Our haunt

The revelation that Tony Schwartz was the exclusive author of The Art of the Deal, with Donald Trump providing only indirect thematic inspiration, has been nagging at me ever since that first tweet. Of course, I use the word “revelation” ironically; it’s always been terribly apparent that Trump lacks the capacity and focus to read an entire book, much less write one. But that’s exactly what’s bothering me: it is obvious that Trump did not write this or any of “his” other books, and yet they are still referred to as books “by” Trump and quoted from as though the words therein emanated from Trump himself in any capacity at all. In short: why is everybody constantly lying about this?

Consider, for example, this article, wherein the author not only assumes that the words in The Art of the Deal are Trump’s own, but actually attempts to mine the particulars of their phrasing for insight into Trump’s personal psyche:

Notice the specificity of his observations, his eye for certain details. Notice the irrepressible joy, almost awe, he experiences and expresses. Notice how loving, wistful, aroused he is, by the play of surfaces. It’s hard to believe he’s faking any of this. It seems, to me at least, quite real.

This analysis cannot hold, for the very simple reason that Trump did not write the words being referred to here. That is, Schwartz probably wrote this based on some sort of story or description he got from Trump, and maybe this really is how Trump is, but it’s still bad analysis. It ignores the real situation. It’s fake news. The fact that it “seems real” is exactly the problem: it is a lie that is easy to believe.

So what this means for The Art of the Deal specifically is that it’s essentially Trump fanfiction (without the “fan” part); given its inherent mendacity, it is worthless as evidence (and this probably applies just as well to everything else that has Trump’s name on it). Similarly, it’s been widely acknowledged that Trump’s inaugural address was written by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, and this presents the same problem. Those words were not Trump’s, and yet they are taken as evidence of what Trump personally thinks and believes. And Trump is not a confounding case, but rather the clarifying example here, because it’s rather apparent that he doesn’t think about or believe in a whole hell of a lot beyond his own surface-level aggrandizement.

So of course this phenomenon is not limited to a single series of hype-building hackworks; it is one of the basic properties of the culture that we inhabit. We routinely attribute things to people who did not originate them. This applies not only to ghostwriting in general, or to political speeches in general, but also to pop songs, where analyzing a song written by a committee and composed by a robot supposedly reveals to us the performer’s personal convictions, and to celebrities in general, whose stage-managed public appearances are tugged and prodded for evidence of appropriate ideology, and to technology, where Steve Jobs is given credit for the work done by a variety of different designers and engineers employed by Apple Inc. (to be clear, this is not to insist that someone like Jobs, or like a pop singer, contributes nothing, but simply that a lot of the stuff attributed to them is stuff that they had no real hand in), and to corporations in general, where CEOs are lauded for “spearheading initiatives” that earn them their golden parachutes on the way out, and, yes, to society itself, where workers, the people who actually do the things, are treated like a big dumb lump of human inertia, while living disutility generators like Thomas Friedman go jetting around the world in the guise of “thought leadership.” So this isn’t fine-print pedantry. It kind of matters.

Admittedly, there’s an extent to which this is all shorthand; that is, by “Trump says” we consciously mean “it is the collective public opinion of Trump administration officials that,” but there’s also an extent to which we are falling for our own con. If you seriously think that every anti-Trump protestor and/or commentator understands fully that Trump is the symptom and not the disease, you’re kidding yourself. As above, lots of people are taking what’s happening right now to be representative of Trump as a person rather than a result of the general political situation as opportunized by specific schemers of Bannon’s ilk. For example, “Trump’s” budget proposal, among other things, was poached pretty directly from the Heritage Foundation:

“When we were on the campaign, for Trump’s speeches we would pull stuff from Heritage budget documents and make the arguments that Heritage was making,” Moore said. “I think it’s very accurate to say that a lot of these ideas … even some of the arguments they make, some of the rhetoric is almost verbatim from Heritage.”

If you don’t know this, you are not capable of opposing the entity that is actually doing the things that you are opposed to. And Heritage has been around; it had a major influence on Reagan’s presidency, for example. So this isn’t one misdirection happening right now because of social media or whatever; it is the ongoing cause of everything that has been happening, all along.

We all learn in school that Issac Newton said he was only able to see what he saw by “standing on the shoulders of giants” but we learn this at the same time that Newton himself is drilled into our brains as the lone-genius inventor of physics, as a Great History Man. So we often think we understand the distinction here – nobody will, when pressed, actually claim that Jobs plucked the iPhone fully-formed from his brain – at the same time that we unconsciously assume that things really are that simple (that plucked-from-the-head reference is from mythology, i.e. the stories out of which we construct the underlying assumptions that we use to understand the world). Because of course both things are true: nobody’s a lone genius, but people do make real individual contributions. I’m not saying the relevant dynamics are always obvious, or that it’s never safe to elide the details (I’ll admit to making this very elision myself), but to simply assume that everything with the Trump brand name stamped on it emanates directly from the addled brain of the man himself is to accede to the fantasy that people like Trump attempt to flatter themselves with, and to abandon the truth. We are attributing authorship of the situation to the person who is in reality nothing more than a name on a dust-jacket.

Worse, this is exactly the trap that these people want us to fall into. The whole point of someone like Trump is to function as an attention heat-sink, leaving people like Bannon and organizations like Heritage free to operate in the shadows. The only way to stop these things is to exorcise the animating spirit; otherwise, the same forces will return to possess the next media-friendly stooge who wanders in looking for applause lines. Failing to get this at least half-right is what allows for someone like Trump to get up on a stage and say “I alone can fix it,” and for people to believe him. And the opposing view, that “Trump alone can break it,” makes the same mistake and results in the same ineffectuality. We should try to avoid this. It’s the kind of thing that could come back to haunt us – I mean, more so than it already has.