The emptiness of Trump’s political performance is matched only by the unleashed violence of the ideologies he invokes
At the beginning of the summer, when I designed a course around some of the most popular works of science fiction and fantasy in American pop culture, my plan was to introduce college freshmen to the ways in which non-realistic art has tackled moments of great significance in the history of the US. Given the timing of my course, I had expected, of course, to forge some connections between the works on my syllabus and the events that were taking place outside of the classroom.
At some point between watching the media circus that has surrounded the elections and reading a news report that declared Alec Baldwin mimicked Donald Trump so effortlessly on SNL “people felt that it seemed Trump was impersonating Baldwin rather than the other way around,” I came to the conclusion that things were not quite as clear cut as my syllabus would have them seem. At least as far as this election cycle has been concerned, the state of American society is not, as I was trying to teach my students, one in which art imitates politics. Instead, and to the utmost disbelief of this Muslim and immigrant, it is one in which politics has become a dangerously bizarre form of entertainment.
In a presidential race that has produced more than its fair share of both memes and merchandise (the ubiquitous, red, Make America Great Again baseball caps; Nasty Woman t-shirts and mugs), it is difficult to choose just one example of this absurdist entertainment-politics at work. But it should come as little surprise that the strongest contenders have emerged out of a campaign led by a man most recognisable for his stint on a reality TV show and whose very promise to “make [the country] great again” reads more like advertising copy than a coherent political vision. There were Donald Trump’s digs at Ted Cruz’s wife. The press conference with Bill Clinton’s accusers. The moment in the second debate where Trump vowed – in the same ominous timber he used to declare virtually all facts “wrong” – to imprison Hillary Clinton. And there were, of course, the rallies.
Like everything else that the Republican nominee has done on the campaign trail, these moments of showmanship on Trump’s end have been equal parts impulsive egomania and calculated appeal. In the world-other-than-our-own that Trump has created, it doesn’t matter that Enrique Peña Nieto declared Mexico will “never pay for the wall,” or that the candidate’s brags about endorsements have been refuted by everyone from the ICE to the United States military. What matters in the world-of-making-America-great-again is the belief in a collective fiction fostered by Trump, upheld by his supporters, and that invests both with a power they unquestioningly believe they deserve.
One especially perplexing factor related to Trump’s alternative world is that, for some of the candidate’s supporters, it has value first and foremost as an idea. As a Muslim who has been following along in silent terror as the events of the elections unfolded, I was most struck by this while watching Hasan Minhaj’s special report for The Daily Show from within the Republican National Convention. Minhaj, a Muslim himself, designed his report as a tongue-in-cheek response to one of Trump’s most controversial proposals. Declaring that it was time to say goodbye to America, the comedian prepared for the proposed expulsion of Muslims from the US by interviewing attendees about their favorite things to do in their respective states. In almost every single case, the Trump supporters Minhaj interviewed vehemently reassured him that their candidate of choice would never implement the proposed ban. “Donald Trump isn’t going to kick Muslims out,” said one such supporter. “He’s a guy who shoots off the hip,” said another. Like Minhaj, who ends the segment trying to understand why the people interviewed would vote for Trump in the first place, viewers are left with a confusion that gets at the very heart of the performance/politics divide; for these attendees, Trump’s ability and willingness to carry out his threats are not nearly as important as the bravado of his suggesting them in the first place.
Most worrying about the reactions of the RNC attendees is not their disregard for what Trump might do if elected, but rather their obliviousness to what was already happening at the time of the convention and what has only gotten worse since. While Trump himself has contorted the working definition of his Muslim ban so many times it is now barely recognisable, the candidate’s rhetoric – the source of the very same words the attendees glibly describe as “shooting off the hip” – reflected itself in the most violently Islamophobic year American Muslims have experienced to date. In the days following Trump’s call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” hate crimes against Muslims spiked by 87.5 per cent. Today, 11 months after the proposed ban, the list of crimes has grown to include the murder of two imams, a failed plot to bomb an apartment complex inhabited by Somali refugees, and the brutal beating to death of a Saudi college student outside of a pizzeria in Wisconsin.
It is in this space, trapped between the rock of empty political performance and the hard place of all too real daily violence, that Muslims in America find themselves a day away from the election. The negative impact of election season on American Muslims is neither new nor confined to Trump. Yet it is Trump, and the alternate reality that he has created, that have confronted American Muslims with a uniquely difficult challenge over the past year. In this world where facts routinely take a backseat to bombastic performance, the presidential candidate has attracted a following that is split between two camps with equally serious consequences to the community: one is so enraged with the false facts they have taken matters into their own hands, and the second is so entertained by the bombastic performance they (ostensibly) have not noticed the violence that ensued in the process.
As the country reaches the end of what still seems like an interminable process, it is difficult not to consider the lasting ramifications of this election season’s fictions on Muslims and on the nation as a whole. Already, talk of the business mogul launching a television network in the event of his defeat leaves little room for optimism. Indeed, for those of us who have watched in horror as Trump transformed his bid for the presidency into sheer spectacle, the announcement serves a reminder of a decidedly grim scenario the United States now faces: whether in the White House or on Trump TV, the Donald appears intent on a repeat performance.
Image from: http://on.cc.com/2eOp6OL
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