In Cool Takes, S. D. Kelly offers a fresh reflection on hot topics by exploring the intersection of faith with high and low culture.
It’s finally here: the complete suspension of reality. Ironically, it is not embodied in a Millennial wearing an Oculus Rift headset, but in an orange-haired septuagenarian who bends the truth according to whim before a global audience of 80 million people. It’s not that Donald Trump lies, exactly. It’s that he is the lie. It’s hard to fact check the words of a man whose words don’t correlate with meaning.
Not that fact checkers don’t try. Sites like factcheck.org have a bevy of people working away in real time during Presidential debates. Unfortunately, these people have the most obsolete job in America. No one wants facts. Facts are the Lord God Bird of the 21st century, a bird whose awesomeness once inspired cries of “Lord God, would you look at that bird!” upon seeing it in the wild. This was before it went extinct, its numbers depleted by hunting — that and excessive real estate development in the bird’s Southeastern habitat.America is now the deal, and Donald Trump is closing it as artfully as he can muster, which, it turns out, might just be artful enough.
What’s especially interesting about Donald Trump’s suspension of reality is that he was doing it long before it was cool. Back in the 1980s, the writer Tony Schwartz (who is now engaged in a series of self-flagellating published interviews in which he begs us all for our forgiveness) co-wrote Trump’s The Art of the Deal, the book that really put Trump on the map. According to Schwartz, Trump’s entire real estate empire is founded on trickery: a complex method of moving the pea from one shell to another when no one is looking, and then borrowing money to find the pea, then eating the pea, then demanding bigger shells before the pea can be located. That’s not exactly how Schwartz put it, but it is close enough. Besides, does it really matter? The point is, Trump knows peas and shells, and most of all, according to the title of the book he wrote with that guy, he knows the art of the deal. America is now the deal, and he is closing it as artfully as he can muster, which, it turns out, might just be artful enough.
The other pop culture phenomenon that made Trump a household name is his Reality TV show called “You’re Fired” (or something like that) in which he sat at a big conference table and glared at people across the table from him, who were desperately competing for a job (and this was before the Great Recession!). Trump, after glaring for a while, would consult with the people sitting at either elbow, who may or may not have been related to him, about which competitor he should glare harder at, his eyes tiny peas of steel, before jabbing his finger at him or her and announcing, lips pursed, “You’re fired.” Classic Trump.
The former blogger and current pundit Andrew Sullivan, who is out to ruin all the fun of living in this place and time, wrote a piece about getting off the internet called “I Used to Be Human”, in which he details how the internet undermines our humanity. It’s not the medium itself, heavens no, but rather how we use it. We are always online: always performing and reacting to other performers. It makes it difficult to distinguish reality from fiction. When are we on and when are we off? Who are we when we are off, when no one is watching? If a flower blooms in the forest, and no one is there to Instagram it, is it even a forest? Or maybe a flower? I’ve lost the thread here, but you get the idea: pictures make things true and/or real.
Sullivan goes to a monastery to break himself from the habit of staring at his phone every 30 seconds, the world in his pocket, just to make sure he still exists. At the monastery, the nuns pinch him on occasion to get the blood flowing and make him feel something again, now that he no longer has access to retweets. Inside the quietude of the cloister walls, Sullivan walks and walks, his feet crunching on leaves in the grass, Lord God Birds flying overhead. The solitude and silence nearly kill him. As soon as he leaves, he grabs his phone to make sure Google can locate him. Not really, but he does return to the land of punditry, as the reality of Trump is too hard to resist. This holds especially true for anyone who makes a living attempting to parse meaning from politics, fueled by a fear of missing out.
As far as being human goes, I’m with Sullivan-in-the-Woods (not Sullivan-on-Twitter). Before the notion of reality disappears altogether, I want to go into the woods to live nonchalantly. I want to be pinched by nuns with beatific smiles, reminding me that I am flesh-and-blood. I want to share a communal meal without asking for the recipe for that terrific quinoa dish so I can post it on my blog.
But it’s too late. The fact of the woods, the communal meal, time spent meditatively, aided and abetted by religious types who believe in the truths embodied by Jesus Christ, having taken vows of some sort (Silence? Poverty? Chastity? Whatever–all of it sounds insane here in the 21st-century), are no match for this new reality, which is no reality at all. I guess we owe it all to Trump, who was among the first to go on Reality TV and tell reality itself to get lost. If that’s not visionary, I guess nothing is.