Atrocity Exhibitions

I came across a headline a while back that read something like “Schwarzenegger voters opt for Trump in California.” Wow, I thought. Imagine being in a coma for thirty years and waking up to that!

I doubt even Ballard could have come up with something so peculiar. I mean, when he wrote ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ in 1968, the eponymous anti-hero had already made the transition from Hollywood bit-part player to conservative icon.

Reagan had campaigned on behalf of Harry Truman immediately after the war, before shifting his attention to establishment Republicans such as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon in the 1950s. He also had the benefit of bureaucratic experience, having chaired the Screen Actors Guild twice during the period between 1947 and 1960. And in 1964, Reagan’s speech in favour of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, ‘A Time for Choosing’, had introduced him to a nationwide audience as a charismatic spokesman for rugged individualism.

Perhaps more importantly, a year or so before Unicorn Bookshop published Ballard’s controversial pseudo-pamphlet, Reagan was sworn in as the 33rd Governor of California, a position he used as a springboard to launch an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the 1968 Republican Party nomination.

So, yes—Reagan was in many ways a different kind of politician from what had gone before, but not so different. And besides, his ascent up the various rungs of the American political ladder was marked to a large extent by a willingness to compromise and work within the boundaries of the post-war consensus, which, though fraying at the seams, was still stronger than the centrifugal forces acting against it. Partisan aesthetics aside, I think it’s fair to say that Reagan was the John F. Kennedy of the late-1970s and 1980s, a silver screen salesman for Pax Americana and the American Dream.

Ballard’s vision of a slightly divergent present where scientists measured the psychosexual appeal of a pentagenerian presidential candidate was both plausible and funny because Reagan was part of the political furniture. He might have looked a bit out of place—a colour television in a tasteful study—but few people seriously questioned whether he belonged in the room.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, well, that’s a whole different ball game. The notion that this man—this demagogue—might end up leading the so-called ‘Free World’ would have struck most sensible observers as patently absurd just a few short years ago. But we live in absurd and surreal times, which as Ballard would have likely pointed out, is quite distinct from living in an age of Absurdism or Surrealism.

Celebrity, sex, class, consumerism, mass entertainment, collective resentment, and politics are all essentially indistinguishable in Trumpland. Fiction writers are behind the curve nowadays; they only wish they were as imaginative and ludicrous as reality.

Image by jbouie Atrocity Exhibitions


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James A. Chisem is an editor at British Online Archives. He has previously written for the BBC, The Times, and Reuters. He has also appeared on the Sunday Politics, Sky Sports, and BBC Radio 5 Live. ...more →

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33 thoughts on “Atrocity Exhibitions

  1. JFK, on the other hand, actually did things while in office.

    To speak about Reagan’s “different kind of politician”, one needs only to reference Vladimir Putin, to describe the governance of Reagan’s terms in office (Because Reagan, like George W. Bush, wasn’t really governing).

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  2. Good work James, just a few questions.

    1. Do you think ‘rugged individualism’ assumes that there exists a desire to reduce social constructs, or just control social constructs?

    2. Do you think authoritarianism escalation has anything to do with Trump ascending?

    3. What do you think the left will do in reaction to Trump authoritarianism?

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    • Thanks Joe. Very much appreciated.

      1. I think there’s a lot of levels to this, and the deeply unsatisfying answer is “probably both” or “it depends.” But I also think there’s a sort of primal desire to rid the social world of natural constructs, if that makes sense? When Joe Bloggs from Boulder talks about ‘rugged individualism’ he means something different to Old Man Rivers who lives in the middle of nowhere. I feel like Fight Club is somehow relevant here, not to mention far more insightful than myself.

      2. See the reply by . I’d say Trump is a product of wider social phenomena, not the cause.

      3. Bury it’s head in the sand and embrace it’s own brand of authoritarianism. I fear we are witnessing the collapse of the moral and political centre in the Western world…

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      • I fear we are witnessing the collapse of the moral and political centre in the Western world

        Look back at all of the previous moral and political centre collapses from the last 2000 years.

        Is there a single one that you wish was still around?

        So too will our descendants look at ours.

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      • When Joe Bloggs from Boulder talks about ‘rugged individualism’ he means something different to Old Man Rivers who lives in the middle of nowhere.

        Now and then you see pieces about “what skills does my after-the-crash village need”. The more amusing of them put things like “electrician to wire the solar panels” high on the list, with nary a thought about where the solar panels and copper wire will come from (nor the things that will be powered by the output from the solar panels). Almost no one puts weaver, spinner, and someone who knows to extract fiber from hemp or flax on their list; clothing apparently appears from nowhere. They may put carpenter on the list, but not a blacksmith to make tools or someone who can produce reasonable boards from raw timber.

        Most “rugged individualists” are heavily dependent on the city over the hill, they just like to think otherwise.

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          • I wouldn’t assume nails — iron and steel would be in short supply and be confined to tools (eg medieval Japan, where a set of chisels, planes, and saws, accumulated over a lifetime, would be passed down over multiple generations). Think “Take this pile of scrap lumber, these hand tools, and this pot of animal-based glue, and build a sturdy table.”

            Somewhere here in our house is The World’s Ugliest Piano Bench™ my daughter and I built with hand tools when she was about ten. Lots of glue and pegs that have held up for 20 years now. The only metal is the hinges my wife insisted on. Last time I went to visit my granddaughter, my daughter asked me, “Do you remember when we built that ugly piano bench?”

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          • Just that it’s a big city doing the production.

            Consider solar PV panels for a “self sufficient” village — it’s a tech commonly put forward by silly writers for where they will get their electricity. PV panels sit at the top of a fairly big pyramid of technologies: chemical refining for the materials, vacuum chamber thin film deposition/doping, float glass or equivalent for the substrate. Lose any one of them and you can’t make PV panels. That’s all before you get into the whole storage thing — many of the things such writers envision being done with PV-generated electricity happen during the dark…

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            • Yeah for that type of PV it will take some skill.
              Still not sure if that sequesters it to a city. I would nearly bet in the aftermath of cascade failures a facility would be built within walking distance of a landfill that had sufficient silicon glass, copper, and aluminum to develop/feed the process.

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              • Ah, John Michael Greer’s scavenger society… Myself, I’d be looking to load up on automotive alternators (and rectifiers), and permanent magnet electric motors that can be run as generators. The tech is much less fragile, and running water doesn’t stop at night.

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              • Do you know how to build a PV panel?

                I mean Tony Stark could probably build one out of the junk in a landfill, but unless you happened to have a bunch of engineers and scientists nearby to set up reprocessing junk into useful components AND figure out how to make it into PV panels, you’re SOL. Solar thermal, sure. You could probably rig that up.

                Frankly, you’d be better off making windmills or hand cranks. Getting power out of that just requires high school science and copper wire.

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                • Yeah, i can make a PV solar power generator from stuff in a landfill, without all the double dipped specialty processes. No it couldn’t power a village like Michael is outlining, but could consistently power smaller devices. I haven’t read Greer, just assumed if one didn’t have silicon growing in their backyard that the landfill would be an optional source. Also assuming that silicon doesnt grow on trees in the cities.

                  PV wouldn’t be my first pick either, my location is favorable to wind. Probably run a wood gasifier for emergency power. Really I dont need that much power for the house, its just a luxury item.

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  3. He might have looked a bit out of place—a colour television in a tasteful study—but few people seriously questioned whether he belonged in the room

    that’s not my recollection of the zeitgeist, (even though I was not much past a zygote at the time).

    Throughout the 80s, he was always portrayed as that amiable avuncular avatar that was the public face of the (always evil) conservative movement, while the real power worked behind the scenes. He was the actor that could only read a script, only good at looking good on television.

    The part that was underestimated and not even understood, especially by young people who were not even alive during Reagan’s political ascendence, was that he did spend over a decade and a half working the system, building political alliances, continuing his efforts in spite of intermediate failures, until he was finally able to win the nomination and the Presidency. (the counterfactual among all counterfactuals in the Reagan historiography is if he would have beat Ford for the nom in ’76, then lost to Carter, would he have ultimately been a footnote, and an evolutionary dead end for Republican party politics).

    The real shocking thing about Trump is that he was able to do the party takeover in the space of a single election cycle (even Goldwater played a longer game in comparison). And then winning the Presidency itself was something no one accounted for, not even many members of his own team.

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  4. He might have looked a bit out of place—a colour television in a tasteful study—but few people seriously questioned whether he belonged in the room.

    yeah you didn’t grow up in a union household brah. reagan is a senile puppet was the standing theme in these circles from literally as early as i can remember.

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  5. dhex: yeah you didn’t grow up in a union household brah. reagan is a senile puppet was the standing theme in these circles from literally as early as i can remember.

    I did grow up in a union household, just not in your country ;) But point well and truly taken.

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  6. In other functioning democracies around the world, political leaders tend to be gray, uninspiring technocrats (Merkel, Valls, Renzi). Flamboyant, colorful leaders who rely on their charisma rather than their skills at government (Abe, Berlusconi, Dilma) tend to steer their countries towards trouble.

    I’m not saying charisma is mutually exclusive with competence (Obama, Blair, Bhutto, Netanyahu, not sure about Modi yet). But I think what we’re looking at here in the U.S. was a deliberate choice by a significant number of voters to go with charisma only, deliberately eschewing the other figure whose principal appeal was “I am competent where he is not.” That segment of voters was actively disgusted with the fruits of past “competence.”

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    • Matt Y’s big conclusion at Vox today is that electoneering skills matter. Of course he does this in a way that allows him to maintain his policy priors especially re Free Trade and Globalization.

      http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/12/5/13794586/why-hillary-clinton-lost

      Conversely, passionate Clinton supporters are feeling wounded and defensive and disinclined to hear anything bad about a candidate they truly admired.

      All that said, on a forward-looking basis there is something confused about this.

      If the big problem with Hillary Clinton’s campaign was that she was a veteran politician in a country that likes fresh faces, a Washington insider in a country that likes outsiders, and a subpar orator in a country that prizes charisma, then there’s no particular reason to think that Democrats need to revise their policy agenda in any particular way. They just need a standard-bearer who is ideologically similar to Clinton but better at electioneering and prudent enough to avoid doing buckraking speeches in the lead-up to a presidential campaign.

      Not coincidentally, Barack Obama — who ran on a nearly identical agenda to that of Clinton — remains incredibly popular.

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      • Saul,
        We can actually ask some nice hard questions about Free Trade and Globalization — but I’d appreciate it if we did it in the context of the Western World, rather than just America.

        Hillary was a horrible candidate, and Remain was Hillary Clinton 1.0.

        Quitaly is next up on the docket.

        The Powers That Be are having a really bad time of it this year.

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    • While I don’t entirely disagree with your point I think it’s a bit too generous to the establishment. All of the more respectable leaders you named have been the authors of some profound policy failures but, for the most part, have never been meaningfully sanctioned for any of it (even in the soft, your ideas have failed so we are no longer taking you seriously way).

      I mean, is Berlusconi’s corruption and economic mismanagement really so much worse than Merkel’s disastrous refugee policies or Blair’s support for the Iraq invasion, especially in light of the chain of events since? I’m not saying there are no substantive differences. I do think our willingness, and the media’s willingness, to give passes to more traditional politicians even in light of serious missteps has helped pave the road for Trump and some of the populist movements in Europe.

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  7. Trump is from the world of real estate development and branding. Therefore he is likely to see the world as a kind of zero-sum game. If I don’t get this square of land, someone else will. If my name is not on this building, someone else’s name will be on the building. So he is the master of the high-pressure sales tactic which involves a lot of flattery followed by assholery.

    The Democratic/Neo-Liberal message is that the economy is not zero sum-game but this is abstract and requires several steps. Trump can use his Reality TV skills to work up crowds. From Slate:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/12/trump_plans_to_replace_governing_with_gimmickry_the_carrier_jobs_are_only.html

    Trump is up to something different. The jobs saved at Carrier aren’t examples of a proposed plan that promises similar, widespread results for the American workforce. The jobs saved at Carrier are the plan. Trump used his power as president-elect to intervene on behalf of a small group of individual Americans and claim victory. The resulting anecdote is the policy. The resulting press opportunity is the policy. The approach collapses any distinction between the work of leadership and the promotion of that work. It bypasses the abstractions of administration and substitutes visceral image-making instead. What Trump has laid out here is a troubling blueprint for government by stunt.

    To understand how fiendishly effective this tactic might be, it’s worth considering the facsimile of “business” presented on Trump’s reality show. The Apprentice series premiere gathered a group of MBAs, copier salesmen, and leggy stockbrokers, split these contestants into two teams (men vs. women), and asked them to run competing lemonade stands on the streets of New York City. The results make good television. At one point Trump is shown in a helicopter, surveying the streets below and complaining about the male team’s smelly location by the Fulton Fish Market. The women use their sex appeal to move the product, doling out cheek-kisses and phone numbers along with paper cups of lukewarm liquid. At the end of the day the women win, and one of the guys from the men’s team (an overeducated Ted Cruz-ian doofus with bad people skills) is sent home.

    What’s striking about the show, though, is not how phony it seems but how masterfully it presents its version of “business” as real. In many Apprentice challenges, the teams are judged by how much money they earned—a seemingly irrefutable criterion, especially when compared with the squishy aesthetic and personal judgments that prevail on shows like Project Runway, the Bachelor, or Dancing With the Stars (although of course it’s not clear who’s auditing the books). In the premiere Trump explains that the winner will get to work for his organization as “the president of one of my companies,” a role that seems startlingly significant for a reality-show prize and gives the proceedings more heft. The viewer comes away with the idea that running a company entails performing well at a set of random, atomized, concrete tasks. Turn an empty storefront into a pop-up bridal boutique. Develop a new menu item for a chicken chain. Run a profitable pedicab operation for an afternoon. Do these things, and voila—you’re C-suite material.

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    • Trump is a conman front and center.
      Evaluating him as though he’s a real estate magnate is looking at the wrong business model.

      His projects have more in common with Glitterbombs than with actual real estate. Real estate is a conservative market — Trump’s anything but.

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      • Trump is a real estate *developer*, and calls himself such.

        As I’ve pointed out innumerable times here…that is a really telling thing to call yourself and identify as, especially as a *career*.

        Real estate developers are, functionally, used car salesmen. Their entire premise is to find or sometimes come up with an interesting idea, and then spent a bunch of time and effort selling it to investors and banks, and then take some money off the top when it’s built.

        They also manage to carve off small pieces of ownership, which means if their ideas for buildings were good, they eventually graduate to ‘real estate magnate’ or ‘real estate owner’ or ‘business owner’ or ‘landlord’ or some such thing. They eventually become an *owner* and live off the profits, and stop being a real estate ‘developer’, because they *don’t need to ask other people for money*.

        Like you said, they go conservative. When you have properties that make you a hundred million dollars a year, you stop being a ‘real estate developer’, and start being someone that real estate developers *make pitches to*.

        Trump has proven, time and time again, that he can’t handle that last step. Yes, he occasionally ends up with ownership of properties and companies…whereupon, if there *are any business choices at all* to be made, he promptly runs them into the ground. In fact, he runs them into the ground *so hard*, and with so much debt, that banks won’t even give him loans anymore.

        He’s just lucky that some of his properties are just ‘leasing office space in Manhattan to businesses’, and it’s nearly impossible to screw that up.

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  8. Ballard said that he first thought of writing about Reagan when he saw him in car commercials and, after Ronnie was elected Governor, thought of JFK as a media creation and Reagan as the reductio ad absurdum of that. I wish he was still around to write about Trump because I think he would have been the most interesting person to do so. Trump already seems like a Ballard character. His last novel, Kingdom Come, was actually about a fascist movement that starts in a shopping mall. I think his brand of psycho-surrealism would read like journalism in 2017.

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