|Jean Baudrillard/Donald J. Trump|
By Kerry Mitchell
I have replaced "simulacrum" with "Trump campaign" in the following: "The Trump campaign is never what hides the truth—it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The Trump campaign is true." Ecclesiastes
By this I mean not, of course, that the Trump campaign is speaking the truth, but that the truth of his campaign—what his campaign is—is true: it is what it is. And what it is is nothing. There is no campaign. There is only Trump.
The absence of a conventional campaign was the subject of a recent MSNBC exposé that wondered whether the Donald could triumph while lacking a proverbial "ground game":
Donald Trump is a candidate without a campaign – and it’s becoming a serious problem. Republicans working to elect Trump describe a bare-bones effort debilitated by infighting, a lack of staff to carry out basic functions, minimal coordination with allies and a message that’s prisoner to Trump’s momentary whims. "Bottom line, you can hire all the top people in the world, but to what end? Trump does what he wants,” a source close to the campaign said.For Trump supporters, the MSNBC report can be dismissed as a hit piece, a takedown. The article argues largely that Trump’s is a lousy version of a campaign, just as some suggest that Trump is a lousy version of a leader (but without the original, what can you do?). But there are threads within the article and other media that are much more threatening than disapproval, which is easily celebrated or dismissed depending on one’s leanings. These threads suggest not that Trump is being a bad leader, but that he is not being a leader at all. He is just being him. This suggestion is so much more threatening than disapproval as it removes the foundation upon which both approval and disapproval rest. Without such foundation political statements do not so much speak truth or falsehood as flash images that affirm or negate. Such statements are immune to argument, gaining their strength from the sense of confidence, joy, and invincibility with which they are asserted. If Trump has no campaign, if Trump is not a leader but just Trump, then the attacks on him will simply affirm this reality, breaking the feedback loop of claim and counterclaim and coming back again and again to the negation.
The difference between being a good/bad leader and not being a leader at all is the difference between individual and social being. In an individual sense, a leader is a person. In a social sense, a leader is one who simulates him/herself in an organization. Simulation is the essential feature of the concept. On the other side of the partisan divide, the simulation is called “the Clinton machine.” While conventionally a political machine may be understood as an organization “controlled by” a leader, which is true enough, it is also an organization that stands in for that leader. A campaign such as Clinton’s has surrogates who speak for Clinton and, in line with a certain strategy, repeat talking points across many more media outlets than Clinton herself could engage. The campaign is thus an extension of its leader, amplifying and echoing the words that come out of her mouth. In contrast, the “Trump machine,” such as it is or is not, does not have surrogates so much as supporters. Their words do not so much amplify and echo a coherent message as they resonate with a sentiment while adding their own vulgar impressions. No one stands in for Trump except Trump himself.
Simulation is essential for leadership in another respect as well. The leader is a simulation of those s/he leads. This holds across all models of sovereignty. A dictator does not simply lead his people. He embodies his people. He is a symbol of his people and stands in for them. This is equally true in a republic. The president or prime minister represents the people. But there are very different ways in which this simulation can work. In the contemporary American form, a leader represents the people through a modulation of processes (e.g., elections, polls, focus groups, town hall meetings, meetings with special interests—with much listening, responding, negotiating, taking positions) and through a modulation of being (e.g., being whoever s/he is). This dual nature of representation opens up a certain tension, for the leader can be a simulation of the people in the sense of being “an ordinary guy” without being a product of the processes of representation. Yes, Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for President through an election, but that process, including all the ancillary ones that accompany it, did not produce Trump in his character as a leader. The electoral processes were not so much a negotiation and dialogue and positioning so much as a “here-I-am-take-it-or-leave-it.”
Curiously, the simulation of being is often taken to be more authentic than the simulation of process. The leaders who modulate their positions to more accurately reflect polling, focus groups, or the positions of certain organizations are seen as untrustworthy, while the leaders who stick to their positions because that is who they are are seen as strong, dependable leaders. But is this not exactly backwards? Shouldn’t the leaders who adapt themselves to better reflect a polity be regarded as more faithful representatives, better copies, of the people than those who simply are who they are?
Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 work, Simulacra and Simulation, suggests that the question of the fidelity or infidelity of the copy is an illusion, one that conceals the fact that there is no basis for the copy. He argues that we inhabit a new historical epoch in which simulations refer only to other simulations, a play of images and representations without original running as do computer programs, hollowed out simulations that operate and have value, but truth is not one of them. This play particularly characteristic of the highly complex, intensely mediated collectivity of the modern nation-state.
Whether through process or being, no leader is a copy of a people, and this is one of the more disturbing things about leadership. Underneath the debates about whether Clinton or Trump more accurately represent the people lies the possibility that there is no American people to represent. Indeed, that is what Benedict Anderson’s classic work, Imagined Communities, suggests. He articulates how societies are held together not by demonstrable similarities but by their collective embrace of the fictions of their collectivity. One can add that such fictions are embodied in the acclamation of a leader as representative of a society. From such a perspective, the illusion of simulation serves as the glue that holds social bodies together.
The rhetoric of and yearning for authenticity in a candidate ostensibly strives to replace this illusion with reality in the person of the leader. The rhetoric of authenticity does not, however, simply return to the cult of personality that informs the strongman, dictator, and monarch. No one ever acclaimed Louis XIV as king because he was being “true to himself.” Such self-simulation would have been seen at the time as a curious and unnecessary step for justification of sovereignty. Rather, the modern yearning for authenticity denies the social altogether. Being true to oneself is defined by dispensing with social simulation. Thus it is not simply that people support Trump because they see themselves in him. That’s a traditional, if by itself incomplete, path to defining a leader. It’s that people support Trump because he doesn’t represent anyone but himself. This impression of strength of leadership carries with it a destructive urge vis-à-vis the social. Accusations of inconsistency and outrageous statements and behavior do nothing to assail this appeal to authenticity, even when his inconsistency applies to himself.
In this way the rhetoric of authenticity, of the reality and groundedness of Trump as a leader, is also one of denial, destruction, and nihilism. It replaces the social simulation of both dictator and president with the self-simulation of the individual. The emptiness of the leader was once seen within the Republican party as an ideal. It is now seen as the agent of collective doom.