Forget 1984. To better understand Trump, read Mythologies.
By James McWilliams
(Photo: Martin Menu/Flickr)
As Americans turn to George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) to better understand Donald Trump’s election, as we entertain the exciting possibility that we can read our way to some level of sensible public understanding, it’s time to suggest another classic 20th-century work, one that lends even deeper insight into Trump’s unlikely rise to power: Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957). Like Orwell, Barthes deals in language. Unlike Orwell, he deals in language to elucidate the subversive (and oppressive) power of myth. Trump is more than a butcher of language. He is a builder of myths.
Myths are not, in Barthes’ analysis, innocent origin stories. They are dangerous cultural distortions. They cleanse language of its history, and liberate words from their past, all in order to make a non-essential (and often ridiculous) connection seem essential. This somewhat mystical (myths are mysterious) transformation works by suggesting that certain fabricated phenomena are all natural (and, thus, all good) while hiding the cynical process of social construction behind their making. We build myths to prevent as many people as we can from asking questions about the hidden distortion that, inevitably, serves someone’s interest at the expense of truth, justice, and enlightened common sense.
To illuminate how this process works, Barthes explores (among other commodities) that quintessentially French vehicle known as the Citroën. Regarding the D.S. 19 model, he explains: “one can easily see in an object at once a perfection and an absence of origin.” With its history erased by the car’s Platonic smoothness, its seamless sheen, the Citroën comes to signify “an attribute of perfection” within French culture. Without this necessary quality of smoothness, a quality perpetuated by words and images, the car would otherwise “reveal a technical and typically human operation of assembling.” The myth would wither. But with effective advertising and design, another project becomes possible. The imperfect logistics of building the car, bringing it to market, and giving that quotidian process a history can be “totally prostituted, appropriated.” The car thus goes from being a car to being a “purely magical object.” The Citroën, a dumb hunk of metal on wheels with nothing inherently French about it, becomes a myth embodying the notion of spontaneous French propulsion through space, something as integral to national identity as wine and cheese — a fact beyond scrutiny.
As the French once did with the Citroën, so Trump has done with his hair. He has built his brand around it, making it the ultimate signifier, one that sustains a myth more dangerous than those bearing on cars or food: He’ll put America First.
Turning to Trump, it’s generally in poor journalistic taste to evaluate a politician’s hair. But with Trump, by way of Barthes, it’s required. As the French once did with the Citroën, so Trump has done with his hair. He has built his brand around it, making it the ultimate signifier, one that sustains a myth more dangerous than those bearing on cars or food: He’ll Make America Great Again; He’ll Put America First. If the connection between hair and myth seems overblown, imagine Trump with the tight curls of a Rand Paul. Or imagine him bald. Would the Myth of American Greatness stick? Likely not.
Trump’s head of hair is a Barthesean “magical object” that attempts — in its timelessly clean, windswept, and golden appearance — to capture the strange smoothness of a Citroën and drive that quality from a benign sign into the land of myth. Devoid of grayness, lightened with tints of boyish blond, and flowing like a swift waterfall down the back of his head, the Trumpian coif hides the fact that, as with the Citroën, it’s a complex feat of human engineering, one maintained by bobby pins rather than nature. Defying the laws of physics and, critically, devoid of history (the hair barely changes over time), it’s the signifying force from which the mythical Trump, the one that embodies the notion of America First, originates and thrives.
With Trump’s hair mystically transformed from an innocent sign (a weird haircut) into a powerful signifier (the man will make us great again!) — that is, with the mythical turn evidently complete — Trump is free to exploit the powers that a myth grants. Namely, he can, with all the swagger of a dictator, write whatever history he wants. This ability explains a lot about his behavior. Why would he state empirically obvious lies in the face of easily obtained evidence to the contrary (the largest crowd ever to attend an inauguration)? Because he’s kicking the tires of his myth.
He’s seeing to what extent it effectively transcends the history of facts that would take down an improperly mythologized figure. Why will he not release his tax returns? Doing so would return to him a tangible personal history, one that would directly threaten the myth of Trump because, as indicated, myths abhor a documented past. One flaw on that tax return might lead the followers of his myth to notice that one bobby pin cached in his hair. And if the hair unravels, the myth goes with it. (In one of the more bizarre Trumpian acts, he joined a staged wrestling spectacle and bombastically shaved the head of the loser. Had the positions been reversed, had Trump been the victim of the buzz clippers, it would have been akin to a political assassination. Not incidentally, the first essay in Mythologies is called “The World of Wrestling.”)
The awful thing about a successfully forged myth, even if it originates in a person’s hairstyle, is that it’s necessarily difficult to undo. Barthes calls a successfully created myth an “alibi,” and it’s usually a very convincing one, in large part because people who buy into a myth do not see it as a myth. Instead they only see the essence that the myth signifies — in Trump’s case that of Make America Great Again and America First, both of which trade in the pre-existing cultural appeal of American exceptionalism.
The media industry, in a noble attempt to return meaning to words, has gone to heroic lengths to state and chronicle the trail of Trump’s lies. False, false, false. But this effort misses the critical point that myths cannot be undone with the same logic that, in building itself, the myth parasitically consumed. It’d be like picking up the enemy’s spent cartridge, loading it in your weapon, and firing back. When Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway is able to respond to Trumpian lies with the claim that they are working with “alternative facts,” and Trump supporters don’t protest against such nonsense, then you know that any effort to expose Trumpian lies with logic is the equivalent of firing blanks.
The Trojan horse was a myth. But a myth can be a Trojan horse, and in Trump’s case what could pour out is some corporate brand of authoritarianism as strange and offensive as his hairdo. There are two ways to remain optimistic that we can escape such a prospect. The first is to get lucky and discover that the Trumpian myth is not complete, and that at some point the logic of language yet to be gutted by myth will prevail in the face of an impeachment-worthy scandal. The other is trickier but more inspiring. Those of us (a majority, as it is) who see through the myth of Trump might learn to reclaim language in a way that does not lend it to the kind of essentialist thinking that makes myth-making possible in the first place. We could push, through the grit of our own stories, past the turmoil and triumph of our own experience, shared openly and democratically, with compassion and tolerance, to put away childish things. Both Barthes and Orwell would approve.