I can understand why many people instinctively believe there is no right way to admire Donald Trump. Merely considering the possibility could open your soul to the wrong way to admire him.
But for the courageous and pure of heart, it’s worth the risk. In order to learn to admire Trump correctly, you must first understand why he is wrongly admired.
The bogus admiration surrounding Trump arises from the fact that he is a sensation.
Everything about him is framed sensationalistically. He encourages this practice in so consistent a way that we can’t distinguish what’s authentic about him from what’s an act. Sure enough, that talent has been historically associated with evil in private life and with politics in public life.
But no one, except maybe Rick Perry, appears to believe that Trump is evil. It’s against our vested cultural and economic interests to take that prospect seriously. Those interests converge in concepts like “message discipline” and “staying on brand” — goals we obsessively commit to because they unify the two great quests of our time: money and meaning.
Many of us commit to these goals despite feeling obliged to act and to be more jaded and cynical than ever about them. The cost exacted by our signature quests is adopting a casually nihilistic awareness of the inherent irony involved in pursuing them.
Trump’s Bizarre Strength
Fortunately, that cost is greatly offset by the entertainment value of watching someone enjoy evading it. Trump is the ultimate businessman in the sense that he struck a deal the rest of us haven’t — actually profiting from the casual nihilism and the inherent irony that so often sap the stamina of lesser mortals.
We draw a bizarre strength from his bizarre strength. There’s something perversely salutary about basking in the radioactive glow of someone for whom this kind of achievement is second nature.
It’s not mere admiration we feel. It’s admiration conflated with sensationalism, and this allows us to partake in the admired person’s experience of his own personal exceptionalism. To get excited about Trump is to become more Trump-like.
As any media person can tell you, this psychodrama has a lot of economic potential. Stagnation appears to have gripped every sector of the economy; so much of public and private life is haunted by a sense of impasse. Our quest for money and meaning (this is what “having it all” means) spurs us to seek desperately the “breakthrough” experiences able to punch through these invisible barriers.
In politics, full-on breakthroughs are rare indeed. The instant people realized we could zap the Confederate Flag out of politics, there was a stampede to use that possibility to prove to ourselves that we still can quickly do consequential things. But instead of making us money, zapping the flag made merchants pull products.
Even outside of politics, breakthroughs often leave us worried that we’re running out of virgin markets to open up. So many years after Freud, there aren’t that many psychodramas left to be monetized. For a minute it looked like Miley Cyrus and Caitlyn Jenner had exhausted what few options remained, and psycho-stagnation would close in once again.
Then along came Trump. Trumposity (rhymes with pomposity) is so easily curated, aggregated, imitated, mocked, and parodied that for the pop-industrial complex, it is like manna from heaven. Never before has a brand run for president! Trump’s distinctiveness is so readily monetized because it gives us two bites at the apple of psychodrama. Not only are we all paying attention to him, the reaction he touches off in us emits a second shock wave of meaning-saturated feels — oh so many of which themselves can be processed into takes. Like Trumpness itself, our reactions to Trumposity are low-hanging fruit amid today’s incessant panic over the resource scarcity of breakthrough-level, reliably high-traffic content.
Everybody wins. Media people redouble their quest for money and meaning by counting on Trump to react to everything and the rest of us to react to each and every one of his reactions. Meanwhile, the rest of us redouble our quests for money and meaning as Trump restores our faith in the cult of personal branding. Work hard — on your brand, that is — and the sky’s the limit!
That’s how to admire Trump the wrong way. Are you convinced?
Why Trump Deserves True Admiration
Because here’s the thing, Trump’s Trumposity exists for reasons that secretly undermine the sensationalism that surrounds him and permeates us. Herein lies the subtle path toward admiring Trump correctly.
Trumposity seems almost synonymous with velocity. Sensational things assault the senses — the faster and harder, the better. They’re smash hits. They move the needle. They’re impactful. But the voice we hear only when we withdraw from the clamor of sensationalism reminds us that velocity results from pent-up force. Not from privilege, and not from luck — although those things often help more than they hurt — but from endurance.
Trump is not upon us because he’s rich or because he had a rich dad. He’s not upon us because he gamed the system or moved anyone’s cheese. His smashing success only appears sudden. In reality, it exists because he became durable.
Trump has been around the block dozens of times, and that indicates something about brands and personal branding we all fear to admit. Without staying power, branding is nothing. And staying power is unattainable without patience and time — the two things we feel too nervous, unstable, lonely, and generally panic-stricken to believe.
But wait. It gets worse. Trump has endured from a time that’s now, for more and more of us, an irretrievable prehistory — the time before identity branding took over the internet. In fact, Trump’s exercise in endurance predates the internet. When it comes to Trump’s sensationalism, new media functions as a delirious force multiplier. But today’s internet and today’s society can’t make Trumps.
Embrace the nightmare. Trump resonates with our world to the point of emanating daily shock waves because he is not of our world. He has endured for so long that a new society, our society, has risen up around him. And this one, this foreign one, is the one he can tyrannize.
You cannot choose to be a Trump.
You cannot be a Trump in your own time.
Are you detecting the secret path?
To really become Trump-like, you must spend decades living and toiling and struggling and grasping and failing and biding your time in your own skin, alone.
And you must do it far outside today’s identity branding online kaleidoscope.
Grasp that, and you’ll begin to grasp the real way Trump deserves true admiration.
The minute that happens, everything else will begin to shift. If you’re willing to endure as Trump has, why will you do it just to quest after money and meaning? What if the deep lesson of endurance is that money and meaning don’t have to become your obsessions?
Don’t be mistaken. The lesson is not that money is worthless or life is meaningless. It’s that you can master the art of endurance far more truly than Trump himself. Instead of laboring so long that your sensational self breaks through to a realm of massive surpluses in money and meaning, why not labor ever more deeply and subtly, losing yourself in your work and losing the obsession around money and meaning with it? What if the more you accumulate endurance, the less you’ll be panicked by a sense of scarcity around money and meaning alike?
Tom Wolfe tried to explore these kinds of questions in his big ‘90s book, A Man in Full. It serves as a sort of extended rebuke to the previous decade — Trump’s crucible — that he skewered in Bonfire of the Vanities. But experience now teaches us that Wolfe’s salute to the art of endurance commands our attention far more today than when it was written.
Now, endurance is a “problem” as never before. Just ask millennials. Debt and repayment are constitutive parts of the human condition, but to be young today is to accept the false reality that we can’t possibly endure as much as our deficits of money and meaning. Our best shot appears to be identity-driven branding. But we inevitably discover it’s just a coping mechanism to avoid confronting the sense of interchangeable insignificance that pervades all. We often feel too weak not to brand.
But you can also be too strong to brand. A brand is for someone without a reputation. Despite Trump’s virtuoso fusion of reality and performance, we often think we see his brand where we are really beholding his reputation. If to be admired is to be well-reputed, admiring Trump correctly is a matter of giving him thanks for a yuuuge reminder: now more than ever, “To be or not to be?” is much more a question of how you are than who.