Who killed reality? (It wasn't Trump.) Can we bring it back?

In the perverse, unreal world of Trump's America, the release of the JFK documents has a special, awful irony

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published October 28, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)


It has taken me nearly forever to notice a stupid and obvious fact about Donald Trump. He rose to fame as a reality TV star, and the one thing everyone understands about reality TV — people who love it and people who hate it — is that reality TV is not reality. It’s something else: the undermining of reality, the pirated version of reality, the perverted simulation of reality. If reality is Hawkins, Indiana, then reality TV is the Upside Down.

So I’m not sure how many of the people who voted for Trump actually thought they were getting a real president of a real country in the real world. (I feel badly for those people, though not as badly as they should feel about themselves.) That whole "real world" thing has sort of worn out its appeal. They wanted a devious goblin-troll from another dimension who would make the libtards howl and pee their panties, and so far they have had no reason to be disappointed.

Zero legislative accomplishments, an utterly incoherent foreign policy, a wink-and-nod acquaintanceship with neo-Nazis and white supremacists and an ever-lengthening list of broken promises and blatant falsehoods? Whatever, Poindexter: Fake news! Anyway, it’s all worth it to watch people in suits with Ivy League educations turn red on TV and start talking about history and the Constitution and all that other crap.

A year ago last August, in what felt like a noxious political environment but now looks like a different nation, a different historical era and perhaps a different reality, I wrote a mid-campaign Zeitgeist report that contained a strong premonition of what was coming. It wasn’t the only premonition I had while covering the 2016 presidential campaign. But I’m honestly not congratulating myself here, because like many other people who write about politics, I covered up my moments of dark insight with heaping doses of smug and wrong.

In that article, I assured Salon’s readers (and myself) that Hillary Clinton was ahead of Donald Trump in every important swing state and that despite the mind-clouding effects of the Trump campaign, that reality would assert itself on election night. Can I claim that on some level I knew better? Not exactly. But I was defending myself against a deeper truth that I also perceived, which was that reality itself was under attack and could no longer be relied on: True believers in the Trumpian revolution sought to pursue Karl Rove’s “unskewed polls” strategy of 2012 to a “Matrix”-like epistemological breakthrough.

It took an invasion of barbarians from the far-right fringe, like Alex Jones of InfoWars and Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch and Steve Bannon of Breitbart News (now the Trump campaign’s CEO), along with quasi-mainstream fellow travelers like Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter, to follow Rove’s breakthrough to its logical conclusion. From their point of view, Rove had finally revealed himself as a cowardly sellout, accepting lamestream media “facts” (such as who got more votes in Ohio) as if they were actually “true.” They boldly proclaimed an unskewed reality, in which nothing ever was what it was. Facts and data and statistics were liberal lies or distortions, bought and paid for by “Crooked Hillary,” Barack Hussein Obama and the Islamo-socialist-lesbian clone army.

Since then, I have come to the conclusion that the real innovators and disruptors in this dynamic were not the Bannon-Hannity Trump enablers in the media but the Trump demographic itself, which was more substantial and more complicated than we understood at the time. Trump’s supporters are mostly either studied with anthropological condescension or mocked as a pack of delusional racists hopped up on OxyContin and Wendy’s drive-through, who have halfway convinced themselves that their stagnant family incomes and sense of spiritual aimlessness are somehow the fault of black people and Muslims and people with PhDs. But in some ways they were ahead of the rest of us.

Don’t get me wrong: A lot of them are delusional racists who believe all sorts of untrue and unsavory things. But MAGAmericans have also imbibed a situational or ontological relativism that would impress the philosophy faculty at those coastal universities their grandkids will not be attending. They have grasped something important about the nature of reality in the 21st century — which is that reality isn’t important anymore.

Hang on: Let me stop here and hit the refresh button. I went to one of those coastal universities myself and I was born several decades back into the 20th century, which means I will always believe there is a reality and that it’s important. Look at the story of Rose McGowan and Harvey Weinstein; look at the downfall of Bill O’Reilly and Mark Halperin; look at the hundreds or thousands of women who are now speaking publicly about the abusive behavior of powerful men, and look at the way many of those men are now being called to account. Lesbians and gay men may now get married in every county in every state in the union, something Donald Trump and the Republican Party have made no serious effort to undo. Much as Jeff Sessions would love to roll back the legalization of marijuana, a largely harmless herb (except as it indirectly affects your waistline), millions of Americans in many states now enjoy it without fear.

So the story of reality in America is not one story; the political tide does not run in just one direction. But if reality and reason and signs of material progress were adequate to defeat Donald Trump, he would never have been nominated or elected in the first place.

Liberals can’t help feeling an instinctive sympathy for left-behind Republican renegades like Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, despite all the shameful and cynical things they have done and all the ways they empowered and enabled Donald Trump. At least they acknowledge a shared conception of reality, one in which this guy is pretty much the worst possible president. And also because they seem lost and pathetic, which makes them spiritually akin to the liberal mindset since the morning of Nov. 9 last year.

When Trump exults on Twitter over the perceived defeat of his enemies, Republican or Democrat or whomever, it often appears ludicrous and self-destructive to those of us out here in the realm of reality. But he’s making the same point over and over, and I think his followers get it: I’m down here in the labyrinth gnawing on the bones, and you haven’t even figured out how to fight me! To get back to the “Stranger Things” references, there must be a rule in Dungeons & Dragons that covers this scenario: There’s no point in attacking an imaginary creature with a real sword.

Trump recently authorized the release of an extensive trove of government documents relating to the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, an event that is often understood to have disordered the American psyche and that unquestionably sent us down the path of conspiracy theory and fake news and collective fantasy. There’s an obvious and terrible irony at work here, or perhaps symmetry: The president who seemed to represent America at its most idealistic and cosmopolitan, and the one who represents us at our most cynical and closed-minded; the president whose death is shrouded in rumors about the Russians, the CIA and the Mob, and the one whose dubious ascent to power was (perhaps) enabled by a strikingly similar cast of characters. Trump is JFK in the Upside Down.

Predictably, the new National Archives dump is nowhere close to the full accounting Trump had promised; historians will still be arguing about the JFK assassination 100 years after everyone who lived through it is dead, and 100 years after that. Kennedy’s death was not the beginning of the American tendency to believe in fanciful, improbable unified theories of everything, a topic I discussed recently with author and journalist Kurt Andersen, whose new book “Fantasyland” traces that current back into our nation’s prehistory.

But Dallas 1963 was definitely a moment when a whole bunch of crazy crept out from under the rug, and it’s noteworthy that Trump himself (and a large proportion of his voters) are the right age to have been shaped by the JFK assassination and the years of turmoil that followed it. I don’t think it’s fair, however, to blame “grassy knoll” conspiracy theorists for the degradation of reality, even if somebody like Alex Jones, with his lizard men on the moon and “false flag” mass shootings and endless, borderline-pornographic Hillary Clinton fantasies, is their direct descendant. You also can’t blame Trump voters or Republicans in general or the culture of the 1960s or postmodern critical theory. Those are all symptoms. What led us from “ask not what your country can do for you” to “#Fake News is DISTORTING DEMOCRACY” was mostly the contradictions of human history, and I don’t think any of us knows what to do about that.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous aphorism about the death of God was a diagnostic remark, not a celebration: Human society was going to have big problems in the 20th century, observed the melancholy German, because even people who claimed to be guided by Christian morality didn’t actually believe in it anymore. You couldn’t come up with a more spectacular example than Donald Trump and his sanctimonious supporters on the Christian right, of course, but the real problem is bigger than that.

God and the church were viewed for several centuries in the West as custodians of an external, unshakable reality that conferred power on kings and princes. Many dreadful things were done in their name, and many glorious works of art created. But all that started to fade with Martin Luther, as Andersen’s book observes. Religion became a private and subjective affair, subject to infinite variations, which inescapably meant the loss of most of its power. Even a showboating fanatic like Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, or a million more like him, can’t turn that around. (Indeed, Moore’s behavior suggests he is less concerned with divine power than his own.)

With the coming of the Enlightenment, the cobwebs of superstition and pseudo-reality were supposed to be swept out of human society by the real reality of Science and Reason and Democracy and other grand abstractions. Why did that happen only incompletely, or temporarily? That might be the central question of modern history — and perhaps of philosophy, psychology, political science and a whole bunch of literature as well. But even without a graduate degree, we can conclude that there was considerable hubris at work, and that the balance between competing narratives of meaning was more complicated than it looked in Rousseau or Jefferson’s time.

One answer might be that human beings thrive on stories. We need myth. If you’re anything like me, when you get home from work you’ll flip on Hulu or Netflix to soak up some middlebrow moral parable aimed predominantly at people of your class and background. Another answer lies in Nietzsche’s central insight, which was more or less that all systems of thought are always power relations in disguise. That doesn’t mean that no such systems are better than others, or that there’s no such thing as objective reality. There are facts out there about how Kennedy was killed in 1963, and about how Trump was elected in 2016 — but we are never likely to know them for sure, or to agree about them.

Repeatedly hitting people over the head with a rolled-up newspaper, as if they were disobedient doggies, while telling them that Donald Trump is a liar and a fraud is pretty much the apex state of liberal self-parody. They know that. That’s why they like him.

Trump is a prominent symbol of the degradation or destruction of reality, but he didn’t cause it. He would not conceivably be president today — an eventuality that will keep on seeming fictional, as long as it lasts — if all of us, not just Republicans or the proverbial white working class, hadn’t traveled pretty far down the road into the realm of the not-real. Reality just wasn’t working out that well. God is dead, or at least he moved really far away with no phone and no internet, and a lot of reassuring old-time notions of reality loaded in his van. The alternative for many Americans is dead-end service jobs, prescription painkillers and blatantly false promises that someday soon technology and entrepreneurship will make everything better.

It's no wonder they want distraction, and there’s almost a perverse nobility in concluding that reality is all bullshit and nobody knows what’s true and you might as well make up a story you like better. As Andersen points out, that’s pretty much the ethos of modernity: To thine own self be true; we don’t need no education. It lessens the Miltonic romance somewhat that this nihilistic vacuum at the center of our society, which most of us failed to take seriously until it was too late, sucked up all the malice and darkness in the American soul and spat out a third-rate orange demon into the White House. I don’t know if there’s a way back to the real world after something like that happens. But it’s one hell of a story, and isn’t that the main thing?





By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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