“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.”
— Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation
In 1981, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard coined the term “hyperreality” to describe a peculiar trend in American media and pop culture. He predicted that extremely flattened images of America—like Disney World and Las Vegas—would eventually become more real than America itself.
Essentially, he predicted the phenomenon that is our current toxic cardboard cutout of a president, Donald Trump.
In his book, Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard observes how post-modern society replaces facts with cultural symbols. These symbols now saturate discourse to the point of eclipsing meaning. In other words, we are living in a simulation.
Enter Donald Trump, whose entire televisual gimmick is nothing if not dripping with symbolism.
Consider Melania on the cover of Vanity Fair Mexico eating diamonds with a fork, or the many photographs of Donald inside his gold-gilded, self-named hotels, shaking hands with world leaders. Consider the name, “Trump,” itself.
These symbols reinforce the fantasy that Trump is a powerful businessman. Whether or not he is *actually* an effective businessman is entirely irrelevant. Because, let’s not forget, he is also a reality TV entertainer, a pathological liar, and an omni-present image.
Trump’s celebrity “showman” persona accomplishes something quite alarming: it overshadows reality in the minds of his supporters. Just like the theme hotels in Las Vegas, like Caesar’s Palace and the Venetian, which rely on schtick for their appeal, Trump’s rise to prominence has reduced America to a caricature. He is our country’s most perfect, most meaningless icon.
Let us break this down:
- Simulacrum: a copy or image of a thing; where the original no longer exists, or never existed
- Simulation: the imitation of a real-world process or system over time
Baudrillard points to contemporary media and the mechanisms of Late Capitalism as driving forces in this apparently unstoppable collapse of meaning. He warns that we will enter into a crisis of “information overload,” in which simulacra—images and symbols—begin to take precedence over reality itself.
“Hyperreality” refers to our inability to tell where the truth ends and the fantasy begins. For example, the slogan “Make America Great Again” has caught on like wildfire. And yet, the people who rally around it do not seem troubled that they’re expressing nostalgia for a vague, past great version of this country that never existed.
The faster we speed up the exchange of information, the more “facts” get reduced to simple sound bytes. And the farther we replicate and spread these sound bytes, the blurrier the difference between “true” and “false” becomes. It is like putting reality into a blender until every element gets reduced to its lowest common denominator.
We are living in the era of “post-truth,” where the conventional schemas of fact vs. fiction, right vs. wrong—power vs. knowledge—no longer apply. Society has been cheapened to its most basic, money-grabbing instincts; the masses are appeased by habits of instant gratification and instant forgetting. Superficiality rules. This is the world Trump was made for.
In Trump’s America, “image” is all there is. This is a man who is capable of changing what he says on any given topic on any given day. A man who is famous for a ridiculous book he did not write, whose governing ethos can be summed up by a handful of psychotic tweets.
This is a man who can give two conflicting statements in one day without batting an eye. And the thing is: he is not lying. Trump’s rhetoric appeals to our nation’s hyper-imagination, which is no longer based in reality at all. Journalists who take the time to point out his lies are frustrated because they are playing by the rules of an outdated handbook, which Trump abandoned long ago.
In the age of simulation, conventional bases for determining what’s true have disappeared beneath the sheer load of information, replication, virtualization and pastiche. Trump, by the way, is a master of pastiche—he changes like a Mickey Mouse cartoon between the roles of businessman, race-baiter, statesman, stand-up comedian—subverting the meanings of these roles as he goes along.
When did we pass the point of no return? It is hard to say, but Baudrillard has a term for this, the vanishing point, the drop out point, the dead point. He calls it the “Canetti point.” Somewhere along the way, our country stepped out of reality and into simulation. We lost all awareness of where we’re going.
The myth of American progress has become disrupted. The pivotal moment may have been Hiroshima, or Vietnam, or the Iraq War or the 2008 financial crisis. Our downfall might even have been the invention of the Internet. Each of these events shook the basic tenets of American identity and belief.
Despite what the Republican Party insists, it is no longer clear that the United States is a global protector of democracy and peace. Capitalism doesn’t work. Young people can no longer count on a college education, or investing in house as reliable strategies for the future.
Meanwhile, the spectacle of Trump’s presidency continues. Maybe this is just a dream. Maybe we’ve all become demented from staring at Twitter for too long. No one can say for certain.