Everything is Donald Trump and Donald Trump is everything. Donald Trump is the motive behind every new album release and the focus of every satire. Every comedian has an impression of him. Every American chat show has a foreign guest who gets enthusiastic cheers for liking or disliking Trump the correct amount, depending on the audience’s proclivities. Any attempt to fully represent culture or society feels obliged to explain and sum up Trump.
Trump is emblematic. What he is an emblem of is contested. He is the culmination of a decades long slide away from any shared notion of The Good in public life. He is the disgusting distorted face of a bloated and directionless American empire. He is an angry howl of a long hidden majority. He is the authentic voice of true America. He is the long disguised face of white supremacy now shedding its mask. He is the inevitable conclusion of social media’s corruption of our democracy. He is an example of why America needs less Democracy. He is an example of why America is not democratic enough.
Art always contains something of the epoch it was created in. Many of today’s popular artists have decided to embrace this creative inevitability and declare that their work is about Trump. This is sometimes an ex post facto. Damon Albarn said that Humanz turned out to be about Donald only after finishing the album. The movie industry has rediscovered its political edge. Amidst the self-congratulation and absurdities of awards shows, many guests take their moment at the soapbox to dissent. This is sometimes eloquent and interesting, as for example with Oprah, and other times tedious and self-serving, as in too many examples to list.
For political analysts Trump must be appended to each local negative persona. In Britain we are concerned about Trump and Brexit. In France Trump and Le Pen. In Italy Trump and Five Star. In Brazil it’s Trump and Bolsonaro. Differences are flattened out and separate trajectories under-studied. Trump and are Local Bad Thing go together like salt and pepper and are eagerly sprinkled into the passages of whatever jeremiad is being composed.
The bad things that are happening are all the result of some misstep from the true path. We are on twitter too much or we don’t believe in society enough or we are too worried about race and not enough about class or ,conversely, we have never sufficiently accounted for race and gender and therefore have to try better to do so now. Our electoral coalitions are too broad and not left wing enough, except they are too left wing and need to go back to being more centrist, but the centrists lost power because they conceded too much ground to the conservatives, except, don’t be silly, centrism is really just conservatism with a human face. Whatever our explanation, it leads to Trump + X.
Academia is engaged just as eagerly in the effort to overdetermine the outcome of America’s 2016 election. Trump is not a sub-discipline; he has absorbed many full disciplines. If you write a political text it is to explain some part of Trump. The introduction or conclusion of every history book likes to speculate, sometimes casually, other times at some length, about the lessons and parallels the life of de Gaulle, or the history of medieval Europe or the economy of 19th century Italy has to tell us about the life of the 45th president of the USA.
The issue is not that people are attempting to explain Trump. It is that the methods used in these explanations are hopelessly broad. Any attempt to explain a large societal phenomenon, such as racial discrimination in post-slave societies, or to capture the mechanism behind large economic trends, such as the changing industrial base of the world’s richest nation, or to understand the logic of powerful political forces, such as the neo-imperialist ambitions and actions of the Pax Americana, is a huge intellectual undertaking.
This task is not helped by a desire to over-explain; to see every issue or event that captures the author’s interest as somehow indicative of the object of study. I’d need a fairly compelling reason to believe that an underwhelming club-album from one of the music industry’s most inconsistent producers is a statement about political events. It will not do to simply say that it is after the fact. Is the life of Charles de Gaulle or Winston Churchill really that relevant to the present day decision making? Or they not statesmen of a century ago, whose lives and choices must be first contextualized and estranged from a present mindset before they can be understood? Their legacies, many of them twisted and dark, are with us still but we do not inhabit their times. And can any political commentator, no matter how insightful, really capture the meaning of Trump’s ascent in a 750 word column?
The task of explanation requires discrimination. One must choose what factors contribute to what phenomena, and which actions of each actor are relevant to the argument being made. The goal is to achieve understanding, to clarify something of the truth out of the overwhelming and obfuscatory fog of experience. This task is a huge and challenging one. When attempting to explain important or genuinely rare social events, one must resist the synecdochol urge that afflicts intellectuals; the desire to understand and explain everything. Reasoned selection is the soul of effective analysis.