In the Aftermath of Trump’s Press Conference
February 16, 2017
Not in the ol’Ripleys kinda’ way or even with a purely incredulous exasperation of WTF, there is something about watching Trump that speaks obviously to important features of the American character. Americans are crass, immature, centrifugal individuals: we designed ourselves to be our own arbiters of reality. And with this rugged individualism comes a certain disregard for thinking, a primacy of feeling, an innate rebellion against anything that displeases our wants or claims. We are liars from the start (e.g., “all men are created equal…”) and there is nothing about lying that we will admit is lying. This is because the world is as we want it to be.
There is a virulent streak of nihilism within American individualism, a feature principally of the privileged white men who have traditionally exploited the claim for their own benefit. When you have the power to say that what you think or feel is real, all you need to promise someone else is that they have the same prerogative, the same right. (Unless of course you mean to deprive them of those rights, but that is mere digression, a point that the utterly self-reliant can simply ignore.) Nihilist populism manifests this kind of intractable selfishness. We Get To Be Anyone We Want To Be because the only thing that’s real is ME, so anything I do is solipsistically true —and importantly, whatever anyone else thinks is just not, unless I decide to agree. The world is pure will because I am my own representation. Trump’s narcissism is an exaggeration of our shared American pathology about the individual as creator of his universe. Anyone who rejects that power is wrong, anyone who deprives me of feeling that power has stolen it from me. Nearly an hour and a half of Press Conference today revealed nothing more than Whatever I Want is What I Say Is True.
I was reading Emerson’s Self-Reliance with an undergraduate class this morning and there is within this essay’s inveterately cheery petulance and willingness to risk reason, the claim that no individual should ever have to accept the dictates of any government, social institution, religion, or any authority beyond one’s own deeply held personal conviction. The depths of one’s most immaculate self provide incontrovertible authority. William James picks this same note up in The Will to Believe and tempers it, as Emerson did, with another American trait, pragmatism, the claim that truth requires the conventions of agreement. But in both writers, such pragmatism becomes suspect when you choose to see the world another way. The world is agreements until we decide to disagree, then it’s just My World.
When we take our critics too seriously or to heart then we lose authenticity; when we must make an account of the facts or admit factual veracity over belief we likewise lose authenticity. Now I’m not painting a very happy picture of ol’Ralph Waldo or Professor James and I’m overstating his points but there is still a wild frontier, do as you like, believe and trust at your peril ethos that is part of Trump’s appeal. This comes with a claim of directness, sophistication in simplicity, of authenticity and directness that Trump’s supporters see as truth and it mirrors a kind of truth that Emerson describes as his distinctively American worldview. We are the self-reliant people, which means reality is only whatever we claim is ours. Trump’s appeal is simply an America that appeals to the very worst kind of self-reliance, the kind that leaves truth only to the pragmatists who agree with him. The rest of us are just wrong, or worse.