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What it means that we keep talking about America like it’s a TV show

Living under Trump feels like living in a bad thriller. A Walter Benjamin essay explains why that matters.

Trump delivers Christmas Day message to troops from Oval Office.
Trump on a video call to military service members on Christmas Day.
Zach Gibson-Pool/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Since 2015, when Donald Trump began his campaign for president in earnest, it has become increasingly common to joke about the news as if it were a TV show. A standard meme now is to say something like, “Wow, this season of America is really going off the rails. What’s going on in that writers’ room?”

We’ll call this joke the Writers meme. Over the past four years, it’s become commonplace among the Extremely Online. It’s all over Twitter, both because it’s a pretty good joke and because it’s a pretty good way of dealing with how unutterably depressing the world has become for so many people over the past couple of years.

But in certain lights, I find the joke itself to be even more depressing than the world it’s mocking.

The Writers meme began as an ironic little chuckle, a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction one-liner. “Whoever is writing the news has gotten all the good writers,” wrote Alexandra Petri for the Washington Post in 2015, just after Donald Trump hosted Saturday Night Live. “They are the ones who put Donald Trump into the race in the first place.” It wasn’t a very elaborate joke, just a straightforward recognition that we live in interesting times. (Petri was an early adopter of the Writers meme, but it’s hard to say that any one person started it.)

But over time, the Writers meme has grown steadily more involved, more surreal, and more elaborate. It has scripts, now, with imagined writers making elaborate pitches for this season of America: The TV Show and imagined producers summoning security as it becomes clear that the writers are getting way, way too heavy-handed. When you’re riffing on the Writers meme, you don’t have to do much (if any) setup to establish that you are about to joke that the news is like a TV show. We all get it. That’s just how people talk about the news these days.

And as the Writers meme has evolved, it’s stopped being a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction joke. It’s become a fiction-is-stranger-than-truth joke. The joke of the Writers meme now is that life under the Trump administration is too pat; it follows recognizable storytelling tropes too easily. The news has become a cliché.

At the core of the joke is the complaint that the Trump administration is destructive in an aesthetically unpleasant way. It’s bad enough to feel like the country is imploding in slow motion, but must that implosion also feel like the plot of a bad airplane thriller? If we must live in a time of real-world plot twists, why are all of the plot twists so hackneyed and clichéd? Why is the slow death of democracy happening with such poor taste?

Whenever I think about the Writers meme, I think about Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” about the way that art and politics interact under fascism. For Benjamin, part of the project of fascism is to render politics aesthetic (communism, conversely, renders art political), and the result of the fascist trajectory is that war begins to hold enormous aesthetic value.

Benjamin quotes at length from a manifesto on the Ethiopian colonial war by futurist Filippo Marinetti, which proclaims, “War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony.” When politics become aesthetic, large-scale destruction becomes beautiful.

For Benjamin, making politics the object of aesthetic interest is a degradation of both art and of humanity. “Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself,” he writes. “Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”

And here at the end of 2018, mankind’s self-alienation has apparently reached such a degree that we feel our destruction should offer us a higher aesthetic pleasure, and we feel cheated when it does not. Under Trumpism, politics have an aesthetic, and that aesthetic is tacky, and the tackiness is disappointing.

For anyone who has embraced the Writers meme in its current iteration, what is happening in America now is not something that can be experienced as beautiful. It lacks the grandeur even of something as awful as a war. It is petty and vindictive and cruel. It is little. It is kitschy. Donald Trump has created a political aesthetic of the middlebrow. And what the Writers meme shows is that life in American culture is now so alienating that for many critics of Trump, his destructiveness would hurt differently if he at least found a way to be highbrow about it.

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