Trump as Singularity, by Roland Kapferer

The US presidential election is scheduled for Tuesday 8 November 2016. It will be the 58th quadrennial presidential election. As you may or may not know, voters in the United States don’t actually elect the president. Instead, the perhaps 40 per cent of Americans who actually manage to vote in the greatest democratic reality-TV show on earth will select electors who, in turn, will elect a new president through the Electoral College…

Nah, that ain’t gonna happen.

The American election will never take place. In fact it already hasn’t taken place. Because, Trump.

Donald Trump is the turning point in American politics. I don’t say he represents a turning point because, as we all know, things have gone way, way past representation—of either the political or any other kind. Trump is the turning point. I mean this in the way every philosopher’s favourite Nazi, Martin Heidegger, meant it. Trump captures something of what Heidegger intended by technological enframing, except that in the danger he embodies no saving power grows. American politics has entered into terminal crisis and Trump is the symptom of this.

Let me put it another way. Trump is the singularity. Indeed I want to claim that he is the technological singularity—a hypothetical event in which an intelligent agent runs out of control in ever-increasing cycles of self-improvement—a negative manifest destiny. Here, in 2016, we have reached the end point of The American Century, a point of discontinuity, beyond which any sense of prediction has become impossible. Wikipedia says ‘unfathomable’, and unfathomable might be better. Because, with Trump, it’s no longer a case of depth or surface. It’s no longer a question of making predictions—Trump will/won’t win the election etc. Who cares? Or, to use a common Trumpian phrase, ‘it doesn’t matter’. Trump puts an end to that kind of political question, to the whole liberal-democratic political power game. The significance of Trump goes way beyond the 2016 American election. The Trump singularity is a fitting figure for an age in which general artificial intelligence has become an increasing infatuation. And an age in which we find ourselves increasingly encompassed by questions concerning technology.

Trump is the emblematic politician for our post-political cybernetic epoch. Or, as Jean Baudrillard might have said, had he lived long enough, the super-intelligence of evil.

Now I’m going to steal another few lines from Baudrillard and suggest that what America is experiencing with Trump is the agony of power—the internal convulsion of the American political order of which Trump is both the event horizon and the catastrophic social-media image feedback.

Where does Trump begin? You could say that Trump begins when he inherited his father’s real-estate firm in 1971—when he received that ‘small’ million-dollar loan from his dad to invest in Manhattan. But I want to link his true beginning to media. I think the real beginning must be in the hyper-world of reality television: Trump is a post-media spectacle like no other. His success is entirely bound up with the vision machine and the automation of our perceptions and affections—the politics of the virtual become percept and affect.

Le Trump l’oeil

It all starts with The Apprentice—a TV reality game billed as ‘the ultimate job interview’. And now, as Trump readies himself for the ultimate job interview that is the presidential election, we can begin to see the dark possibilities that were hidden in the original television show. Beginning in 2004, the show has continued with strong ratings for fourteen seasons with Trump at the helm. (Trump is to be replaced this year by Hollywood film star and ex California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger because federal electoral laws prevent one candidate receiving more airtime than any other.)

On The Apprentice, in the recent series of debates during the Republican primaries, or at a rally, Trump exudes charisma. There can be no doubt that he is in every Weberian sense of the word charismatic. That is, he is a creation of the American people—the ‘people’ Trump constantly evokes—both those who are pro-Trump and those who are anti-Trump. Brecht’s famous words about fascism (that it is made up of both fascism and anti-fascism) seem relevant here: Trumpism is constituted by both #NeverTrump and #AlwaysTrump. If it’s true that we get the leaders we deserve, then Trump is the leader for the hashtag generation. He is made by the American people. This is the proper sense of charisma. We all have the leaders we deserve; we get the leaders we create. Far from being an individual quality—as it is usually understood—it is the gift bestowed upon a leader by society: charisma is a social phenomenon. In true Hegelian fashion, Weber says that if the people recognise him, then the leader is their master, ‘so long as he knows how to maintain recognition by “proving” himself’. And any election is totally beside the point. It is the duty of the people to recognise his mission and charismatically claim him as their leader.

Thus Trump is the charismatic mirror for the American people. And this mirror has nothing to do with the orders, processes and logics of bureaucratic reason. Not for Trump is the world of ‘regular income’, taxes and so on. Rather, he exemplifies the trans-economic disorder of the ‘pirate genius’. Charismatic leaders will cover themselves in booty and gold but never admit to anything as mundane as a rational economy. And it’s true that Trump rejoices in a certain joyous, superabundant avoidance of all rational economic conduct. Money and truth combine—this is the ‘art of the deal’, the name of Trump’s business book that spent fifty-one weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

‘People want to believe that something is the biggest, the greatest, the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.’

He knows that it’s much better to be seen as a ‘good businessman’ than to actually be one. Trump is the spectacular form of good business. Or bad business. Of course they’re the same thing. In his television debates or at his rallies he continually shouts ‘I don’t care about money!’ and ‘I’m rich’. And he declares his idea of running for the presidency as something like a Bataillean accursed share—an example of his bountiful wealth—which is an excess, a huge waste of money as well as a destruction of his brand. In this, Trump reveals a fundamental aspect of the logic of finance today. Speculation piles upon speculation and bankruptcy upon bankruptcy—Trump has long existed in a hyper-realised sphere of financial capital that he understands better than any of his critics. Trump is yet one more aspect of an exploding financial disorder that would instantly collapse under any serious audit. This is wealth as a constantly circulating architecture of debt or negative wealth that has become its own brand. Commentators who question his wealth or ask how much money he ‘really has’ completely miss the point. When commenting on money he raised for US veterans—‘one million, two million, six million, I don’t know! It doesn’t matter’. The point is beside the point, or rather it’s the turning point. In 2010 the notional value of outstanding derivatives contracts was already $1.2 quadrillion. This dwarfs the production of the entire world economy. In his book Making Money, Ole Bjerg sees this as a kind of ‘financial moon’ that is changing the tidal flows of money on earth. Financial capital has become literally astronomical and ‘productive money’ flows according to the gravitational pull of financial moons. When Hannah Arendt wrote long ago in The Human Condition of the desire of human beings to leave the planet earth behind, she could not have known how right she would become.

In one of the clearest statements about the corporate funding of politicians, Trump has openly discussed his own donations to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, seeing no contradiction between this and his now running as a Republican—‘I’m a business man. You donate to the people who can help you’. Of course you do. No more transparent statement need be made about the increasing intertwining of the corporate and the state and the concomitant blurring of the major political parties in America—or the capsizing of old right/left oppositions that summon the figure of Trump. This is the agony of power in America today as well as the agony of the economy and the disappearance of society.

So Trump is the charismatic mirror for the American people—‘the people’, the ‘they’: ‘the people love me, they love me’—the void for the silent majorities. But—and this is the second part of my argument—it may well be that this idea of the social, of society and its ‘leaders’, is breaking apart and collapsing under the infinite weight of the social-mediatised networked systems that now encompass us. They are the very techno-systems that have thrown up Trump. The ‘people’ Trump refers to are far from the society of sociologists. They are more like a mass—the mass that goes together with the figure of the demagogue, as so many have labelled Trump, the most recent being none other than Stephen Hawking, the cyborg-thinker of black holes. The mass of people, swirling with currents, in flows and eddies, an agglutinative aggregation of individualised particles or agents, are what slaves or peasants or citizens become when they’re freed from alienation only to be processed in the matter-logic cybernetic frame of the network. From alienated subjects or citizens to stakeholders or claimants to little pieces of hyper-real estate—working feverishly in the Google or Facebook big-data mines just to become ethnographic material for the latest Daniel Miller book on ‘digital anthropology’.

The important transition here is from self/other, subject/object dualisms to our current condition of flattened-out, fully integrated social networks. The old forms of political discourse like master and slave, the struggles and triumphs of the alienated—the history of revolution and liberation—have all disappeared online or into the digitalisation of control society, as Deleuze once said. That is, no society at all or, rather, a ‘repurposed’ society—‘society 2.0’, as people have been claiming for the last few years. Now, of course, it’s society 3.0 or 4.0 and so on and so on. The alter ego has become the techno ego, and the networks we have Tumblred into, forgotten or ignored like annoying LinkedIn requests on an old email program. Wait. You still use email? Haven’t you heard that email is over? We’re all on Slack now—Slack is killing email. And since the purchase of LinkedIn by Microsoft those requests will invade every corner of your media profile.

So far, no American presidential candidate has managed to operationalise these networks as well as Trump. Sure, Clinton has Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. They all do. It’s par for the electoral course these days—a ‘strong social-media presence’, they used to say. But Trump knows how to work this system better than all of them combined. He’s the consummate cyber-bully: a super-troll with the followers to back him up. His Twitter attacks are perfect. He has the knack for this kind of ‘conversation’—like Drake says, it’s all about the views. Currently Clinton has 6.6 million followers on Twitter, compared with Trump’s 8.9 million. And in this politico-digital environment, followers are key. This is part of the celebritisation of politics. And, sure, Obama has seventy-five million followers, but Katy Perry has ninety million and Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner have many more followers on Instagram and Snapchat. Obama has about six million. Neither Clinton not Obama nor Trump even can approach celebrity numbers, but Trump alone is part of this show in the way the others are not. He knows how to attract attention on social media and plays it like a star—as he’s happy to point out, the Democrats and Republicans spend millions on television advertising to little effect. The main point is not ultimately about any particular platform—Whatsapp and Instagram, both owned by Facebook, and Snapchat are dominant today. But this can all change in months. The point is rather that we are witness to the end of a certain kind of politics and a certain kind of society and economy.

Post-Internet politics

Trump as the agony of power and the agony of the economy and the agony of the social. This is why political commentaries on Trump fall so flat. He’s just too fast for a polished and slow-witted critique. In fact, Trump is post critique. His is the brilliant reversibility of comedy or satire. This is a key element in all of his media performances. Everybody waits for the laughs, or better, the lulz (Internet-specific laughter that no longer involves actual physical laughing)—to be appalled, the impossibly too-far statement; what will he say next? The uncertainty and instability that Clinton accuses him of are actually part of his spell. His capacity to contradict himself, change position, recover and move on—his mediatic blur—is his strength. Charismatic authority is inherently unstable, says Weber. The ground keeps changing. Or rather, there’s no ground, just multiple platforms.

The pirate-executives at The Pirate Bay had it right all along: there’s no irl (in real life) any more, just afk (away from the keyboard). Welcome to the politics of ISE (Internet Standard English): a continuously shifting and quickly multiplying field of word-memes passed from platform to platform and assiduously catalogued in Urban Dictionary. Irl afk caf fyi bbf…it’s nbd—idk idek! Idm—it doesn’t matter. If you use a full stop to end a sentence these days, you’re antediluvian And forget about question marks, let alone questions. The Trump phenomenon emanates from the post-world of Netspeak and the brand. ‘You have to brand people’, he tells the crowd at a rally in Florida.

‘Lyin’ Ted’—L-Y-I-N apostrophe. We can’t say it the right way. We’ve got to go Lyin’. ‘Liddle Marco Rubio’—L-I-D-D-L-E.

‘Low-Energy Jeb.’ ‘Crooked Hillary.’ Yes, yes.

Exactly. This is Trump’s domain and he effortlessly breezes past his critics and opponents, be they academic or political. We can’t say it the right way.

Trump! The name itself has become magical, as the host of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver, claimed in a viral YouTube video back in February 2016—giving in to Trump and providing him with the valuable airtime Oliver had initially sworn he wouldn’t give him. Still, this is possibly one of the most effective ways in which he might be challenged. Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton have tried to take him on and attack him personally the way he has been demolishing others. Clinton unleashed a stream of insults and invective in the context of a statement on foreign policy. Trump immediately turned the tables: ‘She was supposed to be talking about foreign policy and all she did was insult me’. Thus Clinton is twice beaten—once because she has been sucked into the Trump cyber-bully game and again because she isn’t nearly as good at it. She lacks the careless good humour, the playful quality of Trump. Oliver does somewhat better, but in the end he’s much too serious—the comedic apprentice to truth, meaning and power. Oliver is the perfect complement to Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace—same glasses, same goofy look, and the same basic story. Each in their own way is a poster boy for the neoliberal democratic consensus. But one thing’s for sure: Oliver, the successful HBO comedian, can’t be transgressive in the way Trump can. Or maybe there’s something else going on here? Maybe Oliver can only be transgressive?

In the emergent corporate-state network it’s no longer a case of transgression and subversion—the old forms of revolutionary politics. It’s not a matter of opposition. And that is the key. Trump can’t be opposed. He unsettles and makes uncertain the traditional patterns of political ‘debate’ and ‘party politics’. He comes from the radical outside—which is the inside. The outside of the inside. The twist, the turn, the trick of Trump. This is not so much transgression or subversion as it is inversion or auto-liquidation. We watch and ‘interact’ on the Internet as American politics folds over and over. Inside-out politics. Inside-out Republican Party or Democrat Party. Inside-out big or even little government. In Donald Trump the emergent corporate state has its first American hero—for better or for worse. He’s the ‘pirate genius’, the corporate warrior-rhizome and a symptom of the techno-capitalist catastrophe that is shattering the United States into millions of self-involuted particle-agents locked in the narcotic mirror of perpetual iPhone feedback.

A striking element of the primary and caucus debates was their production and art design. In staging and framing, editing and direction, they matched, pixel for pixel, major network reality programs like America’s Got Talent and American Idol—proof, again, that the election has become the fantasy game show many had suspected it was. Somehow the play of Trump is throwing into relief the very nature of politics as it has become in the twenty-first century. It’s cartoonish. The Simpsons’ Mayor ‘Diamond Joe’ Quimby as a possible running mate with Kanye in 2020? Why not? Indeed the writers of The Simpsons already predicted a Trump presidency in an episode that aired on 19 March 2000. It’s a case of neither Aristotelian mimesis (art imitates life) nor Wildean anti-mimesis (life imitates art) but the collapse of the art/life opposition into integrated networks set on tighter and tighter feedback loops. We have well and truly entered the sphere of integral reality or—to use the old cybernetic expression that is so popular today in business management texts—implemented reality. (In the theory of cybernetics, implementation is the word for the combination of social and technological instruments, matter and memory.) It’s no longer a case of imagining or interpreting or even augmenting reality. Now we simply implement it. In fact, more importantly, it’s already been implemented for us. Instagram or Twitter or Kik or Tinder replace the ground we stand on with digital platforms. (Recently, whole floors in corporate offices have been replaced with platforms like iPhone screens for better office management.) The key thing now, though, is that these platforms structure existence and algorithms become the very shape of the social.

This is an anthropological revolution.

Meeting someone on Tinder is nothing like meeting someone in a bar or at work. They can appear to be similar—haven’t people always had to meet in one way or another? Don’t dating apps merely expand the possibilities and options? But that word ‘option’ is critical. Again, it’s now about optimising social situations—optimising ‘relationality’. Relationality is like functionality—it’s what that old sociological idea of social relations has become in an increasingly atomised, mathematised and engineered humanity. Meeting someone online is not meeting in reality, even though very soon we will no longer be able to tell the difference—already can’t tell the difference. The algorithmic details work to fundamentally transform the experience. And this, in turn, transforms how we meet in all environments—either offline or online. The apps feed back on the world. All social life is Tinderised and becomes part of a business model—sociality put out to tender or Tinder. It’s all about choices, as every inspirational meme screams daily.

Facebook revolutions

It’s important to note just how much Facebook dominated the Republican primaries. This is a worrying development we are only beginning to see or un-see. The debates were screened on American television complete with video links to Facebook for audience questions—and posted all over YouTube, of course. The Facebook corporate logo appeared in nearly every shot of a candidate. What next? Direct corporate sponsorship of candidates, like cars in Formula 1? Of course this already happens via campaign funding, but why not corporate badges and pins? ‘Hillary Clinton: brought to you by Microsoft’. No, wait—that’s already happened, too. Chevron named an oil tanker after the Secretary of State under George W. Bush—the USS Condoleezza Rice. Rice recently joined the board of cloud storage service Dropbox—one of countless examples of the revolving door between state and corporation in the United States. This is the kind of open cynicism Trump evokes with his remarks about buying politicians. His shameless flippancy beats any attempt to simply stop or prevent criticism. When Obama endorsed Clinton’s nomination as the Democrat candidate, Trump immediately posted on his Twitter account old videos of Obama condemning Clinton in 2008. Brilliant.

This from an Obama advert in 2008:

‘It’s what’s wrong with politics today. Hillary will say anything to get elected…She’ll say anything and change nothing. Its time to turn the page.’

Contrast this with Obama in 2016:

‘I don’t think there’s ever been anyone so qualified to hold this office.’

Clearly, the page that needed turning in 2008 has been well and truly turned back as we approach the possible reign of Clinton II. Public resentment and anger in the face of this kind of political jockeying is what Trump plays to and exploits. He is someone who, supporters say, ‘tells it like it is’. And in this ADHD culture, telling it like it is needs to happen in 140 characters or fewer, or it doesn’t happen at all. Actually, forget characters: it’s better if it happens in a video. Haven’t you heard? Video is killing text. Popular video-sharing app Vine (owned by Twitter) sets the limit at six seconds. If you can’t get your message across in six seconds, forget it. The world of live-streaming on Periscope (owned by Twitter) is already a fundamental aspect of many lives lived online.

Trump’s openly cynical business-is-politics-is-business attitude is the perfect mirror to routine political cynicism in the population. More than anything else the Trump media event reveals what politics has become. By refusing to play the game and happily declaring himself corrupt, Trump cannot be critically unveiled. He is also able to exploit such corruption for his own purposes. The emperor has no clothes and that’s just fine. This is what makes him so outrageous. He has stolen critique. No clever denunciation or exposé can work against his post-political masquerade. The ‘art of the deal’ is the art of contradiction or hyperbole or the spectacle—in one day Trump can both declare Senator Ted Cruz unfit for office and claim Cruz’s father was connected to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and suggest Cruz as a potential running mate. It doesn’t matter.

Trump is the carnival of politics—politics as masquerade. This is a politics that mocks its own values. Previously, political power has meant the imposition of value. Now, via the digitalisation of our existence, value is flattening out and melting away. This is how hegemony works today. No person schooled in a world of ‘economics and society’ can tolerate this. No economist can understand it. It’s the end of that world or the idea of ‘world’. Recently, The Economist magazine, one of the many journals and newspapers to mount a near-global opposition both on the Right and the Left to Trump, likened his spectacular success in the Republican primaries to the sudden turnaround in the fortunes of Leicester City in the English football finals. Both events, it said, should be taken with a grain of salt. The world does not work like that, it said. The world is predictable and works according to reason (the very ideal of 1950s cybernetics theory). This is the meaning of civilisation and progress. Trump, like Leicester City, is an anomaly and not to be taken seriously—something that will soon be smoothed out with better Google analytics.

Again, they are all missing the point.

From self to selfie

The point is ultimately to think beyond whatever Trump might or might not be—his success or failure in the next US election. Of course the Trump event is a symptom of much broader forces in play. And these forces are producing multiple responses across the West: Syriza and Golden Dawn in Greece; Podemos in Spain; the Occupy movement and the Indignados; Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom and Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the United States. Under the impact of increased financialisation, globalisation and the breaking down of political and social institutions in nation states, major social and class realignments are taking place. The recent Brexit from the EU is an example of this. And these new communalisms are giving rise to the charisma of a Trump or a Sanders or a Tsipras. For a while now there has been talk of states like California or Texas seceding from the United States and suggestions that Kerala or Andhra Pradesh might secede from the Indian state. And it’s clear that in both India and the United States, as well in as many other nations, we are witness to violent social unrest and disturbance. The killings in Nice and Munich and the attack in a nightclub in Orlando by Omar Mateen are but a few examples.

I shall end on the Orlando event because it supports much of what I have been arguing. The mass shooting at Pulse nightclub was essentially a social-media event—from the photographs immediately posted of Mateen (mostly mirror selfies) to his reported involvement in both heterosexual and homosexual dating apps. The mobile phone was a central object in this networked event. Much of the drama inside the club unfolded online: via text messages or Facebook and Snapchat posts exchanged between victims inside and people outside, or as Mateen himself searched on Facebook and Google for news about the attack as he was carrying it out—watching himself online as he killed and maimed over 100 people. But first, let me take a selfie. This is only one more example of the narcotic mirror for chaotic particle-agents I discussed earlier. This year, a man accidentally videoed his own murder on Facebook Live in Chicago. A young girl in Ohio intentionally live-streamed via Periscope her friend being raped. Last February another multiple shooting at a nightclub in Tampa, Florida, was Periscoped live. Recently, Lavish Reynolds live Facebooked her boyfriend Philando Castile’s death as she sat next to him in a car—setting off riots and retaliations around America.

The critical thing here is the hyper-mediatic individualism of this event and many others like it—Columbine High, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook etc. We are beyond the old idea of The Self. We are now firmly decentered and algorithmed in the digital network of The Selfie. This is a digitalised, distributed and operationalised self and a very different phenomenon. These mass killings are inextricably bound up with the spectacular selfie-referential system implemented by major technology companies like Apple, Google and Facebook today and the very same integrated network that is producing the Trump singularity. ADHD and autism are the defining characteristics of the age—a radically transmuting social order that is continually distracted, selfie focused and exploited at molecular levels. A radically different socio-political time-space is emerging and a new communalistic system is forming around it. The LGBTQI network is one aspect of new identity communities that are taking shape in this techno-capitalist context.

It is in this way that Trump is perhaps the selfie-historical post-political turning point for the selfie nation locked in expanding big-data cycles of Instagrammed selfie-reflection and selfie-improvement.

What’s fascinating is the way many of the major newspapers and magazines and television programs are oriented against Trump and how this only seems to make him stronger. The more he is despised by the mainstream news services and portrayed as a fascist outsider the more followers he secures. Many critics still fail to get this point. Of course, it’s highly possible that Trump will ultimately be beaten by Clinton and disappear. The people will see reason. Or fear. Even now many forces in America are maneuvering against him and a kind of affective patriotism is apparent. It’s possible that after a brief fulgurant moment Trump’s star will wink out and we’ll return to business as usual. But it’s not business as usual any more. The digitalisation of business and the business of digitalisation are transforming everything. Trump is one more sign in the cascade of signs that society and politics in America have taken a wildly speculative turn—the degree zero of democracy and information. The American election will not take place.

About the author

Roland Kapferer

Roland Kapferer is a musician and film-maker who currently teaches anthropology at Deakin University. His research focuses on the new human condition in context of the momentous revolution in the circumstances of human being effected by bio-science and other innovations in technology. His particular interest is the creation of the society of the image.

More articles by Roland Kapferer

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