Featured image: Donald Trump as a God
“There I was faced with my nemesis, reading. It isn’t that I flubbed the words, or stumbled and mispronounced; I even placed the emphasis on the right syllable. I just lack personality when I read. The second day I was introduced to the rushes. This is the custom of going at the end of each day’s work and seeing on the screen what you shot the previous day. What a shock it was!”
-Ronald Reagan in 1937
Donald Trump has a face moulded from a slowly drooping wall of pitch. The languorous slump of his chin is accentuated by a zealous orange complexion and hi-definition makeup creases—his physiognomy would be an intricate though grotesque addition to the faces scarring the side of Mount Rushmore. Topographically speaking though, his jib is markedly less stately than Lincoln’s staunch jaw: the line from The Donald’s chin-to-neck sloping lazily in a curve that flaps and wobbles with the exaggerated gymnastics of his puckering-unpuckering mouth.
Trump’s iconic visage has dominated the memeplex for months, corrupting our newsfeeds with bust-like portraits of a man whose Tang-coloured tanning cream has since inspired a litany of derogatory epithets. Yet one of the remarkable characteristics of his campaign and its corresponding media coverage was how effortlessly both so-called mainstream media and internet culture latched on to Trump’s face as a cultural and political meme.
We can see the reproduction of iconographic power at work with a brief review of the 2016 election cycle. While campaigning for his ascensions to the Presidency, news networks depicted Trump’s head as visually emancipated from the fleshly anchor of his body, utilizing a close-cropped frame as a political device to craft caricatures by leveraging his most noticeable features—a lumpy chin, puckered mouth, wispy hairpiece. Here we see the head of God-Emperor Trump. Trump’s profile an image figurative of the head of state, the corporeal body transformed into the body politic that is an icono-graphy ready for reproduction and primed for cross-pollination with the memeplex. In fact, images of Trump’s face were so abundant during the lead-up to the election that an ur-typology of Trump media began to crystallize as campaign season progressed: Trump, face isolated, with hair-piece captured in striking relief against a backdrop of blurry patriotic signifiers. (The vertiginous swoop of sallow hair and recumbent double chin looms as pervasive and recognizable as the gaminesque contours of a perverse Pixar character in profile.)
Trump entered the 2016 race with decades of brand-management experience: his reality TV presence cemented the immediate recognisability of the TRUMP trademark, endowing his face with the universality and divine potency normally associated with the glittering icons of Byzantine Christianity. So, I wonder what Trump thinks when he looks in the mirror—he does not seem to grapple with contemplating himself in the eyes of others, as the professional actor-cum-president Reagan did, enshrining his Presidential role as the ultimate piece of character acting, fraught with tortured considerations about the role of self-image, self-perception and the externalization of the indexical viewpoint of the acting eye. Reagan was concerned with how others perceived him, as Trump is. But Trump is a businessman and seems to outsource concern for his image, treating it as a theatrical production supported by the labour of an elaborate team of technicians, brand-managers, lawyers, make-up artists, photographers…As an actor, however, Reagan was fastidious about contemplating his own performance, making and remaking himself to suit his own ever-changing, idealized self, performing his image as he wanted others to see it.
The most recent internet exhibition from the German collective UBERMORGEN continues the obsession with Trump’s visage in an online exhibition recently hosted by London gallery Carroll / Fletcher, which features the faces of Donald Trump and Melania Trump rendered in .gif format and created by UBERMORGEN, the Swiss-Austrian-American duo consisting of lizvlx and Hans Bernhard. Their recent work, Neue Ehrlichkeit (trans. “New Honesty”) contains two gifs: one of Trump and one of Melania, the frame cropped so close to their faces that you can see Trump’s ear piece and discern the mascara clumps adhering to Melania’s eyelashes. The gifs move manically, flipping over the y axis, invisibly bisecting the frame at vertigo-inducing speed. As you continue to watch the gif flicker, it seems to accelerate uncontrollably even though the timing of the gif loop is unvarying. Combined with the drooping jowls and brillo-pad eyebrows of Trump – details that linger for a static nanosecond in the mind’s eye – the effect is even nauseating.
UBERMORGEN preface this recent work with the following exclamation:
“The post-factual world is not a new phenomenon, not at all! But I love that the world has finally come to an agreement and I love the idea that there are so many others consensually hallucinating with us in understanding the fact that we are part of a post-factual world without ever having been in a factual world.” UBERMORGEN, Truth-Tellers Conference, Berlin, 2016
The “fact that we are part of a post-factual world” is a resolvable contradiction – UBERMORGEN’s idea of “new honesty” in a nutshell. The new honesty of post-factuality expresses anxieties about the transformations brought forward by digital technologies, but seems to (incorrectly) cite the internet as the culprit causing the erosion of trust in utterances made both off and online. (And if we learned anything from continental philosophy’s critique of empiricism, it’s that empiricism as an epistemic framework places truth and falsehood on the same fragile fulcrum, separated only by a collective delusion known as “evidence.”) One kind of post-factual phenomenon, fakeness, seems to elicit particularly virulent and hysterical reactions. Fakeness feeds on the production of virality. Fake news flourishes not only because of the viral networks that seed, transmit, and accelerate its reproduction across the social media platforms and carefully cultivated echo chambers of the web, but because fakeness marvels at the speed of its own-reproduction. Fakeness is a narcissistic vortex; it is the viral subject celebrating its own hysterical recirculation, thriving on the spectacles of hysteria and disbelief that it stokes to fuel its continued seeding of newsfeeds.
Trump’s face is a fake, a simulacrum of a face—caked in makeup, sweating under the bright bulbs of cameras, and creased with the lines of fake-tan fissures, the surface of his skin looks like an aerial photograph of the Sahara during sunset. His face is there, but it isn’t real: it operates on the level of the Imaginary. On a Zizekian interpretation of Lacanian epistemology, this is to say: Trump’s carefully curated, commodified image is a simulation, but a simulation that occupies a position of so much power that the image’s artificiality is (im)material. T R U M P the copyright, trademarked, licensed image is more real than the man himself. And, like “fakenews”, Trump has a vested commercial and now political interest in circulating his image, spreading his brand and colonizing new territories of financial opportunity that leverage and license the attention that the TRUMP exploits for profit.
Even though the obsession with The Donald’s face has not abated (reverberating duh), the relationship between Trump’s body and the media-memeplex dyad is quite different. Photographs of Trump that expand the optical frame to encompass his whole body portray him as a lumpy bundle of poorly tailored suits, wrinkled folds, and a protruding mass of flesh hoisted around his middle. Despite his wealth, status, and power, Trump owns a body much like that of middle-America, although his constituents are nourished on government subsidies of high-fructose corn syrup, fast food, and snakeoil dietary fads rendered (unsurprisingly) unsuccessful, rather than Mar-A-Lago brunches and Trump Tower hamburgers. Still, Trump looks as fit as the average American; his physique psychically resonates with his supporters and functions as the punctuation mark to the fanatical authoritarian-pseudo-populism of his speeches: Look! his round-shouldered posture and huddled gut proclaims: I look just like you! Vote for this body! Admittedly, Trump’s physique is not a new object of scrutiny: reflecting on the apocalyptic Presidential Portrait produced by Jonathan Horowtiz, Jerry Saltz remarks that Trump is:
“…strange, always swathed in a lot of clothes, large but unformed, awkward because he has no clear shape or outline.”
In Parables for the Virtual, Brian Massumi elaborates on the affective valences of the body as image and body without image. Body-without-image is the corruption of the normative way that bodies are produced and how they generate affective frequencies in relation to the connections and fissures that form between other bodies. The body-without-image is an aberrant figure for Massumi, which he describes as occurring when “Subject, object, and their successive emplacements in empirical space are subtracted, leaving the pure relationality of process.” (68)
If we try to image Trump in all his fleshiness, it becomes difficult. Trump the man has “no clear shape or outline”, and our collective Imagination staggers and stumbles as we try to map the boundary-lines of this man. (We might, perhaps, find it easy to caricature his “tiny hands”, but how much of our hallucination is rendered accurately, and how much of it is reposing on citing the hysteria of a tiny hands-meme for artistic direction?) If someone says TRUMP, it’s his face that we imagine, not his physique.
Further along in Parables of the Virtual, Massumi rigorously plumbs the affective resonances of the bleed, the planes where the virtual and the real intersect and erupt into productions of affect. To seriously consider the interstitial spaces where the hallmarks of reality and the virtual co-exist in neurotic states of indeterminacy requires rethinking what it would mean to give a logical consistency to the in-between. On Massumi’s view, the logic of the in-between demands:
“realigning with a logic of relation. For the in-between, as such, is not a middling being but rather the being of the middle-the being of a relation. A positioned being, central, middling, or marginal, is a term of a relation.” (70)
Another, though narrow, way of framing the need for a new logic of the in-between is to call for a radically recalibrated understanding of the “middle class” and its interposition. To whom is it designed to relate, for what ends, and by which design? If the middle class is a “positioned being, central, middling, or marginal” as Massumi argues, then it must also be seeking a reconciliation with one of the poles that bookends this relation. It is drawn towards stabilization, which is another way of saying that is oscillates unevenly, polarizing the relationships on either side. It migrates towards Trump, whose words and gestures – and physique – are like a magnet. According to the deluge of thinkpieces on Trump supporters that were churned out following the election, we know that middle-America thinks Trump is “just like us”. And we know another axiom: like attracts like.
But if Trump’s body looks like the “middle-class”, it is also a kind of hallucination—Trump’s body is the product of a lifestyle of luxurious, conspicuous excess. Any similarities are accidental, since Trump has never been in the position of foregoing diabetes medication due to rising medication prices; has never had to settle for junk food while living in an economically depressed food desert littered with high fat, high salt, edible detritus; he does not know what it is like to stitch up his own lacerated hand because the thought of incurring several thousand dollars in Emergency Room bills might provoke yet another psychic and physical trauma. In a way, Trump is not a body-without image, but image-without-body.
Here we have arrived at a key oxymoron of Trump: he is fake body attached to a simulated image.
His image is an incarnation that desires its own reproduction. It is the simulation of a man, the materialization of a God-Emperor, the embodiment of the TRUMP brand. Trump’s visage is that Paterfamilial image spiralling towards its historic manifestation, driven by a self-replication that can impregnate the memeplex with his iconographic face and drive more and more money towards the TRUMP Empire.
But Trump is also a grotesquely physical body, one that has used the powers its girth commands to physically assault women or wrestle awkward handshakes out of self-assured world-leaders. Even that, though, is a kind of hallucination: in our collective media-conscious, Trump’s body offers itself up as fodder for the refashioning of the flesh in the image of the Great American Hero, the hard-working, downtrodden, blue-collar, temporarily-embarrassed millionaire man—one who is always being dragged out of the dustbin of history, resurrected to reassure us that the America Dream can speak to us, too, if we hallucinate hard enough.