Divining Stars, Enshrining CelebritiesPhoto by Pool/Getty Media Features Donald Trump
*Full disclosure: Bee Vang works at Field of Vision/First Look Media and worked on the production of Trump’s Lobby
Amid the tumult of U.S. democratic electoral politics, a prince descended from his high tower to metastasize chaos throughout the world.
No, not a real prince—at least not one determined by nobility or any hereditary title associated with, say, aristocracy. A prince, rather, of plutocratic ilk—a plutocratic oligarchy. A prince whom the 16th century, feudal Florentine philosopher, Niccolo Machiavelli, had foretold—or perhaps forewarned about—in his book, The Prince. Now, the 21st century stands to witness Machiavelli’s admonition being literally dramatized on the global stage. In this historical moment, just as the present’s pluralism, disintegration, and instabilities reveal themselves, herewith enters prince Donald J. Trump.
A short film, Trump’s Lobby, directed by Alex Winter and produced by Laura Poitras, captures a sinister story on par with The Prince, now in a live-action, U.S. post-election version, which premiered on Trump’s inauguration. The 7-minute short consists of a succession of still images, each flashing by from one to the next. Their relentless accretion signals the ominous specter of a crony-ridden Trump administration. One by one, the images display the star-studded invitees meeting in secret with Trump in his Manhattan Tower on Fifth Avenue. All are illuminated in these stills, framed and awash in gold. The many guests—from Mitt Romney to Wolf Blitzer, from Peter Thiel to Kanye West—who have graced the splendorous, imperial halls of Trump Tower, become a spectacle in their own right. But this celebrity line-up garners dubious star power in the world at large…
Already this farce is dizzying, for our political reality is a 3-part performance—at once, the protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe. Only three weeks into his presidency, Trump has meted out egregious edicts and generated widespread paroxysm and protestation. Utter shock, endless exposition, no denouement. Still four years to endure, with no clear end in sight. And we are poised at the beginning of four years in which politics, as we knew it, will be laid bare and a crisis of meaning will ensue to bloat the present with the macabre.
Each photo op reminds us of the starry-eyed media firestorm that has tended toward ever-inflating Trump’s media-loving egomaniacal persona. Just as media coverage cemented his presidency, so too it drives the highly dramatic, political form of the cult of personality elevating this prince, underscored by each guest worshipping at his shrine. The provocation, the inscrutability of it all, in every instance, is effected by the closing elevators. If the obfuscation began in the lobby, it ended with those doors. And it hits home with the unnerving double entendre of just what the lobbying was about. Beneath the seemingly conciliatory exchange between Trump and his guests, each of whom he promised to work with so as to dissolve partisan lines, lies the dismemberment of the moral world of politics. This, through Trump’s campaign platform to “drain the swamp,” emphasizes his realpolitik to dispense with procedural compunction and Washington orthodoxy.
The cinematic effect of Trump’s Lobby makes devastatingly clear that our consequential political imaginary is that of non-sense. Our sense-making stands to collapse, and it has already begun. A political and judicial melee seems to boil over with every caprice of the petulant president. If Trump had a world of his own, it would be a world, as per Lewis Carroll, where “everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrariwise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would.”
The guests, then, without fear of ignominy, met with the prince in his high tower to ponder neither the questions of the stars nor those of democracy’s progenitors. The secrecy of their meetings reveals a salient political style. In the Machiavellian sense, they were availing themselves of the intelligence of their great, fairer kin—a plutocratic order, with a prince, clad in the beauty of a thousand stars, whose rule, limited by temperament, is measured by those who display fealty to him. In the Carrollian sense, these supplicants may come to shudder with the recognition that this prince may be more like an impetuous Red Queen inspiring fear at the possibility that at any moment the decree might be issued, “Off with their heads!” This especially after his majesty made short shrift of Sally Yates as attorney general, of Michael Flynn as national security advisor, and of Andy Puzder as labor secretary nominee.
If what is visibly apparent in the lobby is that nothing makes sense anymore, then sense, too, no longer makes anything. What is left is the stream of images capturing our eyes while eschewing meaning. Every living and non-living thing now exists symbolically, metonymically signifying to the thousandth degree something else. Here, in this faltering revolution, analogies and metaphors will impinge on our exegeses of this unfolding political world. In linguistics, when the frequency of something’s invocation increases, that something achieves a social strength as a thinkable thing. That is, from the horrendous lessons learned from Joseph Goebbels, a lie, if repeated enough, becomes the truth. Trump is an “alternative” truth which, when it was repeated enough, became the truth, one that we all declared, so to speak, into existence. An existence of monstrous proportions—borne, first, out of the putrid social-political decay (all the debauchery, all the vulgar obsession with political power, wealth, celebrity, and reality television) that laid waste to our country, introduced and normalized, secondly, into our political system by the GOP and the party apparatus of Democrats.
This political moment is neither new nor old. Our social imaginary is rupturing, too. It transports us and our time-honored language between now and the Italian Renaissance, or a Third Reich Germany, between this world and the Orwellian world of 1984 or the dystopia of The Hunger Games. Anxiety abounds in this current crisis of meaning, most aptly in the poetics of our critiques.
As with Machiavelli and Carroll, or with Orwell, the world oscillates between truth and fiction, as if farcical, or the stuff of outlandish entertainment media. It’s a distinction which Trump no longer even appears to make as he descends into his rabbit hole. At the inaugural lunch, Trump praised “his” General Mattis by proclaiming that if he were making a movie, he would cast Mattis as its lead. Trumpian political realism, it seems, adds a perverse twist to an already self-involved US national psyche bound within the drama of our own politics. The hubris has become profane, widespread. Only divination might attribute meaning to the incessant cascade of sparkle seemingly so far, far away.
As if staring into the abyss of space, where the meaning deciphered from stars is to be had, we must reconsider the limits of our political imaginary in the era of Trumpism. For, in this portentous reign of stars, we will witness twilight falling upon brighter days—a twilight that needn’t have fallen, when we still have a sun by which to see.
So: Tear these stars from the sky in haste lest their celestial glory become ever more mystified in our minds.