May 2017
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Donald Trump as Kitsch

by Jonathan Wallace

Much power-speech is kitsch: superficial, sentimental and false, keyed to effect and not reason. Sloganeering, Door-stop phrases such as “job-killing”, “baby-killers”, “death-panels”, “gun-grabbing” and “Socialistic” are all kitsch-discourse. “Perhaps politics is always kitsch”. Gillo Dorfles, Kitsch (New York: Bell Publishing Company 1967) p. 113 Gillo Dorfles describes an end-game society of maximum kitsch: “Once the feeling of social necessity is lost, the course of quality comes to depend on a consensus of approval within the framework of a social relationship, and on an argument in which the social climate precludes the possibility of dissent, and there is left behind only the echo of the inevitable stereophonic background music”. p. 276 Harry Frankfurt appears to be speaking of the kitsch quality of Bullshit, though he does not use the word “kitsch”, when he says that Bullshit artists display a “laxity that resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline”, Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2005) p.23 and that they repeat content-free tropes “quite mindlessly and without any regard for how things really are”. p. 30 The fault is not that the speaker “fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying”. p. 32

One of Philip K. Dick's recurring motifs is a version of the Second Law of Thermodynamics working ceaselessly to convert his universes to kitsch. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick describes the "kipple-ization" of an already crippled and poisoned Earth. The kitsch elements of the half-abandoned planet are everywhere: the Jesus figure, Mercer, who is tritely stoned again and again; the kitschy chatter on Buster Friendly's twenty-four hour a day talk show. In a scene which is one of Dick's most stunning hallucinatory set pieces, the mechanic J.R. Isadore sinks down into a kipple-world of despair, from which he emerges due to a vision of a Mercer who transcends kitsch for just an instant, speaking to him personally and restoring the legs to a mutilated spider.

Dick was on to something. Anyone who reads history understands sooner or later that human institutions and efforts clearly seem to be subject to a version of the Second Law, that empires decay, that democracies seem to thrive for only two hundred years or so. After a lifetime studying history, Gibbon said it is “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind”. Yeats' "Second Coming" has been too much quoted: "Things fall apart/ The center cannot hold". But the death of the West was one of his constant themes, and he sang about it beautifully at all times. “O vanity of Sleep, Hope, Dream, endless Desire, / The Horses of Disaster plunge in the heavy clay”.

Where do we place Donald Trump in the arc of the kitschification of society? He personifies the last stage. While to this late date Noam Chomsky, Daniel Everett and others are still debating whether language is a technology humans have developed or a biological feature passed on through inheritance (or both), everyone necessarily agrees that language grants us a huge, vivid, unpredictable, confusing, sometimes overwhelming space to babble and chatter, brag and complain, solve problems and get into all kinds of trouble, get ourselves killed or elected President. But the process of the kitschification of language wilfully limits our moves in what I call "Speech Space": kitsch-languages allow us only generic, trite expressions and, even then, only a small number of them. George Orwell's "Newspeak" is a fictional example of a kitsch-language.

A real example of a kitsch-language was the degraded Nazi German. Victor Klemperer, a Jewish philologist who survived the Nazis, kept a journal which, after the war, he turned into a notable book called The Language of the Third Reich: A Philologists's Notebook (1947). He coined the ironic, bastardized phrase, “lingua tertii imperii”, to describe the damage the Nazis did to the German language. Prior to Hitler, German had been the language of high culture, philosophy, and novels; the Third Reich created a degraded version, full of euphemisms constantly repeated in speeches and the Party-controlled press. Among the buzzwords analyzed by Klemperer in this influential work were “artfremd” (alien to the species), “untermenschen” (subhuman), and “sonderbehandlung” (special treatment) to denote murder. Klemperer said, "Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously.....Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all."

Arthur Cohen cites Klemperer in The Tremendum (1993), a stunning and despairing short book which I qualify as one of those which "wrote me", made me what I am today. Cohen says: "What allowed...the degeneration of German speech, over the length of a half century, from the rich, imbricated, responsible pursuit of truth into the garbled, vulgarized German authorized and distributed by the Nazi press, Nazi literature, and official bureaucratic speech [?].... one notes in advanced capitalist societies that the command of nuanced and subtle language in public discourse has all but disappeared. The debasement of language, the stripping of its shading and moral intensity began in the West long before Hitler and continues after he is gone. It will help us to explain a kind of cauterization of conscience by the use of metaphor and euphemism".

In rich, diverse uses of language, speakers and listeners alike recognize the tentativeness, inventiveness, mutability of words. Shakespeare is said to have used 1700 words which are not found before him, at least some of which he invented. The more you study Shakespeare, the better you understand that this is his entire genius, his beautiful and wild wielding of words, as his actual philosophy encapsulated his middle class aspirant status perfectly. Shakespeare, unlike, for example, Philip K. Dick, does not captivate us through protest; he thinks kings are necessary and democrats ugly and stupid and deserving of beatings. He wins us with a glorious chattering which still overwhelms and washes away anyone who has tried in the centuries since him. While Shakespeare's jokes have mainly not aged well, he told one which is still funny 400 years later, in Titus Andronicus. Tamora gives birth to a mixed race child, betraying her congress with the Machiavellian slave Aaron. Her grown son Chiron shouts: "Thou hast undone our mother." Aaron replies: "Villain, I have done thy mother."

By contrast, kitsch-language transforms words into things. One day soon, I will write an essay for this site analyzing the American rhetoric of health care and Obamacare as a prime case study of the kitschification of our language. It is possible barely to imagine, in a true world of rational discourse, a Republican saying something like "Universal health care is unaffordable, makes people lazy and dependent, is unfair to doctors by limiting the prices they can charge", etc. Instead, the discourse, such as it was, consisted of short, pungent, trite sentences peppered with words like "death panel" and "job killing". The nadir of such expression was definitely Michele Bachmann's plea to "repeal this failure before it literally kills women, kills children, kills senior citizens. Let’s not do that. Let’s love people. Let’s care about people. Let’s repeal it now while we can.”

This is the process Klemperer and Cohen described. Words transform into triumphant clubs for beating adversaries; words become stones. In the process, words have of course become unquestionable things; they are no longer fluid; we are not permitted to look behind them. Sooner rather than later, they also become devoid of actual content. In a 2009 essay of which I am rather proud, after quoting numerous Republican politicians and pundits calling President Obama a "socialist", I noted that the actual definition of the word is "direct worker ownership and administration of the means of production". And I found this from an actual member of the vanishingly tiny American Socialist Party: "The funny thing is, of course, that socialists know that Barack Obama is not one of us. Not only is he not a socialist, he may in fact not even be a liberal. Socialists understand him more as a hedge-fund Democrat". Kitsch-expressions such as "socialist" thus translate mainly into "I don't like him", and express no other content. Language has sunk to the level Alfred Ayers described in Language, Truth and Logic as moralistic pseudoconcepts uttered "in a particular tone of horror, or written....with the addition of some special exclamation marks".

It should be clear by now where I am headed: Donald Trump is the "rough beast, its hour come round at last", of this decline. The paucity and repetitiveness of his vocabulary, the triteness of his expression, even the cliched dramatism of his delivery, the way he says a kitsch-word, then repeats it, then adds "Believe me", and pauses with a self-satisfied glower. He is the anti-Shakespeare, the epitomizer of words-as-stones, wielder of adjectives like "failed" and "crooked" which stop all thought.

Trump's relationship to kitsch is four-fold (I wanted to say he had a "rich" relationship to it, but that would have been a sort of oxymoron). First, he is personally a kitsch object, through personal choice and grooming. The comb-over, orange skin and scowl all dictate that a caricature of Trump actually looks just like the man himself. Secondly, Trump's public persona pre-Presidency was a carefully modeled kitsch presentation mainly designed by other people, though he had some instincts for it. The Apprentice was a vehicle invented by others, in which Trump naturally played the role, for which he has a talent, of kitsch-expert. It was a textbook example of presenting a man who knows nothing as an expert, but the knowledge he was portrayed as having was all kitsch-expressions. Nobody in that kind of environment will be bothered inventing profundities for a figurehead, if trite tropes are sufficient to make billions of dollars. (Levi-Strauss perceived a world of "tristes tropiques", which has been replaced by an even more truncated world of "trite tropes"). Why make a quality product if people will pay for a crappy one? Kitsch is also a phenomenon of supply and demand.

Third, he presides over a kitsch-government. For example, his proposed budget would eliminate the Marine Mammals Commission. Sooner or later, Trump may send a tweet about whales, beginning "These beautiful animals..." This trite expression will stand in for, take the place of, any actual work,expense or compassion regarding endangered species.

Fourth, and finally, Trump's own speech transcends kitsch; it is the stage beyond kitsch. Trump takes the decline of discourse even a step further than someone like Michele Bachmann. Kitsch, after all, is the dishonest, repetitive use of limited metaphors: Arthur Cohen referred to the "cauterization of conscience by the use of metaphor and euphemism", Klemperer to "euphemisms constantly repeated in speeches and the Party-controlled press". But Donald Trump would not know a metaphor if it bit him on the leg: his speech is completely devoid of any nuance or shadings, is the most literal, with the most restricted vocabulary, of any public figure ever. Trump illustrates Ayer's thesis about pseudoconcepts with his actual use of "Bad!!!" in tweets, and his love for exclamation points.

Note that to kill metaphor, it is not enough to limit language. That is where I part company with Orwell, who wrote that "The word 'free' still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as 'This dog is free from lice' or 'This field is free from weeds'". What Orwell seems to have missed is that, with the human capacity for metaphor, a person using Newspeak could express a desire for personal political freedom with a statement about dogs and lice. So, in order to kill metaphor, you have to kill the mind's capacity for metaphor. Donald Trump seems to be an example, an implementation, of that mind.

Because kitsch is founded on metaphor, Donald Trump represents the post-kitsch phase of political decline. He is a void, an absence, the coyote-shaped hole in the wall left behind in a Warner Brothers cartoon after Wile E. has plunged through. After Trump, there is nothing to expect but the complete loss of language, a return to grunting, pointing, and of course, hitting and killing, as means of self-expression.