Philosopher Simon Critchley invoked the underlying civic angst post-Brexit as a conceptual affliction he termed Brexistentialism. The thought of Trump winning support from an extensive stratum of the electorate revealed an analogous subterranean discomfort. A painful rift materialises within the demos: apparently, we do not share the same value system as millions of others constructed as fellow citizens under a symbolic body politic. Brexistentialism had all the ingredients to be transformed into fully-fledged elexistential dread across the pond.
When the dust settled, reality had been inverted one final time: truth-adverse, scandal-ridden, jingoistic trumpery had coolly dismantled the well-oiled, scandal-ridden, Clintonite machinery. Hillary possessed the finances, the ground game, the media, Hollywood endorsements, and Wall Street. Trump’s poujadist campaign, rife as it was with a cornucopia of racist dog whistles, braggadocious masculinity, flagrant misogyny and copious sexcapades, effectively mainstreamed bigotry and ran amok all the way to the oval office.
Trump mobilised a dark underbelly of America that has always lurked informally in the hinterlands of the Republic. The maintenance of a liberal consensus was a brief idyll, if not an ideological construction. Rick Perlstein duly castigates liberal pietism in recalling “that millions of Americans have harboured dark reactionary rage during every period of our history – and yet pundits are always surprised every time it bursts into the political foreground.”
Capitalism has traditionally exploited fascism when threatened by a steady dose of left-wing movements and organised labour. Neither specifically endangers capitalism today; instead, the crisis is internal. The liberal capitalist social order, successful as it was in globalising with all its inherent contradictions, has turned on itself by exceeding the biospheric limits available to it, recklessly hunting for systemic adversaries to devour. Such is a truly nihilistic fascism.
By manipulating disenchantment through a calculated opportunism in the linguistic realm of ‘post-truth’, what Trump lacked in substance he amply made up for with a nauseating exhibition of power pornography, virility, and machismo. More than any other American presidential candidate in recent memory, Trump understood the ideological power of politics as aesthetics, the power that Walter Benjamin detected in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”:
“Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.”
Fast forward to the present landscape: our postmodern cultural logic dictates meaning and facts are inherently flexible and only accountable to subjective interpretation. In this context, the aestheticisation of politics becomes even more accessible, and Trump – the postmodern candidate par excellence and personality cult – ultimately thrived on it. As hyper-reality blurs evermore into a narcissistic narcosis by our meta-addiction to all things digital, the spectacle reigns supreme. And in the case of Trump, the spectacle was utterly triumphant.