(director's cut of piece published in The Guardian, October 14th 2016)
Glamour, noun – 1. (archaic) visual illusion, a magical haze in the air causing things to appear different from how they really are (as in “cast the glamour”). Etymology: Scottish, variant of Scottish gramayre, “magic, enchantment, spell”.
Trumpery, noun - 1. worthless nonsense 2/ practices that are superficially or visually appealing but have little real value. 3. (archaic) tawdry finery. Etymology: Middle English (Scots), trumpery - deceit or fraud; from Middle French, tromper – to trick, as in trompe l’oeil.
When I was writing my new glam rock history Shock and Awe, I kept running into things that seemed like premonitions – previews of the scary and dangerous man running for the American presidency right now.
In his mid-Seventies interviews, David Bowie kept talking -- in an unnervingly fixated way --about “a strong leader” destined to “sweep through” the Western World: a charismatic superhero who might emerge not from conventional politics but from the entertainment field. Sometimes Bowie’s tone was ominous and fatalistic, as if this scenario was inevitable. At other times, he’d make it seem like a necessary corrective to a Weimar-style state of decadence, talking with seemingly approving anticipation of “a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny” that would clean up all the mess made by the permissive society.
At his most extreme, unguarded and cocaine-addled, Bowie proposed himself as a candidate for the job, whether as British PM, as the “first English president of the United States,” or maybe even as ruler of the world.
Another future-spectre of Trump was Alice Cooper’s pretend run for the presidency in 1972. It took the form of the single “Elected” and its hilarious, delirious video but nonetheless had a curiously convincing tone of megalomaniacal demagoguery about it, as Cooper boasted that he and his “young and strong” followers would take “the country by storm.”
On the surface, Donald Trump and the glam era’s stars couldn’t be further apart. What does Trump have in common with Ziggy Stardust, apart from orange hair? The Donald is a bigot, a macho bully, a philistine, a proud ignoramus. Bowie and the brightest of his peers were androgynous aesthetes, intellectually hungry and sexually experimental.
And yet there are some unlikely affinities. As signaled by his gilded tower on 5th Avenue, Trump surrounds himself with glitz. Trump and the glam rockers likewise shared an obsession with fame and a ruthless drive to conquer and devour the world’s attention. Trump actually plays “We Are the Champions” by Queen (a band aligned with glam in its early days) at his rallies, because its triumphalist refrain “no time for losers” crystallises his Economic Darwinist worldview.
A mirror of oligopoly capitalism, pop is a ferociously competitive game that sorts the contestants into a handful of winners and a greater number of losers. Propelled by a stardom-at-all-costs drive, many of the principal characters in Shock and Awe - Bowie, Marc Bolan, Alice Cooper, Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel, Bryan Ferry –nimbly reinvented themselves and in some cases trampled people on their way up. They willed their fantasy-selves into existence. This same ethos of “don’t dream it, be it” (as articulated by The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Dr Frank-N-Furter) could be seen in the type of fandom that glam inspired. It had an imitative quality never really seen before in pop: audiences dressing up like the star, copying the hair and make-up. For instance, Roxy Music’s fans - responding to the sophistication of the group’s image and artwork, to audience-flattering lyrical winks such as “sure to make the cognoscenti think” - costumed themselves as members of a make-believe aristocracy. Ferry recalled how some of their Northern followers would turn up to the shows in full black tie, as if attending the Academy Awards ceremony.
Trump’s appeal is generally seen in terms of his doom-laden imagery of a weakened, rudderless America. But there is clearly something else going on too: an admiring projection towards a swaggering figure who revels in his wealth and entitlement, who’s free to do and say whatever he wants. Even the sexual predator boasts caught on the Access Hollywood tape - “when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything” - sound uncomfortably close to the rock star / rap star fantasies of freedom and power that are so alluring to so many. Truth is, Tump is an aspirational figure as much as he’s a mouthpiece for resentment and rancor.
“I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump wrote in The Art of The Deal, explaining the role of bravado in his business dealings. “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.” He and co-writer Tony Schwarz coined the concept “truthful hyperbole.” That sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it cuts to the essence of how hype works: by making people believe in something that doesn’t exist yet, it magically turns a lie into a reality. As the American saying goes, fake it ‘til you make it. Bowie’s manager Tony Defries used this technique to break the singer in America: travelling everywhere in a limo, surrounded by bodyguards he didn’t need, Bowie looked like the star he wasn’t yet, until the public and the media started to take the illusion for reality.
Early in his career, Trump grasped that – like a pop star – he was selling an image, a brand. As commentators have noticed, banks see him as a promoter rather than a CEO: licensed out, the Trump name gets affixed to buildings and businesses that he doesn’t own, let alone run. He’s an extreme version of what people on Wall Street call a “glamour stock”: an investment that outperforms the market based on an inflated belief in its future growth potential or on even more intangible qualities of cool and buzz. Twitter has been described as the ultimate glamour stock, its attractive image vastly out of whack with its ability to make money. A glamour stock is a self-fulfilling prophecy initially: a magic trick of confidence, its wins because everyone believes it’s going to win. A glamour stock will keep on winning right up until it loses: when the gulf between its perceived value and actual wealth-generative potential gets too huge, when reality finally disrupts the reality-distortion field surrounding it.
Self-reinvention was the strategy used by glam stars like Bowie and Bolan. You can see the same chameleonic flexibility at work in Trump’s career. Once upon a time he was a Democrat, on genial terms with the Clintons. Years ago he used Birtherism as the launch pad for a political career; now he’s dropped it as a political liability. Same with his recent rabble-rousing rhetoric about building a Wall. Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer analyses the agility with which Trump evades attacks by discarding ideas: “He merely creates new Trumps.” That sounds eerily like the way Bowie conjured up new personas to stay one step ahead of pop’s fickle fluctuations and keep himself creatively stimulated. With no fixed political principles, Trump’s only consistency is salesmanship and showmanship: the ability to stage his public life as a drama.
And it’s the drama that holds the public’s attention – the edgy promise of a less boring politics. The New York Times recently quoted a voter who confessed to flirting with the idea of voting for Trump because “a dark side of me wants to see what happens if Trump is in. There is going to be some kind of change, and even if it’s like a Nazi-type change, people are so drama-filled. They want to see stuff like that happen.”
Emerging after the earnest, authenticity-obsessed late Sixties, glam was a period in which rock rediscovered a sense of showbiz and spectacle. Pop history has repeatedly cycled through such phases of glam and anti-glam: Bowie/Roxy razzle-dazzle was supplanted by scruffy pub rock and street-credible punk, which in turn was eclipsed by the neo-glam of the New Romantics. A similar shift occurred in America when glitzy hair metal was displaced by grunge’s mud-slide sound and earth-toned clothes.
Strangely, you can see similar dynamics at play in contemporary politics. Hilary Clinton sits squarely in the unglam corner: a worthy but dull public servant, supremely accomplished at everything required of a politician and leader except what the public perversely craves - being an entertainer. Hilary is the American political equivalent of a “value stock” – those dowdy companies that over time doggedly outperform the glamour stocks, but simply don’t inspire spasms of irrational exuberance in the markets.
The real anti-glam leader of our age, though, is Jeremy Corbyn. Bearded and low-key, he’s the UK politics equivalent of Whispering Bob Harris, the presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test - who couldn’t hide his distaste when visually flashy, image-over-substance bands like Roxy Music, Sparks, and New York Dolls appeared on the program. Corbyn is viscerally opposed to – and fundamentally incapable of – political theater, the very thing that has carried Trump so close to the White House. Corbyn tried to change the format and feel of Prime Minister’s Questions, saying that he wished to “remove the theatre from politics”. In one particular PMQ, he responded to Cameron’s slick pre-scripted gags with the schoolmasterly reprimand “I invite the prime minister to leave the theatre and return to reality.”
Oratory is not Corbyn’s strong suit: he seems instinctively averse to all those elements of spoken language - cadence, musicality of utterance, metaphor – that sway the listener irrationally, bypassing the faculty of judgement. But as Gary Younge argued recently, Corbyn’s plain-spoken delivery is taken as a token of sincerity by his following, who “have not come to be entertained; they have come.... to have a basic sense of decency reflected back to them through their politics.”
This is how a personality cult has built up around Corbyn, despite his honest and accurate admission that "I'm not a personality.” It’s very indie, very alternative rock, the way that the absence of charisma has become the source of a curious magnetism. But as with a taste for indie’s lack of showy drama, it takes a refined sensibility to see past the surface appearance. The general public want a leader to look like a leader. The performance of a public image is considered as important as the actual job performance.
Once in a blue moon, a politician comes along who combines pop star allure and all the less glamorous qualifications like temperament, competence, and knowledge. Obama has both kinds of cool going for him: perfect comic timing at the White House Correspondents Dinner, calmness and clarity during moments of Oval Office crisis. Politics without any element of charisma is certainly a dry affair. But the cult of personality can be dangerous outside the realm of showbiz, its proper domain.
"The Majesty of Trump" by Will Wilkinson at The New York Times
Forward's Jake Romm with a convincing reading of Time's Person of the Year cover, analysing the staging of the Trump photograph (by Nadav Kander) as a slyly subversive deconstruction of his regal pretensions:
"The masterstroke, the single detail that completes the entire image, is the chair. Trump is seated in what looks to be a vintage “Louis XV” chair... The chair not only suggests the blindly ostentatious reigns of the French kings just before the revolution, but also, more specifically, the reign of Louis XV who, according to historian Norman Davies, “paid more attention to hunting women and stags than to governing the country” and whose reign was marked by “debilitating stagnation,” “recurrent wars,” and “perpetual financial crisis” (sound familiar?). The brilliance of the chair however, is visual rather than historical. It’s a gaudy symbol of wealth and status, but if you look at the top right corner, you can see a rip in the upholstery, signifying Trump’s own cracked image. Behind the bluster, behind the glowing displays of wealth, behind the glittering promises, we have the debt, the tastelessness, the demagoguery, the racism, the lack of government experience or knowledge... Once we notice the rip, the splotches on the wood come into focus, the cracks in Trump’s makeup, the thinness of his hair, the stain on the bottom left corner of the seat — the entire illusion of grandeur begins to collapse. The cover is less an image of a man in power than the freeze frame of a leader, and his country, in a state of decay. The ghostly shadow works overtime here — suggesting a splendor that has already passed, if it ever existed at all."
Gwenda Blair on Trump's performance of real-ness and quasi-spontaneity
Trump as reality TV star turned Narcissist-in-Chief (Guardian) :
"'We found that reality TV stars were the most narcissistic of any group of celebrities including actors, musicians and comedians,' says Mark Young, who studies the entertainment industry at the University of Southern California and co-authored The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America. Young says a talent vacuum in most reality TV stars means they have to “act out” to stay in the public eye, while typically also losing self-awareness to paranoia and insecurity. “Reality TV has normalised outrageous and inappropriate behaviour,” he says. Viewers demand it, meanwhile, “since they are primed for this type of entertainment and stimulation”. Young identifies a comparable feedback loop of outrage in Trump’s presidential campaign. “He didn’t have skills in the political arena so … he was able to keep himself ‘fresh’ by being outrageous,” he says. He calls Trump’s victory “the greatest ending to any reality TV show in history”.
Trump's unprincipled flip-flopping and opportunistic beliefs as revealed in this 2000 interview when he tried to run as Presidential Candidate with pro-immigration, pro-health-care, pro-LGBT etc positions: "Last fall Donald Trump shook up the political world by announcing he was joining the Reform Party, a major step in exploring a run for president. The pundits laughed, claiming that the real estate mogul knew more about glamour than politics..."
Laurie Penny on the "performative bigotry", hate-speech cabaret and "pageant of insincerity" of alt-right trolls - "the insider traders of the attention economy," with Trump as their Gordon Gekko (Medium)
Donald Trump as actor playing the part of "Donald Trump" in a Goffman-esque, "presentation of self in everyday life" (psycho-)analysis by Daniel P. Adams (The Atlantic):
"As brainy social animals, human beings evolved to be consummate actors whose survival and ability to reproduce depend on the quality of our performances. We enter the world prepared to perform roles and manage the impressions of others, with the ultimate evolutionary aim of getting along and getting ahead in the social groups that define who we are. More than even Ronald Reagan, Trump seems supremely cognizant of the fact that he is always acting. He moves through life like a man who knows he is always being observed. If all human beings are, by their very nature, social actors, then Donald Trump seems to be more so—superhuman, in this one primal sense."
"The similarities between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump do not end with their aggressive temperaments and their respective positions as Washington outsiders.... They named Jackson “King Mob” for what they perceived as his demagoguery."
"In Trump’s own words from a 1981 People interview, the fundamental backdrop for his life narrative is this: “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat.”.... . As Trump has written, “money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score.” The story instead is about coming out on top."...
"Who, really, is Donald Trump? What’s behind the actor’s mask? I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost. It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why"
Beats me really why no one has yet made the blindingly obvious point - no one that I've read anyway - that Trump's psychology - Trump's performance-mode (free associational grandiosity/fragmentary-paranoia) is at core identical with rap's.
Greil Marcus on Trump as Ubu Roi and Beyonce as Trump (in Tages Anzeiger)
"Her fans, her followers, the people who think she understands them.... : They are in love with her apparent power. She seems to own the stage she walks on, she seems to own the air she breathes. And we breathe that same air at her dispensation. The aura that surrounds here and that she’s created around herself and other people have created around her is very similar to the aura that has been created around Donald Trump. This sense of authority, of absolute power, a sense that one has reached a point where he or she can do absolutely anything and be beyond criticism, alone face any consequences. I don’t want this to be misconstrued. Donald Trump is a racist, Beyoncé is not. Donald Trump wants to destroy people, and I don’t think Beyoncé does. They’re entirely different, but the linkage between the two is that they worship power and the appearance of power....
"[That SNL sketch about how] anybody who doesn’t like Beyoncé is hunted down and thrown into prison. Anybody who likes her new album but not the seventh track loses his job and is attacked by the FBI... the Beygency hunting anyone that doesn’t bow to her - this sketch actually gets to the question: What if Beyoncé was Donald Trump? And Donald Trump was a dictator? And to criticize him became a crime?"
Trump as King - blogpost at Followers of the Apocalypse on the royalist and restorationist currents of "neo-reactionism":
"Is Trump a king? Well he does try to act like one… the royal court, the favoured children, the droit de seigneur, the whole Louis XIV decor… and [neo-reactionist polemicist] Moldbug does call for a CEO as king (he suggested Elon Musk). But on the converse he’s actually not a very good CEO (by any reasonable measure), and he’s a bit – well – common. Aesthetics and decorum are a huge deal for the neo-reactionaries: they want nobles who are truly noble (with elegant, long, royal fingers…). But he’s a placeholder. Now we’ve normalised the idea of CEO as global leader it’s easier to argue for a better CEO, using the intervening time and Trump’s love of being hated to remove democratic checks and balances as far as possible"
Rowan Wilson on the failure of mass democracy and the triumph of Trump's theatrical politics (New Statesman)
"... an incoherent series of crowd-pleasing postures,... Trump’s real aim was not to do anything as president but simply to be president, to be the most important man in the Western world. This election represents a divorce between the electoral process and the business of political decision-making. It is the ersatz politics of mass theatre, in which what matters most is the declaration of victory.
As such, it is the most cynical betrayal of those who are disenfranchised. It confirms that they have no part in real political processes; they can only choose their monarch... The politics of mass democracy has failed. It has been narrowed down to a mechanism for managing large-scale interests in response to explicit and implicit lobbying by fabulously well-resourced commercial and financial concerns... For significant parts of a population, “theatrical” politics comes to look like the only option: a dramatic articulation of the problems of powerlessness, for which the exact details of economic or social reality are irrelevant. This delivers people into the hands of another kind of dishonest politics: the fact-free manipulation of emotion by populist adventurers."
A counter-view from Sam Kriss that goes back to Plato to examine the inherent theatricality of politics and how we've always been "post-truth" (Slate) :
"... in The Laws, Plato describes Athenian democracy as “wretched theatrokratia,” rule by the theater, a society on the precipice of tyranny... Science is a discourse in which the categories of truth or falsehood make sense; aesthetics is one in which they don’t. Politics is something strange, however: It’s far closer to literature than it is to science—disagreements over political principle can’t be settled through a practical experiment... the power offered by politics is always the power to imagine something unreal. You can dream of (for instance) a National Health Service, or an end to all war, or the liberation of women. You can dream of things that don’t yet exist and are by any binary definition untrue and then begin to bring them into being.... It’s not that facts aren’t good for anything, but a politics consisting of facts and nothing else isn’t politics, but management. This is what our politics are actually turning into: rule by experts and fatalism....Politics is where people can gain the ability to actively reshape the world, rather than just describe it. It’s as false as the Athenian theater, and this is no bad thing. Of course these aspects of politics can give rise to monsters like Donald Trump; dreams always raise the possibility of a nightmare.... "
Counter-counterview from Bernard-Henri Lévy (in The Telegraph)
“If Trump is possible, then everything is possible... As for Le Pen it is unlikely that she wins but it is possible, and that is partly because the people have lost interest in policy, instead focusing on personality.... they even seem less concerned about whether the candidates are telling the truth or not. They are more interested in the performance, in the theatrical quality of what is said than whether it is true. And as we know, a fascist can put on a very successful performance.”
c.f. the famous clash between George W. Bush aide versus Ron Suskind: History's actors versus the reality-based community with their judicious study of discernible reality, the expert sifting of facts and data
Trump as Roman Emperor and maestro of "crass showmanship" as the new political norm - Katy Waldman at Slate
"He is America’s capricious kingmaker, the impish, omnipotent ringmaster of a grand circus in which he’s taming CEOs and the liberal media and Mexico and Mitt Romney and lions—big, beautiful lions—in all five rings simultaneously. The changing weather of Donald Trump’s temperament and his thrilling and sinister ability to enact his fitful will—these are the themes of a mass entertainment that has taken the place of traditional presidential politics. “One of the announcers, I have to tell you, from ESPN,” Trump told his followers on Thursday night, “he said, ‘That [election night] was the most exciting event I’ve ever seen.’ ” Every time Trump injects chaos into the system or subverts our expectations, he makes the spectacle better, and America worse."
Trumpism and the Weimar analogy / decadence>authoritarianism syndrome (Chris Hedges's "It's Worse Than You Think" at Truthdig):
"We have replaced political discourse, news, culture and intellectual inquiry with celebrity worship and spectacle... '“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Noam Chomsky told me with uncanny insight when I spoke with him six years ago.... 'The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen....'.... The rot of our failed democracy vomited up a con artist who was a creation of the mass media—first playing a fictional master of the universe on a reality television show and later a politician as vaudevillian. Trump pulled in advertising dollars and ratings. Truth and reality were irrelevant.... Trump is emblematic of what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” A society in terminal decline often retreats into magical thinking. Reality is too much to bear. It places its faith in the fantastic and impossible promises of a demagogue or charlatan who promises the return of a lost golden age."
From Barrett's book's Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth: "“His fatalism allowed him hold himself blameless; his determinism convinced him he’d be a winner again. On the public stage where he’d played out every act of his life he was too much of a showman to be embarrassed by a single disastrous performance. The cumulative effect of this life view—so deep seated it appeared to be instinctual—was the confidence that all of this would come and go.”
from the interview:
on Trump as gambler / speculator / fabulator:
"Donald in ‘88 and ‘89 was doing incomprehensible deals that were unsustainable on their face, thinking he could not lose. Almost every one of those deals blew up in his face. It was like one lemon after another in a manic, manic state. I thought he was on the same kind of manic run the last two years. I thought he had damaged his brand and that it was all going to explode. I thought he was like on a 1988-89 re-run. And then it turns out that he wins. In the 1990s, he was anything but manic. He was extremely subdued.... he was hiding in the ‘90s. He was just glad to be alive. And biding his time."
on his success as a triumph of optics belying the reality of failure:
"The glamor is intoxicating. He understood that carrying this big dick, having a blonde on his arm, getting into the casino businesses where everything seemed to convey a fast life, when it’s really a dead end for so many people ... Trump Tower is really the only great project that he actually built.... It’s a triumph of a project. That can make your name. The triumphs are what last in this culture. He seemed to have it all, and that stays in the mindset. So he has a track record of bankruptcy and failure, but there’s also this narrative that he’s the embodiment of brashness, boldness, decisiveness, and that’s what people choose to see. You see that plane ... This plane is in every American living room. Night after night after night, with his name emblazoned on it. What better conveys great wealth, unbelievable success? "
"When Alice Cooper Predicted Donald Trump" by me at MTV News
Jamelle Bouie at Slate on the aspirational nature of Trump's lies -
'“The essential characteristic of fascist propaganda was never its lies, for this is something more or less common to propaganda everywhere and of every time,” wrote... Hannah Arendt/// “The essential thing was that they exploited the age-old Occidental prejudice which confuses reality with truth, and made that ‘true’ which until then could only be stated as a lie.” Put in plain language, fascists didn’t lie to obscure the truth; they lied to signal what would eventually become truth."
Chris Ott aka Shallow Rewards on Trump as "The Contestant" (subscribe here)
"His only interest was in the contest itself, because he is a gambler. He did not get into the casino business randomly: his dream of owning a casino was an augmented reflection of his innate obsession with outcomes.... Trump likes to watch the wheel spin. He likes to blow on dice.... It has become clear Trump was only interested in winning. This has been suggested from the beginning: my point is that it is now incontestably clear, clear enough that he must answer for it. He has spilled his drink on the roulette table to ensure nobody wins, but more importantly, he doesn't lose.... Trump's flailing transition trainwreck is evidence of his disregard for the prize he has won. The presidency is merely a trophy to him, a ratings victory following another reality show."
Slate's Julia Turner on Trump's Stunt Presidency:
Me on the Weeknd as the king of WeimaR&B - decadent dirges that glamorize giving in and giving up - the sonic prequel to the Trump Takeover (the Guardian)