The Twilight of the Presidency
By Matthew Kenner
Van Jones was impressed! “That was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics,” Jones said on CNN, deciding to speak for us all. This was an extension of his now famous assertion, following Trump’s address to Congress on Tuesday, February 28th, that “[Trump] became the President of the United States in that moment, period”.
Of course the moment was the photo-op “honoring” of a fallen Navy SEAL, Ryan Owens – killed in a (wholly fruitless) raid on Yemen on January 28th – via the seemingly compelling image of his wife in tears. As with all ceremony surrounding Trump, the momentary spectacle swallowed the whole event; all other meaning instantly vanished. The entire occurrence that was the speech became solely about the weeping war widow.
And of course, the commentator class got a massive adrenaline rush: if you’re working in political mass media, the bride the deceased soldier left behind is simply all you’re going to discuss.—Carryn Owens is a take machine.—If you’re Van Jones in particular, there’s absolutely no downside to making the statements quoted above, however preposterous it may be to observe Trump and consider him to be in any way legitimate. Who knows, in fact, how Van Jones really feels about all of this, or, if this is how he truly feels, how much he actually cares. Name recognition for his brand is probably what he has settled for at this point, if not consciously then certainly somewhere below the surface.
I don’t mean to single Van Jones out. Thousands of these stupid things happen every year; his will probably just stand out as one of the dozens of dumbest things. In this sense, no one will remember it ever happened, except for those few hilarious rabidly liberal hucksters like Keith Olbermann who said Van “sold out” (in what way he has sold out to any greater degree than Keith Olbermann, …?); but no one will really care about the Keith Olbermanns of the world, either, except for that sector of individuals predetermined to do so by the demographics of the market. So, when you add all of the comments up, from everyone, from every ideological strain – did anything at all really happen on the night of February 28th?
It’s all becoming clear that it was always about money and nothing else: the literal symbol of excess becomes the useful idiot par excellence. One thing happened on Tuesday the 28th; the money system currently in place survived another day.
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We are made to believe the system is in danger because of Trump; the system, though, is currently made secure by Trump above all else, or at least, to the extent that it currently has “security”, Trump is the one making it happen. If this sounds absurd to you, you are interpreting reality accurately: our reality is constant, ever-escalating, sheer absurdity and nothing less. Capitalism is a cultural disorder which has now reached a blindingly terminal state.
What is “the system”? What is the point of so vague a phrase? “Systems thinking” identifies and harnesses the intuitive grasp humans have that the many things in their surroundings interconnect in some way to form one whole; they form ‘systems’. From this perspective, any human thinking at all would only be possible because systems exist, as it’s impossible to
conceive how anything called “thinking” could happen unless humans were able to sense connections between the various elements in their immediate environments.
Why is it necessary to view the present circumstances in terms of “a system”, primarily referring to that which surrounds the United States Federal Government and its American Corporations (which, by the nature of a cybernetic system, equally surrounds Corporate America and the US government)? To begin, one has to imagine the Earth as it is, as one whole – like you were staring at it from space – the spherical rock orbiting the Sun. In eras of urbanization prior to the industrial age, this wouldn’t have been the case. At least from one perspective, the geostrategic one, it would’ve been possible to interpret the human cultural universe from a flat perspective. Geostrategic goals could be planned out on a two-dimensional map.
The increasing significance of naval power to overall imperial grand strategy, displayed most climactically with the onslaught of European colonial domination over the Americas via conquistadores, priests, and settlers, began to move geostrategic sight towards a round perspective. Primarily, this can be seen in the rise and consolidation of the British Empire, creating both the occasion and necessity for a truly worldwide system of military communication. English victory over the French at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 confirmed the emergence of the round perspective, with the British once and for all clinching worldwide naval hegemony.
Round geostrategic perspective rapidly started taking a spherical turn during World War One with the widespread use of aircraft in combat. Only the initiation of the use of artificial satellites, however, explicitly signaled the full emergence of a truly spherical state-of-affairs within the geostrategic universe, the total cultural environment humanity has built for itself via the catalyst of capitalism. Hydrocarbon-fueled electricity fills Earth’s atmosphere at all times and at an ever-accelerating rate, in large part sustained by the satellites that we shoot into outer space.
What does any of this have to do with Trump? It’s precisely this system which has culminated in the Trump presidency as its long-historical effect. In 2017, everything on planet Earth is inextricably connected to everything else, swirling maddeningly within the crystal ball of globalization. And Trump is always at the center: in fact, at any given moment, the center-of-attention is wherever the President happens to be.
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Trump is not “a President”; this is what must be said at all costs, because there is no “President”, per se, if we’re going to define that office in terms of what it represented all the way through Obama’s second term. Something drastic has happened: everyone can feel this even if they can’t quite properly verbalize it. We are in a whole new phase of American and thus, by extension, global history.
Certainly, there is still something everyone has silently agreed (for the time being) to call “the President”. But there’s no precedent at all for attaching that title to the thing it is currently being attached to. I say “thing”, and not “person”, by the way, because Trump is not a President precisely to the extent that there’s no individual human being there that we can grab hold of. And there never was: Donald J. Trump has always been “Trump” to us in a way that has nothing to do with personhood, and everything to do with branding.
To be sure, a human exists somewhere in there, although none of us will ever see it. It’s quite possible Trump himself can’t see it – so much so has he internalized the concept of himself blasted throughout all forms of mass media – but, unlike seemingly every liberal-centrist pundit, I will not try to psychoanalyze him. When I emphasize that what we are perceiving and interpreting with Trump is a brand and not an individual, I’m simply making the same point that could be made about anyone in the contemporary era who is making a living off of his or her own celebrity. The difference is this is the first time the White House has been inhabited entirely by such a brand.
Of course, this couldn’t have, and didn’t, happen overnight. One might argue, for instance, that Reagan was the first such celebrity brand in the Oval Office; this would be incorrect, in my view, although from a longer perspective his administration can probably be said to have initiated the process. While Reagan was a Hollywood actor, any real “celebrity” he had by the time he won the Presidency was predominately associated with his political career, which included two terms as the Governor of California. But Reagan’s “brand”, to the extent that he had one, was “Conservatism”, which, in its practical manifestations, ultimately amounted to the full institution of a neoliberal agenda within the U.S. Government.
In a very real way, Obama set the stage for Trump, which should surprise no one, as the incumbent President is always the proximate cause for establishing the conditions his successor inherits. No one should lose sight of this merely on account of the apparent diametrical opposition between the personalities of each figure. The true distinction between the two – which is also the true connection between them – can be formulated as such:
OBAMA: the Presidency becomes a brand
TRUMP: a brand becomes the Presidency
Under the Obama administration, Americans and the globe at large were rapidly assimilated into a state-of-affairs where the presidency was sold primarily as a cultural product, to an extent that was previously never seen nor perhaps even previously possible. Obama’s charming, calming affect was perfectly suited for playing “the role of the President” in television appearances, a dynamic that, in retrospect, seems to have defined his whole time in office. Moreover, the new social media forms that only just started emerging under Bush quickly became the White House’s primary method of communicating to the public.
Immediately, it becomes comprehensible how a “master” at manipulating social media could fill this void amidst the context of a politically restless voting public. Of course, Trump is truly a master at nothing except being Trump, which we can’t really give him credit for. Disturbingly, he seems to just be “the right man for the job”.
Baudrillard compared the characters on reality television to Duchamp’s concept of the “readymade”: the wine-rack or urinal, for instance, as art. Trump is the readymade President. Except, precisely to the extent that this is the case, “the Presidency” as it once existed suddenly ceases to be. Trump’s victory destroyed the very institution he conquered.
Duchamp, in the end, was never able to define what “readymade” meant to his own satisfaction. But the first “official” definition, from the Abridged Dictionary of Surrealism (1938), is more than satisfactory for our purposes here: “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” Trump is an (extra)ordinary brand elevated to the
dignity of the Presidency by the mere choice of the people. Trump is a wine-rack, or urinal – in this specific case, “the Boss” – acting as what Virilio calls the “virtual hypercenter” of the spherical geostrategic universe: the center that is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. At this point, it is only our undivided attention that holds the system together. Trump is not “a President”, but in fact the canary in the coalmine signaling that what used to be known as “the American Presidency” is quite likely no longer possible. With Obama, the Presidency was sold to us a brand. Trump takes this to its logical extreme: a brand is being sold to us as “the Presidency”.
“I am the President and you’re not”, Trump said to a journalist, in response to a question about his apparent lack of credibility: precisely the thing we would never expect a president to say in such a situation. “He is the President”, to paraphrase Van Jones, speaking for all of us. The question this raises is: if there is a President, and it is Trump, why is all of this so necessary to assert?
No one can conceive of what a world after American hegemony looks like. The argument here is that this is precisely what we are starting to see. So, what will replace American hegemony? In Empires of old, there was always another Empire of one sort or another to replace the one that collapsed. But we’ve never seen collapse occur in a system that’s a perfect sphere – a system where “economic growth” is either completely maxed out on a planetary level, or at least rapidly approaching that point, let us be clear – a system with no plausible trajectory lagging behind it, ready to take its place. As far as “the system” goes, it’s quite possible that there’s nothing after Trump, or nothing at all familiar.
All of this is endlessly complicated, but the lesson is simple: start organizing outside the system, start rebuilding local community, and do it now. The system won’t save you. More importantly, it never intended to.