In his recent interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Barack Obama initially tries to see Trump as an authority figure—even a proto-fascist—only to confess his puzzlement: “I think about the classic male hero in American culture when you and I were growing up: the John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter.” But is that Trump? No, rather the opposite. He is much closer to the characters of Dreampolitik so vividly captured by Joan Didion: the bikers who no longer regard the small irritations of life as something to be tolerated, the aspiring actresses who regard the future as somehow managed by a Hollywood divinity with its benevolent providence. “Anything less than instant service in a restaurant constitutes intolerable provocation, or hassling: tear the place apart, leave the owner for dead, gangbang the waitress. Rev up the Harleys and ride.” Later in the interview, Obama comes closer to the truth, though predictably he recoils from accepting it. Trump is not a figure of authority but a figure of freedom—freedom understood as the realization of every desire, no matter how extreme, in the here and now—and therefore someone representing powerful and growing forces in contemporary American society.
In this vision, the world exists to provide a stage for our fantasies. This is harem politics on the grandest scale. Unseemly and, in its current form, most likely unsustainable. What strikes is how much it relies on destruction as a force. There was only one alternative to Trump and that was to push Trumpism to the breaking point. And yet, all throughout the Trump years, the system worked. I think it worked even better than people assume, because the American system of government is not meant to be a placid Northern European social democracy. It is meant to create considerable room for the enactment of political fantasies, while preventing them from becoming too real. Every time Trump pushed things in the direction of reality—in the direction of imposing his stories on everyone else as real—the system pushed back, not so much by moving toward some more-accepted version of the world but by insisting that Trump and his followers remain mostly within the domain of fiction and playacting, that is, in the world of Dreampolitik. The system worked, but the problem is it now works to prevent only catastrophic outcomes, and it works through cycles of boom and bust.
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