The Anthropology of Trump: Myth, Illusion and Celebrity Culture

Yesterday, millions of American voters cast presidential primary ballots on Super Tuesday. In a political season that has confounded political pundits whose judgment has been consistently flawed, Donald Trump, as was expected, had a big night, pushing ever closer to the Republican presidential nomination. Mr. Trump has steadfastly defied the expectations of so-called conventional wisdom in which a presidential candidate is cool, calm, and knowledgeable -- a person who knows how to carry himself or herself with a good measure of dignity. Again and again, Donald Trump has challenged our "conventional" presidential expectations. Even as powerful members of his own party, like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, repudiate him, Mr. Trump's support has ironically grown stronger and stronger.

What's going on in America?

Can we explain this strange and troubling turn of political events?

There are a variety political explanations. Pundits have discussed any number of reasons for the success of Mr. Trump -- repercussions of income inequality, a sense of hopelessness, the celebration of ignorance and the denigration of science, the perception that the political system, in the words of Senator Bernie Sanders, is "rigged," the public reappearance of bigotry in the name of "Making America Great Again."

As an anthropologist, I see the rise of Trump from a cultural vantage. He is the embodiment of celebrity culture -- a world filled with glitz, fantasy and illusion. It is culture in which shallow perception is more valuable than deep insight. If you watch Donald Trump perform his shtick, you hear pretty much the same thing. Mr. Trump comes on stage, recites his poll numbers, insults his opponents, invites famous supporters to the stage to sing his praises, and then talks, without giving concrete factual examples, about how bad things are and how he's the man to make things better.

Each event is a tightly controlled theatrical production that is designed to reinforce the myth of Mr. Trump's fearless strength, his invincibility and his inevitability -- a real strong man. When he moves to the debate format, which is a bit less controlled, he continues to talk about our broken system and how everyone is incompetent -- including his opponents who are low energy, little people of no consequence. At no point does his talk focus upon a program for action, the complexities of policy or the intractability of social, political and economic problems at home and abroad. As he stated last night at his victory event, which was staged to look like a presidential press conference, the solutions to our problems are simple because he knows how to negotiate, he knows how to bring jobs back to America, he knows how to deal with China, he knows how to get the wealthy Gulf States to contribute their fair share to the Syrian migrant crisis. No one is going to mess with him -- or us.

In his paired down tell it like it is language, Mr. Trump is convincingly entertaining. He is not yet the president, but is trying to play one on television. Although he seems ignorant of the social, political and cultural complexities of world, not to forget the U.S. constitution, it doesn't matter, for he is operating in a fantasy world in which facts don't matter, in which "competent" people -- actors all -- can quickly solve difficult problems. In the fantasy world of television problems are easy to solve. On television or on social media, it's easy to build a wall across the US-Mexico border and get Mexico to pay for it. In the vicarious mythic worlds of television, Facebook and Twitter, it's easy for Mr. Trump, who has disparaged Muslims, women, gays, the physically challenged and Hispanics, to claim -- with conviction -- that he will win their support. In this mythic world, it is easy for Mr. Trump, who insults his opponents -- even opponents of his own party -- to say that he will be a unifying force.

In the real world Mr. Trump's willful ignorance, his undignified behavior and his Islamophobia is both senseless and dangerous. In the mythic culture of celebrity, as Mr. Trump seems to well understand, black becomes white and lies become truth. It is a world in which there is no space for critical reflection or for intellectual nuance. Mr. Trump brilliantly understands the culture of celebrity as a world of illusion in which he can carefully develop his mythic image. In this world he is the strong man, the "truth-teller," the man who will unite a divided nation.

All of this symbolic manipulation works quite well in the culture of celebrity. It works well enough to convince millions of angry Americans to believe in the myth of Donald Trump. Despite substantial evidence to the contrary Mr. Trump's supporters believe his mantra: things are horrible and we need a strong leader -- Donald Trump -- to fix a broken system. In this illusory world, you don't really need to know that much about politics or the world or the US Constitution. In the mythical context of illusion, if you have the right attitude and a high degree of self-confidence, as does Mr. Trump, you can solve any problem.

Thinking about the future of our children and grandchildren, lets hope that it's not too late for us to discover that behind the wall of illusion that Mr. Trump has built, the emperor has no clothes.