Over the last year or so, public discourse has consisted of little more than reacting to the daily tweet of one particular individual. As a result of this, his rancid persona has trickled down into the lives of billions, where it now lays on top of our minds, somewhat restricting our access to any other (more pleasant) thoughts. Clearly, this is the way he likes it. The fact that he, above all, is an attention-seeking textbook narcissist is such common knowledge by now that there is no need to further dwell on the fact that the nuclear codes are in the hands of an overwrought solipsist. But in light of his media strategy, one particular trick from the narcissist’s repertoire deserves our attention: it goes by the name of gaslighting.
In Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, Gas Light, an emotionally abusive husband is intent on breaking down his wife’s perception of reality. His favoured method in this pursuit is to mess with little things around the house, such as removing a picture from the wall, or turning on and off the lights in the attic, to then, when she points these things out, assure her that she is simply imagining things, thereby effectively telling her not to believe her own eyes. As the play progresses, she slowly but surely begins to doubt the validity of her own memories, and so becomes susceptible to any alternative facts offered by her husband.
Not many days pass without the White House coming out with a fresh example of this kind of behaviour, whether it be the record breaking attendance of a half-empty inauguration ceremony or an under-reported story of a terrorist attack that never happened. If this is an attempt at gaslighting an entire nation, then suddenly also the little, ostensibly pointless, lies make a lot more sense. Assuming these are premeditated and constitute parts of a greater strategy, one is duly forced to recognize that the man is not altogether incompetent. For the American electorate, much as Hamilton’s abused spouse, has indeed had its grip of reality firmly loosened. Admittedly, the new president does not deserve full credit for the current flood of misinformation; he has had plenty help from teenaged clickbaiting fake news reporters. However, it can be argued that also they are ultimately his spawn, as it is hard to imagine their pandemic success had the election featured two standard bland old men à la Bush and Kerry.
To address the salient question of whether the man is simply a blabbering fool, or, rather, a calculating marketing genius, I would argue that the answer must be: He is a marketing genius precisely because he is a blabbering fool. His personality (disorder) makes him a natural. The constant lying paradoxically appears to be both compulsive and calculated; too many times has a sensational lie coincided with, and distracted from, a more believable, and thus potentially more harmful one, for it to have been pure chance.
Yet, politics is full of fraudulent narcissists, so there must be something more to it than that. One good hint as to what this may be has inadvertently been offered by the comedian, John Mulanay, during late-night television. His bit went somewhere along theses lines:
To me he is not a rich man; he is what a hobo imagines a rich man to be. It is as if he had overheard some bum under a bridge going: "as soon as my number comes in I’m gonna put up tall buildings with my name on them. I will have fine golden hair and a TV-show where I fire Gene Simmons!" And thought to himself: "that is how I will live my life." In keeping with that, when he makes a decision, he must think to himself: what would a cartoon rich person do? Run for president.
So the most powerful man in the world is now Scrooge McDuck. Because who doesn't like a cartoon, especially one who has already been the president on The Simpsons? Popular reporting of current events is essentially entertainment, sustained by viewing figures just as any other show. Self-evidently then, the best entertainer will get the best coverage. Besides those who genuinely fall for his charms, it is clear that a large number of his detractors also take a certain guilty pleasure in following his train wreck of a show. This does not, however, as is so often mindlessly proclaimed, make it a golden age for satire. If anything, now is a golden age for Schadenfreude.
When a clown is in the White House, he provides all the comedy himself. It is precisely this cartoon-like aspect that has taken him so far, and makes him so dangerous. Sorry to bring up the trite comparison, but would Hitler ever have come to power without his moustache? Well, probably yes. But in this case I think it safe to say that none of this would ever have happened had it not been for a particularly unconvincing yellow mane. Commonly misunderstood as a poorly concealed weakness, it is rather the root of all his success. The man is so readily ridiculed that he could—as he himself has bragged—get away with murder.
Slowly, the hair jokes begin to dry up, but then come those of the orange skin and the small hands. Tempting as it may be to dismiss him as (say) a cheddar-flavoured shit-gibbon, one should have no illusions of subversion if doing so; it is far too easy. Admittedly, his notoriously thin skin augments the temptation, and it is true that a narcissist’s main concern in life is other people’s opinion of him. Michael Moore, among others, has therefore optimistically speculated that he may eventually break from the persistent pressure of mockery. But those who wish for this may want to ask themselves what happens to America and the world if the president has a mental breakdown. It seems increasingly likely that we may soon find that out. Moreover, this is a man who has already gone through a lifetime of people laughing both to his face and behind his back. Already in his days as an actual real estate developer, his peers allegedly regarded him as a character rather than a player. Going on empirical observation then, it seems that reacting to ridicule is largely what triggers his aggressive defensiveness and what drives his ambition. Is not, for example, the night on which Obama roasted him at the correspondents’ dinner commonly viewed as the principal invigoration of his presidential aspirations?
When used well, irony can indeed be a powerful tool. But in the current situation it largely remains what Czesław Miłosz referred to as the glory of slaves. “The song of a bird that has come to love its cage” is another popular way of putting it. Trapped in a cage one by no means love, perhaps such song is better than just sitting silently. But, whereas humour is a good antidote to the humourless, we may have to prepare ourselves to be boring about the clown.
George Bush II was commonly perceived as a laughing stock and simpleton, but that was, perhaps more than anything else, due to the long-term republican strategy of dumbing down for mass appeal. The new president, on the other hand, always tries to look like the smartest person in the room, but rarely succeeds in doing so. Perhaps even more worrying than his remorseless lying is the prospect that he actually believes much of the paranoid nonsense that he peddles. Alex Jones-type conspiracy theories (about the moon landing, 9/11, and the other usual suspects) used to be about the US government—not coming from it.
As his intellectual shortcomings appear genuine, and he himself appears quite pleased with his hair, it would probably be erroneous to think of the buffooning as calculated. It could very well have been though, as the example of his English equivalent, Boris Johnson, amply illustrates. Boris clearly knows how daft his hair looks, and he knows how to use it to his advantage. When he, during a publicity stunt for the London Olympics, managed to get stuck on a zip-wire and was left dangling mid-air, waving a flag and looking a fool, his old Etonian rival and fellow Bullingdon boy, David Cameron, later remarked in truthful jest: "If any other politician anywhere in the world was stuck on a zip-wire it would be a disaster. For Boris, it's an absolute triumph." I would argue that there is one other politician (well…) for whom it would also be a triumph, although he himself would not know it.
With the aid of gaslighting, his preposterous persona has turned politics and its coverage into a spectacular reality show, of which he himself is the star. That is not to say that politics was not theatre also before him, but at least things were not quite so much like The Celebrity Apprentice. Of course, this suits him perfectly though, as he knows much more about running a show than running a state.
When it comes to actual political ideas, it is well known that he virtually represents a vacuum. Akin to how he has made a career out of lending his name to businesses with which he has had little else to do, he is now lending his name to whoever can generate the best media exposure. It is particularly unfortunate, then, that he has isolated himself to a corner where only hideous ideologues and spineless sycophants will work with him.
The promise that the “swamp” would be drained has unsurprisingly been proven untrue, which makes one feel somewhat bad for those naïve enough to have voted for him as a protest against the Establishment. As another great comedian, Stewart Lee, put it when discussing the analogous idea of protest voting for Ukip: "Then they might get in, and what kind of protest is that? That’s like shitting your hotel bed as a protest against bad service, and then realizing that you’ve now got to sleep in a shitted bed.”
Yet, many on the Left, the real Left that is, not liberals (take note Americans), still optimistically view this “shitted bed” as the lesser of two evils; even though that, in reverse order, essentially was Clinton’s implicit campaign slogan. The logic behind this position—perhaps most notably held by Slavoj Žižek—is a good old-fashioned accelerationist view of history, which predicts that, whereas Hillary represented eight more years of status quo, we will now see all what is stale in Washington burn to the ground together with the Grand Old Party, while the Democrats will be forced to rediscover their roots and new beginnings. Call it chemotherapy for a dying democracy, if you will.
Pretty as this all sounds, I cannot say that I share their enthusiasm. Though, admittedly, there is some unhealthy comfort to be taken in the fact that the president of the United States once again has the shape of a piñata, on which all the wrongs in the world can be blamed, rather than his being likable, flawed, and castrated. And, despite the fog of the gaslight, there is now a feeling that the mask has come off; instead of bothering with lobbyists and bribes, the world’s largest oil company now simply makes its CEO secretary of state. But this does not necessarily facilitate any rejuvenation of the Left. If anything, it seems more likely that the Democratic Party will continue to further dig its own grave by rallying around identity politics and other cosmetic issues. If there is no successful impeachment within four years, most voters will probably be satisfied by the prospect of just going back to normal.
That being said, if there is one thing that now feels certain, it is that nothing anymore is certain. Speculation has repeatedly proved itself futile, and the moment for meaningful civilian resistance appears to have passed. It seems there is little left to do but to seek cures for the underlying illness from which the symptoms now blossom, and to keep hoping for lesser evils, while riding out this reign of the Yellow King.