Last Friday I had the pleasure of hearing Carlo Lancelotti and Michael Hanby give presentations at a seminar on the crisis of modernity as analyzed by the late Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce. At one point, Michael commented that Marxism had triumphed in America. It was a striking statement. Of course, he did not mean “triumphed” in the economic sense of the workers’ control of the means of production, but rather in the sense that all of life is now politicized. Everything from Halloween costumes to the weather has profound political significance and demands a Manichean moral posture.
One could supplement this comment by adding that, as all of life has become political, so politics has become entertainment. This is not surprising in a world where entertainment is so dominant as to be a virtual ontology. To be elected, politicians need public support, and that means that they need to play to the gallery. Aesthetics, not argument, is crucial, as I have noted here before. This is nothing new, even if it is increasingly significant today. In the 1920s, Edward Bernays made Calvin Coolidge re-electable. Coolidge was by far the dullest president in US history (don’t you just long for the good old days?), but Bernays invited a bunch of stars to dine with him, giving him a kind of vicarious charisma. Ever since then, American politics has been increasingly linked to showbiz. That Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew was not incidental to the plot. He was consciously using his uncle’s theories to build the empire of desire within which we all now love to be imprisoned.
From this perspective, the latest election is not a crisis in the democratic process but merely the extension, perhaps the end-term, of a longstanding process whereby style has triumphed and made substance irrelevant. Think for a moment of the absurdity of this fact: Mrs Clinton, facing serious scandal, is made more wholesome, statesmanlike, and electable in the eyes of the people by calling on the likes of J-Lo, Jay Z, and Beyoncé.
Mrs Clinton’s response to her manifold moral problems is not an aberration. It is a function of the culture of which we are all a part. “Distract and entertain” might be the motto of this present age, as might “Never mind the quality, feel the width.” From marriage and transgenderism to global warming and international debt, we routinely take the simplistic ramblings of movie stars and singers with a seriousness we deny to those who might be truly competent but unconnected. As Bob Dylan put it in one of the 1960s press conferences in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, people these days think entertainers have the answers to the world’s problems, but that’s absurd. At least Dylan knew the limits of his competence. Would that Katy Perry had such self-awareness.
We are all indicted by this. We have made a world where entertainers are the new priesthood, able to propitiate the public and endow those politicians who pay them homage with apparent moral and intellectual integrity. Cool chic and celebrity connections are now far more important than coherent policies and personal integrity. And Mr. Trump is surely no better. In many ways he is more representative of the moral and intellectual vacuum of this present age than Mrs. Clinton. He really is nothing more than an entertainer, the political equivalent of a foul-mouthed stand-up comic. Yet that is precisely what makes him the perfect politician for this present age. He is the great Hegelian synthesis of modern American culture: a perfect compound of know-nothing populism, undisciplined appetites, and vacuous entertainment. Do not waste time lamenting his advent. He was inevitable: He is the very embodiment of the World Spirit.
It has been oft repeated in this election season that each party has fielded its weakest and least popular candidate. Yet perhaps as never before we in America are about to get the leader we truly deserve, one who most faithfully represents the current state of the society we have made. When all of life is politics, and politics is entirely dependent upon the entertainment industry, what do we expect? It will inevitably descend into ugly farce, will it not? Which makes me inclined to say that Michael’s comment did not go far enough. The specter of Marxism is certainly haunting America; but at this point it looks as if the Marxism of Karl is being subsumed under that of Groucho.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.