Don­ald Trump’s brave new world

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

“What we love will ruin us,” pre­dicted Al­dous Hux­ley in 1932. In Brave New World, he de­scribed a hu­man race that, by 2540, has been de­stroyed by ig­no­rance, a lust for con­stant en­ter­tain­ment, the dom­i­nance of tech­nol­ogy, and an over­abun­dance of ma­te­rial goods. With Don­ald Trump’s re­cent elec­tion as pres­i­dent, the United States seems to be ful­fill­ing Hux­ley’s pre­dic­tion more than 500 years ahead of sched­ule.

Amer­ica’s pub­lic cul­ture has long shied away from high­brow think­ing, of­ten tout­ing a kind of de­motic lais­sez-faire egal­i­tar­i­an­ism as a pre­con­di­tion for un­re­stricted cre­ativ­ity and the un­bri­dled cap­i­tal­ism that it sup­ports. All any­one needs to get ahead are guts and per­se­ver­ance.

That was once an at­trac­tive propo­si­tion for coun­tries like the Soviet Union, which was closer to the world of Ge­orge Or­well’s own dystopian novel 1984. In a place where govern­ment con­trol had forced all cul­tural cre­ativ­ity un­der­ground, the de­motic spirit and imag­i­na­tion that Amer­ica seemed to em­body seemed like a dream.

But in a world like Or­well’s, po­lit­i­cal pres­sure ul­ti­mately builds, and a surg­ing dis­si­dent move­ment sweeps away the sys­tem, as the Soviet Union was in 1991. When peo­ple are dis­tracted by mind­less en­ter­tain­ment and piles of stuff, how­ever, they lose their will to re­sist. Even­tu­ally, they are so lack­ing in knowl­edge and skills that they could not re­ject that life, even if they wanted to.

In other words, the world that Soviet cit­i­zens might have hoped for could rep­re­sent a dif­fer­ent sort of prison – less un­pleas­ant, per­haps, but also more dif­fi­cult to es­cape. That is what the US now faces.

Amer­ica’s cul­ture in­dus­try has long lent the coun­try’s pol­i­tics a tinge of Hol­ly­wood sur­re­al­ism. Politi­cians are char­ac­ters, from Jimmy Ste­wart’s morally in­cor­rupt­ible in­no­cent in “Mr. Smith Goes to Wash­ing­ton” (1939) to Or­son Welles’s Trumpian mogul in “Cit­i­zen Kane” (1941) and Robert Red­ford’s earnest cru­sader in “The Can­di­date” (1972), not to men­tion John Wayne’s many cow­boys and rangers.

With the elec­tion of the young, tanned John F. Kennedy in 1960, the Hol­ly­wood aes­thetic moved into the White House for the first time. In 1960, Kennedy was beamed into Amer­i­can homes, stand­ing be­side the bet­ter-known but far less charm­ing Richard Nixon. More of a play­boy than a cow­boy, Kennedy cap­tured Amer­i­can hearts. But he was no avatar of philis­tin­ism: on the con­trary, he de­clared in 1963 that “ig­no­rance and il­lit­er­acy…breed fail­ures in our so­cial and eco­nomic sys­tem.”

Amer­ica’s next screen-friendly pres­i­dent was Ron­ald Rea­gan, an ac­tual ac­tor who had played an ac­tual cow­boy. But, when it came to open­ness and knowl­edge, his view was the op­po­site of JFK’s. Ad­vo­cat­ing sup­ply-side eco­nom­ics to the white work­ing class, he con­vinced mil­lions that “less govern­ment,” which meant cut­ting fed­eral pro­grams, in­clud­ing ed­u­ca­tion – would bring “morn­ing in Amer­ica.”

With his well-re­hearsed sunny dis­po­si­tion, Rea­gan ex­pertly played his role as pres­i­dent, but with a de­cid­edly Hol­ly­wood flair. His Strate­gic De­fense Ini­tia­tive, in­tended to end the nu­clear-de­ter­rence strat­egy known as “mu­tual as­sured de­struc­tion,” was ac­tu­ally nick­named “Star Wars.” Rea­gan’s en­dur­ing sta­tus as a Repub­li­can icon has much to do with his abil­ity to dole out cow­boy cru­elty with movie-star charm, though luck also played a role. After all, vic­tory in the Cold War was aided sub­stan­tially by Mikhail Gor­bachev, whose ef­fort to re­form the Soviet Union has­tened its col­lapse.

In the wake of that vic­tory, Amer­ica dou­bled down on the propo­si­tion that dar­ing beat know­ing. James Carville, a cam­paign strate­gist for Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton (who ben­e­fited from his own South­ern-in­fused Kennedy-like charm), coined a phrase – “It’s the econ­omy, stupid” – so catchy that it is fre­quently in­voked to this day. And yet it is pre­cisely the Amer­i­can econ­omy that has dumbed so many down. By 2000, Amer­i­cans were ready for Ge­orge W. Bush. At once a prince and an every­man, he com­bined his fa­ther’s East Coast blue-blood pedi­gree with a sim­ple Texan per­sona, mak­ing him a per­fect cross be­tween Ste­wart and Wayne. But Bush was no movie star. Rather, he was an ac­tor in an ad­ver­tise­ment, hawk­ing wars.

To­day, en­ter­tain­ment has en­tered a new phase – and so has pol­i­tics. From re­al­ity tele­vi­sion to sum­mer block­busters to so­cial me­dia, what oc­cu­pies a grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple, es­pe­cially in the US, is more un­fil­tered, in­stan­ta­neous, and re­lent­less than ever. The thirst for de­tailed knowl­edge and com­plex dis­cus­sion seems to have been al­most fully sup­planted by a far more pow­er­ful fol­low­ers.

En­ter Trump. With his rowdy ral­lies and 140-char­ac­ter 2:30 a.m. “pol­icy pro­pos­als,” the for­mer re­al­ity tele­vi­sion star knows ex­actly how to at­tract an an­gry pop­u­la­tion strug­gling to frame its griev­ances. Trump him­self – who was ru­moured to have set his sights on launch­ing “Trump TV” in the wake of the elec­tion (which he pre­sum­ably ex­pected to lose) – has at­trib­uted his elec­tion vic­tory to so­cial me­dia.

Some Trump vot­ers claim that they were driven by “com­mon sense,” and that what ap­pealed to them was his mes­sage of “pros­per­ity and re­duc­ing the debt,” to­gether with “a strong mil­i­tary and re­form­ing im­mi­gra­tion.” But a closer look re­veals that that mes­sage had no sub­stance; in­deed, it was barely co­her­ent. What Trump sup­port­ers re­ally voted for was the mean boss on “The Ap­pren­tice,” the de­ci­sive au­thor­i­tar­ian who will fire – or de­port – any­one, with­out a sec­ond thought. They voted for the guy they thought would fol­low Wayne’s swag­ger­ing mantra: “If ev­ery­thing isn’t black and white, I say, ‘ Why the hell not?’ ” And many voted for a re­turn to a time when white men were cow­boys and con­querors.

With the elec­tion of Trump, who has named a white su­prem­a­cist as his chief ad­viser and strate­gist, Amer­ica could cross into Or­well ter­ri­tory. That would be dev­as­tat­ing, but the sil­ver lin­ing is that, even­tu­ally, a re­sis­tance would rise up and de­stroy the sys­tem. But even if Trump stops short of neo-fas­cism, he could cre­ate an Amer­ica that works for fewer and fewer peo­ple, while vot­ers, so busy shar­ing cat pics and fake news on so­cial me­dia, grad­u­ally lose their re­main­ing ca­pac­ity to dis­tin­guish be­tween lived re­al­ity and its vir­tual shadow.


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