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Kitsch, Decadence and the Why of Donald Trump

The artistic concept of “decadence,” as either a movement or a condition, can be traced back at least to the eighteenth century and appears and reappears (think Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, 1920s Berlin, etc.) moving forward up to the present time.  And it would seem, in the broadest sense of that word, that once again we’re caught up in another of its phases.  A phase that permeates not only our art and literature but the entire polity and culture of many nations.

In its most innocuously absurd form we have “kitsch.”  A notable example was discovered by the author and humorist blogger Richard Cahill awhile back in one of the 99 Cents Only Stores—the “camouflage-Jesus” icon.  Cahill describes it as a Jesus figure wearing a Columbine-style trench coat over desert camis, laced-up combat boots, a grenade and a canteen attached to His utility belt and an automatic weapon strapped to His right side.  His camouflaged helmet rests on the ground beside Him and in His left hand He holds the white Dove of Peace.  Now, Cahill asks, exactly what inference are we expected to draw here?  That Jesus is going to machine-gun sinners or engage in “pigeon” target practice?

Pushing the envelope a little further, however, we have Rupi Kaur, the Canadian feminist poet, who catapulted her work onto The New York Times Best Seller list via a controversial photo essay on Instagram of her menstrual blood on a bed sheet.  It would seem that for most of us such a revelation of said blood might invite a range of possible reactions: welcome relief, crushing disappointment, an untidy annoyance, but seldom elevation to high artistic expression.  Yet in the spirit of activist protest that’s what Ms Kaur and her readership proclaim.  Seems somewhat akin to those women street protesters of late wearing “pussyhats” on their heads.

An even more jarring example of art gone off the tracks, it seems to me, is the Austrian drag-queen singer known as Conchita Wurst who was selected to represent Austria at the Eurovision Song Contest 2014.  Now a sensation and favorite among a youthful following, Conchita is unique for performing in drag while sporting a beard.  Yes, a “bearded lady,” combining the illusion of a sensuous, shapely, melodious-voiced woman…with a bushy, black beard.  There’s a certain grotesque incongruity here, like going to a county fair to see the finished 4-H livestock and finding a two-headed piglet.

In any event, whether life imitates art or vice versa, it appears that now, concerning decadence, there’s a good bit of overlap, especially in the political arena.  The November issue of Imprimis features a speech digest by Matthew Continetti, the editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, titled “The Problem of Identity Politics and Its Solution.”  Continetti maintains that once communism lost its “moral authority” (Solzhenitsyn’s tomes of exposure, for example), the political left needed an ideological alternative to carry on its assault on capitalism and found it in “identity politics,” which actually grew out of anti-colonialism.  As Continetti characterizes it, “Marx’s class struggle was reformulated into an ethno-racial struggle—a ceaseless competition between colonizer and colonized, victimizer and victim, oppressor and oppressed. Instead of presenting collectivism and central planning as the gateway to the realization of genuine freedom, the new multiculturalist Left turned to unmasking the supposed power relations that subordinated minorities and exploited third world nations.”

Continetti then cites a long list of works, several by ostensibly liberal Democrats, warning of the dire consequences to the unity of the nation when such a stratagem is employed.  The American university early on suffered the stunting effects as described by Bruce Bawer in his book The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Politics and the Closing of the Liberal Mind.  And the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. offered his critique and sounded an alarm in his 1991 book The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society.  “The American people,” Continetti emphasizes,  “are united by our creed of freedom and equality, and also by our habits, our manners, our national language, our territorial integrity, our national symbols—such as the National Anthem, the Flag, and the Pledge of Allegiance—our civic traditions, and our national story.”  An undermining of these bonds can only result in precipitous, and “decadent,” decline.

The antithesis of national unity and the subsequent embracing of identity activism was observed in the January 2017 Women’s March on Washington.  Conservative journalist Joan Swirsky in her February 2 column online on RenewAmerica, titled “The March to Nowhere,” listed a number of the speakers and “radical-left, anti-American groups” in attendance, including the notorious Muslim anti-Semite (and co-organizer of the march) Linda Sarsour.  Known for her advocacy of Sharia Law, support of terrorist groups, rails against Israel and rejection of assimilation, Sansour could be the poster girl for identity politics in high gear.

Interestingly enough, the political moderate David Brooks offered some similar observations to Continetti’s in a recent piece carried in The Kansas City Star with the title “Our Elites Still Don’t Get What Really Divides Us.”  Borrowing from John Bowlby’s attachment theory, Brooks asserts that “Through most of American history…we were a society with strong covenantal attachments—to family, community, creed and faith.  Then on top of them we built democracy and capitalism that celebrated liberty and individual rights.”  The problem at present, Brooks declares, is that these underpinnings are withering away, leaving only mass diverse freedoms without any sense of common obligations.

Returning to Continetti’s speech once more, we are told, “The condescension of liberal elites toward the white working class, evangelical Christians, gun owners, and supporters of immigration control and cultural assimilation is as pronounced as it is repulsive. It is summed up in Hillary Clinton’s writing off of so many voters last year as belonging in a ‘basket of deplorables’”—a strategy error of relying on identity politics that ultimately cost her the election.  It was Donald Trump who sensed the yearning among middle America for a reemphasis on American nationalism based on both a commitment to the ideals of the American Founding and a shared love of our national history, embracing a culture espousing individual freedom, religious pluralism and resistance to centralized authority.  And he made his pitch there.  In spite of Trump’s personal peccadillos and puerile personality quirks, it was his promise to reverse the nation’s descent into decadence and restore America’s—and here’s that word the liberal left detests—”exceptionalism” that secured him his victory.

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Mark Scheel
Mark Scheel grew up in east-Kansas farm country. He attended both Kansas State University and The University of Kansas, majoring in psychology and English. Prior to writing full time he served overseas with the American Red Cross in Vietnam, Thailand, West Germany and England, taught at Emporia State University and was an information specialist with the Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. His stories, articles and poems have appeared in numerous magazines including The Little Balkans Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Cincinnati Poetry Review, The Kansas City Star, Heritage of Kansas, Samisdat, and Poet as well as many sites online such as Common Ground News. His literary activities have also involved membership in The Kansas Authors Club, a seat on the board of directors for Potpourri Publications Company and an editorial position with Kansas City Voices magazine. He co-authored the book Of Youth and the River: the Mississippi Adventure of Raymond Kurtz, Sr., and his collection of stories and poems, A Backward View, was awarded the 1998 J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award. His most recent book is titled The Pebble: Life, Love, Politics and Geezer Wisdom.

6 comments to Kitsch, Decadence and the Why of Donald Trump

  • Ricardo

    I don’t know how DSCJ started a rumination that led you to believe the Caucasian-in-Chief is a great uniter of the American people, Sr. Scheel. I do not think history will find him as such. But here’s a link to some of my thoughts on Him. Feel free to use the pic in your essay…DSCJ is the Savior, and also the Prince of Wary Armed Truces.


  • “Columbine-style trench coat?” I may be mistaken, but I don’t recall Ricardo using that term — it was more likely a COLUMBO-type trench coat (worn by the Peter Falk character in the old Columbo TV series).

    Sorry to single out a minor detail in your piece, Mark, but I’m not up to (and see little to be gained by) expending a lot of time in the thicket of politics and ideology, so I took the ‘deFalk’ position.

  • Sir Richard,

    Well, whatever he intended and that which is do vary. But the legacy does depend on what transpires going forward and, of course, on who writes the history! And, say, you make a good point–I should learn to use photos in my posts. You do that superbly.


  • Hello Muse,

    It breaks my heart to correct you, but, indeed, Ricardo did reference a “Columbine-style trench coat” in his DSCJ piece. I reread it before composing my post. And you’re welcome to take the “deFalk” position–LOL, classic Muse pun–as my wife loves that old show and I’m too exhausted after raking leaves all afternoon to mount any sort of rhetorical defense.


  • Mark,
    I’m going with the Columbo theme here. “Just one thing that bothers me.” The United States of America has hardly ever been united in anything. People from our generation grew up in the shadow of WWII when in one of the few times in American history the country had been united. But it didn’t last and it never will. I think this look back at history when all was golden is just something human beings do. It is never a correct assessment.
    There is a lot here Mark so I can’t address it all but the menstrual blood on the sheet and your reactions to it is classic. Not sure what the “artist” is protesting or to who? Camouflage Jesus maybe?
    But we have both looked around and have some similar observations although I think we live in an age of narcissism of which there have been quite a few. But I think this one is best expressed by the Talking Heads who are full of “sound and fury” and of course the Kardashians. Not to pick on the Kardashians just that they are the most visible. But is it possible that the musings of David Brooks and most of the Cognoscenti could just “signify nothing”?

  • Hi Don,

    On united, I’d agree, and, yes, except in time of the world wars. And it was never totally golden, but did have more stable times than now–and unstable ones like the sixties. Interesting how you yoke Shakespeare, Faulkner and the Kardashians. Ha. And, yes, Brooks’s musings I fear often do “signify nothing.” And we do seem to have “similar observations”–right again. Good comments, all.


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