Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Politics of the Grotesque

The something that we can, perhaps, loosely call the “ugly American fringe” is something that pundits have been trying to get at since the Trump ascendancy began. This world of angry, white people who feel betrayed is certainly nothing new, but as a phenomenon, it was ignored by the media for decades. In the '90s, it was ignored while the economy was good, and the moronically smiling faces of Gingrich's brigade took over Congress. In the '00s, it seemed like there was enough chaos and horror, war and economic collapse to preclude any discussion of slow decay in our own backyards. The last time that class divide was strongly in the public consciousness was in the '80s, when the term “Rust Belt” entered public currency, when Bruce Springsteen sold millions of albums, when countless slobs versus snobs comedies could still accurately contrast a slovenly if virtuous working class against a coat-and-tails wearing, beef wellington-eating haute bourgeoisie. But in the decades in between, little was heard from the marginalized industrial class, even as so many of them slowly transformed into Trumpists, avant la lettre.

Granted, there were exceptions. There were the often remarkably ill-informed documentaries of Michael Moore, there were the sharply-written if frantically polemical essays of Thomas Frank. Or a line like this from Jonathan Franzen, in The Corrections:

Well, there was still the citizenry of America’s heartland: St. Judean minivan drivers thirty and forty pounds overweight and sporting pastel sweats, pro-life bumper stickers, Prussian hair.”

Now to write about this gap, about the decay in Middle America, I could use any number of approaches. I could rely on the old “silent majority” handle, a phrase that has been useless ever since it was used to represent Archie Bunker and the protagonists of The Deer Hunter. I could talk in vaguely elegiac terms about “the ordinary folks,” their “humble” lives. I could attempt some sort of (if we're being optimistic) sociological analysis, something already done countless times by more capable and intellectually rigorous minds. Or I could do some awful, recoiling-in-horror “look at those flyover country people” analysis of the sort that feeds both Atlantic think pieces and the worst sort of clickbait. I could draw countless comparisons to previous currents both domestic and foreign, whether the 1968 George Wallace presidential run, the Poujadiste revolt against Gaullism in 1950s France, the desperation and disenfranchisement that led to the Brexit vote. I could go into depth about the anxiety of the Wall Street and national security elite of having such an unsubtle candidate for their party, or the evangelicals who, despite the fact that I disagree with them on virtually everything, have an odd sort of integrity. Or, hell, I could do a series of postmodernist backflips a la Slavoj Zizek.

But what fascinates me more than anything else, is the grotesquerie.

Consider how Trump was viewed as a comedy figure until he became an existential threat. Consider the barbs about his small hands and concordant assumptions about the implications for his cock. Note his habit of pairing Brioni suits with dime-store baseball caps. Or his speech at the RNC, his jowly red face looking like a pustule about to burst with fury.

It's also telling that when Tim and Eric of Awesome Show fame appeared in character, they vocally supported a Trump presidency. Which character they appeared in is irrelevant – they all form part of the same continuum. What their comedy gets at, more than anything else, is the peculiar flavor of the Middle American grotesque, a social status that is a few notches above the gashed-open white-trash porn of Harmony Korine films. It is the world of exurban tract houses, Applebee's memorabilia, ill-fitting suits, and a mediated environment in which a hot tub and a tropical drink form the pinnacle of luxury. And it is exactly this populist appearance of wealth (q.v. buildings with YOUR name on them, the aforementioned Brioni + baseball cap combo) that lies at the heart of this particular stereotype, a formica-coated version of the American dream.

This is the mutation of the American-dream concept. When I was 15 or 16, I adopted Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio as a totemic text. These stories of small-town adolescence, of a whole world in which dreams had been warped, spoke so strongly then:

The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

“And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.”

But as powerful as this imagery is, it is not electoral politics. It is tribalism.

What bothers me immensely, is that, without the media seeming to know it, this notion of the grotesquerie has displaced real political discourse. When MSNBC shows Trump supporters, it shows fat, slovenly rednecks with Confederate flag tattoos. When Fox News shows them, it shows small-town swells and immaculate blonde publicists. Both feed the same purpose, of splitting people into identity-based camps.

I shouldn't be surprised. The aesthetic mode displaces the ideological with terrifying frequency, and the current iteration of American cultural war is nothing more than an accelerated, 4G-era version of the same disconnect between metropolitan oversimplification and rural oversimplification that is far older than the republic. In focusing on this distinction, those of us on the left fully play into Trump's us-versus-them message. We don't look at the common evisceration of the middle class, we don't look at the way the paranoia regarding abstract terror is being spun into a surveillance state by both parties, we don't look at the processes by which the image-machine turns our hopes and fears into capital.

The only shot we have at overcoming this chronic shortsightedness is to first address it as such. It is only when we realize how much we conflate external image with politics, when we realize how much we rely on the crutch of market-tested identity, that anyone can actually find a political language that transcends these divisions.