The Apophenic Thrall
Trumpism in the Shimmering Empire
Resonance is not an exact reiteration. Rather it’s something that strikes a chord, that inexplicably rings true, a sound whose notes are prolonged. It is just-glimpsed connections and hidden structures that are felt to shimmer below the surface of things.
Susan Lepselter, The Resonance of Unseen Things
On Twitter several weeks ago, my friend, the ever brilliant Lee Vinsel, asked me to explain what I mean when I write about Trumpism. Lots of people these days use the word Trumpism and they make confident predictions that Trumpism is here to stay or that Trumpism will soon fade away and so on, but few of these people define what they mean. I’ve told him that, to me, Trumpism is commonly misunderstood as—variously—an ideology, platform, partisan faction, set of interests, constituency, overlapping demographics, belief system, knowledge ecology, cult, and movement. When I use the word, I mean none of these things, though what I mean touches all of these things.
When I write about Trumpism, I am writing about a structure of feeling.
Needless to say, I don’t expect my definition to catch on. But I do think explaining what I mean will help you understand what is happening in American politics. In particular, many people who are not Trump supporters (probably you!) are struggling to understand why Trump supporters entertain so many outlandish beliefs and why those beliefs seem to be able to survive all the mountains of evidence that contradict them.
Explanations of this phenomenon tend to focus on the right’s knowledge ecology: the system that circulates information, authorizes speakers, and validates the truth of claims that are hard to validate through first-hand experience. You may have heard the term “epistemic closure” applied to Trumpism. This is a term borrowed from the philosophy and sociology of knowledge that actually has a somewhat technical meaning (all knowledge systems have, by definition, epistemic closure), but, in this context, it means that conservative media, both traditional and social, has become an echo chamber that filters out and disqualifies any information that does not comport with prevailing rightwing views. Those views now include the belief that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen from Trump, and when you mix in the inability of rightwing media to purge Qanon conspiracy theories, you have a toxic waste dump of misinformation. In other words, the problem is fundamentally one of knowledge: Trump’s supporters are misinformed and need better information.
Alas, this is wrong—or, at least, not right enough. I don’t want you to think that I dismiss rightwing epistemic closure (I don’t), nor am I suggesting that they have a solid grasp on empirical reality. (They don’t, though, I trust, they would say the same thing about me.)
However, I think the knowledge critique leads to two missteps:
To begin, it offers a level of coherence to this rightwing “reality” that is unwarranted and, to the contrary, is rather its opposite. Remember: claims about the nature of reality can be internally logically consistent without being, in any sense, accurate. For example, I think that Lacanian psychoanalysis is internally consistent; I am not convinced it accurately describes reality. What is striking about the emergent rightwing “worldview” expressed by Trumpism is not just its inaccuracy; its distinctiveness is its explicit incoherence and inconsistency. In other words, we’re granting too much when we describe Trumpism as an ideology because that term conventionally describes something that has degrees of internal consistency about it. Trumpism does not. And those inconsistencies aren’t problems to be suppressed by his followers. They are features not bugs.
This leads us to the second problem: if we mistake Trumpism for a coherent belief system, we may be tempted to try to refute it by either locating its most critical internal inconsistencies or by strongly contradicting one of its core premises with seemingly irrefutable proof. Once we have done this, we reason, the next task is to penetrate the rightwing knowledge ecology, foreground those inconsistencies, and free Trumpkins from their delusions. The problem? This never works. I want to suggest it doesn’t work because the standards of proof and truth-validation we would impose feel untrue to Trumpkins. They feel untrue precisely because they are demands for consistency and rationality. In other words, it’s about how feeling, not propositional logic, structures the Trumpkin knowledge ecology.
One thing I need emphasize now is that because it is a structure of feeling, Trumpism is unstable and impossible to describe coherently as either a set of claims about the world or as a particular constituting public. Put differently, if it seems like I’m playing fast and loose with who belongs in the Trumpkin tent or what conspiratorial claims make up their worldview, that’s by design. It’s people who believe the vote was rigged and the election was stolen. It’s people who think Antifa stormed the Capitol. But it’s also people who see Cultural Marxism lurking in a offhand use of the phrase “speaking truth to power.” It’s people who are obsessed with George Soros and it’s people who have common, if disturbing beliefs about Christ’s imminent Second Coming. It’s pizzagate and birthers. And, of course, it’s Qanon. That no one believes in all of it and that some of the constituent beliefs are contradictory is the point. Trumpism is how these disparate, fractious, and contradictory positions become a unifying feeling about the world and, thus, come to obtain an articulated, actionable cohesion that they would otherwise lack. Trumpism is the structure of feeling that knits these disparate elements into a political force.
The madness of crowds—an impulse surges, like an electrical charge, and, then, magnetizes, pulls, pushes, shimmers through your body, and passes into your neighbors. It could be a riot (yes, that one) but it could also be a drug-doused techno rave (yes, that one). Is it irrational? Or supernatural? How should we think about this hyperconnectivity, this feeling of being connected to more than we can account for?
Maybe we could think it resonant with the condition of apophenia, the technical name for experiencing connections among two or more unrelated objects. Easy examples of apophenia are things such as weird effects—the wallpaper is giving me a headache—and sympathetic magic—this rock wards off bears—but I want to think about it in terms of the experience of the crowd.
By virtue of our shared membership in a crowd, you and I are, at the least, nominally related—we are named as related—but the question of how you affect me is far from clear and may be impossible to discern; indeed, if you are even affecting me at all is not really knowable, especially if you are on the other side of the room. What seems obvious in a crowd—whether at a protest, riot, or rave—is that I am caused by something beyond and outside myself, and that it pushes me in directions I cannot predict. Once pushed, I ride the crest until it breaks or I do. In the crowd I feel an apophenic euphoria: when everything is drawn into relation beyond the nominal and into the domain of an invisible cause that is everywhere and nowhere. But in the space where we feel those countless shimmering filaments bind everything to everything, to describe the relationship between two particular objects as visible, linear, and chartable suddenly feels like a lie. The dulcet tones of reason are suddenly impossible, intolerable, blaring, and jagged. They sound like lies precisely because they make a smooth and calming sense. What is intended to lull us to sleep, wakes us.
Apophenia is a loadstone concept in Susan Lepselter’s The Resonance of Unseen Things, which gifts this post its epigraph. The book is a beautiful ethnography of UFO abduction “survivors.” Although it was published in 2015, the research for the book is mainly from the 1990s. Lepselter lived and worked in a Nevada town near a military base where she joined support groups for those survivors and subsequently befriended many of them. Lepselter’s goal is not to to “make sense” of their experiences, but to try to piece together the structures of feeling they inhabit and the relationship those structures of feelings have to their conspiratorial worldview. Because neither conspiracies nor structures of feeling are particularly rational, her task cannot be reconciled with, as we conventionally define it, reason. Instead, Lepselter turns to poetics and, specifically, apophenia and the tropic resonances of abduction and freedom. She does not abandon an analysis of language, or even nomination (as naming), but approaches these with a poetic sensibility: through resonance, naming and language comes to gesture at concealed causes and a web of hidden connections rather than, as we might assume, language simply representing an ordered reality.
While the apophenia of the crowd is something we can fall in and out of, the conspiratorial apophenia is a sustained worldview and the water in which Lepselter’s informants swim. They believe that everything is connected, and that those connections—that vast conspiracy—are responsible for their hazily remembered abductions, abductions that, when narrated, always bear resonant similarities but are never quite the same. These traumatic abductions, in turn, imply and are, indeed, temporally structured by two fantasy states: a pre-abduction state of innocent freedom and a post-abduction state of transformed freedom, when the survivor has broken free of the conspiracy.
These are fantasies. The innocent freedom before abduction is not something anyone actually experienced—in fact, it is the mythos of American freedom—nor is the transformative freedom, her informants’s hopes to transcend their abductions aside, something that they will ever experience. The states are fantastic poles that orient the subject’s affect and temporality—the memory of before and the horizon of beyond—but there is nothing the secret strings of conspiracy do not pull. The aliens are still watching. The conspiracy is still acting. Just when you thought you had escaped, it returns: an uncanny object, a forgotten memory surfaces, a sharp pain, strange parallels in two different stories in the newspaper, a catastrophic event, a minor incident, everything is connected.
This is why, Lepselter tells us, nothing truly surprises her informants. Nothing surprises; every new detail is an eery and uncanny confirmation. When everything is connected everything makes sense even when it doesn’t: what you already felt was true will always be confirmed. And, what’s more, the things that will feel most untrue are the things that will be loudly announced as true. The volume will not just be in rhetorical style—the calm and careful tone the liars take—but in core propositional validity. The fact the purveyors of these untruths have ironclad syllogisms and carefully assembled, persuasive evidence is exactly what will make them feel dishonest. Stop making sense. Truth is a feeling, not a proposition.
Lepselter dramatizes this through a gorgeous reading (pp. 13-14) of an exchange she has with Carla, one of her informants, after Carla watches a newscast about the catastrophic siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas in 1993. Carla’s response appears as poetry—I mistook it for that when first my eyes scanned it on the page:
What is a cult?
A cult is a culture.
A cult is a culture
That they don’t like.
As Lepselter puts it,
For Carla, watching the Waco complex burn was at once a terrible revelation and a confirmation of what she already just knew in her bones: that unseen powers, consortiums of the media, the government, and covert groups of the rich, elite, and powerful, were intentionally testing the American people. They used a rumor of David Koresh’s crimes of sexual abuse to play on easy American sentiment, she said. The Waco compound was a lethal experiment they conducted on ordinary people, to see what they could get away with.
She continues by noting that it is the “TV anchor’s authoritatively referential register … intoning on Koresh’s evil” that exposes the conspiracy’s lie:
The voice of the news broadcaster was a monologic appropriation, a performance that justified their actions by claiming the singular point of view. This referential-based register—the performance style of the powers that be—denied the hidden, piled-up connections between things, to paint a lulling picture of rational cause and effect.
Because rational cause and effect would deny those threads, the crime here is not just the murder of the innocent Branch Davidians, but, in a deeper sense, the denial of poetic knowledge. Carla attempts to restore this truth through her apophenic slip between cult and culture, words that bear the resonance of an esoteric etymological root, a kind of mysterious causality obscured by time. When they are adjacent these words shimmer, but the etymology is lost to Carla—she knows they relate but not really how—and the hidden secret slips right through her fingers. We see also in this moment the doubling effect of the trauma of the abduction. Carla has been blessed with a terrible sight: she can see the shimmering threads lost on you and me, but she still can’t see the whole conspiracy much less free herself from it. Freedom is a horizon, always in the distance, never at hand.
II. The Thrall
Trump is a spectacular weirdo. I won’t do the irritating thing where I recite how unprecedented his crimes and misdeeds are. You’ve heard it all before, and you’ve heard anti-anti-Trump critics point to the trail of bodies left by his predecessors. But I’m already on the record telling you that Trump’s idiosyncrasies are historically relevant in ways that exceed and confound purely structural accounts of recent political history. That post centered on Trump’s temperamental peculiarities: he’s lazy, bullying, ignorant, cheap, selfish, narcissistic, to name a few. I argued that these would make him a lousy and ineffective party boss, even if his stature in the GOP would guarantee that he would continue to be their party boss, what I cheekily called the party “despot.”
It’s not unusual for American politicians to display one or even several of these traits. But Trump pulled the straight flush—he’s got them all!—and that is rare. LBJ was a narcissistic bully, but he was also industrious and deeply knowledgable about a number of things relevant to the job of being President. The flip side of this is that LBJ was not a particularly charismatic public figure and, while popular for much of his time as President, he never developed anything resembling Trump’s “cult” of personality. That’s due to something I addressed only in passing: Trump’s extraordinary personal appeal to his core of supporters, appeal that remains untarnished by the siege on the Capitol.
My own thinking on Trump’s personal charisma has undergone some evolution over the years. My initial analysis in 2015 was that GOP primary voters viscerally hated their party leaders with nearly as much intensity as they hated the libs. Trump was an immediately appealing candidate for such voters because his basic rhetorical strategy was to mercilessly bully and humiliate anyone who stood in his way. (He also said out loud the racist and sexist things that GOP politicians preferred be whispered in quiet.) This much was evident to me immediately after the first GOP debate in 2015: Trump was going to roll steamroll the GOP primary and he would be a credible threat in the general election because of Hillary Clinton’s unusually high levels of personal disapproval. The Democratic primaries played out in a way that only expanded the pool of voters who felt personal animosity towards Clinton and, thus, only enhanced Trump’s value as a punitive whip. By late 2016, I thought that few of Trump’s supporters personally liked him, but that they loved how he angered people they didn’t like. He was a crass, dishonest, bloviating asshole that no one wanted to be in the same room with… and that’s exactly why his supporters wanted to lock their enemies in a room with him!
I still think the negative affective dimensions of Trump are powerful and bind some people to him, but the loyalty and genuine affection of his supporters has lead me to question this as a total explanation for Trumpism. Most Trumpkins seem to trust and like him. They genuinely admire and identify with him. They enjoy hearing him speak and they think he’s a transformative, heroic figure in American politics. And they earnestly and honestly think he’s been a great President. Surely, some of his supporters were like that from the start. Others supporters started off enjoying Trump as a punitive whip only to have their negative affect transformed, through the magnificent alchemy of polarization and culture war, into adoration.
It also doesn’t do much to explain the integration of Trump into the increasingly conspiratorial fantasies of the GOP base. Why were Qanon people Trumpkins? Why were millenarian evangelical Christians? Trump was such an unlikely figure to place at the center of either of these conspiracies: his personal biography and financial investments almost certainly made him a person who profited from “globalism,” and there was a well-documented public record of him rubbing elbows with the elites they openly named as satanic pedophiles. Had Trump’s personal life been pristine one could claim that he shared social space but never personal predilections with those sorts, but Trump was, by then, also publicly accused of a series of sexual harassments and assaults, including incidents that involved underage women. There was, in short, little to suggest Trump would have the interest or incentive to dedicate his life to taking down Satan.
[Q and the Globalist Conspiracy He is Working to Take Down.]
And, yet, somehow, over the course of his campaign and presidency, Trump came to represent just that to these people: the “most powerful man in the world,” became the central symbol of resistance to a global conspiracy. And if you needed the most powerful man in the world to take it down, you were talking about a conspiracy that drew on something more than human, something supernatural, something bigger and deeper than all that could be seen, charted, and named. Something big was out there. Why did Trumpkins feel like Trump was on their side?
Trump made himself a thrall for the apophenics. People sometimes say that Trump holds people in his thrall (they are under his seemingly hypnotic power), but my position is the opposite: Trump is best understood as fully servile to a radicalized GOP base. And Trump didn’t radicalize them. They radicalized him. And they trust him because he does their bidding and is under their control, often against what they understand to be his objective and material interests. What makes him suitable for this role, and what pushed him into this peculiar position, is a series of communicative characteristics I think go under-analyzed. Jennifer Mercieca has done wonderful work on analyzing the demagogic rhetoric of Trump, and Jason Stanley has had very insightful analysis on how those rhetorical tactics dovetail with other authoritarian content and mythos. This is all correct and useful, but my points are slightly different than what I understand Mercieca and Stanley to be saying (though I’ll continue to draw on their thinking and some of what I’m saying will have resonance with their analysis). I emphasize three things:
1) Trump speaks downstream from rightwing media
Most presidents are mostly upstream from media in the knowledge ecology of mainstream American politics. The President has a vast intelligence gathering apparatus at their disposal for matters domestic and foreign and a suite of experts to vet it. It’s not all-knowing and all-seeing and it’s subject to all manner of ideological blinding and agenda setting. But in terms of its ability to assess the “facts on the ground,” it’s much better than you or I could do. They do make mistakes and miss things, but it is relatively rare that journalists are able to authoritatively report on something major that someone at the White House does not already know about. (Whether they told the boss is another matter.) This is one of the primary reasons that the White House is a prized source of information for journalists. When journalists do appear to beat the White House to the punch, that’s usually because someone at the White House didn’t do their job or because what’s being reported is something someone at the White House already knew but wanted to keep a secret. This gets at one of the banal observations that conspiracy theorists are actually right about: the White House, like all political institutions, is selectively releasing information to the public in ways that advance its agenda or that is consistent with what it sees as the national interest. This observation rests on an asymmetrical relationship between power and knowledge that most Americans take as commonsensical and find vaguely alienating: namely, powerful people know more than you do and that’s part of why they’re powerful. Since the President is the most powerful person of all, it stands to reason, he knows the most of all—where the bodies are buried and what happened at Roswell.
Trump is not like this or, at least, his communicative style tends to subvert this commonsensical relationship. Yes, he still tries to use the media to advance what he perceives are his interests through what Mercieca and Stanley both recognize as blatant propagandizing. But he himself also appears to be an intemperate, uncritical, and obsessive consumer of the media he’s shaping. In other words, he doesn’t hold himself at a critical distance from his own propaganda; he is his own propaganda’s most enthusiastic and uncritical consumer. Pardon the vulgarity of the analogy, but you might say that Trump was a human centipede of rightwing fever-dreams: he shat them out and gobbled them up in an endless cycle.
This shapes his communication style in several ways. First, he prioritizes the assessments of his propaganda over and above the intelligence gathering apparatus and experts he has at his disposal. Second, this means that when Trump speaks he is organically furnished with a series of references and symbols that are common to his partisans. He doesn’t need to carefully reconstruct the semiotics of the rightwing conspiracists. As an enthusiastic consumer, it’s his lingua franca and, intentionally or not, it means that his general rhetorical mode is saturated with the partiality of that worldview, something that makes him hard to understand to people outside of it. Third, because the rightwing mediascape isn’t an entirely closed system, this means that he also organically and seamlessly internalizes the conspiratorial elements of his base: they educate him and pull him deeper into their world. Fourth, this sets up the unusual circumstances where the “facts of governance”—the assumed reality of the material world that government policy responds to—becomes indistinguishable from the most fantastic and perverse theories furnished by those who hate that government and want to thwart its efforts to govern.
This is what seems to have happened with the vote-rigging (and arguably Covid-19, although that’s a post for another time). One theory among anti-Trump forces is that there was a critical gap between Trump’s base, who believed the vote had been stolen, and Trump, who knew the vote had not been stolen but saw it as to his advantage to pretend like it had. I don’t see much good evidence to support this view, and there is quite a bit of good evidence to the contrary. At the very least, Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of the most implausible theories (and theorists) badly damaged his ability to effectively contest the election in courts and, then, his unwillingness to take the L set up the confrontation at the Capitol that has badly damaged his political and economic future. If Trump’s goal was to stay in office after losing an election, to financially enrich himself, or to limit the chance’s that he would face grave criminal or civil penalties for his time in office—well, it seems like he pursued a course of action that worked against virtually all of these objectives. You can spin this all as convoluted 5D chess moves, but I think the simplest answer provides the clearest explanation of his behavior: Trump watched too much OANN and believed, just like his followers, that the election had truly been stolen. Full stop.
In a way, Trump’s critics may have long been making it harder to understand Trump than it needed to be. Trump will say things that sound nonsensical or vague or confounding, and people outside of the rightwing mediascape honestly and earnestly ask: Just what the hell is Trump talking about? If they wanted to know what Trump believed was true about the world or the content of the references that pepper his speech, all they had to do was switch on Fox & Friends or Hannity. There was no additional layer, no master plan. He may have been lying all the time, but that doesn’t mean he ever knew the truth.
2) Parataxis and free association
Part of what makes Trump difficult to listen to and somewhat bewildering to his critics is that his natural speaking style is characterized by endemic parataxis and free association. This is not true of his prepared remarks, of course, and this is why he’s often stilted and unmemorable, despite having a background in professional entertainment, when he’s speaking from a script. Trump’s “natural” speaking style is completely contrary to the cleverly massaged work of speech writers.
Parataxis is the rhetorical technique common to poetry of adjoining clauses without providing subordinate conjunctions to indicate temporal, hierarchical, or causal relationships among the clauses. Take, for example, the opening lines of William Butler Yeats poem, “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
What is the relationship of the image of the falconer to the “things fall[ing] apart”? Is it sequential or illustrative? Consider how parataxis here enables multiple meanings that would be foreclosed by subordinating conjunctions:
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
And things fall apart; and the centre cannot hold;
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Next things fall apart; then the centre cannot hold;
Needless to say, Yeats’s version is better than my modification! But the point is that in the former the three images are happening simultaneously (A and B and C) while in the latter they are sequenced (A next B then C). What makes the poem textually and narratively rich—filled with possibilities—is this paucity of subordinating clauses: the poem produces the feeling of disorientation that one might experience on the cusp of a rapid, epochal, or apocalyptic change by refusing to provide a linear account of what is happening. Instead, the poem’s images are jumbled together without hierarchy and while there are some vivid narratives hinted at, the reader is left to fit them into something coherent.
Now read these two paragraphs of text I pulled from a random Trump rally speech in late October in Allentown, Pennsylvania:
Look, you know what? You could run. See this beautiful, whatever the hell is made out of, plastic. Right? See this beautiful thing. You could run that. You got the Democrats, you got the fake news media as their partner, and you have big tech. They’re all partners. And then you have the rhinos. You have the rhinos, you have the bad Republicans. You have the sicko rhinos, right? That I’ve beaten so badly over the years. You know the rhinos, the people that do the ads and stuff. Every one of those guys just about I beaten because they all represented a client in the primaries. And instead of saying, “Hey, he did a good job. He’s a smart guy. He did a great job.” They said, “Let’s go against him.” But every one of those guys take a look, real garbage, not smart people, but he wants to terminate religious liberty, destroy the suburbs. He’ll destroy.
I am saving the suburbs. I’m getting rid of a regulation. I’m getting rid of a regulation that will move a project next to your beautiful house. Congratulations. You like having a nice project next to your house, I don’t think so. And with it comes plenty of crime. That’s why they keep saying, we don’t know. We think he’s not doing well with suburban women. I think I’m doing great with suburban women.
You’ll notice the parataxis. The images in these paragraphs are jumbled and crooked, assembled without clear hierarchy or causal relations. Trump bounces between his various enemies, beautiful suburban houses, and urban housing “projects.” Are the RINOs trying to build low-income housing projects in the suburbs? Are their clients? Maybe. You decide. And how does he move between these images? He leaps. I’m not saying you couldn’t make connections between the images, but that Trump’s rhetorical mode is to leave the particular connections hidden.
Take his accusations of voting irregularities at another rally in Manchester, New Hampshire:
We’re doing fantastic in Iowa, fantastic in North Carolina. We think really good in Pennsylvania. We’re doing great in the great state of Texas and these aren’t poles. These are people now. Now you don’t need polls so much. These are people. We’re doing great all over. Georgia is looking very good. We’re doing great all over. This could be a very interesting evening on November 3rd. Now the biggest risk we have are the fake ballots. To me, they send millions of ballots all over the country. They found some in a garbage can, military ballots. The name Trump was written in by the military and they found them in a garbage can, thousands and thousands, 500,000 incorrect applications in Virginia, thousands and thousands of things.
Again, we leap from different locations around the country and then vague references without explicated connections. There are fake ballots. Are the “millions of ballots” all fake? Are the military ballots fakes? What about the “incorrect applications”? We could dive into rightwing media to come up with likely suspects of the underlying controversies he is referencing, but I want to emphasize not the content of the images, but how they are assembled in relation. It is a barrage of images—“thousands and thousands of things”—and everything is happening all at once and the relationship of any one thing to any other thing is hard to follow but, nevertheless, everything is related.
Lefties and journalists tended to mock Trump’s rallies. To outsiders, it’s hard to understand why anyone would enjoy standing at a crowded rally and listening to Trump riff for two hours or whatever. Wouldn’t you get bored? I think Trump actually has good comedic timing and can be quite hilarious, but even I would get tired of it pretty quickly. And what did it matter anyway? With millions and millions of voters, bragging about the size of audiences feels as relevant as the much-ridiculed yard sign metric.
But Trump’s audiences do experience these events as intensely pleasurable and I’m going to suggest that a big part of it is because it immerses them in a rhetorical mode that is conducive to apophenia and is, in fact, the antithesis of the network anchor’s sober authoritative declarations. The apophenic audience is scanning the world for glittering threads, and Trump is leaving them everywhere in his poetic register—vague, suggestive, overflowing with meaning, and ripe for conspiratorial analysis. He’s the opposite of most politicians, in this sense. They use language with careful precision, sometimes just edging around outright lies, to guide the listener to a particular desired conclusion. Trump is poetic, and he wields indeterminacy with a certain anarchic disregard—a seeming indifference to the precise meaning of his words and, thus, an openness to wander wherever his words take him. It’s a poetic sensibility that reminds me of Giorgio Agamben’s early work on the philosophy of language in Infancy and History and The Idea of Prose: the poetic as a refusal of language’s exhaustion as instrumental communication and the retention of potentiality in language as an underdetermined expression. I don’t want to adjudicate whether Agamben’s description of language (or poetry) is correct, but I do want to suggest that this encapsulates a revealing poetic sensibility in Trump’s language that you (and he) may not have considered but that helps to explain the deep and durable connection to the apophenics: the indeterminacy of his language means that it feels true regardless of the content of his utterances. And it does not control what the apophenics know; it empowers it.
3) Shocking truths and the double-play of knowledge
Trump is a prolific liar, but sometimes he tells the truth. In some ways, his lies are so ubiquitous, impulsive, and instinctual, that it’s more interesting to analyze what kinds of truths he tells and what sorts of effects they produce. Sometimes he undoubtedly tells banal truths (he’s probably not lying when he says he wants a Diet Coke) but the most interesting things he says are what I call “shocking truths.” I define these as propositions that a) many people assume to be true and b) that many people assume many other people also assume to be true and c) and that many people assume to be socially unacceptable to say. In other words, a “shocking truth” has to be a socially unacceptable statement that is, nevertheless, basically also general commonsense.
Whether because of his poor impulse control or because of his lack of institutional dependency and constraint, Trump sometimes says such things publicly and in contexts that are quite unprecedented.
For example, during the 2016 GOP primary Trump mercilessly attacked Jeb Bush for, among other things, being an “embarrassment to his family.” Most GOP politicians—certainly the other candidates in that cycle—tread carefully around Bush’s family connections. After all, the Bushes are institutionally powerful figures who you wouldn’t to make your enemies if you’re plotting a conventional path to power through the GOP. You could criticize Jeb. But don’t bring up the family stuff and especially don’t suggest that Jeb has only gotten where he is because of his family connections! Doing that doesn’t just attack Jeb; it also tarnishes the reputation of past and future political Bushes. Not Trump. Trump leaned into it and he attacked Jeb in a way that no one else could. His general portrayal of Jeb was that he was an unaccomplished, weak man who wouldn’t be successful if not for who his father and brother were. He wouldn’t have been the Governor of Florida and he wouldn’t have been a credible candidate for the presidency.
The thing is… Trump was telling the truth! And everyone knew it! Sure, Trump said it in a mean way, but everyone in the room heard the ring of an inconvenient truth. Jeb was an unremarkable person made good through nepotism. Set aside that the same things could be (and were) said about Trump. Trump had no real institutional leverage, so there was no “social punishment” for saying that truth about him and it didn’t show courage or a commitment to truth-telling. Beyond the content of the proposition, speaking this kind of truth made Trump look bold and independent—a man unafraid to tell the truth—even if most everything else he was saying was lies.
I think you could make a strong case for a similar dynamic at work in Trump’s criticisms of US foreign policy and the Iraq War. And, if we dug deep, we might make the case on other political questions as well. But some of it merely attends to the fact that, as a bullying narcissist, Trump is willing to personally insult people in ways that other politicians are not and that are socially unacceptable even when they are “true.” I don’t know that Trump is aware of any of this, or is doing it for strategic purposes. It’s also the case that many of the propositions that fit within this are inconsistent or contradictory with things he’s said in the past.
What’s at stake here is not the true or false nature of his particular assertions; it’s the way that Trump, through these utterances, is situated with respect to “authorized discourse” and the conspiracies that his apophenics are tracing. I call this the “double-game of knowledge” and it’s the only way a President can be both the head of the conspiracy and its primary resister. Essentially, Trump was sometimes willing to perform within the formal authorized discourse of American politics. He gave State of the Union addresses that, while filled with demonstrably false assertions, were not premised on delivering any shocking truths—the lies and evasions are all the run-of-the-mill stuff you would expect to hear from any GOP president. But sometimes he went “off script,” stepping outside of that authorized discourse, and winked at the audience. He said things a President wasn’t supposed to say, that may even have been incompatible with the positions of his own party or his previous statements. Because these appear to be his most organic and natural moments, to his apophenic audience, he appeared to be stepping in and out of the official discourse, marking its partiality as such, and hinting that he knew more than he was letting on and might yet reveal it.
This approach makes Trump absolutely perfect for Qanon, which, after all, is premised on a powerful government official selectively and cryptically communicating about the hidden connections being denied by authorized discourse. Q people don’t think they’re “getting the whole picture.” They’re aware that, even within their own mythos, that it’s partial and being selectively released to advance the goals of the resisters. What they’re looking for is those “winks”: moments when Trump steps outside of authorized discourse in a way that only he can.
III. Thousands and Thousands of Things
What is the history of political apophenia? I haven’t written it (yet).
I have avoided historicizing it over much, confined as I am by an intractable problem. Trumpism is a strikingly new and historically specific configuration within American politics. Trumpism is also an overdetermined political configuration that is all too familiar to anyone who studies our history and is the culmination of the last five decades of conservative political strategies. The cliche is that history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes, and that, of course, foregrounds the poetic sensibilities unavoidably interwoven with my historical narrations and the slipperiness of the categories I am using. At the very least, I wouldn’t be so foolish as to suggest that it is only the Trumpkins embedded within structures of feeling that differentially link knowing and agency, and I am well aware that the communicative transformations of the digital age are also transforming how we feel. I want, at once, to tell you that this is a story about the internet and the feelings of exhausted agency wrought by our neoliberal age and that it is a story about racist conspiratorial thought that has been pervasive on the American right for decades, if not centuries. And that I want to tell you a story about any of this is about my own desire to make this legible and, thus, to anchor my knowledge to my agency.
How unhelpful that all is!
But perhaps this will help: we must return to the resonance of “freedom” in apophenic thought, as Lepselter suggests, and we ought to think about freedom as historically constituted and constrained, as relational, and as a material set of conditions, not an abstract “innocent” state from which we have fallen. This is one of the nits I will be picking in this newsletter as long as I write it. The story of “American freedom” as the right would have it is a nostalgic fantasy that rewrites a history of pervasive American unfreedoms: slavery, settler-colonialism, patriarchy, class oppression. In some senses it’s less interesting that the fantasy is factually incorrect (who wants to fact-check a fantasy?) and much more interesting that it emotionally invests people in a story of agency, society, and self that is destined to disappoint. That’s because this mythology is also flexible and adaptable, capable of carrying the attachments of many of the people who are the continuing victims of the processes the rightwing story elides. If we are captured by alien, inhuman forces—note the centrality of “captivity narratives” to settler colonial ideology—what would freedom return us to? And whose freedom would be restored and at whose expense? The material precarity and deprivations of the present, heralded by Trumpkins as the result of that capture, are very real and pressing, if not necessarily borne by the people the Trumpkins suggest or in the ways that they suggest it. But any solution to those material problems—and we should solve them—will not return us to a past that never existed. It might send us to a future that we must build because it does not yet exist.
And what of the thrall? The events of the past month have effectively strengthened Trump’s institutional grip on the GOP in ways that now solder that apparatus as tightly to him as he is soldered to this apophenic base. In electoral terms, it’s clear why that could be bad for the GOP. Trump is an unpopular politician and he will be an ineffective party boss. The ceiling of GOP electoral support may be much lower and it may make them markedly less competitive in the Sunbelt. My sense is that McConnell and the old guard, all of whom are going to be isolated and purged in the next two to four years, dislike Trump because they recognize that his brand is good for him but bad for the longterm health of the party.
But I don’t want to be glib or dismissive about any of this. The transformation of the GOP into a rump “white grievance party” that consistently only receives the votes of a highly mobilized minority of the nation’s eligible voters is very, very bad and a dangerous situation. Because of the poor design of the American political system, the GOP will continue to hold numerous veto points and it could plausibly win the Presidency in the near future. What’s also obvious to me is that if we had been faced in 2020 with the GOP as it will be in 2022, none of the state level GOP operatives who refused Trump’s vote-rigging allegations would do so. We’d have GOP elected officials refusing to certify election results and state legislatures sending competing slates of electors. That much has changed in the last two months alone and it will probably get worse in the next twenty-four months. I worry both about the tendency to write Trumpism off as “ more of the same” from left critics—the institutional differences alone are significant and likely to have important consequences—and of the tendency of centrist critics to refuse to commit to the big changes that might preempt the right’s anti-democratic moves. As I put it on Twitter, “anti-Trump” Republicans who do not back substantial political reforms, such as a new Voting Rights Act, are effectively pro-Trump at this point.
That’s all true, but the thrall himself is unique and irreplaceable in terms of his ability to focus and consolidate rightwing apophenia, which is precisely what makes Trumpism Trumpism. I think the future for the GOP is a mad scramble to be Trump’s heir, a battle that may ironically produce the reckonings, recriminations, and internecine bloodlettings that the soft purge of the old guard will not. What’s especially ironic about this is that it is a mad scramble to (probably) be the first in line to fail. I simply do not believe that any current GOP politician can reproduce the Trump electoral alliance. The Josh Hawleys of the party are too polished and instrumental—they aren’t poetic enough—and don’t feel true in the way the apophenics crave. Whoever clears the scrum will be a sad, flimsy, and faded copy, a dynamic that is more likely to inspire melancholy reminisces about the good old days than enthusiasm for Trump’s successor. In short, I see the future of the GOP as leaning ever more on its structural advantages, more poorly run than ever, more incapable of governing effectively than ever, and never more than a few bad electoral bounces from having the keys to kingdom all over again. That this is unsustainable goes without saying, since there is nothing in history that is sustainable, which is precisely why it always changes and why it always continues. Or, as the man sang, there is a crack in everything.
ETA: So far no major errors! Just a whole mess of the usual typos.