Saturday, July 20, 2019

Is Donald Trump Authentic?

Is Donald Trump the most personally authentic public figure in America? Tens of millions of Americans would praise his authenticity, and a cottage industry has sprouted up to explain how a nonstop liar and psychopath, with no higher cognitive functions or inner life beyond the reptilian instinct for dominating everyone else could have co-opted what for centuries—long before existentialism—was a profound, spiritual ideal. From Scientific American and American Interest, to Forbes and Newsweek, to CNN and Medium, pundits have puzzled over the concept of authenticity, studied the social scientific research, and rehashed recent history to explain how something like Donald Trump could be deemed authentic.

Vulgarity versus Authenticity

One of their key findings is that the cooptation happened decades before Trump, when corporations tempted the hippie generation to sell-out its values. WWII and the Cold War forced Americans to adopt the British attitude of “keeping a stiff upper lip,” of repressing their inner self for the sake of appearances. The implicit advice was to resist showing fear of the enemy or doubt about the prevailing social systems; instead, you were to obey the proffered conventions blindly to the point of attempting to escape a nuclear bomb blast by hiding under a desk, as the government instructed. After the repression of the “conservative” 1950s came the let-it-all-hang-out attitude and the rocking-and-rolling of the 1960s, which ended in tears as the hippies’ socialist utopia failed to materialize. Minorities won some civil rights, the Vietnam War eventually ended, and Nixon left in disgrace, but the dark side of hippie culture was apparent from the disaster at the Altamont Music Festival and from the cult of Charles Manson. Still, the wave of psychedelic drug use popularized an ideal of personal authenticity, since the drugs rebooted the psyche and encouraged skepticism towards the conventional roles that had to be occupied by your persona. After the leftist takedown of “the System” or “the Man,” there would be no need to split your personality into your private and public selves.

By the 1980s, corporations had absorbed that subculture of resistance. Advertisements exploited the value placed on finding your true self, by manufacturing interest in unnecessary products that were vaguely associated with your fundamental desires. Politicians learned they could appear “authentic” by acting as though they weren’t upper-class power elites. By rolling up their sleeves at a campaign speech or by organizing a photo op of them sitting in a diner eating a slice of pizza, politicians could impress the gullible, narcissistic, slow-witted and uninformed masses, by mastering the use of certain symbols. Personal authenticity became a shallow performance and thus a paradox.

After decades of neoliberalism, in which both American political parties worked together to hollow-out the middle class and sustain the plutocracy that prevailed in spite of the myths of American democracy and upward mobility, conditions were met for the rise of a populist demagogue in the US. (Neoliberalism is roughly the view that economical ways of thinking—particularly those of “free market” balderdash which rationalize plutocracy—should invade and govern all areas of life.) In 2016, Hillary Clinton vainly attempted to appear authentic by revealing sides of her inner self to the public, but became infamous instead for seeming all the more phony and robotic. In reality, she was demonstrating the good manners of steering clear of the multitudes she rightly despised. Much of this was the same public that had cheered on the Republicans under Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, as they tarnished Bill Clinton’s reputation by persecuting him for his sex life, like so many medieval inquisitors, and that had gone on in 2016 to nominate the anti-American troglodyte, Donald Trump. Thus, she seemed to think it best to avoid appearing mediocre by playing the role of the “authentic” candidate, since many average Americans were evidently responsible for those appalling outcomes. To feign that she was a regular nobody, after all, would have been akin to turning to the dark side of the Force, from her perspective at least. Instead, the neoliberal is a consummate technocrat and elitist. Hillary Clinton, then, was staying true to herself by denigrating or ignoring the majority of Americans for being “a basket of deplorables,” as she said, or for being hypocritical in not voting enough or in pretending to have high standards while simultaneously helping to suck the planet dry through overconsumption.

Donald Trump, of course, evinced no such elitism, that is, no respect for genuine excellence. His vulgarity made him a fitting agent of white-male resentment. Never mind that Trump’s whole life is a con, that he’s not self-made or a business genius or that he couldn’t care less about the little-guy losers (unless they pledge fealty to him). Never mind that even the hair on his head and his very psychological status as a human person are fake. Trump seems authentic if what you’re after is a working instrument of chaos to bring down the system that betrayed Middle America. A con artist and a monstrous personality are ideal for achieving that militant purpose. Thus, the fact that he might be senile or psychotic is encouraging, if you’re that sort of radical anarchist or shortsighted troll, since he could serve all the more mindlessly as a lightning rod for the grievances of white Evangelicals and white supremacists. Not only does Trump wear the outward signs of mediocrity, by being an unabashed ugly American (who wallows in brashness, crassness, rudeness, shamelessness, stupidity, incompetence, impudence, xenophobia, narcissism, bullying, racism, sexism, etc.), but his mental disorders seem to deprive him of the higher cognitive functions that would have enabled him to change course, to see the light and double-cross his vengeful, semi-suicidal supporters.

Trump is the perfect mere instrument because his psychopathy makes him subpersonal (psychologically subhuman). He’s a predatory machine that, by entering politics, has fallen into a trap similar to that of sadomasochism: the sadist needs the slave just as the masochist needs to feel dominated. To feed his megalomania, Trump needs the adoration from his know-nothing crowds, and they can feel assured, in turn, that Trump will destroy politics-as-usual and desecrate American values, because his monstrous nature is apparent and irreparable. Trump is deemed “authentic,” then, because for all his thousands of petty lies, he lacks the capacity to lie where it counts: he has no higher or inner self to speak of and so can have no private agenda that he could keep hidden for more than a minute. He reveals all his vices in time, because he’s inept and shameless; like all psychopaths, he can’t help but sabotage his victories. Trump brags about his sex crimes and his tax avoidance schemes, and he shows off his corruption and adoration of dictators. None of that wrongdoing matters to his supporters since the wrongness in Trump is a feature, not a bug. Trump’s wrongness is meant to testify to the wretched state of the white, Christian, working-class masses who resent the neoliberal elites for having brought about their suffering at the hands of globalization, multiculturalism, feminism, and secularism.

In this way, personal authenticity became a staged act in the culture war. You were authentic if you were one of the blue-collar Real Americans, which also meant you had to be white, Christian, and relatively poor as well as dumb, duped, and internally ugly in all the above ways. These “authentic” Americans are at war with the upper-class globalist snobs, with the liberals who think they’re superior just because they have more money and better taste, clothes, vacations, diets, health, weather, cities, and everything else. The “phony” Hollywood liberals and the globalists who run the “Establishment” and the “Deep State” were scapegoats, of course, more symbols to channel the rage of the bitter have-nots and mischief-makers. Needless to say, though, the authenticity of these undereducated, red-state Americans is dashed at a stroke and for all time just by noticing that their alleged Christianity is laughably anti-Christian. A true Christian wouldn’t search for scapegoats, as the Nazis did for the Jews; no, the Christian would rush to be the victim, to turn the other cheek and carry her cross like the Jesus who’s depicted in the Gospels.

The Call for Real Authenticity

But no matter, since none of that has much to do with authenticity in the uncompromised sense. The use of the word “authenticity” that figures in the American culture war is euphemistic; what’s signified there is just the divide between the vulgar and the sophisticated, between roughly the rural and the urban. Trump might be called “authentic,” not because he deigns to reveal his true nature, but because he’s boorish, which means he lacks the capacity for autonomous control over his impulses, like an animal. This is why children aren’t considered genuine or pure in any virtuous sense, even though they’re incapable of lying well or of concealing their true thoughts, since they haven’t yet developed the inner complexity to merit moral evaluation.  

If they knew what they were talking about, the kind of authenticity that Trump’s supporters would have in mind has to do with a preoccupation not with our base impulses but with the metaphysical, existential situation of all humanity. The profound idea was that self-consciousness and rationality awaken us to the tragedy of our finitude and open up our potential of responding well or poorly to that structure of our being. We know we’re going to die, for example, and we know the world isn’t made for us, contrary to our childish fairytales. We’re alienated from the natural world, which is why we build an alternative, artificial shelter to shut out the eerie, grim wilderness. Authenticity means living as a doomed creature that knows its doomed but chooses to strive for tragic heroism. Inauthenticity means retreating to a pre-assigned social role for the sake of earning material advantages that distract and dehumanize us.

Authenticity, therefore, is about knowing what you really are and living in the awful clarity of that knowledge. Prior to the late-modern movement of existential philosophy, this theme was formulated in Platonic or in religious terms. Christians praised those who accept that they suffer from original sin, but who struggle to transcend that fallen state, by confessing their sins and accepting Jesus’s sacrifice or by adopting Jesus as their model. Again, there was the dire situation and the potential to overcome the odds by keeping in mind the big picture. Plato captured a similar problem with his Cave analogy. So the blame that falls on mass-cultural obliviousness is hardly just that which is called down by some pompous insistence that we respect anything as abstruse as the philosophies of Heidegger and Sartre. I’m talking, rather, of a more monumental failure, of the prospect of being much more thoroughly lost. To think of Trump as being authentic should be a form of blasphemy. Trump’s transparency isn’t an achievement; a bag of hammers is just as guileless.

What would a genuinely authentic person do in the egregious Age of Trump? How could you tell the difference between fake authenticity and the real kind? The difference is easy to spot. If someone revels in playing a social role that’s been preassigned by the stereotypes of the American culture war, between the cosmopolitan elites and the beleaguered nationalists, that person is authentic only in the compromised sense. That’s to say, she excels at being a soldier in a trumped-up war. If instead the person sees through the cultural charade and dedicates herself to struggling with the more universal problems of humanity, she’s actually authentic. In the words of the Electric Youth song, she’s “a real human being and a real hero.”  


  1. When Trump was still on the campaign trail, I would ask people (as diplomatically as I could) why they liked him. The one common denominator was something like "He has his flaws, but at least he's honest". I warned them not to mistake being obnoxious for sincerity, but no one listened. To me, Trump's lower class affectations (the MAGA baseball cap especially) just come off as condescending. I'm working class (though currently unemployed) and to see someone with so much money trying to be 'one of us', with his vulgar little burlesque of what he thinks poor people are like, is just insulting. But maybe the proles who voted for him really do see themselves that way; or maybe they take masochistic pleasure in being insulted by a celebrity.

  2. It's interesting because there's a kernel of truth in his act: according to some accounts I read, he never fit in well with the upper class in New York. Of course, he's not really poor, since he's always been rich, but he was also despised by his fellow multimillionaires and billionaires, precisely because he was vulgar, crass, and tacky.

    I believe the underlying reason has to do with the degrees of psychopathy. There are subclinical kinds of psychopaths who excel at hiding their monstrous nature, and they can pass themselves off as average without getting into much trouble. Then there are the extremes who end up in prison or in a mental hospital. Trump falls somewhere between those degrees. Another factor is his wealth which insulates him and keeps him out of prison where he obviously belongs. So I hypothesize that the upper class in Manhattan scorned him in part because he wasn't effective at hiding his mental disorders.