The Unbearable Lightness of Knowing in the Era of Trump

Benita Heiskanen

The first year of the Trump presidency has been quite a whirlwind, to put it mildly. President Trump’s positions have proven remarkably mercurial, with frequent contradictory statements regarding domestic and foreign policy. Because the President is not a lifelong Republican, but has changed political affiliations no less than five times since the late 1980s, his positions often clash with the party’s mainstream views. Moreover, the unusually large turnover of his administration has created uncertainty as to who is behind its policymaking.

The shifting stances have created a sense of ambiguity both in the United States and abroad with regards to what the country’s position in the world is, how it will act on any given day, and how we understand the world per se. While Trump’s political outsider credentials were an asset in the eyes of his voters, his various policy pivots have caused uncertainty among U.S. allies globally. As American Studies scholars, we are frequently confronted by students, media, and the general public posing questions of how to make sense of what is going on in such times of uncertainty. This is no easy task.

What previously seemed like a broad consensus related to the creation, distribution, and understanding of knowledge has now been turned on its head, as if we were living a prolonged “day of the false king.” So-called “post-truths,” “fake news,” and “alternative facts” are now part of global political parlance, and President Trump himself has been a central player in contributing to them. Contestations of competing notions of truth have had various epistemological consequences, causing uncertainty with regards to meaning-making, political practice, and media representations. Such a crisis of knowledge is intrinsically linked to a shifting understanding of U.S. politics and the role that popular culture plays in it.

During Trump’s presidency, the process of popularizing politics—or pop.politics—has had distinct consequences not only in terms of shaping political culture as we know it, but also in destabilizing established political practice. Trumpian pop.politics have resulted in the distribution of political discourses beyond mainstream political channels. Consequently, media commentators no longer expect the President to resort to traditional media to communicate his message; it is generally understood that Twitter is his principal medium of communication. Pundits eagerly follow Trump’s late-night and early-morning tweet storms to try to make sense of the President’s agenda. In other words, the very nature of the conversation has changed.

It is important to take this shift in political culture seriously and to call attention to sources that go beyond official records, documents, and archives. Ever since Trump’s candidacy, popular culture has gained tremendous importance in providing parallel discourses to political debates via both traditional and new media platforms. Even so, while the media might be tempted to report every tweet—and its subsequent uproar—in real time, the most important task of American Studies scholars is to probe beneath the surface and to contextualize ongoing phenomena within broader societal, historical, political, and cultural currents.

The pop.politics phenomenon takes place largely outside the control of political and media gatekeepers, enabling challenges of status quo representations and decentering knowledge production processes. On the one hand, social media has brought political discourses to sites that are not regarded as established platforms for politics. On the other hand, political discourses are distributed in real time on platforms that are within the users’ own comfort zones. Donald Trump’s “attention at all cost” strategy has guaranteed that the public moves from one uproar, rumor, and scandal to the next, while the President continues to dominate the news around the world.

In the midst of the ongoing avalanche of breaking stories, members of the media turn to scholars for background information, analysis, and a sense of clarity. Often they would like us to predict the future. While predictions make great headlines, as scholars we should exercise extreme caution in imposing closure on open-ended questions. Rather than perpetuating “the unbearable lightness of knowing” by looking into the crystal ball, we would better serve the public by contributing to the discussion from the perspective of our scholarly expertise. Why else do we even cross the news threshold?

Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election by appealing to the identity politics of whiteness. In so doing, he fueled debates related to class-based and racialized questions of globalization and culture wars. Issues of social power relations, including race-based and gendered violence, dominated the Trump administration’s first year in the Oval Office, demonstrating a link between policy issues, public discourse, and the social realities of the United States.

The period following Trump’s inauguration has demonstrated that culture and politics do not assume meaning as an either/or question, but rather as a both/and matter: politics do not take place outside of culture, just as culture does not take place outside of politics. The effects of the Trump era on political culture will undoubtedly have lasting consequences, and we will be dealing with questions of knowledge production in the months and years to come.

While speculations about the 2020 presidential election are already active, the congressional midterm elections will take place in November 2018. American Studies scholars will have an important task in following, studying, and explaining these developments as they unfold. But our job is not to look into the crystal ball.

Benita Heiskanen
The author is the director of the John Morton Center for North American Studies

Public domain picture by Jonathan Adams



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3 Comments

  1. Nice piece! In the best case, the Trump era will have one long-term affect on American political culture, which is to have made disturbingly obvious the deep fissures dividing right from left, Republican from Democrat, and hopefully paving the way for renewed cooperation and bipartisanship in the future. Many, many lessons will need to be learned from the age of Trump, and I hope that scholars all over the world will be willing and able to contribute to this process.

  2. Nyt kun Muellerin raportin tiivistelmä on julkaistu, eikä hän löytänyt Venäjä-kytköksiä, medialla niin meillä kuin muuallakin on peiliin katsomisen paikka. Sama koskee osittain myös Benita Heiskasta.
    Trumpista oli tehty syyllinen jo etukäteen ja odotettiin vain Muellerin lyövän viimeisen naulan arkkuun.
    USA:n demokraatit olivat huonoja häviäjiä. Mitä vaaleissa eivät saavuttaneet, sen he halusivat – ja haluavat edelleen – muilla keinoin.
    Trumpin kausi kotimaassaan on tähän saakka kulunut lähinnä seuratessa demokraattien hallitseman valtamedian fake news -uutisointia.
    Moni heikkohermoisempi ihminen olisi jo ajat sitten luovuttanut kaiken syyttelyn keskellä.
    On hyvin todennäköistä, että demokraattien yli äyräiden paisunut Trump-viha kostautuu v. 2020 ja hän jatkaa presidenttinä toisenkin kauden.

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