The Metamodernity of Trump’s Reality TV Campaign and Sanders’ Avuncular Awesome

With the winding down of this year’s presidential primary season, I’ve been mulling over the unpredicted splash made by Bernie Sanders, and wondering whether there isn’t something kind of metamodern about his appeal. We’ve heard a fair bit about how Bernie has lent something to this presidential race characterized as fresh, authentic, radically different from business-as-usual. And I think one can pretty easily make a case for why this reflects a shift in the current cultural sensibility. However, what do we make of the fact that the same set of characteristics has been used to describe the other most surprising campaign this election—that of Donald Trump?

The frequently trotted-out explanation for this parallel is that they both attract the anti-establishment voter. I’d like to dig a little deeper here and explore the notion that their appeal reflects a couple of specific metamodern characteristics. One that we’ve highlighted in a number of our posts here at What Is Metamodern? is the focus on what we refer to as felt experience. Another metamodern quality is a kind of hyper-reflexivity, with which people meta-narrate their lives, and which may have a potential dark side of causing people to conflate fiction with reality in certain instances.

First, let’s remember back, early in this election cycle, when Sanders’ and Trump’s campaigns were both widely considered novel and improbable. We were told by multiple pundits that the public’s initial excitement over each would prove ephemeral. The widespread interest in them would wane after people settled down and got practical about the whole matter. You know, that electability thing. However, both of these men have surprised, nay, flabbergasted, the public as well as the media with the support they’ve garnered. Mainstream candidates who failed to gain traction have got to be asking themselves WTF happened that an eccentric socialist and a business tycoon with no political background somehow outlasted them.

Let me build this exploration of WTF happened with a couple observations about the candidates via the conceptual frame of “epistemes” – or broad periods of cultural history (we adopt Foucault’s idea, though subbing in the more familiar terms: traditional, modern, and postmodern, and suggesting a fourth – metamodern). My co-editor, Greg Dember, made the observation that the last four candidates left in the presidential race as of early May this year could sort of be seen as representatives of each of these major epistemes: Ted Cruz leans on the traditionalism of his religious values; Hillary Clinton, in her basic orientation, has a modernist, technocratic, problem-solving sort of M.O. (which we can get into further another time…); Trump himself seems to operate with a postmodern, post-truth approach – although his appeal, I suggest here, has a metamodern-ish component; and Bernie’s campaign, if not Bernie himself, exemplifies the metamodern in some respects.

One thing I want to point out from the get-go is that metamodernism is not to be taken as equivalent to progressive political idealism, though some seem to want to spin it that way. It’s not against it either. It just has no a priori place on a political spectrum, and any insistence that it does would be, in my book, a simplistic, co-optive, and actually even a bit of a dangerous move, one that has to be scrutinized as potentially reflective of a modernist tendency to jump on the bandwagon of metamodernism as a new grand narrative.

With that in mind, let’s begin with Trump. (And here’s the part where I betray my own political leanings…)
Most people from the Left, and also many from the Right, found the idea of Trump running absurd, but at the same time – and this is the crucial component – so unthinkable as to be entertaining. My sense is that, from the beginning, the very audacity of the guy making a bid for the highest office in the land was a narrative that simply could not be understood in terms of actual reality. It was simply not fathomable. His campaign, and also the somewhat tolerant and bemused stance the media has at times taken toward it (which ended up propelling him forward), was born, then, out of a really clever blindsiding; and a postmodern cultural sensibility in which truth is so relative that one need not attend that much to it. Ken Burns in his recent Stanford commencement address characterized Trump as “a person…who creates an environment where the truth doesn’t seem to matter.”  Likewise, Trump seems to have no real commitment to any party, but uses the GOP as his own personal platform out of convenience. He wears the conservative mantle as a costume since it suits the current character he is playing – that is, someone audacious enough to run for president.

– Donald Trump running for president???  He thinks because he played America’s quintessential boss on that reality TV show, The Apprentice, that he can just turn around and be the boss of America.

My proposal here is that the Trump campaign has entered the public imagination based in large part on its “reality show” quality. America could easily place him in the role of a stock character familiar in reality shows that are premised on participants getting “voted off.” If you’ve seen any reality show, you know they commonly feature at least one totally unscrupulous character who will do anything to win. This is a person who doesn’t care that he (or sometimes she, but in this case, he) is regarded as a self-serving, narcissistic jerk. That jerk is loathed by many, perhaps admired for his moxy by some. But he is the one who makes us tune in each week, aghast that such a despicable ass of a human being could actually succeed. And with each episode we get more and more frothingly excited as we watch him throw the other competitors under the bus.

Trump knows firsthand that petty squabbles, back-stabbings and general bad behavior are the stock-in-trade of reality TV scripts, and he knows that this scoundrel character he currently plays (in his new reality show called “Running for President”) is pivotal to forwarding the drama. Professor of English Seth Abramson wrote presciently back in June 2015 that Trump would garner more response than the other GOP candidates simply because his antics “make[ ] for better television than any 10 of those opponents combined, his campaign events will be ‘must-see television’ and … possibly even ‘must-attend’ political theater.” We audience members play our parts with our emotional investment in the show. Who among us was not at least a little pulled to TV/internet newscasts, newsgroups and blogs, etc. to see whether this scoundrel character will finally get his comeuppance? Or, whether perhaps the script writer (Trump himself) will have the character (Trump himself) actually grow into a decent human being before our eyes. People love these types of narratives.

So, it’s as a result of this particular sort of conflation of reality and reality TV that Trump’s outrageousness becomes must-see-TV. And, having seen so many versions of this plot-line, it may be that we’ve been lulled into assuming that it’s safe to sit back and enjoy the spectacle. He’ll get voted off eventually. And while this mass hypnosis has, I would venture, been masterminded by as savvy a media manipulator as they come, we’re all complicit in crafting the narrative here. Let’s face it, we love our shows, we crave the colorful characters that bring stories alive, and, overall we want to feel our blood pumping.

Trump’s emphasis on feeling was apparently strategic.  In John Oliver’s exposé of Trump University on Last Week Tonight he finds a Trump U. “Playbook” wherein instructors are told, “’You don’t sell products, benefits or solutions—You sell feelings.’ And that is what is happening now,” Oliver points out. “Crowds at a Trump rally may not be able to point to a concrete benefit or solution he offers. But they know how he makes them feel.”

Now I’ll offer a brief take on the influence of Sanders, whose campaign, in contrast, comes off as a wholly other kind of ‘something radically different’: Trump, the oligarchic billionaire next to Sanders, the progressive socialist; Trump’s despotic blustering about keeping out the dangerous Other, versus Sanders’ strategies for protecting basic rights and services, especially for the marginalized. First let me state again that neither of their stances has anything to do with metamodernism, per se (at least according to me). But the special je ne sais quoi that has made people fall for Bernie, I submit, may be a direct result of the metamodern shift.

Let’s consider what Bernie has had going for him that got him on the radar.

Millennials have led the chants of “We love Bernie!” So, to what does he owe that initial splash? Is it charisma? Well, not in the conventional sense; or at least you wouldn’t think he’d occur as charismatic to his largest, most vocal constituency. Young voters couldn’t quite say they “relate” to him, per se, could they? He’s old and kind of hunched over. He has a thick, regional accent which might make him seem to be from a different place or era, and so perhaps (to some) even less relatable.

What I’m thinking happened to initially propel the Bernie phenomenon is that there is “awesome” in his affect – in the metamodern sense of the word. Young people picked up on and reified this reading of Sanders via social media. In this reading, his unscriptedness is a mark of authenticity, partly because of what he’s not doing, i.e., he’s not image-conscious, and he’s not reining in his earnest convictions. Bernie’s eccentrically-mussed hair is coded now as someone passionately and unapologetically not-giving-a-shit. Similarly, what Howard Dean could not get away with back in 2004, before the US was ready for earnest emotion, might, with the metamodern turn, now actually add to a candidate’s appeal.

One might wonder if another “awesome” part of his appeal is a quirky sort of avuncularity. You call him by his first name, a name that’s already very regular-guyish. You feel that whoever you are, he’s going to accept and support you, and help pay for your college degree, even if he thinks you wear odd pants. As one tweeter suggested, “Bernie Sanders smiles like he’s got some riddles for me.” The cheeky campaign slogans like “Feel the Bern” unpretentiously making use of popular idioms, instantiate that metamodern appeal.

Likewise, you feel you joke with him, rather than making a joke of him.

It’s obvious that Sanders has made people feel things, and feel them more fervently, than the other presidential candidates have been able to do this season. And so has Trump. But it’s not that fervor is unique in a political race. What may be different, what I’m gesturing toward here, is the increased emphasis on the public’s part on their own felt experience when choosing their candidates. Put over-simplistically, perceived authenticity and infectious enthusiasm matter more in the so-called metamodern milieu. Apparently sometimes more so than the drier, more practical considerations like, say, experience. Clinton, for all her years of experience, still doesn’t light up a substantial cross-section of progressive voters—and that includes the sorts who give no truck to the Bengazi email “scandal.” On the Republican side, any of the more experienced candidates—Kasich, Rubio, Bush— would obviously have made for a safer, saner nominee for the party. To their fans, though, both Trump and Sanders come across as defiant of politics-as-usual by being honest, being themselves. Both are described as “the only one brave enough to tell it like it is.” *

So, to sum up, it’s not that I want to call either of these candidates themselves metamodern. Trump, I believe, operates via a postmodern cultural sensibility with his, um, let’s call it flexible sense of reality. And Sanders, as an individual, it might be argued (and perhaps we’ll take this up elsewhere) displays characteristics of several of the epistemes. But it is the manner in which they appeal to voters that I’ve tried to home in on here, as reflecting something peculiar to the metamodern cultural shift – which we classify in part by a specific kind of refracting of reality through subjunctive lenses (like movies and reality TV shows), and also in part by the propensity to choose based on what excites a sense of authenticity and feeling. Given what we’re seeing, a so-called metamodern type of political engagement will prove worth watching for its unexpected outcomes.

*Author’s note: I wanted to include tweets from Trump supporters to this effect, but, after an honest attempt, I could locate no tweets speaking to Trump’s honesty and bravery that were not written by Trump himself.


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