Donald Trump Is Ushering In the Infinite Jest Apocalypse

Whoa, It's Like, Not Dying
Without a doubt, Trump's campaign launch was the defining moment thus far of 2015. It was a couple steps above Palinesque: Complete sentences, marginally connected supporting arguments. If it were his grammar school presentation on what he wanted to be when he grew up, it would get a check minus, with a note asking to talk after class. The boys in the back, though, would have loved it.

Everything about it was magic. That torturous descent down an escalator to a song that is basically a diatribe against him was everything he needed to say. If I were directing a movie and I wanted to signify "BAD GUY" in the most heavy-handed way I could think of, that is how I would do it. In what could most forgivingly be called an oratorical shitstorm, one remark stood out above all. Because I am tired of hearing it, I won't repeat it1. It was like watching him try to catch a bullet in his teeth with a gun in his mouth. Nobody could survive such a brazen gaffe, not without one hell of a miracle, never mind doubling down on it. Most thought he was over before he got started, and nobody could shut up about it.

Of course, he didn't do himself in. He Obi-Wan'd, and he continues to come back week after week, more powerful than we can imagine. For many observers, it clicked rather quickly. Politico described his campaign launch as "one of the more bizarre spectacles of the 2016 political season thus far--and one of the most entertaining." After a month of decrying John McCain's war record and the finer points of Mexican criminality, HuffPo declared Trump's campaign a sideshow worthy only of their Entertainment vertical. Another month later, after he implied that Megyn Kelly was on the rag, Hillary Clinton decried Trump's antics as "all entertainment. I think he's having the time of his life, being up on that stage."

There's no real mystery to Trump's appeal. Shock antics can carry an entertainer for years, so long as dignity and shame are not obstacles. Howard Stern is getting compared to Trump quite often, but Trump shares a stronger kinship with the Tom Green Show or Jackass copycats on YouTube2. People want to see how low a human can go, both to feel superior to him and to satisfy their curiosity. At the same time, people hate politicians for so clearly being a Bohemian Grove cult of reptiles. Our cynicism about politics has made us spiteful3 and we get a lot of schadenfreude out of seeing a privileged outsider ridicule its players so brutally.

And so, no matter what Trump says, the audience in the pit and watching at home eats it up. His foray into specific policy is just rising action, a storytelling necessity. Take, for example, his immigration "plan." He could have started with anti-DREAM sentiments, but he went straight for the 14th amendment. Any other candidate would have jumped the shark with such rhetoric--and many trying to draft behind him did--but Trump has no use for pussy-footing or baby steps. It's the same reason he won't apologize for anything. The audience would recognize it as weakness, and his power as a candidate would evaporate overnight.

Five months later, pundits and voters alike still modify their doomsday predictions, positive that the mogul's next media scandal will burn him down. But Trump doesn't gaffe. He anti-gaffes. He says what he means with total confidence that a large contingent of the vocal viewership agrees with him while his detractors fill the remaining silence with outrage over his supposed fatuousness. Time and again he is proven correct. In a media culture that considers a month a lifetime, a spectacle like Trump is the golden goose. Stations will keep the cameras on him as long as people keep tuning in to find out why he's polling so well, and the primary voters will keep voting for him--or at least say they will--so long as it keeps said cameras on him.

Donald Trump is Johnny Gentle
Reduced to one sentence, Infinite Jest is a tragedy about America's addiction to entertainment, an addiction so deep that America would rather kill itself with distractions than deal with its problems. Indeed, the book's premise revolves around a movie that is so entertaining that anyone who views it wastes away watching it over and over again4. The novel explores the wide range of ways people distract themselves from their problems, and exposes some unsettling avenues of entertainment. It is entertainment's tendency to blend delivery methods that makes it so easily abused.

Literature is often a crystal ball into reality; thinking so, anyway, is the curse of the English graduate. I first noticed that there were some comically interesting parallels between Trump and the President in Infinite Jest, Johnny Gentle, when I heard on the news that Trump got into a brief Twitter war with El Chapo and some Sinaloas. It also came to light that Trump said we should have attacked Mexico instead of Iraq. This does not happen in Infinite Jest, not with Mexico. There is an ongoing terror campaign by Quebecois separatists that culminates in an actual country-on-country war with Canada. It's a flimsy connection at best, but, curiously, ends up being the weakest in a long series of connections.

Both Gentle and Trump are long-time B-listers with nationally derided personal lives but undeniable charisma, using a working class vernacular with total authenticity. Gentle refers to his fellow heads of state as "boss" and is the first President to say "shit" in his inaugural address. Trump talks with the lexical depth of a mobster-idolizing twelve-year-old and is already using profanity in his campaign speeches.

Both Gentle and Trump are hysterical germaphobes. President Gentle campaigns in a surgical mask and produces enough medical waste to necessitate a national emergency. In his book The Art of the Comeback, Trump wrote of his distaste for handshaking, saying "I happen to be a clean hands freak. I feel much better after I thoroughly wash my hands, which I do as much as possible."

Both Gentle and Trump get reasonable comparisons to Ross Perot. They also both ride a similar wave of frustration and rage at a time when America is particularly politically vulnerable. Detailing his rise to the highest office in the land, Wallace describes President Gentle as:

a kind of post-Perot national joke for years, until--white-gloved finger on the pulse of an increasingly asthmatic and sunscreen-slathered and pissed-off American electorate--[he] suddenly swept to quadrennial victory in an angry reactionary voter-spasm.

It's unwise to literally interpret any text, but there is something rather prophetic about the passage. According to the CDC, the rate of asthma occurrence and sunscreen use is on the rise in America, and the Real Clear Politics average of "Direction of the Country" polls shows a near 2:1 pissed-off to not split in the electorate. But even without such relevant numbers, the similarity to Trump's rise is striking. He was mercilessly lambasted at the 2012 White House Correspondents' Dinner after three straight cycles of threatening to run. Now he is reaching voters without any apparent effort on his part.

The Perot comparison is likely to dog Trump through to the general, particularly if he should renege on his promise not to run as an Independent. From D Magazine:

Like Trump, Perot was a businessman turned amateur politician who capitalized on voter dissatisfaction with the professionals. He was ideologically heterodox...known for rhetorical intemperance. James Ragland, a former city hall reporter with the Dallas Morning News now with The Washington Post, recalls being at a meeting with Dallas police officers at which Perot suggested the police 'ought to just go in there [high-crime neighborhoods], cordon off the whole area, going block by block, looking for guns and drugs.'

Today, Trump could boost his poll numbers with that exact phrase. It would perfectly satisfy the racist contingent of the electorate that follows him while simultaneously enraging the liberals that the Republican base loves more than anything to enrage.

This Howard-Beale-in-the-Venom-suit bellicosity is just the entertainment America is addicted to5. One half feels vindicated through a surrogate speaker while the other half feels superior to his backwards morality. This is a formula for success if you're planning a prime time, scandal-riding reality series, but not for a presidential campaign. Look at the most successful seasons of the most popular reality shows, and they will all have a universally derided villain among the contestants: Puck, Evel Dick, Wendy Pepper, Omarosa. The only exception to this rule is when the villain is part of the show's judging body, like Simon Cowell or Gordon Ramsay or--dun-dun-dun--Donald Trump. And while Trump may have fired Omarosa twice, one thing even he will have to admit is that she knew good television. In fact, it may have been Omarosa that gave Trump the credibility as a wise and ruthless chairman that is carrying him today.

If you know anything about Infinite Jest, it's probably that most of the action takes place in the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment. The sponsoring of years--"Subsidized Time" in the novel--is a revenue-boosting policy of the Gentle administration, made necessary by the President's own waste output and by his keeping his promise to literally clean up America. Trump's level of hypochondria isn't likely to cause the same level of destruction, but he is the only candidate--perhaps human being--who might think the sponsorship of time is a good idea. Of course, that is entirely speculative. There's really no proof or quote that I can cite to back up this suspicion of mine, but...

...for some reason it just doesn't feel all that far-fetched6.

Kidding aside, there is a reason to assume a need for alternative sources of revenue. The most obvious criticism of Trump's immigration plan is its exorbitant cost, both in implementation and in lost cheap labor: Roughly $200 billion to deport everyone, another $90 billion to secure and protect the border, and an unknowable but assuredly devastating blow to the agriculture and grocery industries. And while Trump has long supported progressive tax rates that force "those most able to pay" to support the country, his proposal belies a loyalty to slightly more anarchic tax plans favored by libertarians:

Right now there are seven federal income tax brackets. Trump wants to get it down to four. The first would be a zero-percent rate for the households described above. Individuals making $25,001 to $50,000 (or couples making $50,001 to $100,000) would pay 10 percent in federal income taxes and keep most of their current exemptions and deductions. Those making $50,001 to $150,000 (or couples making $100,001 to $300,000) would pay 20 percent and keep more than half of their current deductions. The highest tax bracket would be 25 percent and apply to those making more than $150,001 per year, along with couples making more than $300,001. Those in the highest tax bracket would see most of their deductions disappear.

With that sort of revenue, the Capitol building will be able to keep the lights on year round, which is good, because there won't be any public employees to flip the switch. Given all these ridiculous plans, plus his military ambitions for the Middle East, Trump will need to find some lucrative new avenues of revenue, and sponsoring subjective ideas like time-rights are the logical next step towards open plutocracy. The Year of the Halliburton CYPHER® Seismic-to-Stimulation Service; The UnderArmor Writ of Habeas Corpus; The Miranda Warning, brought to you by Burger King (The Shelby PD could've used that one). The possibilities are endless.

The environment won't get away unharmed, either. In Infinite Jest, northern New England, home to President Gentle's worst political enemies, is evacuated and turned into a toxic waste dump to contain all the biomedical waste created by the President's hypochondriac policies. Not only does Johnny Gentle completely destroy three states, but he forces Canada to annex the territory while America continues to trebuchet its refuse into it. Naturally, this results in a war with Canada. Something almost identical to that scenario is totally a possibility under Trump. If his most awesomely tone-deaf campaign promise to build a wall and force our southern neighbor to foot the bill is to be taken seriously, then imagining him attempting to reverse-annex some useless real estate onto a "lesser" country doesn't take too much effort.

Trump has made his opinion on the EPA quite clear, "tweet[ing] at President Obama's personal Twitter account in 2011 that 'the EPA is an impediment to both growth and jobs.'" It's also fairly well known that Trump would like to tap all the fossil fuels already in America's purview:

I think it's incredible that we're going slow on drilling. I think it's beyond anything I've ever seen that we're going slow on drilling. There are always going to be problems. You're going to have an oil spill. You clean it up and you fix it up and it'll be fine.

So we should expect a few oil spills while Trump is in office, and without the EPA there may be a couple environmental travesties that make Deepwater Horizon look like a dry sneeze. And maybe America's Gulf Coast states are turned into toxic wastelands, but it doesn't mean Trump would make Mexico annex the territory.

That's the thing. Trump shares the ignoble distinction of having shoved a chunk of undesirable land onto the government:

For those of you who, like me, wouldn't watch a video citation even if refusing meant being celibate for the rest of your life, I'll summarize7: Donald Trump owned a huge swath of real estate worth about $3million right outside New York City. He wanted to build a resort on it, but Westchester county wouldn't let him, so, in an apparent show of good sportsmanship, Trump donated the whole property to the state to use as a park. When he was asked what the land's value was, however, Trump declared $100 million, and enjoyed the tax deduction such a huge donation granted. Today, the park sits in a state of disrepair, overgrown and dangerous to trespassers. Meanwhile, as Trump campaigns across the country, multiple signs bearing his name line the park, pointing to the condemned land's shuttered exits.

So, But, Yeah, Here's the Thing8
Alright, fine, so Donald Trump has more than a handful of unsettling similarities with a catastrophically bad president from a 20-year-old, eleven-hundred-page fiction tome9. So what? It's not like we haven't elected a lifelong entertainer to the office before with arguably disastrous consequences to the country especially if you're a bleeding heart liberal, couldn't DFW have been talking about that? Yes, almost definitely. It's why he felt compelled to warn us against doing it again.

The importance of Infinite Jest to the current political climate is perhaps overshadowed only by Wallace's personal thoughts on the matter. From his essay about his time on McCain's 2000 campaign, Up, Simba!:

If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don't bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don't bullshit yourself that you're not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard's vote.

Wallace makes an important observation about the lifestyle and priorities of some--and certainly many young--American voters in two ways: 1) Americans can be very lazy about acquiring the necessary information to make an informed decision; and 2) At the same time, even the most knowledge-addicted news junkies cannot possibly gather all the necessary information to make perfectly informed decisions. Inevitably, both the uninterested and the obsessed seek out pre-packaged opinions on which to base their decisions instead of the relevant information. And where do most of those opinions come from? Corporate, mainstream mass media.

Whether you respect his methods or not, Trump has a clear mastery of this brand of the media--he has maintained some fraction of the spotlight since 1980--and this is what makes him such a dangerous candidate. He has taken the theatrics of the Republican campaign to the next level and turned it into the reality show that it very nearly became last cycle. The Throw Shade/Return Shade format of the CNN Debate is proof positive of this. Actual voguing would have been more substantive television, but that's neither the concern of the viewership nor of the producers nor of the talent.

Wallace later continued on the theme:

The alternative [to defaulting to polarized, preset opinions] is dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it's continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion. In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time and to need help.

The responsible voter must strike a balance between remaining reasonably informed amid the din of information and effectively subcontracting out his decision-making to other, ostensibly more-informed entities. Wallace believed this subcontracting to be inevitable, but not necessarily a bad thing: "'Learning how to think' really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience." To continue with a paraphrase, the "real measure of informed adulthood" is the "acuity and taste" we have in choosing which people or entities we subcontract our decision making to.

This theme of choice is apparent throughout Infinite Jest and much of Wallace's other work, both fiction and non-, most notably in his "This is Water" commencement speech (referenced intentionally or not by Carly Fiorina in the CNN Debate). One of his over-arching ideas which relates to politics and entertainment alike is that, if being able to choose is the most basic "capital-T Truth" for individuals, then there is a lot riding on our individual capacity to acquire information on which to base those choices. In short, our individual sovereignty is dependent on our attention spans, and that doesn't bode well for a culture that is compulsively glued to some form of flashing screen.

And that's the main threat: An expert in mass distractions is using--and will use--his advertorial mastery to run for and potentially even achieve the supreme office in the United States of America. We're suckers for a good story, but even more susceptible to the porn10. Donald Trump has trapped us in his own salacious narrative, one of scandalous rhetoric and fascist ambition, and he's done it so well that we need to see it through to the end. We are gluttonizing Trump like Netflix on a Friday night, and we can't sleep until we finish the finale.

After two debates that got an average 23.5 million viewers on the shoulders of Trump-mania, we are no longer deciding whether the election of the President is a sober obligation or the click of a Like button. It is long since past that. With Trump's numbers only growing, the election--one half of it, anyway--has become a Network-caliber bastardization of the democratic process.

The polls since the CNN Debate have shown Carson catching up, but if Trump is smart, he'll get out long before a single vote is cast. As a man accustomed to the lifestyle of a billionaire, it is doubtful that Trump would be willing to take a status downgrade for the privilege of being blamed for every problem from 2017 to 2020. Trump's true threat is as a Trojan horse, through which his chosen candidate (Ted Cruz) might become anointed. And there are a variety of entertaining ways he can manufacture that.

Dangerous as he is, Trump is not the problem, he's just the preferred brand of the moment. An alcoholic may switch loyalties between Budweiser and Coors or wine and liquor, but what he is addicted to is what they all share in common. Similarly, an electorate addicted to entertainment cares less for the candidates and more for the narrative, and a Presidential candidate that reveals the man behind the curtain is a very provocative storyline, indeed.

Infinite Jest's solution to addiction was abstinence. And short of that, you have to take responsibility for your intake and you have to know what you can handle and when to stop. So if you think it's the media's job to not report on the newsmaker, you're an addict asking your dealer to stop answering your calls. And if you think--making no changes to the current situation--that Trump will eventually be displaced, you have successfully ignored the problem he represents. If we elect Donald Trump to the Presidency is perhaps secondary to if we can afford to keep playing politics as though he--or anyone willing to play his game--is a viable candidate.

This is not exactly a spoiler: Infinite Jest ends with a flashback of its primary character, a recovering opiate addict, waking up on a beach after a harrowing and terrifying Dilaudid binge, one in which he was starving, soaked in his own waste, and watching his friend killed by the purveyors of their addiction. This is the impetus for his getting sober, the rock bottom moment in his life that made him realize that it was either change or die.

How many more of those brushes with death would you be willing to risk?

Endnotes and Whatnot
  1. One has to wonder if this speech was ghostwritten by the same brain slug who writes Ann Coulter's books. Just look at the implication of his words. Mexicans are cancer! He's never met a good Mexican. He has to assume they exist.
  2. Glenn Beck used the same formula to great success for about two years until Jon Stewart parodied his schtick so well that the key demo stopped watching out of shame.
  3. See Black Mirror S1E1, and then the rest of the whole series.
  4. Kind of a lazy metaphor. But they said that about everything Kurt Vonnegut wrote so hardly bad company.
  5. Damn, Glenn Beck used Network like a how-to.
  6. Also this list of sponsorship deals that he lost for the whole "Mexicans are rapists" thing. Again, not proof that he'd approve or even be smart enough to conceive of a ploy like subsidized time, but it's obviously in his wheelhouse.
  7. Okay not having a quote here is killing me but citing Rachel Maddow verbatim really exhibits how ineloquent spoken language is: "Mr. Trump took that land that he owned, that he wanted to build on but he couldn't--he paid about three million dollars for that land. He took that land that he didn't do anything with for years and he decided to give it to the state of New York. When they asked Mr. Trump how much it was worth, he said at the time 'about100million' ...presumably for the tax break. And of course the bigger the value of the thing you donate, the bigger your tax break."
  8. I'm gonna say that at least 50% of this section from the Up, Simba! quote down to the sentence about a culture with their faces in a screen is from the mind of my friend Ryan Devlin, who I hope will appreciate this attempt at credit. In my defense, it was pretty much perfectly worded. Also, he's a lawyer, so screw himª. a. My wife and dad are lawyers. Honestly, I've met as many sleazy lawyers as I have sleazy people in any profession. Maybe there's just an indiscriminate vein of sleaze in our gene pool.
  9. Yes, Infinite Jest fanboys and people turning DFW into the next L. Ron Hubbard, I have taken some liberties with the novel's details. My points remain valid.
  10. Shit, Glenn Beck again! Smart, evil dude.