“Welcome to the desert of the real,” Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) ostentatiously tells Neo (Keanu Reeves) in an important scene not quite halfway through “The Matrix,” the groundbreaking 1999 science fiction film written and directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski. (Who were then known, let us note, as Andy and Larry, the “Wachowski Brothers.”) Neo has of course taken the “red pill” and discovered that what he took to be reality is actually a computer simulation, used by a malignant machine intelligence to enslave the human race.
As most fans of the “Matrix” movies surely know, Morpheus’ expression has both a prehistory and a long-tail legacy. My point here, however, is that “The Matrix” and the currents of postmodern theory and dystopian sci-fi that informed it didn’t just predict the future but also seemingly shaped it. We’re all lost in the desert of the real now. We all believe we took the red pill — but how can we be sure it wasn’t a placebo? Many of us, like the treacherous rebel played by Joe Pantoliano in the movie, long to climb back inside the Matrix, where we can live within the comforting illusions of yesteryear. But there’s no door that leads there, and no there on the other side of the nonexistent door.
That phrase comes from an extended metaphor in Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation,” an influential (if borderline unreadable) work of critical theory that was partly an inspiration for “The Matrix” and partly just a prop. Neo has a copy on his bookshelf early in the film, or at least he appears to: In a joke Baudrillard may or may not have appreciated, the book has actually been hollowed out and used to conceal a disk of illicit data. For that matter, it only exists inside the Matrix — it’s a fake book in a fake universe.
Drawing on a fable by Jorge Luis Borges, Baudrillard suggests that the map of reality (or elaborate simulation) which has been laid on top of reality in the postmodern era is starting to wear thin, and bits of actual reality, barren and desolate, are sticking through it: the desert of the real.
That might be a good way to describe the surreal and contradictory era of Donald Trump, the reality-show “billionaire” president who may be broke and whose presidency is a performance with no evident relationship to reality. To use Baudrillard’s terminology, Trump is a “simulacrum,” a symbolic representation of something that never existed in the first place.
In this case that could be literal, like the tyrannical but hilarious boardroom mastermind Trump played on “The Apprentice,” or the Ayn Rand ideal of a benevolent, godlike titan of capitalism. It could also be more of a psychological construct: Trump is like a human container for many varieties of incoherent American rage, fear, lust and longing.
But I continue to believe (or hope) that Trump himself isn’t all that important. Our era conjured him up and thrust him forward, like a particularly gruesome figurehead on the bow of a ship, rather than the other way around. As Salon’s Chauncey DeVega observed this week, the bizarre bromance between Trump and rapper Kanye West is not that difficult to understand once you grasp their essential kinship.
Both are larger-than-life celebrity entertainers with limited talent but considerable cunning, examples of what Baudrillard called “hyperreality” who celebrate all the worst tendencies in American life. While West has remained within the conventional realm of pop culture, Trump understood that politics had been entirely subsumed by pop culture (as Neal Postman and Joan Didion perceived decades ago) and cashed in to the fullest. Why wouldn’t West admire that accomplishment?
I am not suggesting, to be clear, that politics is entirely a meaningless charade or that the Trump presidency doesn’t have real (and potentially disastrous) consequences for real people. Government policies still exist, and affect the lives of human beings. Power is still important, and someone is sure to wield it (even if we can’t always tell who that is). Ideology still matters. Furthermore, it's ludicrous to suggest that the post-structuralist or deconstructionist theorizing of continental philosophers like Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault is somehow responsible for the decay of meaning, the collapse of shared reality and the rise of fake news and Trump. That's almost exactly like blaming an oncologist for causing cancer.
It wasn't French dudes with weird glasses who built American electoral politics -- and presidential elections in particular -- around the intentional disappearance of topics like power, policy and ideology, which are only discussed in passing or in fragments. As is well understood by literally everyone, presidential elections have been symbolic or semiotic contests for decades, arguably all the way back to the televised Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960.
If Trump has any particular political genius, it lies in his perception of how far and how fast that process had evolved by 2016, to the point where it was no longer necessary to attach his outsize persona or his ludicrous rhetoric to any shared set of facts or any shared understanding of reality. Indeed, for Trump’s supporters his embrace of what Baudrillard called the regime of “pure simulacrum” — the fourth and final stage in the disappearance or obsolescence of reality — was profoundly liberating. Amid the 24/7, self-knowing artificiality of consumer capitalism, mass media and the internet, all claims on reality must come with an ironic wink and be delivered in artificial or “hyperreal” terms. Was Trump really going to “build the wall” or “lock her up”? Maybe and maybe not — but that was never the important part.
Of course Hillary Clinton held strategy sessions with consultants where they talked about messaging and symbolism and dissected her wardrobe decisions and all that. For the first woman to become a major-party presidential nominee, such questions were inevitable and always present. (I thought then, and think now, that the night of her nomination in Philadelphia was brilliant theater, even if that convention as a whole possessed a certain fateful cluelessness.) But throughout her campaign, Clinton seemed trapped in what Baudrillard called “the sacramental order” of representation, in which signs and symbols are valuable because they point toward things that are real and profound and true.
I can feel another Salon colleague, Amanda Marcotte, telling me that this speaks to Clinton’s fundamental sincerity and her trust in the decency and intelligence of the American people. Furthermore, it worked, or at least it should have: Trump became president thanks to an antediluvian, anti-democratic quirk in our electoral system, after all. Fair enough! But as Clinton herself discusses in her admirably frank campaign memoir, she realized too late that she was constantly on the defensive against an opponent who had concluded that it didn’t matter whether anything he said was true. She was a lady in a pantsuit, armed with bullet-point lists of policy reforms, fighting in the dark against a shape-shifter who was sometimes Mickey Mouse, sometimes Godzilla and sometimes a brain-eating zombie from “The Walking Dead.”
Clinton got trolled by a master of the craft, in other words, and then Trump’s voters executed a massive troll on the rest of the country and for that matter the world. On that fateful night in November of 2016, I sent Amanda to the Javits Center on the West Side of Manhattan to cover what we both expected would be the victory celebration of our first female president. She told me later that she was grateful I had warned her that it could turn out to be quite a different experience.
I don’t actually remember saying that, but I suppose Amanda came away from that traumatic experience with the germ of her new book, “Troll Nation,” which in some ways aligns with the more highfalutin premise I’m laying out here. She argues that the American conservative movement — after losing on virtually every culture-war issue, and discovering that its economic ideas are massively unpopular — has abandoned any pretense of a positive social vision and descended into pointless negativity and hatred. True believers in supply-side economics or privatizing Social Security are thin on the ground in the Trump era, but conservatives of all stripes can unite around “an ideology of pure resentment,” nourished by the delicious nectar of “liberal tears” and fueled by paranoia, conspiracy theory, misogyny and racism.
I think that’s all true. I also think the degeneration of the American right from William F. Buckley Jr.’s “God and Man at Yale” to “Fuck your feelings” — a memorable Trump T-shirt from the 2016 Republican convention — was itself made possible by the epistemological collapse described or predicted by “Simulacra and Simulation” (originally published way back in 1981, when its claims about the demise of reality seemed far-fetched). It’s not like a credible version of conservative politics suddenly became impossible after the social-movement victories of the last 40 years and the rise of diversity. I mean, wasn’t that the dominant current in the Democratic Party between 1992 and 2016? (Yes, I went there.)
Republicans’ descent into trollery, Trumpery and a bi-curious flirtation with fascism gets blamed on all kinds of nebulous factors, including “economic anxiety,” “status threat” and unacknowledged or “dog-whistle” racism. But aren’t those ill-defined disorders just symptoms of the way many Americans have moved beyond what Baudrillard calls the “theology of truth”?
What he means by that is the realm of shared facts that encompasses not just the material world but science, culture and ideology as well. In the age of simulacra, we no longer believe that signs or symbols stand for something real; instead, they become empty containers poised above the abyss, which “dissimulate that there is nothing”:
[T]here is no longer any God to recognize his own, nor any last judgment to separate truth from false, the real from its artificial resurrection, since everything is already dead and risen in advance.
If Donald Trump is the fullest possible expression of the howling emptiness at the heart of the age of simulacra, and could not have become president at any other time, he also points forward toward something else. That would be “the return of the Real” — the moment when the fraying "map," or simulation, overlaid atop reality finally collapses — which Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek (both an ally and a critic of Baudrillard) has suggested everyone in postmodern society both longs for and fears. What we think that returned reality will look like, and whether we will be able to recognize it as reality, is not entirely clear.
That is of course the story of “The Matrix,” which has become a universal cultural touchstone over the last two decades. I'm endlessly fascinated by its immense popularity, at least as metaphor, among white supremacists, neo-Nazis, “men’s rights advocates” and other far-right fringe characters. Their online dens are full of chatter about how and when they were “red-pilled,” which of course means awakening to the true nature of our society and the array of dark forces — feminists, Jews, Muslims, Marxists, urban liberals, black people and, of course, women who won’t go out with them — who for unclear reasons are bent on “white genocide.”
One could respond that this red-pill revelation more closely resembles Hitler’s youthful epiphany about the “Hebrew corrupters” of Europe, as described (and probably concocted) in “Mein Kampf,” or that this is a spectacularly wrong-headed reading of a movie with a blatant radical agenda that was directed by two sisters who used to identify as brothers. One could also say that these dudes have gotten stuck in the second stage of Baudrillard’s “sign economy,” a paranoia-infused “order of maleficence” where social and cultural symbols are understood to conceal evil, hidden layers of deeper meaning.
But from the Alex Jones fan club’s point of view: Of course I would say stuff like that, right? I may think I’m not an agent of the feminazi Matrix, but they’re the ones who have seen the desert of the real.
After its use in “The Matrix,” Morpheus’ actual line was repurposed by Žižek as the title of a 2002 collection of essays written in response to the 9/11 attacks. His argument (greatly simplified) is that those events were simultaneously a shocking instance of the “return of the Real” and a further descent into illusion. Islamic fundamentalism was a false form of opposition to global capitalism, and the terrorist attacks would be viewed by most Westerners as an “effect” in an action movie, and used by Western politicians to clamp down on civil liberties, pursue a state of permanent warfare, and downgrade democracy toward fascism.
I know, right? If those ideas seemed inflammatory 16 years ago, they’re almost depressingly obvious today. Maybe that should remind us that we can never be too sure where the simulation ends and the reality-desert beneath it begins, and that we shouldn't laugh too hard at the alt-right red-pillers, who may speak for all of us (in a delusional and disturbing key). We are all convinced that we’re awake and unplugged and can feel the hard-packed sand beneath our feet. But our neighbors still appear to be sleeping, and the landscape around us is crowded with goblins.