There’s a common element between Donald Trump’s rage-fueled, speak-my-mind attitude and the last three decades of indie songwriting, literature, and film: Sincerity. Saying exactly what’s in your heart. “A congruence,” Lionel Trilling once wrote, “between avowal and actual feeling.”
For those like myself, somewhere between a Gen Xer and a Millennial, sincerity is best exemplified by the “New Sincerity”: A movement that dreamed of stamping out hipster irony and reenergizing an apathetic youth culture. The New Sincerity promised stripped-down, undecorated art as a corrective to the pageantry, experimentalism, and detachment of the 1980s. More Daniel Johnston, less Devo.
Since its genesis in the Austin, TX indie scene (roughly 1984), the New Sincerity has seen several evolutions: the vulnerability of Bright Eyes and Cat Power, the morally-conscious fiction of David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, the homemade aesthetic of Wes Anderson. Drake and Childish Gambino renew emotional sensitivity in hip hop; Chance the Rapper makes faith cool. This is a strange cluster, but there’s a common outlook—ours is a culture oversaturated with indifference, and if there’s any hope for us, it’s in a return to honest expression, in saying what we really believe.
So who would fit the bill better than a man with “natural charm and no façade”? Of course, Tiffany Trump’s portrait of her father doesn’t come without complications. As Benjamin Powers describes, the “authenticity” Trump sells is also a way of covering the tracks he has left wandering between political positions, of, at worst, believing in nothing at all. But when Trump praises himself for his lack of mental filter, he also makes a political statement that reveals sincerity’s darker consequences.
Above all else, sincerity is for Trump an antidote to the “political correctness” of democrats, pundits, and liberal arts majors alike. “I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness,” Trump declared early in his campaign, “[…] this country doesn’t have time, either.” Such urgency goes hand in hand with the common justification for Trump’s long list of prejudices, namely that he’s just saying what we’re all thinking. Take also Governor Chris Christie’s remarks on Trump’s kerfuffle with Judge Gonzalo Curiel: “Those are Donald’s opinions. And he has the right to express them.” For Christie, the racist underpinning of Trump’s argument is a nonstarter. It’s better for Trump to be outspoken and wrong than it is for him to be reserved and right. With the supreme virtue of sincerity in mind, one can understand the appeal of what Trump is trying to represent: A politics in which candidates say only what they mean. Sincerity, as Trump imagines it, will cure American government of its characteristic dishonesty.
All this has led Trump to proclaim that when it comes to a fractured political system, “I alone can fix it.” No doubt, Trump has never been more sincere than in this boast. And in his honest-to-god egomania, Trump gives us a glimpse of the conservatism that drives the turn away from irony and toward sincerity.
The New Sincerity shares with Trump an extreme view of self-reliance. Refer, for example, to Christy Wampole’s 2012 op-ed, “How to Live Without Irony.” Wampole’s article follows a lineage of anti-irony polemics, including Jedediah Purdy’s For Common Things (1999) and David Foster Wallace’s famous essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (1993). With the seminal New Sincerity figures all name-checked (and criticized for falling short of their goals), Wampole prescribes an “honest self-inventory.” Readers are to take a sobering look in the mirror:
Ask yourself: Do I communicate primarily through inside jokes and pop culture references? What percentage of my speech is meaningful? […] Do I feign indifference? Look at your clothes. What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype […] is your style an anti-style? The most important question: How would it feel to change yourself quietly, offline, without public display, from within?
With friends like these, who needs therapists? The point, for Wampole, is that regardless of cultural pressures to adopt an ironic anti-style, it’s always on the individual to grow out of it. Wampole defines sincerity as a personal, rather than collective, responsibility. To be sincere is to summon the courage to voice the values you long ago decided were too hazardous to express, too inviting of disapproval. So if sincerity means conveying your true self no matter what society insists, then it comes awfully close to good old Republican accountability: Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.
Trump makes a similar demand of his supporters. Having sniffed out the cultural obsession with sincerity, Trump has transposed it ingeniously to populist fear mongering. In asking us to voice the ugly thoughts we’ve been thinking all along—about immigrants, Muslims, elites, the establishment—Trump argues that the fate of the country depends on your brave and sincere expression. PC police be damned.
If there’s one thing we should take away from this Cthulhu with a comb-over, it’s that sincerity carries no moral guarantee. Sometimes the real thing is more hideous than the façade. At face value, a sincerely bigoted candidate should be the easiest for the electorate to rule out. But when sincerity constitutes such a massive departure from politics as usual, the actual content of that candidate’s speech ceases to matter.
We need more than sincerity, both from our politicians and for ourselves as participants in a vulnerable democracy. A careful dose of self-awareness might not be such a bad thing. And a bit of cynicism could go a long way in bringing our focus back to what the candidates say and not just how they say it. Here’s to the New Irony.