We live in a time of dramatic make-believe. Almost half the voting population in the United States is at best skeptical about well-established scientific evidence, at worst in utter denial, when the evidence runs counter to their ideological beliefs. Corporations brand products more or less divorced from the outcomes they credibly are able to effect. Individuals increasingly advance their own interests by fabricating résumés and memoirs partially if not completely at odds with their actual biographical achievements. And politicians and political interests increasingly make up claims about the world, other candidates and themselves so at odds with any semblance of reality it should take a nanosecond of fact-checking to refute. And yet significant swaths of the electorate and of publics more generally are not merely convinced by the claims but seemingly have their base beliefs reinforced by such representations.
The bandwidth of this now increasingly proliferated phenomenon is sufficiently broad to suggest it has become a defining condition of our time. I will call our moment one of make-believe. Make-believe here is not just fantasy, a making up, with the intention to deceive. There may well be a heartfelt commitment to the claim embedded in the fabrication. But it is more than deceit. The fabrication is a function of a social fabric of woven tales about the world, one meant at once to reinforce a social vision with the view to a certain sort of end-oriented action (or inaction, as the case may be). The reinforcement itself is usually shored up by recourse to force or its threat, to cutting off (hence the political currency today of walls and closing borders), to physical violence (from bomb-dropping to roughing up at political gatherings).
It follows that the “make” in make-believe is not just a making up, a cosmetic veneer to make oneself or one’s cause look good. The making signals also a compulsion, the forcefulness of the making in the make-believe, the compelling of belief on both sides of the utterance. An "or else" sits implicitly in the disposition of “you better believe,” suggestive of the threat. Implicit in the threat is the insinuation that ultimately the world constituted in and through the sustaining fabrication would unravel were the belief to evaporate.
Of course, pretty much all politicians make things up to secure interest and ultimately votes. Politicians, as the Sophists were among the first to see, are concerned foremost with the rhetorical arts of securing the belief of followers, if need be window-dressed as -- or more extremely at the expense of any relation to -- truth-telling. But there seems something larger, deeper, more prolific at work in the turn we have taken over the last 30 years. The “Big Lie” of the fascist 1930s gave way in the 1980s to narration of the “Great Communicator.” But now, I am suggesting, we have come to inhabit the age of the “Fabricating Faker,” the “Monster Make-Believer.”
Most, if not all, the Republican candidates for president represent this turn, to more constrained or unbridled degree. All deny the science of climate change, pretty much all the way down. All deny a widespread problem with police racial profiling, with deadly consequence, despite almost daily evidence. All at least insinuate, if not simply declare, that terrorists are crossing the southern border from Mexico, along with “illegal” migrants, even if they can point to no actual instance. All seem to think the largest threat to homeland security are Syrian refugees, despite almost weekly evidence that the danger is far more readily from violent, gun-toting alienated white men at home. All seem to think that robust deregulation and tax reduction for the wealthy principally will ignite an endless economic boom despite repeated evidence of cycles of boom and bust that have left larger and larger segments of the population impoverished (they are perhaps right about the “ignite” and “boom” part). Some seem to think that America can close its borders, cut itself off increasingly from the interconnected world we inhabit and live out our lives in perpetuated bubble cultures that will never burst, until they pop repeatedly and violently in our collective faces. All seem to think that repealing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it with some version of a voucher system will magically provide healthcare to the deinsured. Some remain “birthers,” and “truthers,” where the “evidence” in each instance is out and out fantasy, at best, “compulsion” at worst.
All the Republican presidential candidates embody this condition of make-believe more or less without reservation. Yet the two candidates that have led the nomination process much of the way to date are those who best represent the condition. Donald Trump and Ben Carson have been willing to make things up more or less from whole cloth to a greater degree than the others. Carson has circulated a completely debunked theory about the Egyptian pyramids being built to store grain. And he has insisted that he was offered a full scholarship at West Point officer academy as he was completing high school though he never applied, while claiming he threatened to kill his mother as a young teenager though no one recalls him expressing violence in any outward way. Trump, for his part, long denied President Obama’s U.S. citizenship in the face of reams of counter-evidence. And he has emphasized repeatedly that Muslims in New Jersey were cheering the fall of the World Trade Center on 9/11 though no one can point to any evidence bearing this out, and plenty to the contrary.
When both have been called out on their fabrications, their recourse has been to deny they are fabricating, to reassert the claim as though repeating it often enough will render it true, and to deny their denials. By erasing the traces of their make-believe they reinforce the respective claims as if their content must be true. Any skeptic is rendered the problem child, in denial of “common sense.” Believers are turned into truth-bearers, witnesses to the gospel; non-believers are made maniacal, in denial of the make-believe any “ordinary” person can easily “see.”
Trumpeting — the bellowing of any made-up claim to political purpose — is a strategy of trumping one’s political opponents, drowning them out both in the making of the claim and especially in the calculated media frenzy prompted in its wake. It is the technique of outplaying the less agile by sidestepping the charge and deftly turning the thrust against the critic. And the moment of trumping is loudly proclaimed, trumpeted from the political stage, further drowning out critics and skeptics.
In his seminal lectures on the history of neoliberalism, the French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that “homo economicus” — Economic Man — of classical liberalism was replaced by neoliberalism’s Man of Enterprise. Homo economicus is defined in terms of economic agents rationally pursuing their self-interest to optimize self-identified preferred outcomes for themselves. By contrast, Enterprising Man emphasizes social fabrication for the sake of leveraging social and political networks, securing self-advantage, closing the deal and satisfying passing desires. He is one who competes and invents, makes things up, saying the damnedest things for the sake ultimately of nothing but self-advantage, self-possibility, self-profit. He makes things happen by inventiveness and self-invention. Fabrication and self-making, creation and re-creation serve as his presiding sensibilities, reflective of those of our moment. Looking good and acting awesome, he is self-minded in flaunting prowess and profit. But he also projects braggadocio and whatever he can get away with. He looks to be in total control even while bordering on being out of control. And he networks only with those who think and look like him. He is "Mad Men" reprised, "American Psycho" revived.
The Trumpet Man, the Donald, is the pitch-perfect embodiment of the Man of Enterprise. As such, he represents the optimal political candidacy to suit the increasingly troubling times we have come to inhabit. Nothing is beyond the phantasmic molding: History is bent to self-profit, endorsements are spun out of mere agreements to meet with him to discuss concerns notably with his candidacy, people — especially people of color — are reduced to props in the political maneuvering. Mexicans are to be sent “home” no matter their having lived much of their lives or been born in the USA, Muslims are to be prevented from entering or re-entering the “homeland” no matter their being American citizens or the constitutional violation. Persons in the concrete are exploited for his political advantage, only to be told by Trumpeting Trump how much he loves “their kind” in the abstract — and how much those abstractions love him! Even excludable Muslims supposedly now love him in his fantasy life-world. It’s less now that the emperor has no clothes than that he has made them from whole cloth. Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, the axis of totalizing make-believe nativisms today. The Mussolinis of our moment.
Donald the Trumpeter for president. We get, alas, the trickster we bargain for. The basement bargain sale has begun.