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.