The late French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote three short essays during the Gulf War titled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. They were brilliant in that he argued the Gulf War couldn’t properly be called a war, but instead was an atrocity and a mass murder caused by American airpower. He really pointed out how the media twisted the war to make it look like a war, but with the low loss of life and complete silence on the Iraqi deaths, it wasn’t properly a war. Such an essay ruined his career and reputation, until the Wachowski brothers created a simulacrum of Baudrillard’s teachings vis-a-vis The Matrix, which was about simulacra. This did not revive his career.
Since I want to ruin my reputation before I even have one, let me state right now that the Trump presidency has not taken place. As much as I want to just leave this rambling right there, let me add some nuance.
The Trump presidency hasn’t occurred because it can’t properly be called a presidency. The role of a president is to represent the executive power of the people of the United States, even those that did not vote for him. Though it’s difficult to imagine any president achieving a perfect balance within this role – you can’t please all the people all the time – most presidents will
feign interest in trying try. At the very least, they give the image of trying to represent everyone. Trump hasn’t even made an attempt to look like he’s representing all Americans; he hasn’t even made an attempt to look like he’s representing those who voted for him. It’s very clear that the only person he represents is himself. Whether it’s calling Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man,” attacking the #FAKENEWS™, or going after the NFL, this has been a spectacle, not a presidency.
Yet, people still buy into the myth of Trump, or the simulacrum of the Trump presidency. With eyes wide they explain how this billionaire knows exactly what the average, hardworking American is going through. They argue that he’ll end immigration, cut taxes, save the economy, and Make America Great Again. Which, of course, the idea of a “Great America” at some point in history is another simulation, another falsehood we tell ourselves, but I’ll leave that be. The point is, people are buying wholesale into the myth that Trump actually cares about them. Which makes sense, because the previous myth about Trump is that he was a good businessman, which isn’t true. Fantastic brander, but horrible at actually running a business.
We wonder why he’ll do or say something, but then the next minute he’s denying he did or said something. All reports about him are labeled #FAKENEWS™ whether they are true or fake. The one thing that can be said about Trump is that with him there is nothing real, nor is there anything fake; instead, before us lays the perfect form of the spectacle. There is no Donald Trump, merely the character of Donald Trump that has been molded and created over decades, and that character has become president and is running the presidency not as a president, but as the character of Donald Trump.
The problem with such a simulacrum, as was the problem with the Gulf War being called a war, is it shapes our understanding of the thing it’s supposed to represent. The Gulf War shaped our understanding of a war, so should there come a war where tens of thousands die, we won’t know how to handle it. It’s difficult to be patriotic over a police action or a massacre; it’s much easier to be patriotic over a war. Thus, every bombing runs the risk of being a war. Likewise, with the Trump presidency, it’s shaping our understanding of what it means to be president. We’re buying into the spectacle, into the simulation of the executive office. It’s opening us up to where any celebrity will do, regardless of experience. Already there are Democrats unironically floating the idea of running Oprah, or the somewhat sensible pick of Al Franken (at least he has some government experience?). Regardless, people are already shaping their understanding of “president” to include a spectacle, something a president ought not be…especially when we have nukes.
The spectacle in the White House is redefining our understanding of how the presidency should function. We call it the Trump Presidency, but there has been no presidency, merely an elevated reality TV show in which we’re all the participants and the viewers. We are all witness to the spectacle.