Our America: Our Anti-Semantic President

Stephen Clingman

In my spy fiction class at the University of Massachusetts, we had been reading John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. One of the key figures in that novel is a high-level East German spy named Hans-Dieter Mundt, the ostensible target of a complex MI6 operation to eliminate him. Mundt, however, is a double-agent, secretly working for the British, and the real target of the operation is Fiedler, his underling, who suspects him of the exact treachery of which he is guilty. An additional complicating factor is that Fiedler is Jewish, whereas Mundt is a former Nazi, and as the plot unravels that legacy invests his treatment of Fiedler with special venom.

In writing an essay about the novel, one of my students called Mundt “anti-semantic.” It was a malapropism, or what you might call a Freudian slip, except not of any orthodox kind that Freud might have recognized. It was a startling slip (I myself am Jewish), with some dark humor attached, but my aim in recounting it is not to poke fun at the student; on the wrong day at the wrong time, anyone can make such an error. Rather, I am in some way quite grateful to her, because reflecting on what she had written, I realized that the only truly anti-semantic person I know is Donald Trump. With his own special venom he has ranged himself against truth, and at some level, that means he is a devoted opponent of meaning itself. In the larger scheme of things my student’s slip was indeed Freudian, because it allowed a suppressed aspect of our culture to emerge clearly and sharply into the daylight.

Sure enough, we have known that Trump is against truth. But to be against meaning: that is a different matter. Early on it became clear that, while Trump respected the effect that words can have, he had absolutely no respect for the meaning of meaning. For him, meanings are pliable, manipulable, whatever you want them to be on any given day. For Trump, contradiction is the secret art of meaning, so long as it keeps him in the spotlight as the arbiter of words. What does “fake” mean in the mouth of our most fake president of all time, who won his job at least in part through Russian fakery? For him, fakery is “fake news”—in other words, the truth, so that we now need a definition of “fake fake news”—while his anti-semantic Russian cohort has constructed an infinitely regressive series of the fake drifting off into all eternity.

Sometimes my student’s slip has a direct bearing, linking what she meant to say with what she actually said. So, the Nazi marchers in Charlottesville were “fine people”: the anti-semitic combined with the anti-semantic. Who cares in such a universe what words actually signify, except in an instantly redefinitional gesture. In this instance “fine people” acts as a validation, a statement of affiliation and allegiance, words becoming other than what they mean in a new kind of meaning. Words become escape clauses in a symbolic landscape indistinguishable from a semantic hall of mirrors. Tax cuts for corporations are made for the “working class”; the removal of health care is for your health. Relax, my friends, those of us in charge of words will see to your needs and desires; we are your open-secret signal, whatever you wish, however we appear.

As George Orwell understood in 1984, being the arbiter of words carries power. “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” But at least in Orwell’s version of doublespeak, words meant the opposite of what they said. For Donald Trump, the possibilities are entirely unanchored. Is Trump in this sense the first truly postmodern President? Postmodernism in its standard form concerns the death of master narratives—narratives of religion, ideology, science, and the like. But Trump has taken this one step further, because the master narrative he has undermined is the one underlying all the other narratives: the narrative of meaning, the very possibility of meaning. If this is post-postmodernism, well that is akin to fake fake news. We are in the anti-semantic hall of mirrors, and the hard part is finding our way back to the exit.

STEPHEN CLINGMAN is Distinguished Professor of English and former Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His work has ranged from South African literature and biography to postcolonial and transnational fiction. He regularly teaches courses on South African literature and politics, twentieth-century fiction, contemporary British fiction, and transnational fiction. Stephen's most recent book, a memoir entitled Birthmark, was published by UMass Press in 2016.