Continuing our Baudrillardian theme this month, we here present the newest documentary by the BBC’s Adam Curtis, HyperNormalisation. If there’s a better documentary filmmaker than Curtis working these days, I don’t know who it is.
HyperNormalisation was released in the fall of 2016, just before the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency. Curtis weaves a complex narrative showing the interconnectedness of, among other things, the rise of cyberspace and suicide bombing, alongside the politics of persuasion that Trump used to such great effectiveness in his campaign.
The Master Persuader
One of the most important commentators on the election has been Scott Adams, who analyzed Trump’s campaign style in terms of what Robert Cialdini calls persuasion. Cialdini literally wrote the book on persuasion back in the 1980s, and it has become a must-read classic among businesspeople and politicians. More recently, he published a kind of sequel, Pre-suasion.
Adams says that Donald Trump is quite simply “the best master persuader I have ever seen.” Adams also noted that Hillary Clinton’s “persuasion game” mysteriously went from nothing to high-grade in a short amount of time, when she suddenly stopped criticizing Trump’s policies in concrete terms and began instead to talk about him as “scary.” In other words, she stopped trying to appeal to the electorate’s rationality (always a questionable approach) and started to appeal to their raw, even subconscious, emotions. Adams wondered whether she hadn’t hired Cialdini as a consultant at this time.
Another author who, like Adams, both predicted Trump’s ascendancy and analyzed his approach in terms of psychology, is Mike Cernovich. His short book MAGA Mindset utilizes Carol Dweck’s concept of “mindset” and deduces Trump’s inner game based Trump’s own writings, as well as those of his early mentor and pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, who pioneered the concept of “positive thinking” in the 1950s.
Few people realize that Trump was raised attending Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, and is thus a product of New Thought, that peculiarly American religion which seems to be always available for repackaging into a new bestselling book every decade or so, from William Walker Atkinson to Peale and on to Rhonda Byrne in more recent times. The gist of the sales pitch – for, as I previously wrote, New Thought seems to be above all else a pyramid scheme – is that people can create their own reality.
Both Adams and Cernovich noted many times that Donald Trump is a master of “reframing” events to make them seem more favorable to himself. There’s no question that this is true, and that one has to understand this in order to understand how Trump succeeded against the combined efforts of the media, Hollywood, the entire Democratic Party, and even much of the Republican Party. However, what allows both Adams and Cernovich to admire Trump as much as they do is that both authors seem to have embraced postmodernism as their way of seeing the world.
The Logic of Simulation and the Vertigo of Interpretation
Scott Adams lays out his worldview in his How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. It’s an excellent book, filled with a lot of practical and useful advice about business and life in general. Adams says, echoing William Burroughs, that human beings are basically “moist robots.” We think we have free will and autonomous personalities, but really, we are just programmed by our surroundings. The upside, if it can be called that, is that we can take some of this programming upon ourselves, with psycho-cybernetic tools like affirmations, and biochemical tools like nutritional supplements and controlled diets, and thus, we can control some of our reality.
Mike Cernovich also advocates self-programming in his best-selling Gorilla Mindset, another worthwhile book filled with a lot of good advice about self-improvement and what the ancient Greeks called σωφροσύνη. But whereas Greek philosophy culminated in the Aristotelian view of the real world and the distinction between truth and falsehood, Cernovich, in a profile piece for The New Yorker, said:
“Look, I read postmodernist theory in college. If everything is a narrative, then we need alternatives to the dominant narrative.” He smiled. “I don’t seem like a guy who reads Lacan, do I?”
It would seem that Nietzsche was right, and the future belongs to those who embrace the esoteric message of the legendary Hassan i Sabbah that “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”
That is certainly one of the accusations being leveled at Donald Trump, with his history of making questionable and sensational claims, such as that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.A., or that Ted Cruz’s father may have been involved with Lee Harvey Oswald. But if nothing is true anyway, then why would it not be permissible to make such claims, especially when his opponents operate according to the same principle, using all manner of lies and innuendo to discredit the President? What is the morality of fighting lies with lies? Or, if reality is just a narrative, a mental construct, then are they still lies, or are they just impositions of will upon life, like affirmations?
In 1981’s Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard noted that the ambiguity of events like the terrorist bombings in Italy – which were unsolved crimes, of unknown origin, and thus simultaneously blamed on both the left and the right – allowed them to be interpreted in multiple ways at once.
“Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists, or extreme-right provocation, or a centrist mise-en-scène to discredit all extreme terrorists and to shore up its own failing power, or again, is it a police-inspired scenario and a form of blackmail to public security? All of this is simultaneously true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts does not put an end to this vertigo of interpretation. That is, we are in the logic of simulation, which no longer has anything to do with a logic of facts and an order of reason.”
As Mike Cernovich said in the aforementioned article, “Logic is pointless.” And indeed, who would argue that he is wrong, when our whole political system demonstrates, each and every day, that logic is powerless against the rising tide of irrational emotion?
I remember watching the debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. Gore was clearly a man with a superior command of facts. Yet Bush was able to get the better of him, not by superior argumentation, but by being more human, more likable. It was like the argument between Judd Nelson and Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club.
Bender, did you know that without trigonometry, there’d be no engineering?
Without lamps, there’d be no light.
It’s not about who’s right, it’s about who’s cool and who’s just a nerd. A man with too many facts appears “wooden,” as they all said about Gore (lest anyone think that Trump invented the art of the one-word deadly epithet). In earlier times, they might have said “robotic,” when that word still brought to mind the stilted, boxy, metallic beings of old science fiction films. But today, with the advent of artificial intelligence and cyborg chic, it is the new man who is the “moist robot,” the enlightened self-programmer who isn’t concerned with facts but rather with creating his own reality, while those who still cling to notions of truth and falsehood, fact and fiction, right and wrong, reveal themselves to be merely human, all-too-human, antiquated relics of a dead age.
A longtime friend back in the U.S. wrote to me, exasperated, and said, “What does one believe/adhere to anymore?!!? I can’t remember a time when ‘truth’ was so subjective. Have ‘facts’ as we knew them become extinct?”
I wrote back to him with some links to Scott Adams’ articles about Trump’s powers of persuasion and the view of reality that they entail. But it was merely an offering of explanation, and not consolation. While I recognize the value and importance of the insights offered by the persuasionists, I remain skeptical of the greater worldview that they seem to present. My feeling – and perhaps that’s all it is – is that reality, however elusive it may be, is not quite as unreal as adherents of New Thought or psycho-cybernetics would have us believe. And perhaps reality, rather than having “disappeared” as Baudrillard claimed, is merely hiding in wait, plotting its return, or its revenge.