Trump and the New Confederacy of Dunces
Donald Trump. Photo: Gage Skidmore
During Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency there was a lot of debate over what “Make America Great Again” actually meant. Most of us with functioning eyes, ears and frontal lobes were pretty sure that it was largely a desire to return to a time when everyone who wasn’t a cis-het abled white man faced even rougher odds of success and survival than they do now, but I think there’s more to it. Trump’s actions since assuming the office have one desperate, plaintive cry: STOP BEING SMARTER THAN ME!
Entire college courses will be taught on the American years we are currently living through, but for those of us who have been covering the culture wars for a while, things are not as incomprehensible as they might, at first, appear. Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and the rest of the clown car did not come out of nowhere. They were entirely, and unfortunately, predictable results of the rise in internet oppositionism.
Let’s travel back to around 2010, when the Tea Party got started as a totally-not-racist-you-guys response to then-president Barack Obama. The movement essentially mainstreamed the idea of opposition for opposition’s sake, being largely a pushback for grave tyrannies that Obama had not actually committed or even hinted he might commit. The point is, fighting became more sacred than what someone might be fighting for.
Away from this melee was the rise of chan (image board) culture. Jay Allen has a fantastic essay on the subject you should definitely read, but I’m going to sum it up. Anonymous message boards began to be centered around the idea of The Argument as holy. Identities were considered meaningless, and debates were held up as the acme of thought. What could be out-argued was the truth, and everything else could go pound sand.
In theory, this was supposed to usher in pure thought unhampered by people’s baggage. In practice, all it did was cede ground to the loudest and most toxic personalities. White supremacists, anti-feminists, and other deplorables inherited the forums, speaking in meme and launching attacks on the outside web. This is what spawned things like Operation Lollipop, GamerGate, and the general spilling out of chan culture into the larger internet like an oil spill.
Into this world comes Breitbart. The idea that there needed to be an oppositional media presence to account for liberal bias goes back to the ‘90s, but the internet is where it really got its legs. I remember being a child and having relatives gleefully passing around VHS tapes of The Clinton Chronicles as Christmas gifts. Now it’s click-bait headlines and YouTube links, but the vector for viral spread is as easy as any iPhone app.
So here we are, with the single most unqualified president in the history of the Republic, nominating left and right the most unqualified people to hold key positions. His pick for Secretary of Education has less compelling credentials for the job than my daughter’s second grade teacher, and his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development pick is even less acquainted with the job. Not mention he’s decided a newspaperman with only a casual understanding of ethics and facts should be the head of the National Security Council.
Breitbart, one of the few journalistic outlets that would cover GamerGate favorably, lives and dies on the idea that by establishing an opposition, one has established a worthwhile argument. That simply being opposed is indicative of legitimacy. More and more, Trump had embodied this idea, that his circumventing of conventional thought is a radical stance of new political theory rather than the reactionary bit of nonsense it clearly is. It’s basically lying on your resume.
No one in the Trump administration actually knows what they’re doing. This weird white supremacist plot that seems to preoccupy so many of his inner circle? It’s mostly based on the rantings of chan board losers that have the mental acumen of teenagers. It’s a new, terrifying confederacy of dunces that has confused being loud with being right. They’ve established the idea that arguing is proof that ideas have merit.
But they don’t. Sometimes you’re just full of shit. It’s an idea the Trump administration seems to be avoiding like the plague, and his supporters even more so. Still, here we are, in the new world where misinformation is as potent as the real thing.
by Jef Rouner