2021: Breaking the Spell of the Trumpstacle Mythology

“A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.” – Martin Luther King’s Sermon on Courage, March 8, 1965.

The era of fake news ushered in with President Trump has culminated in a near anarchist coup d’état. Even Senator Mitch McConnell commented that the mob that stormed the Capitol was “fed lies,” acting on the fake news President Trump circulated regarding false claims of voter fraud, as Trump’s last-ditch effort to overturn the election. Fortunately, as President elect Joe Biden prepares to take the oath of office, he says: “there’s always light.” The light of truth has never been more critical to the United States’ democratic principles that have nearly been destroyed in the last four years under what I call the Trumpstacle mythology.  

Why be provoked by a myth? By focusing on Trump as entertainment during the 2016 presidential debates, the media created a simulacram of a candidate worthy of the oval office, a candidate worthy of attention. A simulacram, as defined by French media theorist Jean Baudrillard, is a representation that replaces reality. The representation no longer refers back to a reality. Trump was creating a double simulacra by cultivating an image as opposed to a reality, and people played into his Trumpstacle simulacrum by reacting to his empty provocations throughout his presidency. This culminated in an attack on democracy as a mob of Trump supporters mobbed the nation’s Capitol.

Trump is the quintessential example of what French cultural theorist Roland Barthes meant by the mythology of privileging spectacle and sensationalism over content and reality. As Barthes observes in regards to mass culture: “The public […] abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.” The people are provoked, which fuels Trump’s mythological image. This mythology is what Barthes aptly describes in 1970, foreshadowing the trumpstacle to come: “A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out […] The function of myth is to empty reality: it is, literally, a ceaseless flowing out, a hemorrhage, or perhaps an evaporation, in short a perceptible absence.” Trump’s cultivation of image over reality, and the public’s reaction to it did not manifest randomly or autonomously, rather it is the epitome of a centuries old practice in the media dating to the Roman empire.

Sensationalism can be traced to the ancient Roman Acta, where announcements were circulated throughout the illiterate masses to achieve inflammatory reactions. Roman leaders discovered that reporting on crime, violence, and sex could be manipulated to produce incendiary responses and more importantly, attention. This practice continued throughout the centuries and reached its apex in American journalism. Joseph Pulitzer employed sensationalism in the 1880s to attract an audience of readers for his New York World with titles such as “Little Lotta’s Lovers,” but it wasn’t until television appeared that the image became the omnipotent sensationalist instrument.

On September 26, 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon faced one another in Chicago for the first televised presidential debate in history. Pioneering media theorist Marshal McLuhan drew attention to the critical role the image played in this historic debate. McLuhan portrayed Kennedy as a cool personality based on his alluring image, and Nixon as a hot personality that conveyed discomfort with the media based on the visible signs of facial sweat and awkwardness. Trump was a teenager during this historic debate season, and he may have learned one of his first lessons about image versus reality.

As an adult, Trump gained an education into what French philosopher Jean Baudrillard calls the Hyperreal by curating images by way of reality television. As Baudrillard describes it, the Hyperreal can be any image of reality that takes the place of reality itself; the image becomes the reality. Trump can make outrageous statements that Muslims should be banned, Mexicans are rapists, women are Miss Piggy and Miss Housekeeping, because the public has been oversaturated with sensationalist media to the extent that there is indifference and little serious reaction. The curated image no longer holds attention. This practice of simulation, as Baudrillard calls it, takes place when the image has no relationship to reality.  

Trump’s platform, political experience, and purported wealth did not gain him the privilege of participating in the presidential race of 2016.The media and the public treated him as a spectacle throughout the primary race, which became mythologized and led to the rise of “fake news.” Witnessing the Trumpstacle became a national pastime throughout his presidency—abhorred and loved by divergent audiences—as he cultivated hatred and racism, and ratified violence as no president has done before.

Storming the Capitol is precisely what the Founders feared as they wrote and edited the Constitution. They had just liberated this budding country from the subjugation of George III—a monarch that was mentally ill and erratic—and sought to define democratic ideals that they knew would be vulnerable to tyranny. As we step away from the era of Trump—the era of fake news and a budding dictatorship that refuses to cede office as if it were a totalitarian regime —let’s remember the astuteness of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she writes: “Nothing is more characteristic of the totalitarian movements in general and of the quality of fame of their leaders in particular than the startling swiftness with which they are forgotten and the startling ease with which they can be replaced.”

How does one grant hegemony to a spectacle? Fuel it. How does one discredit a mythology? Ignore it; refuse to grant it credence. Without light to shine on his darkness, Trump’s simulacrum is destroyed.

As we recover from four years of fake news, let’s consider that if the meaning of the message is in the hands of the reader, (as theorist Stanley Fish claims) then let’s elucidate the verity of the text, the word, the image. May President-elect Biden guide us back to truth-seeking in a post-mythological era, away from the diabolical pull of tyranny and towards the fragile democratic ideals upon which this country was founded, towards the light. May President Biden be a keeper of the light of democracy, and may we be fellow light-bearers in the early days of 2021. Veritas, probitas, iustitia


Learning to Speak Dog

Humans have longed to converse with animals audibly as long as they have been bonding with them. Tolstoy wrote a convincing story, “Kholstomeer,” from the animal’s perspective, as if the old gelding named Strider could speak and give voice to his inner thoughts in a first-person narrative. If Tolstoy can translate the animal’s voice, then perhaps we can, too, I thought, when I wished to converse with Brady, my charismatic German Shepherd with soulful eyes.

I squirm in my seat knowing that the reader includes skeptics who consider the concept of telepathic communication between animals and humans preposterous. When an acquaintance first introduced me to the concept of animal telepathy, I cast it aside as pure hoax. When she told me of the extraordinary revelations and behavioral changes in her animal companions, as a result of connecting with them telepathically through a famous animal communicator, I vacillated between curiosity and skepticism for a few months. Sheepishly, I asked for the communicator’s contact information. Meanwhile, I did a little research on the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of telepathy.

The word ‘telepathy’ comes from the Greek terms ‘tele’ or ‘distant,’ and ‘pathe,’ or ‘emotion,’ so as to convey an emotion from a distance. Telepathy was once the topic of serious scholarly inquiry for prominent philosophers and psychologists including William James, Carl Jung, and Jean-Martin Charcot. However, contemporary scholars shy away from conducting research on telepathy the way they would shun writing literary criticism about Harlequin romance novels. I would like to suggest that it is a topic worthy of scholarly inquiry. This is for anyone that has ever loved an animal or theorized about an animal’s faculties.

William James lends credibility to the subject as few could. James was a professor at Harvard University from 1873-1907, bridging the humanities and sciences by teaching physiology, biology, experimental psychology, and philosophy. James was also a founder and president of the American Society for Psychical Research in Manhattan. James argued that an extended empirical investigation in psychical research would validate the concept of telepathy. He wrote in August 1892, “I find myself also suspecting that the thought-transference experiments  […] are the sorts of thing which with the years will tend to establish themselves.”

Little did James know that thought-transference experiments would be conducted empirically between animals and humans in the twenty-first century, but he would have welcomed that. James staked his reputation as a Harvard professor to bring legitimacy to psychical research.

Based on my series of irrefutable conversations with Brady, though, I can no longer avert the subject. In spite of my mortification at the thought of being caught contacting an animal communicator, I made an appointment with Debbie McGillivray. She has written three books on animal communication, including Untamed Voices, and Animal Communication Bootcamp. “I feel very blessed to be able to bridge the gap between animals and humans […] It is through this subtle communication that questions are answered, compromise is achieved, and harmony restored,” she writes on her website. In the testimonials I read, numerous clients described themselves as reformed skeptics, and thanked Debbie for the transformative changes in their animals from behavioral modifications to medical revelations. If anyone was a legitimate animal communicator, it was her.

At the appointed time, I called Debbie with my list of questions that she would pose to Brady, who was sitting next to my desk. I could hear unmistakable Bostonian inflections in her voice as she explained: “I’ll translate Brady’s answers for you, using the tone of his energy in my vocal inflections.”

 We didn’t discuss anything about Brady, about me, or about our circumstances. “What’s his name, breed, gender, and geographical location?” Debbie asked me. And then, with that information, she said: “Just wait as I locate him for you.”

“Oh, he has an effervescent enthusiasm.” Debbie’s voice was upbeat and her tone was down to earth. After admiring his physical appearance and his shining eyes, she conducted a body scan. “His right hip is sore, and his lower lumbar is out at about the fourth disk from the bottom. Can you take him to see a chiropractor?”

Later that day, I made an appointment for the first time with an animal chiropractor, Dr. Kathleen Meenan, at Rippowam Animal Hospital. I didn’t tell her what Debbie had diagnosed, but when we got there, Dr. Meenan scanned Brady and said: “His right hip is out, and his lower disks are out.” I stared at her as if she had said that I had been born on Saturn. This was a revolutionary discovery. It legitimized the intangible science of animal communication, because the veterinarian’s observations corroborated with the communicator’s intangible ones. I realized that the potential for communication between animals and humans is largely untapped. Ever the academic, I went for the doctorate in animal communication. This is what I write about in my memoir (unpublished), Soul Mate Dog: Becoming Fluent in the Language of Dog.