Reflecting in (and on) the Age of Trump

It has been over six months since I posted any blog post and considering that I previously posted at a frequency of every 1-2 weeks, this marks a drastic decline in my blogging frequency.  There has been no decline in my capacity, willingness nor availability to justify such a radical decline and the world has certainly been going through — to echo an old Chinese curse — “interesting times.”  There is, certainly, no lack in philosophically relevant topics to wax about.  I have started three papers recently: challenging the efficacy that Kanye can associate being part of black-culture, using the NFL ban on anthem-protest to illustrate the relationship between positive and negative freedom and an article explaining that Zuckerberg cannot fix the problems of Facebook because Facebook has vibrant-living agency and Zuckerberg is powerless in this regard.  I have not finished, nor posted any of them.  The purpose of this particular post is to examine why I have felt unmotivated or unmoved to finish and post anything.  The theory I am proposing is that part of the damage Trump has done to the body politic — broadly construed — is that he has vastly forced a restructuring of public political discourse that curbs the space and consideration for philosophical reflection.   

In the simplest — or, perhaps, most sympathetic — sense, it could be stated that this comes with the territory when you elect people without experience in public office.  The dominant system of value in private sector enterprise is purely monetary and comparing one deal to another is almost as simple as stating 2 > 1.  Being an elected official requires a unique ability to understand that not everything can be reduced to a balance sheet and that not everything can be arranged as a binary of thought.  

This type of naive and blind oversight was (and is) completely expected from somebody who lacks government and non-profit experience.   Also, with private sector enterprise, you can function on a short-term gain strategy and you can actually succeed in business by being masterful at the art of product-marketing.  You can even make decisions to bolster the revenue of one quarter and then you can use the success of one-quarter to market the succeeding quarter.  Or, if push come to shove, you can file bankruptcy and start over.   You cannot apply these methods to public policy.  A catchy marketing slogan does not resolve the childhood trauma of being taken from your parents without cause or explanation.   And a trade war with the rest of the world that can actually push people into poverty is not something we can write off as a symbolic marketing ploy to engender fear in a global market — we cannot scare the world into shopping at store America.   Sarah Sanders cannot undo financial ruin from a trade war or death by despair from a mismanaged economy and insensitive drug-policy by uttering talking-points like she is a See n’ Say that just awaits a string to be pulled to blurt out her well-rehearsed script of non-committed complicity.   

To some extent, some version of this naivety would be expected if you elected Donald Trump, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey — with shades of variance, of course.  But — generally speaking — an executive with a staunchly one-sided value system or limited capacity to understand the complexity of reality can transcend this fault by their cabinet appointments.   As it has been said in some form or another by both Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, the only wisdom a leader needs to embody is the capacity and humility to employ people who are significantly smarter than themselves in every possible category.  A bottom-line savvy business leader can be a successful politician if they can accept their faults and appoint people who offset them.  I am generally skeptical about electing people from business into high positions of political power and — because of the aforementioned point — I put a high emphasis in examining who they propose for their cabinet.   Trump — as it has been reported from his past or evident in the present — appoints yes-men and the only qualification is loyalty, blind servitude and the ability to apologetically kiss-ass with Mike Pence’esque incredulity. 

In summary of what has been pointed to so far: a) people without experience in public office can often be fixated on the wrong value system and b) without the humility to create diversity of thought and value within your administration, your administration can become politically narrow and incapable of finding political consensus in contentious topics.  These two things do not go hand-in-hand with each other.  You can be a whimsy idealist who staffs other whimsy idealists and creates an administration that lacks any practical wisdom or fiscal awareness.  For Trump, both of these points ring true.

However, this sheer fact, in of itself, would not prevent me from philosophical reflection.  My ironic reflection on my struggle to be reflective in the age of Trump is the product of a second and much more toxic quality of the Trump administration.  Maybe it is the case that somebody who has been successful at business or ‘brand-building’ could be a good leader, but what happens if the would-be business-leaders business was a product-less product.  In other words, the Trump branding has been a long process of trying to make the value of the brand the brand itself without referring to any actual tangible goods or services.  

What is Brawndo?  It is what plants crave! 

But, what do plants crave?   Brawndo

. . .

What is the Trump brand?   It is success!

But, what defines success?   Trump brand! 

When we analyze a media message the medium is just as meaningful as the content of the message — the “medium is the message” — and Trump is an exemplar case study for illustrating this phenomenon from McLuhan’s 1964 book.  But, for Trump, it does not stop there. For Trump, the medium is the product.  One could look at the vast and broad portfolio of Trump and claim that he has many products.  But, if you look carefully at his portfolio, he has mostly focused on services, not goods.  And secondly, he has predominately focused on business enterprises where he sells the illusion of his brand and/or would-be lifestyle.  His hotels and clubs are dramatically overpriced shit-hole establishments that are marketed to give the appeal of letting people have a taste of the luxurious accommodations that Trump enjoys daily — he is selling the idea of people ‘renting’ his life.  The illusion of his life.  But his hotels are about as tasteful and luxurious as over-sized red ties in a cheap suit while eating ketchup on a over-cooked cheap steak.  Or selling books that sell the ‘illusion’ of his business savvy.  Or selling educations that promote the ‘illusion’ of his smarts.  Or a television series that sells the ‘illusion’ of his ability to know what a successful leader looks like.  

Modern marketing — generally speaking — sells illusion all the time or, rather, sells illusion through ideological affiliation.  Like, if you want to be associated as a man who is rugged and outdoorsy, then maybe the pick-up truck commercials and their ‘like a rock’ imagery of trucks bouncing through picturesque nature scenes would appeal to you.  Or a yoga product and healthy eating.   But in these instances they are trying to hook a product as being associated with some illusory ideology of thought — via vertical marketing — and even though the marketing component is bullshit, at least, on some level, there is a product.   Because, push come to shove, if Ford makes trucks that do not drive, blow up or basically do not do what they were intended to do, no marketing magic can convince people that their ideology is associated with being stranded on the side of the road.  For Trump, he has managed to create an entire business portfolio where the illusion of the marketing acts to uphold the illusion of the marketing and not the actual end product.  So the thing that Trump has done to make philosophical reflection harder in the age of Trump is that he applied the Trump product-less marketing strategy to the concept of America.  He wants his base, the people, congress and the world to buy-into the America brand, purely on the weight of the marketing and not on anything that is tangible, measurable, objective or beyond monetary evaluation.   

The problem is that when the rubber-hits-the-road, these policies are actually tangible.  Real lives are impacted and real damage is done.  Trump seems to respond to each thoughtless policy with PR damage control and the weight they put on everything is, as if, the only thing Trump did was say something.  If his goal is to pass immigration legislation to uphold his campaign promise then his goal is to pass immigration legislation and then say he did, then have a party and then add another talking point to Sanders’ See n’ Say it script.  We did this.  We did that.  But the what and how of this and that, or if it was actually successful is irrelevant.  When Trump claims that he has done more than any president in history in his first year, or 500 days or 2 years… this is not true, FDR has him beat on every possible metric.  But, what Trump does do with swift efficiency is move from one thing to the next, like solving global problems is as quick and simple as checking things off a grocery list as you run down the aisle knocking things into your cart.  Trump does not reflect.  His rapid speed attempt at governance has changed the rate of the news cycle and issues become irrelevant before any effort can be made to actually reflect.  

The impact of this effect is not just a lack of space and consideration for thoughtful reflection, but it is also diminishing the attention span of the body politic.  Like, for example, the GOP congressional leaders want to halt the Mueller probe and, yes they are doing this because of partisanship, but also because polling shows many Americans are sick of it as well.  Why?   Because the body politic is being conditioned not to reflect, conditioned to accept political brevity as the norm and they think the topic has had too much news coverage — the news coverage saturates.  Who needs a thorough investigation?  Lets move on.  Trump knows this.  Trump thrives on this.  All the mini scandals and the back-and-forth, will-he, or won’t-he testify is all built around a desire to saturate the news cycle with the same topic over and over and make everybody grow weary of it.  I mean he said it’s a witch hunt, right?  

What is the solution?  We need to remove the capacity to convert political engagement into cash — remove money from politics and money from journalism.  We need to support non-profit news agencies and support the overturn of citizens united.  We need to commit to the idea that public discourse of public policies cannot be something that is reduced to ‘ad space’.  There is value to healthy political discourse, in of itself.  A society that does not reflect as a method towards advocating for proactive and preemptive policies is nothing but a society of political reactionaries who act for the sake of acting.  So shut it off, tune it out and spend some time…. reflecting, before we forget how. 

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