Trumpism as a David Foster Wallace Dystopia
White identity politics. American Authoritarianism. Fascism. Xenophobia. White insecurity.
The Rise Of Trump has given way to many theories about what the political implications of his success is. But what if there were virtually none? I want to explore the possibility that Trump is emblematic of little politically, rather mostly exposing an American lust for entertainment.
The late David Foster Wallace, one of the finest novelists of his generation, was concerned with what he saw as a growing appetite for entertainment. The politics of the U.S. are beginning to look reminiscent of that of his masterpiece Infinite Jest, defined by the infamous Johnny Gentle. At first Gentle was thought of “a post-Perot national joke,” not unlike Trump was. Trump has expressed an affinity for Perot in the past, and is similar to him in a few ways. Gentle comes from a low brow entertainment background, as a lounge singer and B-list movie star, just as Trump comes from the equally low brow reality TV industry. This connection proves important to Wallace’s foresight.
In Infinite Jest, Gentle, as a germaphobe, creates the Clean U.S. party. He mobilizes the population as a single issue candidate promising to “clean up the streets, literally.” Not finding an outside enemy to vilify, Gentle turns American hate and fear to the invisible energy of germs. In IJ, Wallace calls the geopolitics “a post-Soviet and Jihad era.” As Jihad is very much not “post-” in our world, Trump does not need to adopt an invisible enemy. He can employ a simple mixture, just like Gentle did, of entertainment and fear to accomplish his political goals.
If Trump simply employed fear, he would just be a regular demagogue. And he is to some extent, to be sure, but there is also a very persuasive personality element in Trump. Many of Trump’s supporters, rather than talking about his policies, cite his jokes, insults, loud mouth, and energy he brings. I have observed recently that low energy, instead of being an abstract term to explain a candidate's lack of appeal, has become a term used to insult candidates as if high energy is a quality that they are lacking. High energy may matter on reality shows, but is of little significance in a presidential candidate, especially when compared to intelligence, temperament, ideology, trustworthiness, and other typically evaluated qualities. One could make some sort of argument that it plays into negotiation ability, or posturing in foreign policy, but that doesn't really hold. While some energy is required for these things, the sort of hot-headedness Trump demonstrates its probably just counter productive to these ends.
Consider a politician who Wallace publicly admired very much, even as a member of the Left. In his political classic Up Simba, published by Rolling Stone, Wallace sees McCain as a man who can return sincerity to the image fueled marketability oriented "post-Watergate-post-Iran-Contra-post-Whitewater-post-Lewinsky era." McCain's own story, his unfathomable act of heroism turning down release, underlies all of what he says. Wallace uses the example of McCain often saying his goal is "to inspire young Americans to devote themselves to causes greater than themselves." McCain's own autobiography changes this line from empty rhetoric to real substance. We can really believe the sincerity behind that statement because McCain lived and suffered a cause greater than himself.
To even compare this to Trump immediately superfluous. Everything about Trump's backstory is marketability era politics taken to its logical conclusion: A marketer as a candidate. Literally the more you know about Trump's life, the more vacuous his rhetoric becomes.
No one in the GOP primary had the raw sincerity and heroism that McCain had, but everyone had more sincerity than Trump. Why are we blatantly rejecting get sincerity for image?
Photo Credit: Chris Ayers via Poor Yoirck Entertainment