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Trump Is Serious: Why the Donald's Presidential Campaign Is More Than Just Entertainment

06/17/2015 10:45 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016
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Postmodern dialectics -- i.e., taking two ideas and putting them on a spectrum to show how they're in opposition to one another -- offers us no useful way of reading Donald Trump's candidacy for the presidency. Because the "poststructuralist" thinking behind postmodernism tends to treat discrete ideas as either in opposition to or indistinguishable from one another, many observers are looking at Trump's candidacy and seeing a mere business decision. The thinking goes something like this: Trump's political life is merely an illustration of the fact that politics and business, once thought to be opposites -- the former invested in the public good, the latter in private interests -- are in fact the same thing. In this view, Trump is only running for President to up the ratings for his failing NBC program Celebrity Apprentice, which begins filming in the fall.

Metamodernists aren't so easily fooled, in part because metamodernism allows us to juxtapose ideas without destroying or even diminishing any of them. A metamodern reading of Trump's candidacy is that it's every bit as earnest as it is insincere -- and that this doesn't, in fact, lead us to a paradox. Look at it this way: Does Donald Trump believe he's smarter than most anyone else in politics? Does Donald Trump have ideas for how to "fix" the country? Does Donald Trump believe his ideas are better than anyone else's? Does Donald Trump believe he'd make a great President? Would Donald Trump accept the position of President if he won it? Will Donald Trump's personal ethos and intricate psyche be offended if his candidacy isn't taken seriously, leading him to stay in the race much longer than he otherwise would? Does Donald Trump have the money to stay in the race as long as he wants? The answer to all of these questions is "yes," and, taken collectively, this catechism explains why and how the Trump presidential run is both metamodern and, yes, sincere.

Its sincerity is the very thing that makes it dangerous -- for the entire country, in a certain view, but without question for the Republican presidential candidates who Trump will spend the next year excoriating in ways actual politicos wouldn't dream of doing. Trump will raise issues and issue critiques that otherwise would have no place in presidential politics, or even polite society, and him doing so will be the best weapon Hillary Clinton has against the GOP for the next, well, however long Trump desires. And the reason for all this is that, while Trump is indeed an egomaniac, he is also likely an earnest one: the kind who believes his own metanarrative.

This is one reason I've termed Trump a "metamodern" politician. He's a true believer in his own metanarrative, even as he can't help but notice that most others don't take it seriously. Trump is smart enough to know when he -- or his speeches; or his haircut; or his political ambitions -- are being mocked, but in the Metamodern Age we can develop metanarratives that animate us even as we fully recognize that they're farcical to everyone else. The reason we rely on such metanarratives is that they're a better option than despair, degradation, and decay -- which is all postmodernism offers either cultural critique or individuals invested in constructing their own subjectivity. Trump has found a way to navigate a world that finds him preposterous, and the resolution he shows in pursuing that course of navigation so enthralls America that, somehow, we bring him back into the fold as a curio again and again.

So yes, of course Trump won't win the presidency, and of course he knows that running for President will increase the financial value of his "brand." But seeing Trump's candidacy as merely cynical, or ironic, or somehow merely a brief manifestation of late capitalism's excesses (as played out in the civic sphere) misses the point: this is also a serious candidacy that will have serious repercussions for both Democrats and Republicans alike.

Specifically, we can expect that both those attracted by irony and those attracted by sincerity are and will be drawn to metamodern politicians like Trump. For instance, disaffected young voters who believe politics is a farce will flock to Trump's cause because they see, in his ridiculous public persona, a reification of how preposterous politics has become. So they'll be Trumpets (Trump followers), but cynical ones. On the other side of things, the Tea Party will be attracted to Trump because his latent bitterness -- packaged as merely arrogance -- appeals to their earnest instincts. Tea Partiers are angry, and sincerely so, and this manifests as an almost impossible-to-credit arrogance which we find, also, in Trump. (Consider, for a moment, the "constitutional" critique the Tea Party offers of the Obama presidency, a critique so entirely devoid of specifics about the Constitution or any knowledge whatsoever of constitutional law or the history of the Republic that its self-righteous ignorance is both awesome and spectacular. Ask a Tea Partier how Obama has weakened the Constitution and either they won't know or they'll offer a paper-thin explanation that folds under even the slightest scrutiny; none of this, however, puts even the slightest dent in their sincere outrage on the topic.) When you add to disaffected youth and enraged Rightists a small bloc of politically uneducated voters who, incredibly, see the political neophyte Trump as being capable of running the world, you end up with a high enough percentage of the Republican electorate that, yes, Trump will be in all the debates -- including the much-maligned Fox one in August.

But it's more than that. Right now one poll has Trump in a statistical dead heat for second place in New Hampshire, and that's without Trump having announced his campaign or done much serious campaigning in the Granite State. Because Trump a) will have north of 15 opponents on the GOP side before the primary season begins, and b) makes for better television than any 10 of those opponents combined, his campaign events will be "must-see television" and -- for New Hampshirites -- possibly even "must-attend" political theater. In other words, he will draw crowds, and he will remain a presence in the polls even if his chances of winning even a single primary or caucus are slim. In fact, if Trump is smart enough to pick his campaign stops carefully (for instance, South Carolinians may not be as open to the largely non-religious Trump as independent-minded and only privately religious New Hampshirites are) he could take a top-three placement in an early state or two. At which point Trump's "earnestness" -- his very real belief in his own exceptionalism -- may well kick in and keep him involved in the presidential race (whether as a Republican or, failing that, an Independent) for the long haul.

Trump is the sort of political entity our old (usually postmodernism-influenced) forms of political analysis can't read; the mistakes being made now in looking at Trump are the same mistakes that were made in assessing the proto-metamodern politician Ross Perot -- who pulled about 20% of the 1992 popular vote without taking a single state, to the surprise of many in the political establishment. Given that Trump is polling better than Perot did at this stage in his candidacy -- and given that, while the media may inexplicably be assessing Trump today using national polls, it's the state-by-state ones in which he's doing all right that actually matter -- this is a candidacy that cannot be ignored or treated merely as political entertainment.

So, all that said, here's the hard data: in the most recent polls (conducted by Morning Consult), Trump is 7th in Iowa, 4th in New Hampshire, and 10th in South Carolina -- all without formally being a presidential candidate until now. It remains to seen what metamodern politics look like once they're actually taken on the road, so stay tuned.

Seth Abramson is an Assistant Professor of English at University of New Hampshire and the Series Co-Editor of Best American Experimental Writing, whose next edition will be published by Wesleyan University Press in late 2015. His most recent book of metamodern verse is Metamericana (BlazeVOX, 2015).