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Donald Trump: The Post-Ironic Leader

Donald Trump: The Post-Ironic Leader

In recent months, we have seen Donald Trump hit front pages at an increasingly regular rate. Trump has talked about walling up Mexicans (and getting them to pay for the privilege), banning Muslims from entering the US, the no-go areas of Islamic extremism making the police afraid for their lives in London, his excellent health, menstruation causing irrationality in women, and the way in which the political establishment is attacking him.

Comments boards are full of people either (a) calling Trump a fascist, megalomaniac, racist comedy figure who can never win the presidency or (b) a refreshingly needed straight-talker who is standing up to the PC brigade and telling it like it is. All the while his poll figures are rising, to the extent that Arianna Huffington has told us that The Huffington Post is no longer treating Trump's candidacy as "entertainment" but as a genuine danger to US politics and society.

So, why is Donald Trump picking up so much support? Should the media continue to write him off, comparing his early poll lead to that of Newt Gingrich the last time around, assuming eventually he'll say something so outrageous that those supporting him will see the light and drop him like a hot potato? So, walling up Mexico hasn't already jumped that shark? The Huffington Post might be right. We do need to start taking Trump's candidacy seriously, which means asking some core questions as to why his particular brand of rhetoric is drumming up so much support.

As is my wont, I am going to locate these questions in debates about irony, specifically those pertaining to the rise and fall of irony as a core device in American political culture and the emergence of the New Sincerity movement, which is attempting to reinsert traditional modes of living into the American cultural environment. As the Republican party grapples with the problems involved with melding the ironic sensibility of contemporary politics with the demand for a return to traditional values, it opens up space for somebody with no interest in either to make a significant power play through force of personality and direct, non-ironic statements of intent (whether they are workable or not matters not a jot). Whether he eventually succeeds or not, Donald Trump is that candidate.

The Attack of the Ironists

Despite being home to the some of the best ironic television on the planet (e.g.The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Last Week Tonight, Real Time, South Park, The Simpsons, Seinfield), American society has always had a problem with the relationship between cultural irony and the serious issue of being the world's superpower (and all that this entails). Understanding this problem and American cultural developments related to it can help explain the problem the Republican Party has in positioning itself, why The Huffington Post initially regarded Trump's candicacy as entertainment and Trump's current popularity.

The tension between irony and "serious politics" was best captured in the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attack, when the prominent American critic Richard Rosenblatt proclaimed

One good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony.

by Richard Rosenblatt, 2001

The feeling that irony had stopped America taking serious threats seriously was widespread. Graydon Carter, of Vanity Fair, announced, 'There's going to be a seismic change. I think it's the end of the age of irony. Things that were considered fringe and frivolous are going to disappear." Camille Dodero echoed the prevailing feeling in the Boston Phoenix, stating "Maybe we've just witnessed the end of unbridled irony. Maybe a coddled generation that bathed itself in sarcasm will get serious. Maybe we'll stop acting so jaded and start addressing the problem."

Even the iconic ironist, Jon Stewart, opened his first post-9/11 show with an earnest, tearful and non-ironic speech. However, he followed his sincerity with a statement that drew a line in the sand:

Even the idea that we can sit in the back of the country and make wise cracks... which is really what we do. We sit in the back and throw spitballs-but never forgetting that it is a luxury in this country that allows us to do that. That is, a country that allows for open satire.

by Jon Stewart, 2001

Stewart's identification of satire and irony with Western freedom and democracy was paralleled in other sections of the media. David Beers hoped that the tragic events of 9/11 would wipe away shallow, nihilistic irony and instead replace it with "a golden age of irony. The real stuff. The kind of irony that drove Socrates' queries, the irony that lies at the heart of much great literature and great religion, the irony that pays attention to contradictions and embraces paradoxes, rather than wishing them away in an orgy of purpose and certainty." Graydon Carter backtracked and, claiming misquotation, stated that what he really said was "Ironing is dead. Not irony. Ironing."

This brief debate perfectly captured the ambivalence towards irony in contemporary USA. One side believes irony is a danger to cultural values, taking nothing seriously, blurring the distinction between joke and menace and a stance of vain stupidity, whereas for the other it is a fundamental ingredient of Western freedom. Irony, in this instance, is not vapid jokery, but used to quell the self-dazzled statements of the hubristic politician, who employ increasingly sophisticated modes of ironic communication in return to prevent their ideas from being attacked. As we can see, irony begats irony, spinning out of control, hence the debate.

We can also see why The Huffington Post, the poster-blog of serious irony, didn't treat Trump seriously, as his policies were so absurd they didn't need to be ironically attacked in the first place. However, The Huffington Post has perhaps missed its mark, failing to appreciate that the battle between sincerity and irony has moved on quite significantly in the last decade, which has implications for the current primary races and opened up a space for Trump's candidacy. 

Sincerity Strikes Back

Writing in the New York Times in late 2012, Christy Wampole claims that the contemporary "age of irony" informs a deep aversion to risk, being a function of fear, pre-emptive shame, cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. Arguing that contemporary irony is of a deeper hue than its historical counterparts, Walpole claims irony has "leaked from the realm of rhetoric into life itself", resulting in the "vacuity and vapidity of the individual and collective psyche", "rampant sarcasm and unapologetic cultivation of silliness" and a "self-infantilizing citizenry."

She was immediately challenged by the writer, John D. Fitzgerald, who argues that the current generation "prioritized being close to God and having a good family life above anything else", whereas the previous one prioritized "making lots of money". For Fitzgerald, the contemporary ethos "is a joining together of irony and sincerity" that, when combined, "form a movement of astonishing power."

David Foster Wallace predicted such a movement would emerge as a reaction against the tyrannical irony of late 20th Century America, arguing

The next real literary "rebels" in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that'll be the point. Maybe that's why they'll be the next real rebels.

by David Foster Wallace, 1993

One development informing these critiques has been termed "New Sincerity". While this movement can be seen as, and has an obvious aspect of, an "anti- irony" sincerity, it also has a more subtle dimension of balancing irony and sincerity, scepticism and faith, performance and authenticity via a series of strategies that combine serious, sincere solutions and an intellectual awareness of irony and scepticism. So, what does the rise of "New Sincerity" mean for the political classes, especially the Republican Party, and how has it opened the door for Donald Trump?

Trump | A New Hope?

In the UK, the first battle between the ironic sophistication of the cultural and political elite and the public desire to return to more traditional modes of existence was won by the New Sincerity tribe, when the Labour Party embraced Jeremy Corbyn's call for a return to traditional socialism, catapulting him to a hugely unexpected position of leadership and causing widespread panic in the more politically "astute" members of the party who worry that his unspun message, however sincere or authentic, guarantees election disaster. To reiterate. Corbyn completely eschewed the ironic spin that is de rigueur in the contemporary political environment. And won. Easily!

In the US, it is the conservative right that is undergoing a similar level of transformation, working out (on the run!) how to sell a sincere desire to return to traditional Judeo-Christian values to the wider American public. The struggle to articulate this vision in a technologically astute and culturally diverse society well-attuned to the ironic modes of communication of the political classes perhaps explains why the Republican stage is so heavily occupied, with each candidate straining to find the best way to link an ironic political sensibility to modern problems and traditional values.

Of those who took the main stage in yesterday's primary debate, we saw Carly Fiorina play the technology and corporate business card, Chris Christie the military card, Ben Carson the religious morality card and Rand Paul the American isolationist card, with Cruz, Rubio, Bush and Kasich fighting it out for the concerned career politician card. All are desperately trying to bridge the gap between the ironic sensibility supposedly required of the contemporary politician and the traditional values that have increased in importance to the Republican base. Each is trying to display their authenticity in that space, whilst maintaining the ironic sensibility supposedly so necessary for the contemporary politician. All, that is, except one!

The Republican contest has been framed by career politician after career politician floundering against the power of Donald Trump's direct and confrontational statements of intent. Trump completely ignores the niceties expected of highly media trained politicos, calling his opponents fools, idiots and hotheads, and offering simplistic but colourful solutions to highly complex problems. He simply doesn't care about the socio-cultural issues that frame the others' campaigns. Which is his appeal. He isn't concerned about spinning a message that cleverly combines contemporary issues and traditional values. There is no irony, no clever asides or knowing winks to the political and media classes. There's just Trump, his ideas and his money! It's New Sincerity without the sincerity or the irony. No spin. Just ego and id. And it's currently looking pretty powerful.

Although the political and media elite (including Arianna Huffington) wrote Trump off before he began, we need to take notice of Jeremy Corbyn's success in winning a leadership battle he was supposed to have no chance in via the total abandoning of political spin. Although they are from opposite ends of the political spectrum, it would be remiss of us to assume that Trump's rejection of political conventions cannot deliver the same result. 

Jon Stewart on 9/11

Jon Stewart's response to the 9/11 tragedy

Interview with Trump

Fox News interviews Donald Trump.

Stewart on Trump

​Jon Stewart on Trump's presidential candidacy.

Irony | Haruki Murakami
Authenticity and the End of Organisational Culture

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Saturday, 15 December 2018

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