How much of the “news” is fake? How much of reality is “real”? After an election cycle driven by lies, delusions and propaganda — including lies about lies, multiple layers of fake news and meta-fake news — we are about to install a fake president, elected by way of the machineries of fake democracy.
The country that elected him is fake too, at least in the sense that the voters who supported Donald Trump largely inhabit an imaginary America, or at least want to. They think it’s an America that used to exist, one they heard about from their fathers and grandfathers and have always longed to go back to. It’s not.
Their America is an illusion that has been constructed and fed to them through the plastic umbilicus of Fox News and right-wing social media to explain the anger and disenfranchisement and economic dislocation and loss of relative privilege they feel. All of which are real, if not necessarily honorable; it represents the height of liberal uselessness to keep on quarreling about whether Trump’s fabled “white working class” suffers real economic pain or is just a cesspool of racism.
That argument is really about other things, to be sure: It’s about whether the Democratic Party — whose long-promised era of permanent demographic hegemony and middle-class multiculturalism keeps being delayed into the indefinite future, defeat after defeat after defeat — requires a major reconstruction or just a little cosmetic surgery. Meanwhile, out in the pseudo-reality of Trumpian America, racial resentment and economic suffering are so profoundly intertwined that there’s no way to disentangle them.
Arguments that the so-called left should pretty much ignore the deplorables who keep on voting against their own interests, or should abandon “identity politics” in quest of some middle-road economic populism that blends Bill Clinton and FDR, are both missing the point. In a nation where a candidate who won the popular vote by roughly 2.5 million did not win the election, we are no longer dealing with reality, at least as it used to exist.
Hillary Clinton was the ultimate Establishment candidate facing the ultimate outsider, and also a quintessential old-media personality facing a veritable Voldemort of social media. Given that, she came pretty damn close to pulling it off. But Clinton was also a candidate from reality facing a shimmering celebrity avatar, a clownish prankster who took physical form in our universe but who could say anything and do anything because he was self-evidently not real. That disadvantage proved impossible to overcome.
Furthermore, Trump’s supporters may be delusional and misguided, but they aren’t half as dumb as they often look to “coastal elites.” Many of them understood, consciously or otherwise, that his incoherent promises could not be taken literally and that his outrageous personality did not reflect the realm of reality. They were sick of reality, and you can’t entirely blame them. For lots of people in “middle America” (the term is patronizing, but let’s move on) reality has been so debased, or so much replaced, as to seem valueless.
If reality means lives of pointless service-sector drudgery, downward mobility or stagnation, fast-food dinners, opioid addiction and traffic jams, then escape into fantasy seems forgivable. Donald Trump is a creature of the nurturing electronic cocoon that disrupts or replaces reality, an overlord of consumerism. (He is not in any meaningful sense a “capitalist.” Capitalists produce things, in the real world.) To paraphrase Michael Moore, Trump represented a historic opportunity to extend a giant middle finger to reality itself, and to the forces that have rendered it so dismal.
When I suggested a few weeks ago that Trump’s worldview resembled the narcissistic simulated universe of “The Matrix,” I had no idea how far the analogy would go. His election represents the moment when roughly half our voting population — slightly less than that, to be fair — spoke out clearly: Give us the blue pill! That’s the one where you wake up in your beds and believe whatever you want to believe, leaving reality behind. If onetime movie star Ronald Reagan was the first postmodern president (the word still meant something back then), Trump will be the first post-reality president.
That more or less explains my problem with the Jill Stein recounts and the faithless-elector dreamers and the people who write to me saying that Salon should not use the term “president-elect” to describe Trump because it isn’t accurate until the Electoral College convenes on Dec. 19 and for the love of God, he can still be stopped. Such people are clinging to the norms and standards of an outdated reality; they are almost as deluded as the Trump voters, and more overtly pathetic.
Somehow the light of reason and the Enlightenment wisdom of the Founding Fathers can remedy this situation, they tell us. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson didn’t agree on much, but they wouldn’t have wanted an ignorant buffoon and obvious demagogue elected over a competent states(wo)man who got more votes, thanks entirely to the flukes of national geography and demographic division. The authors of the Constitution gave the Electoral College full autonomy to override such an outcome.
I’ve already bored myself half to death trying to convey that stupid argument fairly: The problem isn’t that it’s untrue but that it is hilariously irrelevant. All the greatest constitutional minds at Harvard Law can’t argue America out of the Matrix. Furthermore, try to imagine what would happen if they could. If recounts in all three of those Rust Belt states somehow reversed the results, or if 270 electors contrived to vote for Clinton or Mitt Romney or, I don’t know, some David Brooks-approved “centrist” from Central Casting, what would the aftermath of that event look like among a population whose storm windows are already rattling dangerously in the wind? Do you even want to live through that? An America where such a constitutional antidote might restore our collective sanity is even more imaginary than the one Trump force-fed his supporters.