The Con Artistry of the Deal: Trump, the Reality-TV President
Four days prior to the US presidential elections, I read Trump’s The Art of the Deal—a manual for con artists and, as it turned out, an updated version of Machiavelli’s The Prince for the media age. Having dismissed the Trump candidacy early on in the primaries season as a marketing gimmick intended to promote his overall brand, I wanted to avoid making the same mistake at the very final stages of the campaign. The same cannot, unfortunately, be said of Clinton’s team, which clearly did not do its homework. Were her advisors at least to skim through The Art of the Deal, they would have promptly realized that no amount of negative publicity could damage the Republican candidate, for whom there is no such thing as “bad” advertisement. Whatever the context, to be mentioned 24/7 on Cable news is, for Trump, a goal in itself, making him larger than life and, therefore, an ideal in which common folk can espy their own unattainable dreams and desires of grandeur.
Perhaps the most emblematic passage from the con artist’s manual, and one most relevant to Trump’s political strategy, is the following:
“The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”
Isn’t this precisely what Trump did throughout the presidential campaign? Did he not play to people’s fantasies, be they about the revival of the country’s industrial might or, on the darker side, about the possibility of achieving social purity by excluding every kind of threatening Other? Far from “innocent,” the exaggerations in question helped Trump close the deal with the American public at the price of unleashing a whole range of sexist, racist, nationalist, and homophobic fantasies. It bears mentioning, however, that these fantasies were not created by Trump but merely driven out of hiding in the deep recesses of the unconscious, where they had been taking refuge from the superficial dictates of political correctness. Positively buttressed by projective identification with the “greatest and the most spectacular” business mogul, such phantasmatic construction of “America’s greatness” put the self-professed artist of deals in the Oval Office.
The US already had its actor president in Ronald Reagan. And it is about to get its Reality TV president in Donald Trump. What this means is that not only the last dividing lines between fantasy and reality are being erased but fantasy itself, however ominous and disturbing, comes to dictate reality. To paraphrase Plato, Trump is going to be the sophist-king, a master puppeteer of appearances who knows how to manipulate them and to manipulate their very manipulation (e.g., by lambasting the mass media that have literally made him what he is today). As I mentioned in my analysis penned in March of this year for The Philosophical Salon, the manipulation of public opinion is nothing new; rather, what distinguishes president-elect from his rivals, including Hillary Clinton, is that “he fully assumes the bankruptcy of metaphysical ideals such as authenticity, essentiality, or firm principles, and act accordingly… [T]he bygone values are supplanted by nothing—the nothing, to which everything has been reduced. Whereas Ted Cruz & Co. stand for the consciousness of this nothingness, Trump represents its self-consciousness, and this gives him an unmistakable edge.”
Instead of giving in to despair in the face of the current political success of con artistry (after all, a strong tradition exists in philosophy, according to which politics is con artistry; Plato uses this conclusion to denounce the political realm of appearances as a whole, while Machiavelli builds upon it to enunciate the guidelines for successful politicians), I’d like to highlight two of its inherent limitations and one unexpected positive implication.
First. Note that, in the case of Trump’s political ascent, the medium is not the message. The form he resorts to is decidedly postmodern: the mediatic construction of reality, recently theorized in William Egginton and David Castillo’s fascinating book Medialogies. But the content is hypermodern, embracing exclusionary nationalism and industrialism. Inevitably, that contradiction, the power of which Trump has harnessed and which he has been riding thus far, will be resolved in favor of one or the other extreme, contributing to the process of post-electoral normalization. What will happen when @RealDonaldTrump (we can’t overlook the irony of “Real” in the Twitter handle) switches to @POTUS? When the so-called political movement that brought Trump to power culminates in the static and homogeneous—all-male, all-white—Politburo-like structure of governance? When the new administration becomes one of the least transparent, most secretive in US history?
Second. All the self-contradictory promises the Trump campaign has made will have to give way to actual policy decisions, starting with the choice of Cabinet, which doesn’t at all look like it will be comprised of political outsiders. As Hegel reminds us in Phenomenology of Spirit, possibilities, capacities, talents, inclinations, etc. are abstract and, because not yet realized, admit everything into their ambit. With their realization, however, certain possibilities fall by the wayside insofar as they are not acted upon or insofar as they stand diametrically opposed to those actualized. As a result, another crucial “Trump card,” namely his resistance to being pinned down to one concrete position, will be lost. The author of The Art of the Deal is aware of this mode of taming the otherwise unrestrained fantasy: “You can’t con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.” The point is that, given the self-contradictions he has been cultivating, Trump will have no other choice but to fail in “delivering the goods,” even if he tries to do so. The very strategy that got him elected will backfire in the period of his presidency; it is one thing to break definite election promises, but it is quite another to break promises in fulfilling them.
The positive implication of the Trump presidency resonates with Slavoj Žižek’s recent analysis of its prospects. Commentators are up in arms that Trump’s stint at the helm of the US will spell out “disaster for the planet” and an assured defeat in the battle against climate change, disaster for the most vulnerable and the poor, disaster for race relations… They forget that the Paris climate agreement is too little, too late to keep the world livable, or that wages have not increased and that race relations have hit a new low under the Obama presidency. What the election of Trump signals is that the ideological screens concealing these and other unmitigated catastrophes have fallen and that we can no longer congratulate ourselves on symbolic victories while moving at full speed toward environmental and social collapse. That is how fiction realized makes disavowed reality itself real.