How should we “read” Trump?
We read books. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren wrote a book to teach us “How To Read A Book“. Cinema scholars and critics read films. Roger Ebert has a wonderful column about how to read a film. In a class he taught at The University of Chicago in 1969 he used a technique to teach students how to read a film. Recall that there were no DVD’s or VCR’s and certainly no personal computers with hard drives in 1969. So he used a film projector. He set the ground rules: “Anybody could call out “stop!” and discuss what we were looking at, or whatever had just occurred to them.” So reading a film means watching something and thinking about what it means. Bertolt Brecht created a form of theatre called Epic Theatre in contrast to Aristotelian Dramatic Theatre. In Dramatic Theatre plot plays a central role. Not so in Epic Theatre. Epic Theatre “encourages the audience members to distance themselves from the action and to think about its meaning.”
David Brooks published an op-ed in which he suggests we should learn how to “read Trump.” I suggest using the approach that Ebert and Brecht used: find some way to stop the action, stand back, and reflect on what we are seeing. Brooks points out many aspects of Trump’s behavior that we need to “read”. I have reproduced the parts of his column here and provided a link for you to read the entire column. Some excerpts from Brooks’ op-ed:
Normal leaders come up with policy proposals in a certain conventional way. They gather their advisers around them and they debate alternatives — with briefing papers, intelligence briefings and implementation strategies.Donald Trump doesn’t do that. He’s tweeted out policy gestures in recent weeks, say about the future of America’s nuclear arsenal. But these gestures aren’t attached to anything. They emerged from no analytic process and point to no implemental effects. Trump’s statements seem to spring spontaneously from his middle-of-night feelings. They are astoundingly ambiguous and defy interpretation.Normal leaders serve an office. They understand that the president isn’t a lone monarch. He is the temporary occupant of a powerful public post. He’s the top piece of a big system, and his ability to create change depends on his ability to leverage and mobilize the system. His statements are carefully parsed around the world because presidential shifts in verbal emphasis are not personal shifts; they are national shifts that signal changes in a superpower’s actual behavior.Donald Trump doesn’t think in that way, either. He is anti-system. As my “PBS NewsHour” colleague Mark Shields points out, he has no experience being accountable to anybody, to a board of directors or an owner. As president-elect, he has not begun attaching himself to the system of governance he’ll soon oversee….
Here is how Brooks reads Trump:
Over the past weeks, we’ve treated the president-elect’s comments as normal policy statements uttered by a normal president-elect. Each time Trump says or tweets something, squads of experts leap into action, trying to interpret what he could have meant, or how his intention could lead to changes in American policy. But this is probably the wrong way to read Trump.
Brooks Reading Lesson 1:
Don’t look for logic in things that Trump says or does. Don’t look for meaning in his statements. They are not uttered to convey meaning. Policy statements are not meant as policy statements. Threats are not meant as actual threats (although the target of a threat may interpret it as a real threat.)
Brooks Reading Lesson 2:
Consider how Trump’s actions, statements, or tweets are designed to garner attention for Trump.
Brooks Reading Lesson 3:
Don’t look for logical meaning in the words Trump utters. Think of them as Trump tools to create an image that he wants us to have of him at a given moment in time. At some other time, he may use words (perhaps even the same words) to create a different image that he wants us to have of him.
Brooks Reading Lesson 4:
When Trump says or does something, look for how that statement or action is intended to display his power – especially if that statement is “trash talking” about someone whom he wants to convince us is less powerful than Trump is.
He is more postmodern. He does not operate by an if-then logic. His mode is not decision, implementation, consequence. His statements should probably be treated less like policy declarations and more like Snapchat. They exist to win attention at the moment, but then they disappear.
To read Trump correctly, it’s probably best to dig up old French deconstructionists like Jean Baudrillard, who treated words not as things that have meanings in themselves but as displays in an oppositional power struggle. Trump is not a national leader; he is a national show.
If this is all true, it could be that the governing Trump will be a White House holograph. When it comes to the substance of actual governance, it could be that President Trump is the man who isn’t there.
After you read Brooks’ column, stop and think about the essence of Trump. I urge you to share your comments. What do you think about as you are “reading Trump”? To get you started, I will share a few comments that Brooks’ readers offered about how they read Trump.
But make no mistake: Trump is consumed with power, but rejects responsibility. He wants to be trusted (at least long enough to sell something) but does not trust. He wants success but has built only wealth and will leave no tangible legacy. He wants acceptance, but because polite society hasn’t and won’t accept him, he sold himself to the larger popular culture with and in which he is comfortable. He delights in judging others but refuses to be judged. He seeks and likely needs attention and revels in it. His tweets are the electronic equivalent of appealing to his populist rallies. He will rule more than govern. Relying only on his daughter and son-in-law, he will be manipulated by others who are more cunning, more experienced, and more strategically capable. He will conflate himself with our country. Personal slights will be national insults. He will act instinctively and perhaps rashly. He is self-centered and seemingly erratic. 18 days. Ready?
Welcome back to reality, David; you’ve been in the netherworld of philosophical musings long enough.And thanks for using Deconstruction as a resource on Trumpisms. Recently reading that, according to Trump’s staffers, we live in a Post-Truth world in which we should not attach meanings to his utterances but should take them as chit-chat around the clubhouse lounge, I harkened back to my graduate school days when Jacques Derrida was all the rage, and we used Deconstruction as one tool to critically read literature.
His recent tweet about nuclear weapons prompted me to ask, “Can he start a nuclear war with a tweet?” At your column’s end, I see that you, too, grasp the horror of this possible White House tenant (you report he may not choose to reside in the People’s House)
the power to make war. Americans who have gorged themselves on reality television shows and celebrity “news” have finally voted to cast themselves, and us, in the ultimate political reality show. So, with an apprentice sitting behind the desk in the oval office, does this mean that WE get to say, “You’re fired!”
Here is how a Harvard English Professor who enjoys reading Yeats poetry reads Trump:
Our president-elect appears to enjoy the rococo, too, but it is the wrong kind of rococo: not delicate craftsmanship as a blow to misogyny, but the gilding of every conceivable surface, the flaunting of a wealth he has used to hurt others, as a boastful public spectacle.
Finally, another interesting article by Anne Helen Peterson in Buzzfeed has the message that “The Key To Trump Is Reading Him Like A Celebrity.” She gives interesting examples to illustrate how this reading helps to better understand Trump.
Now, what do you think?