In my obsession with this nasty, toll-taking, bitter election season, I couldn’t help but start thinking about, of all things, postmodernist theory, a philosophical, theoretical and artistic school of thought that has always infiltrated the books, movies and visual artists that have shaped my aesthetic.
Viewing these times through the lens of postmodernist theory gave me surprising new insight and understanding into the madness of Donald Trump, his followers and his baffling, disgusting and sinister campaign, especially his latest scorched-earth turn this week, as he has amplified his evidence-free claims of global conspiracies and election-rigging (all against him, of course).
Defining postmodernism is difficult because it encompasses anything from architecture (like Frank Gehry’s deconstructionism) to performance (Andy Kaufman and his barrage of are-they-real hijinks), to music (the “silent” John Cage composition 4’33”) and, by its very nature, refuses definition. But characteristics of postmodernism are these: overriding skepticism, relativism (moral, among others), the questioning of truth and reality and a distrust of reason and logic, notably expressed artistically or philosophically.
Postmodernism got its footing after World War II, which saw as many as 70 million dead after 10 years and two atomic bombs. For as much as the war changed the world, it also changed the way some thought about the basis of humankind. Rationality, logic and traditional structures of cognitive thought were placed under suspicion. After all, if the thousands of years of enlightenment, progress, philosophy, art, etc., had only led us down a path of annihilation, perhaps the core of humanity needed to be evaluated and revised. Postmodern thought was fueled by the accelerated economic and cultural transformation since the 1950s.
Seen through this lens of postmodernism, Trump and his supporters begin to make more sense. Trump’s rise to power is straight-up postmodern: a reality TV star more famous for being wealthy and more wealthy for playing the part of a powerful businessman than the thing many say they trust him for: business acumen. (How many bankruptcies are we up to now?)
One can certainly empathize with the predicament of many of his supporters: disaffected white men – the proverbial coal miner – left behind by globalization, outsourcing and the rapidly-changing skill sets required as technology advances and transforms society and industry. But it also explains the fear-mongering, racism, bigotry, misogyny and authoritarianism ever-present in Trump’s rhetoric and the anger and chaos rampant in his constituency.
It’s an easy slide into nihilism, anarchy and welcomed disorder, all with insinuations and threats of violence and malfeasance. It’s also why it’s so frustratingly hard to undercut Trump supporters with facts, nonpartisan analysis, reason, personal testimony and science-based anything. Because it’s a world of moral relativism and anti-intellectualism where every institution – be it political, educational, informational, governmental or industrial – is to be mistrusted and held in contempt, where conspiracies and collusion are the culprits of their predictable demise, not the decades of progress and fight for equality that most of us embrace.
To me, postmodernism is a compelling way to explore the human condition, to examine power structures, to question the nature of reality and truth. It has the power to change culture and influence beliefs through the beauty of art and provocative and edgy, but rational and informed, thought.
But not like this, where the guns are real, where the sexual assault is real, where the hate and anger is palpable, where the rejection of science, facts and evidence is genuine, where a demagogue like Trump isn’t a character in a movie, but the actual leader of our country. That’s what I call a postmodern nightmare.