Trump, Sanders and the End of Irony

World War I was probably the most important event of the 20th century for many well-known geopolitical, military, and social reasons but it also had a profound psychological impact as well, which strongly resonates, particularly in the West. It was World War I that introduced what many call the age of irony. Western democracies lurched towards an ironic worldview when the certainties of antebellum Europe were destroyed, but it took nearly a century, another world war and the Cold War for this attitude to finally dominate Western societies. And now it would seem, with the emergence of two very unironic candidates for President in America, this country, at least, is shifting back to a historical mean. 

The emergence of the ironic age (meaning a worldview of where inauthenticity, dishonesty, and cynicism are accepted as the norm) was neither immediate nor smooth. The first Western nation to slip into the ironic bubble was Germany, reflected in the emergence of the DaDa school of art, and subsequently scandalous and libertine 1920s Berlin. But the Germans weren’t yet ready and quickly succumbed to the lure of Nazism. Same dynamic largely held true for for Italy, Japan, Spain, and various lesser states in Eastern Europe and Latin America. 

Further east, the Russians also resisted the rise of the ironic state, falling instead for a bowdlerized version of Marxism. Marx himself understood irony, he of the famous line that “History repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce” but he also believed that communism was an antidote. Whether Marx would have appreciated the irony that his doctrines, developed and intended as the inevitable and final cure for Western industrialized societies would only ever thrive -- to the extent they have at all -- in Eastern agrarian ones, we’ll never know.  Indeed, the actual ethos that eventually emerged in industrial Western states would owe more to another Jew named Marx (Groucho) who reveled in ironic absurdity, than it would to the doctrinaire bearded Marxists that followed the Communist Manifesto. Duck Soup presaged the modern age better than Das Kapital.

These developments delayed the full onset of the Western ironical age. Fighting fascism and then communism left Western ironists somewhat on the fringes of society (where they largely preferred to be the better to mock everyone else.) The end of the Cold War that changed that. It left the West somewhat adrift again ideologically, but rather than bankrupt and bloodstained, wealthy, clean, and comfortable. It was, as one contemporary put it, “The End of History?” 

Following a string of presidents who were unironic World War II vets (or close -- Carter) the end of the Cold War ushered our first ironic president, Bill Clinton. Today Clinton’s presidency is seen by many as a success. That is largely the result of good timing (Clinton having come along in a historical sweet spot), and his own ironic sense of self, which is to say that he had no principles and so did not let principle stand in the way of politics. More interested in what was in his pants than what was in his briefing books, Clinton’s accomplishments such as they were came from unashamedly adopting the policies of his opponents, rather than pushing through his own ideas -- to the extent he actually had any. 

George W. Bush could not escape the Weltanschauung of the time, due to his own personal and political weaknesses, and the left’s ceaseless and cynical, and largely successful effort to depict him as a buffoon. Of course, Bush was succeeded by our current president, the full flower of the ironic age -- an inexperienced, chameleon-like, faux intellectual leftist doofus hipster, who likes nothing better than to play the funnyman

Hillary Clinton would follow in her husband’s footsteps but finds the winds blowing against her. Hillary’s opponents are post-ironic candidates, a true believing socialist and a true believing nativist, who lived through the age of irony, and having survived are seemingly now immune. Good evidence that these two are beyond irony is the difficulty of effectively mocking them. Take “Saturday Night Live”, which over the ironic age has sent up with varying degrees of success politicians of all stripes, including both Clintons. But Sanders and Trump have proven much harder. The actor who imitates Trump is just a pale shadow of the man himself, who at any given moment is more outlandish and funnier. Comedian Larry David’s impersonation of Bernie Sanders is only really entertaining because David and Sanders are almost indistinguishable -- two elderly up by-the-bootstraps, balding, successful, loudmouthed, New York Jewish men who mostly spout nonsense for a living. 

Cynicism is the handmaiden of irony, and David, a true cynic, was also one of the great beneficiaries of an ironic age that now seems to have passed him by. “Seinfeld” the hugely successful and very funny television show he created with its namesake very much embodied and helped celebrate the final ascendance of the ironic age that emerged after the Cold War. The show was famously “about nothing”, itself a statement of high ironic purpose. One of its longest lived and funniest tropes was David’s off-camera impersonations of former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, always shown from behind. In Steinbrenner, David actually foreshadowed Donald Trump. Steinbrenner, like Trump, was the scion of a wealthy businessman father, attended an exclusive military prep school (though he later served), and became a loudmouthed New York businessman who mostly spouted nonsense for a living. 

Hillary Clinton’s problem today is that unlike Trump and Sanders, she is very much susceptible to mockery. Her indomitable cynicism, so hip in the ironic age, against which even Bill’s pales, now weighs heavily on her cankles. Talk to a Hillary supporter. Their support is almost entirely borne of pure cynicism. They say “Yes, Hillary is will do anything to get elected, is avaricious and dishonest -- but so are all politicians. And she’ll make a great president.” 

Trump’s and Sander’s supporters are mostly true believers. They are cynical in some respects, especially when it comes to anyone who questions their heroes, but irony largely escapes them. In the case of Trump’s people, they have mostly lived through the ironic age and either didn’t get it, didn’t do well in it, or both. In the case of Sander’s supporters, they came into adulthood as it waned, and don’t see that it paved a decent future for them. 

The post-World War I ironists saw in their worldview an alternative to the ideological certainties which they believed bred war, social inequity, and ultimately political and economic collapse. They were right in certain respects, but also never offered an entirely coherent alternative. Occasionally, politicians emerged have who could effectively navigate the shifting currents of a cynical ironic time and still provide effective and meaningful leadership -- Churchill and Reagan stand out. Today Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has effectively charted this difficult course, which gets under the skin of our current hipster ironic-age president, and Netanyahu’s own leftist post-modern countrymen. Meanwhile Germany has finally succumbed fully, arguably now led by a politician even more scornful and absurd than Obama.

The politics of irony and cynicism appear to have had their day, and have opened the door to Sanders and Trump. Neither man is of presidential quality, nor is Hillary Clinton. But at least Sanders and Trump don’t wallow in phoniness and cynicism, which is Hillary’s only path to the presidency.    

World War I was probably the most important event of the 20th century for many well-known geopolitical, military, and social reasons but it also had a profound psychological impact as well, which strongly resonates, particularly in the West. It was World War I that introduced what many call the age of irony. Western democracies lurched towards an ironic worldview when the certainties of antebellum Europe were destroyed, but it took nearly a century, another world war and the Cold War for this attitude to finally dominate Western societies. And now it would seem, with the emergence of two very unironic candidates for President in America, this country, at least, is shifting back to a historical mean. 

The emergence of the ironic age (meaning a worldview of where inauthenticity, dishonesty, and cynicism are accepted as the norm) was neither immediate nor smooth. The first Western nation to slip into the ironic bubble was Germany, reflected in the emergence of the DaDa school of art, and subsequently scandalous and libertine 1920s Berlin. But the Germans weren’t yet ready and quickly succumbed to the lure of Nazism. Same dynamic largely held true for for Italy, Japan, Spain, and various lesser states in Eastern Europe and Latin America. 

Further east, the Russians also resisted the rise of the ironic state, falling instead for a bowdlerized version of Marxism. Marx himself understood irony, he of the famous line that “History repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce” but he also believed that communism was an antidote. Whether Marx would have appreciated the irony that his doctrines, developed and intended as the inevitable and final cure for Western industrialized societies would only ever thrive -- to the extent they have at all -- in Eastern agrarian ones, we’ll never know.  Indeed, the actual ethos that eventually emerged in industrial Western states would owe more to another Jew named Marx (Groucho) who reveled in ironic absurdity, than it would to the doctrinaire bearded Marxists that followed the Communist Manifesto. Duck Soup presaged the modern age better than Das Kapital.

These developments delayed the full onset of the Western ironical age. Fighting fascism and then communism left Western ironists somewhat on the fringes of society (where they largely preferred to be the better to mock everyone else.) The end of the Cold War that changed that. It left the West somewhat adrift again ideologically, but rather than bankrupt and bloodstained, wealthy, clean, and comfortable. It was, as one contemporary put it, “The End of History?” 

Following a string of presidents who were unironic World War II vets (or close -- Carter) the end of the Cold War ushered our first ironic president, Bill Clinton. Today Clinton’s presidency is seen by many as a success. That is largely the result of good timing (Clinton having come along in a historical sweet spot), and his own ironic sense of self, which is to say that he had no principles and so did not let principle stand in the way of politics. More interested in what was in his pants than what was in his briefing books, Clinton’s accomplishments such as they were came from unashamedly adopting the policies of his opponents, rather than pushing through his own ideas -- to the extent he actually had any. 

George W. Bush could not escape the Weltanschauung of the time, due to his own personal and political weaknesses, and the left’s ceaseless and cynical, and largely successful effort to depict him as a buffoon. Of course, Bush was succeeded by our current president, the full flower of the ironic age -- an inexperienced, chameleon-like, faux intellectual leftist doofus hipster, who likes nothing better than to play the funnyman

Hillary Clinton would follow in her husband’s footsteps but finds the winds blowing against her. Hillary’s opponents are post-ironic candidates, a true believing socialist and a true believing nativist, who lived through the age of irony, and having survived are seemingly now immune. Good evidence that these two are beyond irony is the difficulty of effectively mocking them. Take “Saturday Night Live”, which over the ironic age has sent up with varying degrees of success politicians of all stripes, including both Clintons. But Sanders and Trump have proven much harder. The actor who imitates Trump is just a pale shadow of the man himself, who at any given moment is more outlandish and funnier. Comedian Larry David’s impersonation of Bernie Sanders is only really entertaining because David and Sanders are almost indistinguishable -- two elderly up by-the-bootstraps, balding, successful, loudmouthed, New York Jewish men who mostly spout nonsense for a living. 

Cynicism is the handmaiden of irony, and David, a true cynic, was also one of the great beneficiaries of an ironic age that now seems to have passed him by. “Seinfeld” the hugely successful and very funny television show he created with its namesake very much embodied and helped celebrate the final ascendance of the ironic age that emerged after the Cold War. The show was famously “about nothing”, itself a statement of high ironic purpose. One of its longest lived and funniest tropes was David’s off-camera impersonations of former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, always shown from behind. In Steinbrenner, David actually foreshadowed Donald Trump. Steinbrenner, like Trump, was the scion of a wealthy businessman father, attended an exclusive military prep school (though he later served), and became a loudmouthed New York businessman who mostly spouted nonsense for a living. 

Hillary Clinton’s problem today is that unlike Trump and Sanders, she is very much susceptible to mockery. Her indomitable cynicism, so hip in the ironic age, against which even Bill’s pales, now weighs heavily on her cankles. Talk to a Hillary supporter. Their support is almost entirely borne of pure cynicism. They say “Yes, Hillary is will do anything to get elected, is avaricious and dishonest -- but so are all politicians. And she’ll make a great president.” 

Trump’s and Sander’s supporters are mostly true believers. They are cynical in some respects, especially when it comes to anyone who questions their heroes, but irony largely escapes them. In the case of Trump’s people, they have mostly lived through the ironic age and either didn’t get it, didn’t do well in it, or both. In the case of Sander’s supporters, they came into adulthood as it waned, and don’t see that it paved a decent future for them. 

The post-World War I ironists saw in their worldview an alternative to the ideological certainties which they believed bred war, social inequity, and ultimately political and economic collapse. They were right in certain respects, but also never offered an entirely coherent alternative. Occasionally, politicians emerged have who could effectively navigate the shifting currents of a cynical ironic time and still provide effective and meaningful leadership -- Churchill and Reagan stand out. Today Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has effectively charted this difficult course, which gets under the skin of our current hipster ironic-age president, and Netanyahu’s own leftist post-modern countrymen. Meanwhile Germany has finally succumbed fully, arguably now led by a politician even more scornful and absurd than Obama.

The politics of irony and cynicism appear to have had their day, and have opened the door to Sanders and Trump. Neither man is of presidential quality, nor is Hillary Clinton. But at least Sanders and Trump don’t wallow in phoniness and cynicism, which is Hillary’s only path to the presidency.