Part of the power is found in his contention that President Trump is, in essence, exposing the moral vacuity of postmodernism. This is where postmodernism leads—a President Trump.
Yet it is Ernst’s description of Trump as an “antihero” that strikes the truest chord. That description characterizes why Trump is such a polarizing figure and consistently defies conventional wisdom and why he reveals the continued evolution (devolution?) of our culture.
Before those ideas are unpacked, let’s pause a second and ask what is meant by “antihero.” Ernst provides a number of examples from popular entertainment—gangsters like Tony Soprano and Tony Montana, teacher-drug dealer Walter White, and unscrupulous politician, Frank Underwood. Using gangsters here is particularly illuminative. In mob dramas like The Sopranos and Scarface, there are rarely “good guys.” Instead, the person you root for is usually the better guy, the more humane or honest murderer.
President Trump is an antihero. He makes little pretense about being moral and honor-bound, yet he is far from the caricatured, Hitler-esque villain depicted by his despisers. He may be an a**, but at least he’s honest about it. In a postmodern age in which authenticity and self-actualization are some of the supreme values, Trump can be egotistical and petty and also gain politically.
President Trump, antihero, is naturally polarizing. Even as moral relativism gains a greater foothold in the culture at large, incessant moralizing tends to accompany every position on every issue. Much of the moralizing is not actually moral—it’s just the pretense of morality. Trump dispenses with the pretense and offends some shibboleth of virtually every faction of our society.
“What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of f—in’ a–holes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your f—in’ fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy.” So… what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy! Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you.”
As Ernst later concluded, “Many people empathized with Trump for enduring the contempt that he deliberately brought against himself. Trump kept playing the role of the antihero and Clinton kept playing the role of the pearl-clutching fraud.” Clinton would go after Trump’s business deals—Trump would use the Clinton Foundation to show that she was no different than him, except for the pretense. She would lambaste his sexist comments and he would parade some of her husband’s sexual conquests—to show that she was no different in disrespect for women, except for the pretense.
In electing Donald Trump, a large swath of America decided to do away with political pretense once and for all. President Clinton practically went on an apology tour for his misconduct with Monica Lewinsky. While many of his supporters parroted the line “It’s just sex,” they could also disingenuously add “Oh, and he said sorry.” Would Clinton have to apologize today? Perhaps—but only in the insincere manner that Trump affected after the release of the recordings of his crass comments on women.
The Moral Majority came out in mass to vote for a man who doesn’t personally embody their values. Working class white voters poured out in unprecedented numbers for an East Coast billionaire.
It is becoming apparent that we no longer want our president to be a hero or even to pretend to be one. We are ready to embrace the antihero, as long as he or she is honest about it.
Stephen Roberts is an Army Reserve chaplain, writer and evangelist living near Milwaukee. He is a regular contributor to Political Storm.