Signs of Life

Donald Trump’s victory in the recent election shows (among many other things) the relative triviality of “opinions,” “viewpoints,” “ideas,” “policies” and “discourse” our age of ubiquitous digital media overload. This is quite obvious given that Trump doesn’t really have opinions, viewpoints or policies. The facts speak for themselves and no fact speaks louder in politics than victory. Just as obviously, most Americans don’t really care about policies and ideas either, at least not the kind of policies and ideas launched in their direction by the human missiles known as politicians. They know better. They know better to take seriously what politicians think about anything, and Trump seems to be the only politician in American who understands American voters. This is the genius of Donald Trump.

For most of the campaign, the Washington elite mocked Trump for being stupid, vulgar, ignorant and for lacking good manners. Little did they know. Trump, a mere amateur and seemingly ignorant concerning everything political leaders are supposed to know, beat them at their own game and if the Democratic establishment is embarrassed, they aren’t showing it. With no political experience whatsoever, Trump managed to decimate both major political parties in the United States—and that may be the only good thing to come out of the election.

Although he’s a real estate developer and now a politician, Trump remains primarily a television personality. That means that his success in politics has something to do with television, and with the nature of a television personality.

Back around 1980 Stanley Cavell published an essay called “The Fact of Television,” in which he posits that unlike movies, television does not project the world but rather monitors events in the world, which is why live performances are television’s most natural subject. As for what sort of event is being monitored, Cavell speculates that what we look for on TV are signs of life.

If we are watching our television monitors for signs of life, that can only be because we aren’t sure we’re alive at all. On TV, we seek confirmation of our live existence, because—being shut in our homes in a dangerous world and shut out of the social circle that owns and runs the country, our lives are precarious. Perhaps we’re dead and the American Dream is actually a posthumous reverie. How would we ever find out?

People who seek to explain Trump’s success in terms of “what he says” cannot understand his success when matched up against professional politicians like Hillary Clinton who seems to know what she’s talking about. So the TV pundits say, at any rate, and they’re the experts, right?

—Wrong. I suspect that when Americans tune in to the cable news or to the Sunday talk shows, they are smart enough to realize that what they’re seeing are the same used-up purveyors of recycled bullshit their parents saw in black and white via rooftop antennas. The same experts but with different names, new suits, and long records of failure on their resumes, except then it was the Cold War and now it’s the War on Terror. I think that people aren’t quite sure, but for the most part they know: running the country requires the skill set of an average mid-level manager in a tire store.

In other words, when Americans see their chosen leaders pontificating on TV, they see some completely lifeless robotic holograms—like Hillary Clinton. They see people who are for all the world dead.

In this sort of wasteland, signs of life can appear anywhere at any time on television. For example, on Reality TV, which is the most significant innovation in television since it was invented. Why is Reality TV so popular? Because the format is designed to showcase screw-ups, moments when some member of the cast goes “off script,” says something inappropriate, inadvertently reveals a scandalous secret, or fights another cast member. These are all events, and as Cavell observes, television is intended to monitor them because they provide evidence of life (as if we are only visiting planet Earth from a distant galaxy).

Reality TV is really an evolution of late night talk shows, like Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. People watched Johnny because, having a sublime gift for gab, he conveyed spontaneity, and if you watch a video clip of The Tonight Show highlights, you’re likely to see moments when someone—either Johnny or his guest—went “off script.” Gaffes, slips of the tongue, sexual innuendos, off-color jokes, “wardrobe malfunctions,” and so on—moments of outrageousness and embarrassment. Carson led to emphatically rude interview shows hosted by people like Maury Povich and Jerry Springer, and here we are with Reality TV.

Trump understands all of this. He understands that Americans feel Death all around them—inside the home, down the street, in the bad part of town, in the sky and in our streams and forests, and of course in Washington, D.C., where one thoughtless moment in the life of the President will produce a nuclear holocaust. So Trump gives Americans what they need and that is signs of life.

With Trump, signs of life are conveyed by any means at hand, including mocking disabled people, calling Mexicans rapists and drug traffickers, insulting minorities, inciting fights at rallies, and so on. These outrageous moments provide proof of our existence, like a twenty-first century version of Descartes’ cogito argument in the “Third Meditation. Whereas his political rivals embody death-in-life, Trump provides evidence that both he and the viewer are actually still alive. And I can still connect with—overcome my terror and isolation—someone who is actually alive.

This interpretation suggests that we have already evolved far beyond “left vs. right” politics, ideologies and ideas—never that powerful in any event without being backed up by a lethal arsenal—and are collectively struggling with questions that are literally and figuratively matters of life and death. Trump’s insights into America’s psyche go far beyond those of our so-called intellectual class, especially those who churn out books and appear on television trying and failing to convince ordinary Americans that credentials and experience outweigh repeated failure and that expertise in various specialized areas are required to understand what is happening in the world. But most people understand that this is not true, that the Emperor has no clothes, and that’s why Trump is the President.


Carl Kandutsch holds a B.A. from Johns Hopkins University, a Ph.D. (Comparative Literature) from Yale University and a J.D. from the University of Washington School of Law. He operates the Kandutsch Law Office in Plano, Texas. Dr. Kandutsch also actively pursues research and writing projects relating to literature, philosophy and the visual arts.