No two ways around it, though: it’s a double-edged ethos those media hand us. And for all the work Hollywood and Madison Avenue have done in recent decades to persuade a great many Americans that women, people of color, the poor, and LGBTQ folk are, like, human, the fact is they’ve sold a great many of us on a dangerous corollary belief:
The belief that I (whoever "I" am) should be getting exactly what I want—all the time.
They sell us, in other words, on an individualism that may instruct us, on its more salutary channels, that we shouldn't need to feel like we're looking in a mirror every time we meet another human (individuality, right?)—but that also, when it reaches a certain frenzied pitch, births what Don DeLillo, in White Noise, calls the imperial self.
The self that not only craves but expects dominion over all it surveys.
The self with a toddler on its brainstem. The self you bet is going to pitch a fit if it doesn’t get exactly the candy it wants in the check-out aisle.
Spend an hour looking carefully at TV ads if you wonder where this self comes from. Then bear in mind the average American takes in God only knows how many hours of this stuff in a year. And that the brands those ads rub in our faces—the brands so desperate to gratify our every arcane desire—are no less up in our grills when we're out on our highways, in our malls, in our sports arenas and airports and even our schools.
Maybe we're taught by our hyper-consumerized environs that variety and diversity are good things.
But we’re also taught that we are the individuals empowered to whittle our worlds down to exactly what we want—that we need see only what we want to see and hear only what we want to hear.
And that we need meet and deal with only those other humans we want to meet and deal with.
Swipe left/swipe right.
Enter, now, Muslims.
And LG…BTQ people.
And (we see where this is going) Donald Trump—an ultimately imperial self prepared to whittle the world down to exactly what Americans want, to meet and deal with only those other humans Americans want to meet and deal with.
And to do the exact same “really great” job of whittling and dealing you’d do, if only you were similarly empowered.
Now, Donald Trump is no one’s idea of an intellectual. But this commentator isn’t buying the oft-floated notion he’s stupid.
Trump clearly has a profound, bone-deep understanding of at least one unhappy human tendency: that of disenfranchised (or even disenfranchised-feeling) individuals to throw in bigly with super-agents, super-subjects, super-imperial selves.
And Trump, like Don DeLillo (to create the weirdest pair of bedfellows ever), knows that we modern Americans, with those corporate-nursed toddlers on our brainstems, are especially susceptible to this unhappy tendency.
A couple nights ago Trump provided us all a toweringly grim state-of-the-union address.
America has 99 problems, each one deadlier than the last.
What’s the only feasible solution to every last one of those problems?
"I alone can fix it," he says.
With tens of millions watching, with an obvious Mussolini impression on his face, he speaks these actual words.
"Believe me," Trump says—then proffers nothing by way of a plan to decimate ISIS, to tame the Chinese, to end mass shootings, to quell the flow of illegal drugs into American cities.
“Believe me” is the plan.
Though there is, of course, that wall.
It’ll cost hundreds of billions, all told—but he’ll build it even while lowering our taxes hugely.
Sure he will.
After all, it’s the Mexicans picking up the tab.
Maybe the wealthiest nation in history can’t afford that wall. But Mexicans can.
"I am your voice," Donald Trump says.
He could just as easily say, “I am your self.”
He could just as easily say, “You are too enfeebled to think, to speak, to act—but I will be the strong you who does all these things for you.”
This is, after all, exactly what his millions of soon-to-be voters hear him saying.
It's at once commonplace and pedantic, a year and change into Trump’s presidential campaign, to point out that this is all bald and shameless demagoguery. That it's old-school fascism being born right in front of our American eyes, right on our American TV screens. That it’s exactly what could never happen here happening right here.
Trump’s barely-grudging admiration for Vladimir Putin and Saddam Hussein tell us exactly what we’re getting if we elect him president.
Yet here we are, semi-poised to do it.
Why is that?