No One Can Say: Absurdifaction (OAG #4)

A widely quoted observation of the campaign season, generally taken as a critique of they-just-don’t-get-it left-liberals, held that Trump’s followers knew to take him seriously, but not literally – while the benighted liberals had it backwards. Yet a discourse that can and must be taken both seriously and literally – “by the letter” – is the sine qua non of liberal-democratic or constitutional or lawful self-governance. For the same reason, if law is the spirit of the age in words, but we elect a spirit of lawlessness to preserve, protect, and defend the law, then the spirit of our age is self-annihilation.

We might say that the bases for a functional or meaningful social-political sphere seem to have disappeared. In personal-individual terms, we experience disorientation and insecurity – and at some point the suspicion and fear that the meaning, or possible meaning, of our own lives has been lessened, threatened with erasure.

Marianne Constable’s post-election observations both explain and express this discomfort, indeed the dread, that many of us have felt about the Trump candidacy and about Donald J. Trump as a political figure at all, from the beginning of his political campaign and from before its beginning:

Regardless of what kind of president Trump turns out to be, or of the policies he puts in place, the rhetoric of this election season has shaken our faith in the possibility of meaningful public exchange. This is not because persons are afraid to speak, although some will be. Nor is it because mainstream media has missed or mischaracterized the story, although it has. Our faith is shaken because to deny one’s words is to disregard what is. When this disregard coincides with more talk than ever before, the upshot is a mistrust in the possibility of genuine public exchange. […] Catastrophe comes when lying becomes routine and fact can no longer be distinguished from falsehood. When this happens, what words say no longer matters. Whether or not Trump’s lies are any more responsible for the current catastrophe than are the lies of others, his words leave us at sea.

Constable supplies a representative sampling of candidate and nominee Trump’s numerous assaults on the comprehensibility of his own utterances – his habitual self-contradictions, his notorious shifts on one issue after another, his and his defenders’ familiar denials either that he meant what he said or that he said what he said at all. The return to the fold of his former competitors reinforced and replicated the syndrome: The movement by the likes of Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and many others from uncompromising critics to compromised endorsers of, in their own discarded words, a “pathological narcissist,” a “con-man,” a “cancer,” an “unstable” man who cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons, and so on, was not just hypocrisy and cowardice, but a nullification of the possibilities of political speech as meaningful speech.

Alluding to a notorious passage from a speech by our First Lady-in-waiting Melania Trump at the Republican National Conventions – lifted from a speech by the outgoing First Lady; on utterances in good faith, so with a Trumpist-typical hypocrisy – Constable goes on to suggest that a President Trump’s most important task would be somehow to restore the connection between signifier and signified in his own (because he will be President, our own) public discourse:

Trump’s challenge now is to show, through his deeds, what he has not shown through his speech – indeed what his utterances have completely thrown into question – that his word is his bond. The task confronting the next leader of the United States must be to affirm that we share – and that he shares with us – a common world in which are respected the conventions of language that make mutual hearing and speech possible. The alternative is a frightening void in which there is no room to say, in words that one can count on to be heard, “I disagree.”

Instead, the presidential transition has been marked by much more of the very same – including an early, typically ridiculous incident in which the President-elect took to Twitter – where else? – in order to mis-characterize events, or political speech events, surrounding the attendance of his Vice-President-elect at a popular, and highly political Broadway play. Trump referred to a cordial and direct appeal from the cast to the VPe as “harrass[-ment.]” He implied that the former, rather than the audience, had booed the latter. Not for the first time, Donald J. Trump, proud violator of civil norms, who nearly never and never forthrightly apologizes, demanded an apology.

Many suggested that the controversy that ensued was meant to divert attention from headlines, if any, about a settlement of the Trump University fraud case – naturally a fraud case – entailing the President-elect’s agreement to pay $25 Million to claimants, but does Trump even know why he does what he does? No one can say. Did he know that he was exaggerating – lying – and that his demand for an apology was ludicrous? No one can say. Was he “socially performing identity” to and for his identitarian followership, offering them – and the rest of us – an opportunity to follow suit? No one can say. To complete the emblematic pantomime, Trump or someone proceeded to tweet then delete an escalated attack, while at the same virtual moment the Vice-President-elect, was appearing on the Sunday talk shows offering a contradictory description of the events and a completely different (equable) reaction to them.

Regarding Trump and the play, as with Trump and everything and every-non-thing else, there is, it seems, nothing there with which to disagree. There almost was something like the dis-assembling assembly of disconnected yet interrelated not quite anythings, not quite somewhere, with which one might or might not perform something approaching or in some ways vastly exceeding, yet not possibly entailing, disagreement. Not quite anything happened at all anywhere at all other than nothing everywhere, the subtractive pseudo-addition of one or more or no un-thought non-events for or within or at the bottom of or at the top of or at the bottom and at the top of a mountain also an abyss also a deluge of dreadfully meaningful nonsense.

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One comment on “No One Can Say: Absurdifaction (OAG #4)

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(0)

And this programmer suggested a way to avoid user input all together:

Eventually, programmers on Reddit started making fully-functioning, interactive versions of the awful forms, like this and this and this. Someone even created one out of the classic game Snake. The meme hasn’t stopped for weeks now, and iterations of it seem to be growing more detailed and elaborate.

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Trump actually congratulated Erdogan on the outcome. Trump apparently thought it was a good thing that, despite all the flaws in the process, a bare majority of Turkey’s citizens voted to strengthen their populist leader. I don’t think any other post-Cold War president would have congratulated a democratic ally that held a flawed referendum leading to a less democratic outcome. This is not that far off from Trump congratulating Putin on a successful referendum result in Crimea if that event had been held in 2017 rather than 2014.

Public disquiet and behind-the-scenes pressure on key illiberal allies is an imperfect policy position. It is still a heck of a lot more consistent with America’s core interests than congratulating allies on moving in an illiberal direction. In congratulating Erdogan, Trump did the latter.

For all the talk about Trump’s moderation, for all the talk about an Axis of Adults, it’s time that American foreign policy-watchers craving normality acknowledge three brute facts:

  1. Donald Trump is the president of the United States;
  2. Trump has little comprehension of how foreign policy actually works;
  3. The few instincts that Trump applies to foreign policy are antithetical to American values.
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He sensed that the public wanted relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-assertion. America could cut back its investment in world order with no whiff of retreat. It would still boss others around, even bend them to its will...

There was, to be sure, one other candidate in the 2016 field who also tried to have it both ways—more activism and more retrenchment at the same time. This was, oddly enough, Hillary Clinton... Yet merely to recall Clinton’s hybrid foreign-policy platform is to see how pallid it was next to Trump’s. While she quibbled about the TPP (which few seemed to believe she was really against), her opponent ferociously denounced all trade agreements—those still being negotiated, like the TPP, and those, like NAFTA and China’s WTO membership, that had long been on the books. “Disasters” one and all, he said. For anyone genuinely angry about globalization, it was hard to see Clinton as a stronger champion than Trump. She was at a similar disadvantage trying to compete with Trump on toughness. His anti-terrorism policy—keep Muslims out of the country and bomb isis back to the Stone Age—was wild talk, barely thought through. But for anyone who really cared about hurting America’s enemies, it gave Trump more credibility than Clinton’s vague, muddled talk of “safe zones” ever gave her.

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State of the Discussion

bob
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Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ Wade, your last paragraph is crucial to your argument. Certainly it expresses economically the source of the weight of a country's foreign policy, and [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
CK MacLeod
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Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ Not sure where you got the idea that I ever wrote “[President Trump] doesn’t know what he’s doing!!!!!!" - bob's idea for a possible rallying [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
Wade McKenzie
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Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ The conversation that you and Bob were having at the time that I wrote my comment had everything to do with the recent missile strike [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic

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