Donald Trump Humanizes Our Post-Literate Culture

The harangue from Trump supporters listing the laudable qualities of our celebrity president are myriad and borderline mystical. To wit: Trump is an outsider who cuts through the political pablum, speaking in a no-nonsense, New York vernacular; Trump’s personal fortune extricates him from the influence of big donors, authenticating his ideas; Trump’s rough-hewn, business impulse creates a bottom-line presidency dedicated to crude (and sometimes cruel) efficiency.

These qualities that some say are admirable — simplistic language, self-sourced ideas and a fast-twitch, business instinct — find their anti-intellectual inception in what Marshall McLuhan calls a post-literate society, now epitomized by our post-literate president. The notion that Trump’s mind is not an austere, calculated intellect as much as it is a barren landscape where life struggles to take root becomes less insulting (sadly, not less worrisome) when we read it as a cultural inevitability. Claimed to be a materialization of the anti-elitist, anti-politico ache, Trump really remains a product of a televisual culture fixated on the image. His degenerate language skills and self-promoting ethos stem from a post-text society in which a kaleidoscope of images massages thought into an empty elevator pitch.

The seemingly-ancient typographic culture I speak of was one that produced a democracy tutored, at least in part, in critical thought. In contrast to the proffered multi-media image, a text’s chosen “image” is the inter-imaginary one conjured by the word on the page and the reader’s imagination. Text not only forces a creative negotiation, but reinforces habits of thought and interchange. Neil Postman puts it well, claiming, “when an author and reader are struggling with semantic meaning, they are engaged in the most serious challenge to the intellect.” The epistemological distance between reader and writer allows an interpretive, critical dance that does not close, but instead mediates their distance through eventual synergization. While the image shuffles through a series of proffered ideas and egos, text creates an extended imaginary community. It is the difference between an image merely existing and an image wrought into creation. Donald Trump, professionally reared by televisual celebrity, not only gravitates towards images and their intellectual shot-in-the-arm, but sees them as the only logical and personal means to success. It makes sense that Trump would scour the television for information; yet the information itself establishes a wasteland of tumbleweed images and thoughts. These soaked-up ephemerons have little to no staying power, manifesting in the president’s doltish rhetorical mistakes or barely-parseable ideations.

Jean Baudrillard, in his 1981 book America, wrote about this especial American obsession, claiming our constant visual craving as “the mindless luxury of a rich civilization, and yet of a civilization perhaps as scared to see the light go out as was the hunter in his primitive night.” He goes on to say that we have no such thing as restorative boredom, that our desire for unfettered progress disallows for any unraveling interchange or thoughtful reverie. While our president seems to have no problem retreating to his chambers, his retreat is towards the hypnotic glow of images, that instantaneous reel of thought and flash-punditry that gives and takes ideas at a vicious pace.

Ideas actualized in televisual flux make Trump a man of immanence, not imagination. As Baudrillard says, images “do not…feed the romantic or sexual imagination; they are immediate visibility, immediate transcription, material collage, precipitation of desire.” Trump’s superficial gratification feeds back into the image’s self-preservation as a standard of intellectual adrenaline, allowing him to exist in a harmful symbiosis. His cursory tendencies find their mate as he appropriates flipbook ideas and talk-show sound-bites as cogent theses. But the issue with borrowing is that it makes you only average; to steal thought, one must annotate and synthesize, not just regurgitate. Ideation becomes memorization, and the more complicated a story, the more likely we are to forget and forgo many of the details. Trump craves an instant intellectual grasp, which is impossible, but not, as we have seen, unimaginable. As Postman says, television raised “the interplay of image and instancy to an exquisite and dangerous perfection.” Trump didn’t vitalize the concept fully, though, since there’s nothing beautiful about it. 

  • Hank Wordsworth

    Have you considered the alternative, my dear Kyle. On election eve I felt the most intense dread at the prospect. I was truly like the tormented passenger in that Twilight Zone classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” But the gremlin on the wing of my plane, prying at the cowling of the ship of state, was wearing a pant suit. Had she won, God forbid, it would have been for me like seeing Linda Blair the most powerful person on earth before the exorcism. I’m sure, however, that many Hillary supporters had the same visceral repulsion of Trump. When polarization gets to the point our continued sanity turns on who wins an election, it’s probably time we look into a peaceful breakup of the country into “communities of shared interest.” Certainly I would welcome the Wake Forest political science department adding a concentration to help us with the groundwork for that contingency. “Secession Studies,” as it were. Oh cute Kyle, I’ll miss you so much after you’ve relocated to Detroit. But politics is politics.

    • Kyle Ferrer

      I hardly think my diagnosis of our president as post-literate is insane. It is less a personal hatchet-job as it is a larger, cultural interpretation that accounts for Trump’s behavior (as well as the behavior of a majority of Americans). I find it more interesting to talk cultural studies, poetry or philosophy than straight politics, so although I appreciate your rhetorical free-spiritedness, it reduces my claims to post-election hysteria or nonsensical bitterness, both of which I do not have. I have appreciate your comments and our dialogue, but in order for that to consistently occur there needs to be something cogent to respond to, not just debunk.

      • Hank Wordsworth

        “but in order for that to consistently occur there needs to be something cogent to respond to, not just debunk”

        Yes, I’ll work on that. In the meantime…

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ODloNpu8B

        .

    • TD

      Reagan was “a shining city on the hill’. GHW Bush was “a thousand points of light” Clinton was “a city called Hope”. GW was “a compassionate conservative”. Obama was “yes we can”

      Trump ?? The first president who intentionally wishes to tear us into two warring factions or “grab us by the ….” Dislikes conservatives like Sessions, Ryan, and anybody else in the Republican party who does not spend most of their time praising him (as Herman Cain does) and is not willing to support whatever he hears about on Fox that day.

      How did shutting down the government go? Or closing the southern boarder? How many more Fox ideas will our country have to suffer?

      The alternative is looking better every day.

      • Hank Wordsworth

        Actually, TD, I consider most Republicans just speed bumps to disaster and Trump, by all indications, is only a bigger speed bump. The country I want back will take cataclysm. And ironically we’re most likely to find that in a socialist democrat like Ocasio-Cortez —socialism to the point that those who pay for it finally throw in the towel and say “free for me too.” Of course, that is an unsustainable course but, fine, when the checks to pay for it all are finally worthless: cataclysm. It will be tough going for a while, especially in urban areas. But out of the chaos and wreckage expect North Carolina to emerge as a sovereign state with an open-door immigration policy, at least for German theoretical engineers. Additional exceptions should also be made for Portman, Bahar, and Kyle because they write so well. I’d love to read their accounts of North Carolina’s first manned mission to Mars.