Trump abolishes reality: reflections on the ideological mechanism

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Trump abolishes reality: reflections on the ideological mechanism

Friday, 30 October 2020  | Yarkov Halik

The fundamental problem is, how soon can human beings reconcile themselves to the fact that the truth matters? We can believe whatever we please, but that doesn’t mean that the universe is going to suit itself to our particular beliefs or our particular capacities.

- Wifred Bion[1]


An ideology is generally understood to be a system of ideas or ideals that forms the basis of an economic or political theory. And so, for instance, one will speak of Marxist, Fascist, Conservative or Liberal ideology. However, it’s also possible to consider the meaning of ideology - which is, in this sense, essentially a political philosophy - in ontological terms, related to the nature of being and reality, rather than to ideas. On this level, ideologies are ways of representing the world.

Some would take this further by arguing that ideologies are ways of ‘constructing’ reality. However I don’t like this term. I’m not suggesting there isn’t an element of truth to the idea that reality is ‘a product of some mind whose symbolic procedures construct the world’;[2] indeed, one of the characteristic features of human beings is what Donald Winnicott called the ‘imaginative elaboration’ of sensory experience.[3] But such elaboration has limits. It’s possible to take the idea that reality is constructed out of an imaginative process too far, such that what is constructed no longer bears any relation to that from which it was constructed.[4] Moreover, the constructivist doctrine is liable to give the impression that an ideology is some sort of ‘optional’ methodology, as if one could take it or leave it. Yet this is rarely the case. Ideologies are influential precisely because they aim to command our attention. They are compelling, sometimes coercive, but always persuasive. Those who are alert to the way in which they work will not find it difficult to recognise their presence in almost every field of human endeavour today, whether it’s advertising, philosophies of education, public policy or political governance.

The other thing is that ideologies, ontologically understood, do more than just represent reality; they abolish it. This might seem like an exorbitant claim, but it precisely captures the tenor of the crisis we now face, a crisis of ‘semi-reliable communal sense-making’, as Eric Weinstein put it.[5] The result is a condition in which people become so acutely disoriented that the wildest, most implausible propositions stand a very good chance of being regarded as quite normal and acceptable. To drive the point home, I want to consider the case of a social environment that demonstrates particularly forcefully this reality-destroying capacity of ideology: the presidency of Donald Trump.

President of the Republic of Unreality

Reality cannot penetrate him. He’s completely protected against it ... by the rubbish of worn-out words and ideas. They’re stronger than armour-plate ... For that reason, words are evil’s strongest buttress. They are the most reliable preservatives of every passion and stupidity.

- Franz Kafka to Gustav Janouch[6]

...across the country, in states critical to the outcome of the election, Trump’s ardent supporters defended his actions and followed his lead to blame China.

In Luzerne County, a historically Democratic area in eastern Pennsylvania that flipped in 2016 to vote for Trump, Lynette Villano said she thinks the economy is resilient. It started from an extraordinarily high point, she said, and Trump deserves credit for giving the country the economic strength to be able to take the punch.

Villano, a billing clerk who wears a rhinestone Trump pin, has chronic lung disease and survived cancer twice. She recognizes she’s among those at highest risk. She says she’s not worried, she deeply trusts the president to look out for her, and she doesn’t think it’s time for political posturing and finger-pointing.

“If anything, this is going to show him as a strong leader who stepped forward and took every action possible to make things better”, she said from her home, where she’s waiting out the pandemic.[7]

For his staunch advocates, it seems this President cannot fail, regardless of what he does or does not do. But is that really the case? After all, he could only fail if he could succeed. Actually, for the die-hard Trump supporter, neither success nor failure exists. But then would it make any sense to even call such people ‘supporters’? To give someone your support suggests you’re able to weigh up their effectiveness. That is, the very idea that action is effective, as opposed to ineffective, implies a reality in which the consequences of an act could be measured, and thus evaluated.[8] However, just this notion - that there is such a thing as reality - has become doubtful lately.

What is reality? A space of appearance, in which people commit to actions and take responsibility for those acts. But what if there no longer exists for the act a vehicle for its realisation and coming-to-be, a place in which it might unfold and assume the form of something that appears? In such conditions, an act could not be act-ual, could not actua-lise, could not in fact happen.

Or is it that, in this strange universe, where Being and Nothingness coincide, everything is happening all the time, incessantly, only that this ‘everything’ is the happening of no-thing, of nothingness? It’s perhaps no accident that Donald Trump has always shied away from proposing any definite political goals. If he does not act, it’s partly because he doesn’t need to and partly because there’s no reality into which any of his acts could be fitted or might appear. No wonder, then, that he has no policies, never behaves with the slightest consistency and is completely unable to acknowledge any comprehensible standards of success or failure. But if he doesn’t do anything, that’s because he is. Likewise, for his followers (i.e. ‘I don’t vote Republican, I am a Republican’[9]).

Trump is an Ontological President. What triumphs with him is the great neutralism of Being that swallows up nature, history, meaning, every reckoning of means and ends. Those who admire him admire something that does not exist, and has no need for existence, exactly because it exists eternally, as changeless pure Being. And so the time of his Presidency is an all-pervasive non-time, in which nothing occurs and nothing changes. Or, again, is it that things are occurring and changing ceaselessly? But the result is the same, for if things are constantly changing, there would be no way to gauge the difference between changing and staying the same.

Like Zeno’s arrow, where motion is nothing but an illusion, everything is both perpetually in motion and perfectly motionless. On these terms, I want to suggest that this President stands for a distinctive modality of being, that of Paganism. I mean this term in a quite value-neutral, non-pejorative sense. As Phillippe Nemo explains, for the pagan, time and action are illusions; the world and the social realm human beings inhabit is regarded as unalterable.[10] When, however, physical nature or society gives the impression of inclining towards transformation and change, this impression must be warded off as quickly as possible. This is done by interpreting change as a phase in the cosmic scale of time, or as a transformation that repeats itself throughout eternity. This has implications for the notion of value, that is, of good and evil.

In the pagan world-view, evil is embedded in the objective structure of the universe. Ever-present, it would therefore be a profound folly to struggle against it. Injustice must be stoically accepted as part of the permanent cosmic pattern. Thus when the philosopher, Seneca, advises the young Roman Emperor Nero to observe clemency, he is careful to differentiate it from forgiveness, or misericordia. The latter, from misereri, which includes the meaning ‘to pity’, suggests a weakening, a crumbling of the Form. Seneca is certainly not about to contemplate, much less accept, that a god can shed tears as Jesus did over the death of Lazarus (John 11:33-38).

In the Presidency of Donald Trump, politics is a continuous spectacle in which something is always happening and yet nothing happens. Is this perhaps why his followers seem completely oblivious as to what actually happens in the world? A radical disconnect between mind and reality, which is the clinical definition of psychosis, is perfectly apparent with a Trump-faithful like Villano, who no longer believes reality as such can teach them anything. Enclosed in an ideological ‘bubble’ so watertight that nothing real can penetrate, their thinking merely fits events, persons or actions into prefabricated patterns. Cut off as they are from that ‘limitless intermediate area where external and internal reality are compounded into the experience of living’,[11] they can be reached neither by experience nor by argument. No wonder they’re the ideal subjects of totalitarian rule, since any distinction between fact and fiction, or between true and false, no longer exists.

For the Villano’s of this world, total identification with their Leader seems to have destroyed the very capacity for experience. In one way, this reflects the nature of ideologies. Which radically interrupt the incessant to-and-fro movement between concept and reality, replacing it with the rigidity of an idée fixe. That the convictions of the Trump supporter are impervious to verification through actual experience also explains why they’ve scarcely any interest in how this President, to whom they’ve totally committed themselves with all their heart and soul, is actually faring in the political arena. Indeed, nothing that actually happens to him can possibly affect their convictions. For instance, if he’s successful, this does not require explanation, for it is self-evident he must succeed. Whereas if he encounters obstacles, or even if he fails miserably, this simply demonstrates the ‘others’ (i.e., those who oppose or are hostile to him) - are either yet to understand what he wants to achieve, or are, for malicious reasons, working to undermine him.

In effect, Trump can do no wrong, partly because whatever he does or says is never subject to any test of real performance, and partly because, for something to be tested, one needs a reality upon which the test might be carried out. On the other hand, the complete vagueness with regard to ideological content typical of his Presidency, the absence of any fixed rules, is perhaps less a sign of carelessness and more an ‘acute recognition that total loyalty is possible only when fidelity is emptied of all concrete content, from which changes of mind might naturally arise’.[12] Hence such vagueness has a tactical value, enabling the President to adopt, modify and discard political programs and policies in accordance with strategic needs of the moment without jeopardizing the allegiance of his followers. And insofar as the lack of fixed ideas or principles makes it difficult for anyone to truly understand the basis for his political decisions, any kind of criticism, positive or negative, is effectively forestalled.

The convinced Trump supporter, then, is not some freakish anomaly of history. Neither are they necessarily the product of a political system that’s completely run off the rails. Rather, I want to suggest they illustrate particularly clearly what happens when the ideological power to abolish reality becomes firmly established.

Yarkov Halik is a former architect and teacher. He can be contacted at

[1] Four Conversations with Wilfred Bion, 43.

[2] Nelson Goodman, quoted in Avivah Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, 28.

[3] D. W. Winnicott, Human Nature (New York: Schocken Books, 1988), 40: ‘In the human infant and child there is an imaginative elaboration of all body functioning... and this is so much more true of children than of the most interesting animals, that is never safe to carry an argument over from animal psychology to the human’ (italics in original).

[4] Winnicott rightfully points to the paradox of this situation in the case of the small infant, whose hunger creates the expectation of a breast that might give it nourishment, an expectation that then ‘supplies’ reality of its being provided: ‘To the observer, the child perceives what the mother actually presents, but this is not the whole truth. The infant perceives the breast only in so far as a breast could be created just there and then’. Referring to the ontological status of the breast as an ‘in-between’ baby and mother with the term, ‘transitional object’, Winnicott then suggests that ‘it is a matter of agreement between us and the baby that we will never ask [the baby] the question: “Did you conceive of this [i.e. breast] or was it presented to you from without?”’ (Playing and Reality, London: Psychology Press, 2005, 12). Later in this same text, pointing out the paradoxical status of any such transitional object, he underlines the need for ‘acceptance’ of this paradox, to the extent that ‘a baby creates an object but the object would not have been created as such if it had not already been there’ (Playing and Reality, 71).

[5] ‘Semi-reliable communal sense-making is the number one crisis. If we do not learn how to come up with a narrative that we can share, where we can have small differences, but everybody more or less agrees on the general facts without turning everything into a political contest, we’re going to [discard] the most hopeful and best experiment, with all its flaws, and all the bad things that happened in the 20th century... we’re still better off not trashing this experiment and protecting it’ (my edited transcript from ‘Trump, Mathematics and the “Thinkuisition”’, The Rubin Report, 15th July 2017,

[6] Gustav Janouch, Conversations With Kafka (New York: New Directions Paperbook, 2012), 62.

[7] Claire Galofaro and Tamara Lush, ‘Americans see Trump’s virus response through partisan lens’, Associated Press, 23rd March 2020.

[8] Complementary to this role of reality as a place where comparisons can be drawn is a capacity of the human mind to make such comparisons, that is, to judge and choose between options that can be recognized as differentiated and distinct in some way.

[9] Such a primal identification is the way of mythology, which grounds human identity in deep structures that are prior to the choice of knowledge. But the challenge is to go the beyond primitive subjectivism of myths and their hankering for a unique identity founded on transindividual ties.

[10] On this theme, see Philippe Nemo, A History of Political Ideas (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2013); ‘Conservative is too weak a word to describe the inflexibility of spirit and fear of change that characterize societies in which the sacred holds sway... There is no question of making a value judgment of the existing social order, of trying to decide on, evaluate or manipulate the “system” in some way. The primitive mind would regard such endeavours as both impious and insane, guaranteed to provoke the violent retribution of the gods. The proper attitude for men is vigilance and fixity’ (Rene Girard quoted in Nemo, 5, italics in original). And so, ‘Pre-state societies are unable to manage change... Their order is intangible... If this is the case, then it appears that free inquiry about society and its rules implied by political thought is impossible in societies founded on myth and ritual’ (Nemo, 5-6, italics in original).

[11] Clare Winnicot, ‘D.W.W.: A Reflection’, in D. W. Winnicott, Psycho-analytic Explorations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 3.

[12] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Schocken Books, 1951), 324.

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