves into a tizzy over his gruesome nature (if you’re not a Trump supporter).
I find myself doing neither. I was a post-production employee on “The Apprentice,” and I logged and transcribed footage on the show (and no, I didn’t see anything worthy of further investigation, and no, I’m not a Trump supporter, but I’m not a Hillary Clinton supporter either). I think my time watching and cataloging his performance in our tape logging rooms desensitized me to that which compels voters to get up in arms about him. In some ways because of my experience with the show, I am hyperaware of its manifestations everywhere. I see his misogyny and aggressiveness every day — in the entertainment industry, in academia, and in culture in general. I see it in the tone in responses to blog and/or social media posts. Trump’s external aggressive nature is our internalized angst and anger revealed to us without temperance. And so although we may object to the orange ick we see on our screens, we do so in part because we’re nervous about what he reveals about our own selves to us so aggressively and provocatively (as is his modus operandi). To not take a moment of reflection to acknowledge this is to wholeheartedly accept the distraction that Trump and Clinton offer us without welcoming its lessons.
We have an inner Little Trump simultaneously with having an unease over having a Little Trump. Perhaps it is the manifestation of an unchecked id, in conflict with the ego and super-ego, fueled in Trump’s case by privilege and entitlement. This manifestation is also mirrored in his competitor, whose decades-long position within a political empire is marked with calculated and aggressive deals and dealings that will no doubt influence her actions as president. They already have, and you will see them in her stance toward the wars we wage and continue to engage in. But, I think we secretly wish we had more of those perks and privileges despite their cost, though we may not admit it. Chris Agnos is right, Trump is our mirror, Clinton our mask.
As much as we put down either or both of these candidates, we understand and covet some of what they embody. We wish we were that powerful/rich/influential/bold/aggressive/successful/famous/seen sometimes. And so in order to feed some of our own desires and impulses, we express and give power to our Little Trump through violent expressions and reactive utterances. This happens with our disdain toward something, or in moments of road rage, or in our competition with one another, or an aggressive “you’re wrong” or a haughty #ImWithHer in person or online, or a condescension toward Trump supporters themselves who we call names that may not technically be racist or sexist, but are denigrating and demeaning all the same. We take sides, even when we don’t realize, aligning ourselves with larger groups that we offer our consent to, without careful consideration of what is being spoken or uttered in our name. This happens in pro-Clinton, pro-Trump, pro-Bernie, pro-Tulsi, pro-USA, and [inadvertently] pro-war discussions rooted in our unflinching and all-encompassing patriotism. There’s a Little Trump in all of us, to varying degrees, even in his competitor who thrives on stoking the fires of our Little Trump just as much as Trump himself does (and he does it so brilliantly).
Trump — as person, as brand, and as Barthesian myth — is further fueled with every mention of his name. He is the overfed monster who reveals the ideology of value through visibility and celebrity obtained by the use of a potent mixture of shameless self-promotion and provocation. This ideology is all around us: Kim Kardashian, any other reality TV celebrity, even Hillary Clinton. Value is expressed through visibility as a marker of success, and Trump’s value, nauseating as it may seem, grows with the continued reference to and promotion of his name as brand. We are all complicit in this process, for we are in a constant state of self-commodification and self-promotion ourselves. It is the age of the self as a brand. Why else do we tweet or Snapchat or Instagram so much of our personal events, ideas, and feelings? We want to be seen and recognized, because visibility is our marker for success and value, but we might want to ask ourselves what we’re we willing to give up for that recognition. Does that recognition honor the issues we face every day? Is it an empty visibility that actually devalues us rather than lifting us up?
Emphasis on Trump not only distracts from actual issues — rape culture, war, rejection of actual policy discussion, election fraud, collusion and coercion, environmental issues, racism and sexism, governmental corruption revealed in hacked emails — that are swept under the rug, but it simultaneously gives more weight to the brand being promoted (in this case, Trump, “The Apprentice,” and by extension, the ideology of Hillary Clinton as somehow saintly in comparison to her competitor).
Except that, in this Barthesian Good vs. Evil wrestling match between Trump and Clinton, there isn’t really a clear winner, because both are corrupt. Because the whole system is corrupt. The mainstream media narrative being sold to us since the final presidential debate this week is that Trump is spiraling toward his demise, and yet we know that he is untouchable just as Clinton is, sadly. The photos of those two yucking it up at the Al Smith dinner clearly reflect this. These are the perks enjoyed by the elite. This must be acknowledged because it too is at the root of our general unease, but we use it to fuel conflict between each other instead of revolt against an oppressive and hegemonic framework. We buy the ideology of Good vs. Evil, and we wish to embody it ourselves, but the answers are muddled, and we don’t have a clear answer, or hero, or solution, so we remain muddled. Power — as expressed through empire and the elite — is in many ways being promoted as Good, while the rest of us are left bickering with each other. In some ways, we are being asked to view ourselves as the villains, with empire or the elite as our savior. But we know this to be false as well, so we’re stuck. We either aggressively embrace one candidate or the other with an exasperated denial of the realities of the situation, or we are left in a state of perpetual fight-or-flight, anxiety, and frustration.
Too many of my friends and colleagues have expressed to me that this election has given them PTSD, unease and the sense that they are this constant state of “fight or flight.” The candidates vying for our votes rely on this assault on our senses. Within that calculated assault lies the potential for ideological manipulation. Trump = Bad, so we are asked to believe that Clinton = Good, and if we throw our support to her, our problems and concerns will magically be addressed and solved. But it’s not that simple, and we know it. It is a denial of reality that we cling to so desperately. Who is willing to confront our political leaders with the demand to end this kind of collective assault so that we face our collective realities?
The reality is, while we obsess over the stories designed to distract us, our country is now supporting Iraqi military in Mosul, and Saudi forces in Yemen while we continue to support our main ally with $38 billion in military aid to Israel as they continue a military occupation of the Palestinians. We are actively involved in acts of war, but if you were to see it from the narrative offered to us on the surface (as is the case with mainstream media), it’s Trump! Trump! Trump! And Russian hackers! #WikiLeaks exposing our corruption is more or a detriment than the corruption itself! Wait, what? Certain journalists and documentarians now face penalties and jail sentences because they don’t collude with the monopoly of power that comedian and truth-telling sage George Carlin so succinctly explained years ago:
“They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. Thats against their interests.”
This election offers us lessons. Donald Trump offers us the chance to deeply examine our current state of affairs — both personally and collectively — to gain the wisdom and insight into who we are and how we each embody tiny seedlings of Trump’s (and Clinton’s) malice, misogyny, and megalomania that we pretend to be so shocked by. Hillary Clinton offers us the chance to respond to her callous “Get over it, you know” with kindness, empathy, and a bold and unwavering intelligence rooted in awareness, education, and the ability to be critical with honor, grace, and class.
In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin reminds us that “One of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” Trump, Clinton, the ideology of visibility and self-promotion as self-commodification and branding, the militarism expressed not only in our endless wars but also in how we communicate with each another, and our response to all of this offer a chance to face this pain through introspection and a whole hell of a lot of calm to process and learn and to hopefully emerge ready to work. Together.