Collective Solipsism and the Spectacle of Donald Trump
Solipsism is the belief that the “self” is all that exists (or can be known to exist), and that, as a result, the “selves” of others, and the world itself for that matter, are merely extensions of the individual mind. In other words, if I am a solipsist, you are all just figments of my imagination.
It is an easy belief to make fun of. For example, I remember hearing a story somewhere about a professor who was a solipsist. One of his students said:
“We have to take good care of the professor. After all, if he goes, we all go.”
Solipsism is also easy to make fun of because it usually refers to isolated individuals, and in most cases it only affects that particular individual. If solipsism causes distress, that distress is limited to the solipsist.
Moreover, when used as an insult, the term usually refers to someone who is not a conscious adherent of solipsism, but whose thoughts are so disconnected from reality that they are acting as if they were. Thus, we are really saying that so-and-so is an unconscious solipsist.
But what happens when this “unconscious solipsism,” which we humorously deride in individuals, creeps into a group, or begins to permeate society at large? Then it’s no longer a laughing matter, is it?
To put it another way, we can refer instead to the problem of ideology. Ideology is a rigid set of simplistic ideas that are superimposed on reality and used to by adherents to interpret that reality. When someone adheres to ideology, reality takes on a subordinate role.
This has some of the same effects as solipsism, because it means that reality itself is molded in the shape of the ideology. That is to say, the real is only real insofar as it is able to conform to the ideology, and that which does not conform to the ideology is either mutilated and forced to conform to it, or else it is discarded.
More to the point, ideologies are collective, and so they are far more dangerous that individual delusions. Large groups do not simply delude themselves, but actually begin to exercise an effective power on the external world.
Let me cite Guy Debord’s little book, The Society of the Spectacle, in which he explains this phenomenon:
“Ideological entities have never been mere fictions–rather, they are a distorted consciousness of reality, and, as such, real factors retroactively producing real distorting effects; which is all the more reason why that materialization of ideology, in the form of the spectacle…results in the virtual identification with social reality itself of an ideology that manages to remold the whole of the real to its own specifications.” (Thesis 212)
For Debord, ideology was just one facet of “the spectacle.”
The spectacle was the mass of images that existed over and apart from reality, and was preferred by “The Society of the Spectacle” over reality itself, to which they had forgotten how to relate. They had transitioned in such a way that they could only see realty through the mediation of the spectacle.
That’s alarming, just in theoretical terms. It explains the power of ideologies like socialism and capitalism, and why they persist despite their proven ineffectiveness. But thanks to Donald Trump, we’ve been getting a more extreme view of what this looks like when “the spectacle” becomes embodied by an individual.
Donald Trump is the incarnate spectacle–the personification of a collective delusion.
To take only the most recent example, Trump recently blurted out something about “what’s happening last night in Sweden.” Well, according to Sweden, nothing happened, or is happening.
Nonetheless, the words had already been spoken and, as a result, what he said had already been integrated into the reality of those who depend on Donald Trump to provide their information.
The result was that even though the former Prime Minister of Sweden thought Trump must certainly have been high–which, in a way, is like calling him a solipsist–Trump’s followers could allow nothing to alter the information they had been given. Instead of looking for corroborating testimony from, say, Sweden, they began claiming that the media was covering it all up.
Returning to Guy Debord’s remarks, we can see the “retroactive” power of the spectacle at work here. The Donald said something, and recent history itself was mutilated in order to justify what he’d said.
Now, for Trumps supporters, Sweden does indeed have an immigration problem, and not only that but there has been an ongoing cover-up to try and hide the fact–a dark conspiracy through which Trump was only able to see with the help of Fox News.
But again, this does not seem to make much of a difference to a number of Trump’s supporters, nor will it likely matter to the President himself that the only network he has not accused of running “fake news” actually gave him “fake news.”
Why? Because now Sweden has a problem with immigrants and violence. All evidence to the contrary is actually evidence of the cover-up. No, that’s not reality. But that doesn’t matter.