In this letter to the editor, writer and Virginia Tech graduate Edinson Shane Tolley compares a future society imagined by David Foster Wallace to the reality of today’s election.
Tolley currently lives in Blacksburg and plans to move to Northern Virginia in January. His work has been featured in The Sandy River Review, Panoply, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Allegheny Review, Mangrove Literary Journal, and Linden Avenue Literary Journal.
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In David Foster Wallace’s sprawling novel Infinite Jest, an all too similar dystopian America is led by President Johnny Gentle, an “old crooner” who prefaced his presidency with a long career as an entertainer. Entertainment dominates the novel’s 1079-pages–the years no longer abide a numerical chronology, but rather are sold off as advertising to the highest bidder (for example, the majority of the narrative is set in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment), and a film, so passively satisfying that the viewer will loop the feature until he/she dies, is circulating through the fragmented states. Canadians have annexed most of New England, and Quebec separatists promote their cause through acts of terrorism.
In his 1996 opus, Wallace foresaw the rise of the screen in the engagement of American society. He predicted Netflix and the late Vine (neither of which he lived to see), and, I speculate, the e-reader–the man wrote a book impossible to consume in any medium other than a physical book, as 300+ endnotes accompany the narrative, some as long as 22-pages. However, Wallace himself could not have prophesied the 2016 presidential election, where an entertainer is as close to the White House as one can be without being a standing president or a sniper on the building’s roof.
That’s what Donald Trump is–an entertainer. Me, and the majority of my generation, were introduced to the man through his NBC series The Apprentice and half-assed toupee jokes. He was the “guest of honor” at one of Comedy Central’s infamous roasts, where he allowed for jokes regarding his appearance, bankruptcy, and his possible attraction to his daughter Ivanka, but forbade any humor suggesting that he may not have quite as much money as he claims.
While terrifying from the beginning, Trump’s campaign had an inherent entertainment value. Can you believe he’s actually saying this? He just called Jeb Bush a ‘fat loser’ during a televised debate, this cannot be real. But as the primaries progressed, the more real it became, all the more plausible that the man whose catchphrase up until now consisted on the 3-syllable “You’re fired” could be a few months away from the White House. People laughed when he referenced his longstanding (and odd) feud with Rosie O’Donnell, even cited it as reason enough to vote for him–he’s entertaining.
President Gentle’s legacy-building act as commander-in-chief was a proposal to expel all of America’s garbage into space, employing an it’s not a problem if you can’t see it, just slide it under the bed mentality. Donald Trump has a fixation on immigration, categorizing those different from himself as the enemy, needing replacement somewhere that they couldn’t bother him. The trash comparison here isn’t too similar, unless you are Trump himself. Refugees, immigrants, they’re human beings in a country built on immigration, but for Trump and his supporters, they’re taking up space entitled to those fearing ancestry that extends beyond Europe. There are entire dissertations to be written on the subject, and surely you’ve seen the news, so I’ll save you the energy of reading more about that here.
What seems lost on many is what a miserable job the presidency is. Barack Obama, who plays basketball, listens to Jay Z, and held a music festival at the White House, is undeniably a cool guy, regardless of party affiliation. Any other president doesn’t even come close to the idea of chill the way Obama does, and the presidency still managed to turn his hair grey. Upon seeing Alec Baldwin’s impersonation, Donald Trump quietly advocated for the program’s cancellation. If he can’t handle the stress of parody, a touchstone of the first amendment (an amendment he exercises freely, by the way), how can he be expected to approach the stress that stole the hair of the coolest guy to ever live?
Regardless of your feelings vis-a-vis Hillary Clinton, it’s foolish to deny the woman is a professional. She’s been working towards “Madame President” her entire life. She’s not an entertainer, she’s a politician, because it’s what the job takes. This election transcends party. If the debates illustrated anything, it’s that one candidate speaks coherently while the other doesn’t. When put into a corner–whether it be constructed of his own contradictions or questions he simply doesn’t have answers to–Trump falls back on old entertainment methods. He hurls crass insults, “you’re the puppet!” brags–try to find one snippet over 30-seconds in length where he doesn’t remind the viewer of his success–and bullying (his stalking of Mrs. Clinton in the second debate is a textbook bullying technique men often employ to physically intimidate women).
You’ve made up your mind, I’m not trying to influence your vote because there’s no productive reason for doing so–but at what point does entertainment take the step too far?
-Edinson Shane Tolley
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