Around middle school, I was way, way into Choose Your Own Adventure Books. At that point in my life, it was just beginning to occur to me that, despite every grown-up I knew telling me that I could “be anything I wanted to be,” the amount of control I exerted over my own future was, actually, soberingly scant. And while it’s true that, on the surface, one always has control over one’s actions, it’s rarely true in a practical sense: because out-of-state tuition is excruciatingly steep, for many incoming college freshmen, “choosing” to settle for an in-state school is like “choosing” to jerk your hand back from the frying pan when the grease pops.
But I’m rambling. This one extra modicum of control the CYOA books offered was a comfort, not only because I could explore all possible paths simultaneously, but because there truly were no consequences.
One of my favorites was a book involving, of course, ninjas — because when you’re an 11-year-old boy, the only thing cooler than ninjas are Batman and ninja Batman. At some point in (what I’ve since recognized as) the insanity-pooping narrative, two young ninja-girls-in-training happen upon a computer programmer/virtual reality enthusiast/Beavis lookalike. He was a pair of Jncos and a can of Surge away from being the living embodiment of the ‘90s.
Anyway, he lived in a little hovel out in the woods, cut off from all interpersonal contact, interacting with the outside world by the sole means of his computer, perfectly content with the situation even as HOLY CRAP A CYBORG NINJA WAS ON THE LOOSE. The world, he said, was getting smaller all the time, and that was a good thing.
I think this accounts for the political rise of Donald Trump.
Bear with me. Trump’s success in the political arena has come across as rather sudden; he’s flirted with a presidential bid in past elections, only to abandon it when it came time to actually hunker down and officially announce (he usually did it just to promote The Apprentice, for that matter). Rational people didn’t believe for a second that, when he actually decided to run, he’d be dominating the conversation as much as he is.
And why would they? He’s been a buffoon for years now, outed as actually a pretty shady and sub-par businessman for just as long. To boot, there’s every indication that he’s in on the joke: he hosted Saturday Night Live, performing in a sketch as a janitor opposite Darrell Hammond’s version of Trump. In a POLITICO editorial a few days ago, Roger Simon nailed it: “…we must take Trump on his own terms, which is to say he is a showman, a pitchman, selling one product: himself.”
You could say, truthfully, that this is what we’ve been “reduced” to, though to be perfectly honest — to the world and to ourselves — we have to take that word for everything it means: both diminished and distilled. It is not only in recent years that the world has become obsessed with celebrity culture; you only need look back at the frenzy surrounding Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, the Kennedys, Audrey Hepburn, etc. to come to terms with that. But the way that technology has developed has certainly served to encourage it. We are fascinated with lives that are not our own, because, to us, they aren’t really real; we experience them through a facsimile of interaction, of observation. The world is ours to explore, yes, but the consequences are, quite literally, unreal.
On top of that, there’s always something else to see, which is why our attention spans have been whittled down to nubbins. Most voters pretend to care about the issues as long as it’s presented as an ideological argument, something that, by its very nature, is impossible to win. There is an Us vs. Them mentality at work here and, beyond Liberal vs. Conservative, it’s difficult to pin down exactly who the “Them” is.
Which is why Trump works so well as a candidate in this environment: he has no real plan, no real solution to issues, no response of substance when he’s asked a pointed policy question. He’s the political equivalent of the Singing Big Mouth Billy Bass; he fulfills an immediate need, after which we can move on. No pesky research, no complex issues or history to dig through.
Trump is what happens when unlimited options are available to a populace living in a quasi-virtual reality world: we have explored them all, and have deemed them to be unreal, to be outside of our existence and, thusly, free of tangible consequence. He, it, is the distillation of our eroded priorities.