Pink Marble: Aesthetics in a time of Trump

Breccia pernice lines the walls of his famous “Tower” in Manhattan, its fleshy tones accentuated by the glow reflecting off of gold hardware. In contrast to the neon lights and cold facades outside, one almost gets the sense of walking into a wood-paneled sauna, and many (not most or all, but enough) of us can’t help but feel envious of the man who lives at the summit of this palace that wordlessly communicates itself as a sanctuary for indulgence.
In our brief visit fifteen years ago, my family almost felt obligated to buy something. We lingered in the hallway as if hoping to see a religious leader emerge from his chamber, and left only after my father emerged with a giftbag from the music store. This is the intended effect of that lobby’s design, just as surely as Frank Baum’s window displays, or museum exhibits, are intended to draw you into a certain timeless state of mind. But the reason it works, the reason any form of taste, advertising or propaganda exerts its subtle influence on pedestrians always has something to do with the way it aims just below the belt of your consciousness.

In my previous post about Milo Yiannopoulos, I neglected to mention one foothold which earns him respect in wider circles outside of the far-right. I confess that he manages to draw sympathy from me when an interviewer brings up the subject of Islamophobia, because of the undeniable fact that he, both as a gay man and a critically thinking political commentator, could never be accepted in countries that maintain Sharia law. He becomes very animated and reasonably defensive over the fact that homosexuals and atheists (both real and accused) are executed in such places today, and from this angle it becomes a personal offense that inheritors of Edward Said’s 1972 literary critique of Orientalism have turned it into an indictment of anyone who wants to openly debate whether certain beliefs in Islam are worthy of respect. Islam is not a race, it is not racist to criticize doctrines — and yet, unfortunately, this discussion sharply drops off a cliffs edge here. Yiannopoulos uses the present example as a launch pad for generalizing about every other aspect of social justice and liberal politics. The scandalous accusations on either side of this rift are too deep to overcome when we look at them as fresh, and real. In some cases they are real, as bad or as good as we imagined. But in either case we prolong the debate by never actually digging into where the conflict sparked.

In fairness to Milo, the problem with Islam is that you can’t criticize it, paradoxically, because its followers preserve the dignity of their tradition as if it were cast in ceramic. Alternatives are derided as idolatrous vanity, while the unchanging art of Arabic calligraphy and calls to prayer are deemed the opposite. What are the aesthetics of veneration? Are they different from egoism? And what’s the difference when large groups of people show veneration for egomaniacs? This is, ultimately, a more important question when people in power or public positions work both sides of a situation to their advantage.

What I’d like to offer is a somewhat academic-flavored view of the magnate-in-chief, not because these views are in short supply but because naive ‘takes’ on pop culture so often miss the mark. ‘Identity Politics,’ for example, is just one aspect of a deeper issue. The ‘left’ will not be able to combat the new ‘right’ without understanding how much aesthetics are entangled in the flaws of each side. The topic of aesthetics lies squarely on the borders of casual and intellectual discussion, and it’s crucial that all Americans work themselves toward a conversation that intersects all interests rather than criss-crossing from wildly different sources and in opposite directions. Putting aside unclear allegations of “election rigging” or hacking, let’s start with where Russia itself drifted back into the daily news frame.

Within the first week, Trump has established that his relationship with the media will continue to be adversarial. The media has posed unusual criticism of Trump because of his unusual past and unusual preference for hearsay and #alternativefacts — unusual for the head of a stable democracy. But the growling sounds of our country drifting over roadside rumble-strips have remained subjective. We still struggle to articulate the difference between true facts and provisional ones, good democracy and bad. We cannot ask ourselves enough, why so?

There are valid fears about Trump’s fascist overtones, though two out of every five examples seem to be unfair exaggerations. The wider the margin of error, the more space he has to fill with his alternative vision of reality. Inasmuch as his politics seem better suited for the 1920’s, he also knows the muck-raking journalists rely on larger-than-life villains to effectively communicate what it is they detest about advertising culture. Both, after all, ultimately depend on an audience with little desire or patience for pedantic lectures. If we presume to have moral or intellectual high-ground, we have to claim the areas where aesthetics fail and our mistakes reveal potholes. What accounts for the whole picture will have a longer reach than the adversarial alternative.

Liberals have a complex fight to wage, and for this reason activism on the left tends to function more like war propaganda — the “fight for 15,” marching for basic rights, mounting a resistance movement, continually trying to advertise to itself what cosmopolitan ideals offer us in the future. With that in mind, the Hillary campaign relied almost exclusively on the aesthetics of minority demographics standing together for ambiguous causes, and that aspect of ambiguity in art is exactly what formed a sink-hole in the cultural left. Most critics saw #StrongerTogether as “More of the Same,” and appeals to diversity did not make a compelling counterargument. Instead, the resistance has remained slogan-centric in a way that only feeds critics, because it seems the objective isn’t to express the winning side of a moral and intellectual argument so much as to honorably go down in history, to take mutually flattering freeze-frames of fellow leftists as we all hedge our bets for the next time ‘progressives’ will have the chance to articulate and apply their ideas, and once again fail to do so. “It’s the journey, not the destination.”

Meanwhile, only a fraction of Trump’s success can be attributed to independents and the disgruntled “Rust Belt.” One sorely neglected aspect of latent fascism in America — in every country — is the way that fascism presents itself as intuitive to many people. “All of that power…” said the idiosyncratic owner of an old Thai restaurant in Asheville just a few years ago, off-handedly daydreaming out loud to one of his waitresses who I knew at the time. My small example was, likewise, a man who made veiled propositions to young women on his staff, tossed out lewd comments about customers, all in the presence of his wife, who worked in the kitchen. The raw power of Adolf Hitler, given enough distance now to sound like an impartial observer of history, can be admired by men who relish the quest for power they have taken on as entrepreneurs. And why stop there? The Russians had more going for them than a good R&D department and a myth about Aryan history!

Every popular example of fascist leadership involves a facade involving personability and an intolerance for ugly details. Think of the style of rhetoric, the pairing of low-brow and ironic head-bobbling with expressions of muscular defiance. And then consider the goose-stepping, banner-carrying processions. Even if it’s only a facade, it is boldly determined to make greatness by force of will instead of gossamer public works. This is one reason Trump managed to make promiscuous male chauvinism and religious social conservatism compatible: they suggest a “work hard, play hard” mentality straight out of liquor commercials, a sense of class in spite of hidden desires, all based on the sense that every indulgence is a right for the upper business class. And who can deny it to them when consumerism has this ideal dangling as the reward waiting for every working member of the lower class?

American display advertisement for radio’s place in life at home

Russian cultural aesthetics are, to my knowledge, not a deeply studied topic. But we are all familiar with the gift-wrapped basket of motifs — the reds and the black bear fur hats, the billowing bonfire design of the St. Basil’s, and the austere images of people accustomed to bundling up against the persistent cold. The faces of Russian men and women represent a cocktail of Semitic, Asian and northern European genetics, though this hasn’t stopped their typically fair complexion from suggesting to naive members of the online Alt-Right that the world’s largest country might be a deep repository of white pride. After all, in many ways they represent all the most decadent ideals of supremacy: novelists like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Nabokov are frequently held as pillars of serious literature. Russian composers and pianists are, likewise, more or less tacitly accepted as the pinnacle of prestige in classical music. Combine this with a bit of elitist stoicism and a bastardized version of American postwar consumerism (exotic to Soviet citizens who managed to peek under the ‘iron curtain’), and you get a cultural aesthetic which in spite of its ingrained history of corruption and oppression, manages to entice American men into sympathizing with Vladimir Putin. The raw machismo appeals to the unavoidable need for passion in one’s life, and the impression of stoicism protectively masks this while redirecting every open-ended thought toward self-gratification and the laughing stock of anyone who whines and complains about the cold, the ‘environment’, or violence against women. Bonus features include the subcultures of recreational fire-arms, computer coding/hacking, sharing graphic videos of accidents, and the implied notion that Russia managed to overcome democratic socialism (and so can you!).
In a time when the

Obviously, for a party which seemed more than ready to dive head-first into an administration destined for war with Russia, the democrats have found it easy to assume the reverse, that what the ‘alt-right’ sees in Russia is indeed what Russia is. This is precisely where aesthetics will undo the liberal left, who simply co-opt aesthetics of the right and turn them into propaganda for what is wrong with America —often without proposing an alternative. Cosmopolitanism, in spite of the associations we might have between that word and certain high-brow New York publications, is intellectually anti-aesthetic. The logic behind truly radical democratic values is what was in vogue among elites in St. Petersburg and Berlin before both cities were purged by the red tide of a totalitarianism that promised an alternative to hypocrisy. The fact that aristocrats know direct democracy is, in pure form, incompatible with the social structures holding them at such elevation, forces them to obfuscate complex discussions in which the lesser educated are unworthy to participate. The larger the country, the more this may seem a necessity. Communicating the value of interdependence is itself interdependent on the sensitivity of an audience, and that can carry all sorts of aesthetic assumptions about what makes one sophisticated enough to understand liberal ideals. Eventually, this becomes so convoluted that the alienated public finds the expedient alternative — fascism, and/or feudalism — as a more relatable and appealing corrective to bureaucracy. (This is equally true in the development of most theocracies and the history of Japan, as I will argue elsewhere)

One way of rationalizing or putting beauty into words is that some things present themselves to us as if they were made for our intuitions. They conform so easily that we have to appreciate the fact that they make ‘sense’. In religious terms, this is called “creation,” and it applies to the universe as much as the ‘gifts’ of marriage and the human mind itself. It may have been the most important part of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which almost nobody reads precisely because it is the opposite of conforming to pleasing intuitions. And, in a sense, that is a valid criticism of philosophy itself: it has not managed to address human intuitions, except at the radical fringes. Instead of understanding how “parologisms” disrupt our reasoning, it has been assumed that such things are easy to spot and only symptoms of ignorance, rather than competing narratives of reality.

The fascist elements of Descartes’ notions about consciousness and truth obviously involve narcissism, obviously involve a state of mind you might expect if mirror neurons in the right prefrontal cortex were removed. We understand this intuitively, in isolated flashes. But we don’t seem to acknowledge that there is a consistency to the way that people develop their worldviews on similar aesthetic rationalizations. If empathy never seemed as useful, attractive or interesting as other human traits or capacities, your understanding of the alternatives form into a psychological ‘coalition’ that favors cultural appeals to those values.

viral image of Vladimir Putin, c.1972

Chauvinism in isolation may be unfavorable, but if it’s “all in good fun,” or if it’s a private moment that really shows more about the licentious and scandal-hungry tabloid press, a person may be more inclined to permit it in ways that on the outside look morally bankrupt. Internally, you might even rationalize it as a beautifully natural expression, inexcusable momentary lack of etiquette notwithstanding. And everything the left fears about Donald, about Confederate flags and gun ownership is a badge of honor for a new generation of conservatives because it is a measure of their own esteem that some people are sensible enough to handle freedom — fraudulent dealings, lethal weapons, extensive access to resources at risk of natural habitats or drinking water, exorbitant wealth and political control — with grace and restraint, while other lesser types are not able to handle such privileges. The aesthetic of individualism demands amnesty for clever rule-benders, and harsh punishment for the rubes that would blame ‘society’ for their problems. It’s only been strengthened by the real or imagined fear that government programs and liberal elites do the same thing: giving power to bureaucrats who want us to assume they know how to handle it.

Ultimately, as counter-intuitive as Trump’s relationship with Russia seemed to be in 2016, in the future we may look back on the way our Cold War was destined to end up this way. In our rivalry we came to view Russia as a fellow competitor, a nemesis we could not live without. Communism was defeated insofar as nationalism prevailed, insofar as global trade made domestic policies irrelevant, insofar as Reagan and Bush presided over the conclusion to history and the closing of the American political imagination.

“I do it for the aesthetic more than anything else,” Donald was quoted as saying in a May 1989 feature (p.93) for Spy magazine, which explored the trumped-up background of Ivana Trump a decade after she was put in charge of overseeing renovations at the Grand Hyatt. “I do it for the beauty.”
While the sources of some of his quotes are sometimes dubious, we all know he has uttered similar things without thought of implication. Thirty years ago Trump joked on camera that his flair for deal-making is an addiction. It was a flashy way of trying to dissemble the fact that he and other casino tycoons make their money off of an addiction — not just passively, but by actively putting pressure on blindspots in the average person’s powers of reasoning.

But, in fairness to advertisers everywhere, suckers are born every day and the only way to compete with the best hucksters is to beat them at their own game. At the most elemental level, the so-called gambler’s fallacy is an aesthetic illusion. Millions of people are able to convince themselves that a series of losses, by the laws of probability that govern our universe, inevitably pile up like weights on the scales of justice. Given just a few more plays, the jackpot is sure to swing back in our favor at some point. This makes even the likes of Trump appear to be a neutral part of the process, and we on the left love to hate him and other robber-barons for playing into that notion. The problem is that liberals have taken on the same fallacy in their opposition to fascism. “Surely it will eventually crumble under light of day, surely the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.”

I believe in hope, I believe in democratic socialism and the immeasurable benefits that come from our acknowledgment of interdependence. But there is no hope for a political left in this country if we assume the future belongs to us.