The political culture at present is one of total and perpetual negation. Decorum holds no place, institutions are being undermined and a regime based on a cult of personality is being established. Some say Donald Trump has no ideology, but nothing is still an ideology, and it’s an ideology based on a negation of nuance. Purely in favor of the superficial self, Trump powerfully negates the intellectual man. He is the epitome of the one-dimensional man.
Trump’s complete repudiation for anything intellectual or idea-based collects in a succinct, transparent, regime-establishing ideology much like the ones based in historical bastardizations of communism. Trump is, in a sense, leveling us all into objects for exploitation, and we don’t even realize it. He blazes a dangerous, nascent trail in his earnest if unwitting move towards permanent negation, opening the door for a true American despot to take full advantage of the fully debased citizen.
Joseph Brodsky, while detailing the condition of Russian literature in a 1984 essay “Catastrophes in the Air” from his collection Less Than One, talks about how a totalitarian government levelled a literary (and, it could be said, intellectual) tradition that stemmed from Dostoevsky and the nineteenth-century literary apotheosis. He claimed the Russian upheaval’s “reductive effect on the human psyche was unique enough to enable the rulers to talk about a ‘new society’ and a ‘new type of man.’” This sounds Orwellian, yes, but also sounds like the factless approximations voicing opinions about American political economy. “I like Trump because he talks like me” is a popular sentiment. If we really look at this sentiment, it is not just identification, but an unconscious giving in. Trump does not superimpose the common man so much as he introduces the no-man.
The “new type of man” Brodsky talks about in Russia is precisely this no-man, an essentially disembodied, dehumanized impulse that makes the power of the despot so slippery, pervasive and omnipotent. As Brodsky goes on to say, “How else can you build a genuinely new society? You start neither with the foundation nor with the roof: you start by making new bricks.”
This trend, too, can freeze the state of art. Since “tragedy is history’s chosen genre,” as Brodsky says, writers are limited to and preoccupied by detailing the necessary but artistically limiting contours of historical tragedy. Everything becomes political, a resistance move, a “didactic enterprise,” a stifled society’s account of stasis. But an account of stasis is still pretty much stasis. In this the writer’s “ability to achieve the aesthetic detachment imperative for a lasting work of art” cannot flourish. “True” art becomes extraneous, appropriately and unstoppably so, in the face of exploitation. Brodsky says “The sad truth about this equating art to life is that it’s always done at the expense of art.”
This last part has to do not only with the anti-intellectual strain coursing through American society, but also with the intellectual one. We are becoming so constrained and obliged to detail disaster that our lives and our literature may be heading down a similar paradoxical path. Our knee-jerk negation of aesthetics is the negation of escape, and this is the insidious “tragedy” of the Trumpian perspective on life, art and politics. It immolates man into either a factless lurch or an assiduous realist, neither of which are able to massage the tight apprehension from our souls. The artist cannot merely mark down history or even detail it with a flourish; he must reinvent its aesthetic appeal. If Trump exists only to flatten us, to unconsciously prepare the office for a truly ideological despot, documentary is not enough. To resist effectively, we need great literature to stir us.
As Oscar Wilde so trenchantly observes, “The past is what man should not have been. The present is what man ought not to be. The future is what artists are.” May God, nay, may the artist save us all.