If American exceptionalism is a virtual reality simulation, the presidency of Donald Trump is the moment that it finally glitched out. Trump mercilessly mocked the somber, self-reverent image of leadership traditionally expected of U.S. presidents, while embracing surrealism as a political style. Over the past four years, a disorienting number of political practices and behaviors were revealed by Trump to have been mere “norms” — the culture of a senescent elite whose decline was accelerated by and helped enable Trump’s rise. Since the elites’ old, pleasing simulation of American omnipotence went unexpectedly haywire, many liberals have dreamt of nothing less than smashing the reboot button, putting the whole ugly Trump spectacle behind them, and chalking up the past four years to a bug in the program that beta testers had regrettably failed to catch.
The election of Joe Biden seems to have granted a reprieve, at least temporarily, for champions of a liberal order, which includes almost all Democrats as well as many Republicans. Unlike a simulation or a science fiction movie, however, there are no memory erasers or reboot buttons taking you back to square one. Today, the liberal U.S. establishment is congratulating itself for having waged a resistance to authoritarianism, extinguishing a “slow-motion Reichstag Fire” and narrowly averting full-blown fascism. Conservatives outside of this liberal order, meanwhile, including more than a few Republican politicians, are immersing themselves in an even more powerful fantasy by claiming, yet critically not really acting as though, the election was stolen in a left-wing coup.
“Trump is a figure who, if his statements are interpreted literally, could be compared to a dictator. But he is not that, he is a virtual equivalent of that.”
The terms of public debate in the United States today have become less about how to wield power than a fight over defining basic premises of reality. It’s too early to say whether this means the end of American democracy, or what such a thing might look like. For the meantime, what is playing out is an increasingly extreme divergence of narrative from reality, on all sides: a phenomenon that some have termed “political virtualism,” or even “dreampolitik.”
On the liberal side, the simulation of exceptionalism is not ending even after the revelatory events of the past four years. Likewise, among the conservative base, there is no consensus about accepting the unfavorable election results and moving on. Instead, the fantasies everywhere seem to be getting more powerful. Just as Trump enjoyed portraying a fascist strongman while governing like a standard, corrupt Republican Party politician, he is now performing a role as the victim of a great conspiracy, to the evident thrill of his supporters, even as the institutional gears turn to ease him out of office. The virtual politics continue with each party living out its preferred narrative. As always, any confrontation with unpleasant realities are to be deferred, with any hope, indefinitely.
“Trump is a figure who, if his statements are interpreted literally, could be compared to a dictator. But he is not that, he is a virtual equivalent of that,” said Bruno Maçães, author of the recent book “History Has Begun,” an analysis of the future of America’s political system. “Trumpism had economic and political costs and people did suffer, but all of this was kept within certain well understood limits. In America, you have approximations of other societies in virtual form. Trump never tried to impose an authoritarian regime, but for his followers the experience was psychologically the same. Now, with his loss both his supporters and opponents are entering a new realm of virtual reality in which he either failed because he was defeated by an anti-fascist resistance, or because the election was stolen in a coup.”
Our wider culture is to blame for this style of American virtual politics — a notion that is partly the focus of Maçães’s book. In this reading of contemporary America, foretold by certain far-sighted U.S. commentators in the past, entertainment has so thoroughly colonized all spheres of life that the election of a reality television star as president becomes not just possible but a logical outcome. Trump may not have been the first entertainer to become president, but he has been the first to win office while simply maintaining that persona.
As commander in chief, Trump bragged about his own approval ratings in office being “through the roof,” while transforming symbols of government like the White House and Air Force One into props for his performance. His presidency represented not the rise of a genuine far-right movement but of “spectacular performative conservatism,” Maçães said, that was focused on projecting a certain story about society using language and symbols rather than structurally changing things.
To the dismay of his political rivals, Trump displayed a strong instinctive understanding of the psychological needs of the American public for excitement; life in a postmodern liberal society can be boring, after all. While he failed to administer good governance to Americans, Trump did deliver a constant rhetorical embellishment of reality that fed people’s insatiable hunger for extreme psychological experiences. He performed as an anti-corruption crusader while governing in a plainly corrupt manner throughout his term. The apparent gap between fiction and reality made no difference to Trump’s supporters — in the 2020 election his support actually increased.
Although uninspiring and weak as a politician, a job that he scarcely seemed interested in anyway, Trump delivered on his persona as a virtual dictator — to either be adulated or, on the part of his liberal opponents, defeated. These liberal opponents projected a counternarrative, with a symbolism similar to the Trump movement, that draws on the rhetoric of mid-20th century resistance movements to totalitarianism. On both sides, the reality was significantly less dramatic than the stories being told. An actual fascist dictator cannot be beaten by simply being voted out.
Occasionally, there seemed to be a realization, even among some of the Trump movement, of the virtual nature of his style. It is a great relief, for instance, that many Trump’s supporters do not seem to actually believe his rhetoric about coups and stolen elections, which, if taken seriously, would amount to a call for civil war.
The intensification of fantasy on all sides helps paper over the many serious yet unglamorous problems that the U.S. faces.
Nonetheless, some of the stories took real hold. The intensification of fantasy on all sides — including liberals’ ecstasy over their successful resistance — helps paper over the many serious yet unglamorous problems that the U.S. faces. These problems, unfortunately, don’t fit neatly into any of the grand fantasies of American history: crumbling infrastructure, the small wars of imperial decline, environmental degradation, police violence, crime, and a generally fraying social fabric.
Not everyone has dealt in pure fantasy. Some on the left and right alike have shown a willingness to bring their beliefs to praxis, suffering real-world physical harm, mostly on the left, and using street violence to pursue their beliefs, a feature on both sides. The political movement led by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also offered a vision of sacrifice and change, right down to his concession speech in the Democratic presidential primary, where he urged supporters to continue the “never-ending struggle,” to uplift a faltering society. As Jimmy Carter learned decades before, such a potentially challenging message could not match up to the prospect of unbound fantasy — the most powerful force in American culture.
At the start of the information age — decades before the maelstroms of social media, reality television, and cable news — the historian Daniel Boorstin warned that such a challenge to American democracy was on the horizon: the threat of fantasy. As Boorstin wrote in his 1962 book “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America,” an extremely powerful culture industry had already begun to reshape the consciousness of Americans in a way that could blind them to the realities of their own country. The sober and even boring constraints of managing politics began to blend with the limitless fantasy world of entertainment, which, as early as the Kennedy era, had begun to exert an influence on American political culture.
“We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them,” Boorstin wrote. “We are the most illusioned people on earth. Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very experience.”
The fear of becoming disillusioned is key not only to understanding the Trump movement, but also the liberal backlash. The campish, hypermasculine fantasy offered by the Trump years is now transitioning back to the fantasies embodied by Biden. To put it another way, the channel is being changed from “The Apprentice” back to “The West Wing.”
“If we’re not able to imagine a world where the U.S. is anything less than dominant worldwide, we will inflict a great deal of harm on ourselves and others trying to resist reality.”
Savvy political actors are taking note of the shift. The neoconservative foreign policy establishment, scarcely able to believe its luck during the Trump years, is already repositioning itself to take advantage of the new fantasies that Biden offers — switching their messaging from machismo back to the liberal world domination rhetoric the United States has upheld since the end of World War II. A new report from Washington’s flagship neoconservative think tank calls for the U.S. to “defend forward” across the entire planet, recalling the challenge posed by powerful totalitarian empires like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In the present day, these fantasies serve to justify and cover over a much uglier reality of bombing predominantly weak and poor countries to satisfy the demands of domestic special interest groups, client states, and the U.S. defense industry.
Yet the fantasy of a planet led by a benevolent liberal hegemon has proven no less destructive in reality than Trump’s strongman appeal of dropping the biggest bombs on the worst bad guys. Unsustainable on its own terms, the benevolent hegemon narrative appears to be undergoing a slow and painful collapse, despite desperate efforts to breathe life back into it.
“The original point of U.S. global military primacy was to deal with a world where totalitarianism was running amok and where it was unfortunately necessary to hold it back with force,” said Stephen Wertheim, a scholar at the intervention-skeptic Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of “Tomorrow, the World,” an analysis of World War II as a new founding moment justifying U.S. global military domination. “We have to ask whether these conditions hold today or if they have held anytime in the past three decades since the Soviet Union collapsed. Even in the case of China, it is hardly clear that it poses the kind of threat that either the Axis powers or the Soviets did.”
Wertheim went on, “At some point, the U.S. will not be the No. 1 power anymore. All empires fall, at some point. If we’re not able to imagine a world where the U.S. is anything less than dominant worldwide, we will inflict a great deal of harm on ourselves and others trying to resist reality.”
In his staffing decisions, Biden aimed at the closest possible return of approximation of the pre-Trump status quo: the great reboot. For many Trump opponents, the halcyon golden age they would like to recreate was the exact moment before his election. It is to that fantasy that they now return.
The simulation, in other words, remains strong on both sides, Liberals are congratulating themselves for defeating authoritarianism and reclaiming their esteemed place in the world. The right, meanwhile, descends into a miasma of conspiracy theory and victimhood. What both fantasies have in common is that they flatter and entertain those who take part.
What seems certain is that America’s perimeter fence against disenchanting reality is being strengthened rather than dismantled.
A world of “dreampolitik” and political virtualism, helped along by intense new information technologies, could exist alongside the prosaic real world for a long time, maybe even indefinitely. In that way, as Maçães and others have argued, we might find this divergence between narrative and reality less disturbing. Virtualism might even be recognized as a method of stabilizing the American system, providing people the opportunity to live out extreme psychological scenarios while remaining assured that the underlying system, for all its insoluble flaws, remains stable at its core.
The only problem might be that, as the real world increasingly penetrates our defenses, the ability to beat it back with more and more powerful fantasies might not prove strong enough. Left at the mercy of increasingly powerful virtual experiences, we might even lose the ability to recognize and act in the face of certain constraints that prove impossible to resist. As the liberal establishment, with Biden back at its head, reboots to its preferred version of the exceptionalism simulation, what seems certain is that America’s perimeter fence against disenchanting reality is being strengthened rather than dismantled.
“What survived the election was not Trumpism as a policy platform but the fantasy politics of the last four years,” Maçães wrote in a recent New York Times article on political virtualism. “The return to reality is but one stage in developing new fantasies. It is a way to wipe clean the canvas before departing again in search of new adventures.”