Nancy Pelosi doesn’t quite manage her first attempt to join Donald Trump in hyperreality. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.
Inspired by US President Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, newly-elected speaker of the House, believes in fighting fire with fire. In a society that increasingly replaces reality with hyperreality, success in politics requires playing the hyperreality game. Pelosi has taken her first step in that direction. Her initial foray focuses on Trump’s vaunted symbol of hyperreality: the border wall, which she has repeated called “an immorality.”
Appealing to the kind of simplified moral judgment we associate with the Puritan founders of the nation, Pelosi told the press: “The fact is, a wall is an immorality. It’s not who we are as a nation.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
An act that violates a shared moral code, often mentioned with a tone of complaint by those who neither have nor publicly share any moral code
Despite her valiant attempt, Pelosi hasn’t quite mastered the laws of hyperreality. Once you’ve made your hyperreal statement, it’s important never to offer explanations, especially if they remind your audience of reality. Hyperreality loves names, but doesn’t admit the subtlety of metaphors. It resolutely shifts attention away from the real to the fictional construct that replaces it, leaving reality out of view. The speaker couldn’t refrain from following up her hyperreal affirmation with a pertinent and realistic gloss of her metaphor: “[I]t’s a wall between reality and his constituents, his supporters,” intended to divert them from thinking about the real issues facing the nation.
The idea that a physical object — the still imaginary wall — is something like a pornographic image has some significant hyperreal force. Hyperreality depends on violent contrasts: good and evil, moral and immoral, real and fake, winning and losing. This game of binary choices works particularly well in the US, where the media play a well-rehearsed role of reducing every idea to its one-dimensional literal meaning, inevitably turning questions that should require subtle analysis into a simple opposition, black vs white, for or against, take it or leave it.
Though Pelosi is right to suggest that Trump’s wall is more a symbol and a rhetorical trope than a thing, she betrays her effort at building on hyperreality when she returns to reality to explain what she means. She hasn’t understood that the one thing you can’t do, if you want to succeed in the hyperreal world, is hesitate, with one foot in hyperreality and the other in reality.
In an interview with Elle magazine, Pelosi repeats her claim, when she says: “But a wall, in my view, is an immorality. It’s the least effective way to protect the border, and the most costly. I can’t think of any reason why anyone would think it’s a good idea—unless this has something to do with something else.”
Elsewhere she suggested — less analytically than psychoanalytically — what the “something else” might be: “It’s like a manhood thing for him. As if manhood could ever be associated with him. This wall thing.” Jumping from Puritan moralizing to pseudo-Freudian interpretation can never be a winning strategy. Sigmund Freud would have called this a leap from the superego (strict moral control) to the id (random desire), ignoring the ego, where the meaning of one’s actions is negotiated in context.
Pelosi undermined her own otherwise impressive effort at making hyperreal impact by following her appeal to morality with the hypocrisy of the trite expression, “it’s not who we are.” Doesn’t she realize that this is the standard language of apology? This is what every celebrity and public figure says after being caught in a scandal, whether it’s about violence, drugs, alcohol or sex. Sorry Watch, a website keeps track of apologies in the news, reminds us that: “‘That’s not who I am’ is a frequent part of bad apologies. But it should be more like ‘That’s not who I think I am,’ or ‘That’s not what I want to be.’”
Everyone has noticed that, true to his hyperreal self, Donald Trump never apologizes. Neither does Elon Musk. They don’t even think there can be a difference between their identity and their acts. In hyperreality doubt cannot exist. Superhero Batman, played by Christian Bale in the movie Batman Begins, said what every hyperreal hero should believe: “It’s not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me.”
Sorry Watch has identified a fundamental social problem in US culture that makes hyperreality so tempting: the existential hesitation evident in the question of “who I think I am” and “who I want to be.” In a society that takes pride in its fluidity — idealized as every person’s “unlimited potential” — reality will consistently prove disappointing. People naturally believe it’s normal to strive to be something they are not.
Hyperreal heroes appear to have solved the problem, to have risen beyond doubt. They are also above morality, as Batman’s pride in his deeds demonstrates. They do what is good and what is good is what they do. The more uncertain and ambiguous things become for real people, the more appeal hyperreality will have. More than speculation about the rise of populism, that attraction toward hyperreality is what explains Trump’s election.
And that’s where Nancy Pelosi makes her biggest mistake: Calling the wall “an immorality” gives it a name worthy of a simplified hyperreal world. But invoking moral reasoning to justify it takes us back to the uncomfortable complexity of reality.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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