Kitsch is perhaps best recognized visually: formulaic paintings that prey on sentiment; that one woven bag you got for cheap on an island vacation that, when you got home, may have lost its luster. Sometimes people interchange the word “kitsch” with the word “tacky.” The roots of kitsch are in the German verkitschen: “to churn out cheaply.” But kitsch extends beyond the visual, as Stephen Linstead writes. Kitsch can be an “agency for political power.” It can be a “sociological phenomenon” or “a philosophical problem.”
Kitsch, including Donald Trump’s brand of it, seeks to deliver only one thing: pure emotional experience. Trump’s world and rallies create energy, writes George Saunders. Kitsch — as an aesthetic, as a political manifestation, as a sociological and philosophical embodiment — satisfies its consumer’s expectations in the most swift and facile of ways; it connects thoughts and feelings so fluidly and slyly that Newt Gingrich can respond to a reporter’s questions about national gun violence statistics with something to the effect of, the numbers may say it’s going down, but many Americans feel it’s going up, and have his audience accept this denial of fact as some kind of felt truth. It’s the reason “the wall” promise resonates with so many of Trump’s supporters even though the existing fence costs $2.4 billion dollars, covers less than a third of the border, and allowed 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants to enter the United States in 2014. “Kitsch just knows,” writes Linstead, “without reflection.”
Trump knows, too, and acts accordingly. He makes people feel they’re being mistreated, regardless of whether they actually are. He paints emotional murals and his primary colors are fear, rage, and self-righteousness. The rendering of his policy priority, beginning day one, centers on the “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall,” complete with subterranean sensors and towers. It’s not so different from the image of the failed “Trump’s Castle” casino. It’s a picture that evokes embattlements and clear enemies; it suggests virtuous heroes and kings with shiny crowns. And good fairy tale monarchs, unlike their historical counterparts, provide the most essential of feelings to their subjects: safety and comfort. When the most basic needs are foregrounded — or we're made to feel they are threatened — we are primed to respond emotionally. Emotion has the power to begin conversations and end them. Respond to an “I feel …” statement with inquiry (“What makes you feel that?”) and discussion can begin. But kitsch starts and ends with “I feel.”
The moment self-reflexivity appears, kitsch begins to transform. It may become irony, camp, something in between, or something else entirely, but there is one thing kitsch cannot abide: recognizing itself.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera wrote that kitsch causes the viewer to cry two tears: “The first tear says: How nice to see children running around on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.” The second tear, the collective emotion (how lucky we are to feel happy or afraid or moved together), is not quite self-awareness. “Kitsch results in an ecstatic and illusory vision of the world which sacrifices all reflection for the benefit of the sole glorification of feeling,” writes Eva Le Grand. Like the goblin Rumpelstiltskin, whose naming results in his defeat, the spell of kitsch is broken when its consumer awakes to what it is.
This emotional surrender to manipulation — here, take my sense of country and my values and find a way to appeal to me — paired with Trump’s utter disregard for factual evidence, makes this political season, more than those that have preceded it, a true Entertainment Program. We are not having a great debate. Or — dare to dream — a conversation. We are auditioning for the newest reality TV show and the aesthetic is kitsch. Donald Trump knows it; he is directing and starring. (His stage name was set generations ago when a German grandfather made Drumpf into Trump, perhaps appreciating the certain sharpness of the T and the pop of p. And the associations would keep coming: golden trumpet, triumph, trump card.) In this show, the moment Trump’s limelight begins to fade he makes another absurdist claim that feels good to his base. For that is the other pernicious aspect of kitsch as philosophy, political power, or entertainment: the manufacturer can be fully aware of his product, but his audience — at least the ones buying it — cannot.
In this Entertainment Program (formerly known as American public discourse, which has always had a flair for the dramatic), things are simple: Muslim immigrants should be banned. Muslim women are censored in their speech. Mexican immigrants are rapists. Mexican judges can’t be trusted. The United States is weak. One person can make it stronger. This simplicity is an escape to a kitschy world that does not exist.
I live in the United States where some right-leaning Christians want to welcome Syrian refugees and so lean on their lawmakers to reexamine conservative immigration policies. In my town, it’s not uncommon to self-identify as liberal, believe in the right to own guns, hunt avidly, and want to reform firearm policy. I live in the middle of Missouri, where my friend, a Catholic and a nurse in the public health sector, refuses a “pro-life” or “pro-choice label”; she is personally against abortion, but she knows that, without legal and safe access, “women will die.” The vast soybean fields on either side of the highway are farmed by Republicans and old, die-hard Democrats, who both use GMO crops and the pesticides I’d like to avoid. There are the caricatures and then there are people. This country is big, complex, and difficult, and real for those very reasons.
Not all Trump supporters are blind to these complexities. Yet many — especially the ones who initially propelled him to center stage — still choose, unconsciously or not, to welcome his kitschy world with its simple us/them story. When fear and divisive narratives dominate, it’s easy to feel threatened and buy into a campaign that simplifies and emotionalizes. They cry that second tear and are grateful to be moved together. Trump’s claim that we can no longer afford to be politically correct is a call to demolish the filter between initial feelings and what you say aloud. Yes, it takes work to run things through that filter. Yes, it can be a relief to turn it off. But that filter creates a gap between emotions and acting on emotions — and in that gap emerges self-awareness, the kryptonite of kitsch.
There is, of course, an argument to be made for kitsch. Like Sontag with camp, I am simultaneously drawn to and offended by kitsch. Think about Disney World — kitsch can be fun, joyful. My go-to childhood movie was Remember the Titans. (Our family would cue it up with regularity, pausing only to microwave a bag of popcorn.) The shared pleasure sometimes is (feels) necessary. We are in this together, kitsch reminds us. We’re all here and we all feel. There’s a reason Trump’s Apprentice ran for 14 seasons: it’s entertaining and escapist in its emotional monotone. The episode begins, a “challenge” ensues, and then we find ourselves in the boardroom where we move up and down a register of trust, betrayal, surprise, anger, and hope. Trump, the maestro, orchestrates a scale of emotion, first one thing and then the next. He may play in different keys, but never more than one note at a time and only ever in a pattern that is simple and expected. Some contestants will stay; some will go. See you again next week. These patterns require less thought — a welcome mindlessness — and no critical filter. The 28.1 million people who watched at the peak of The Apprentice suggest that the second tear, the joy of feeling something together, was part of the equation. But when it comes to electing the next president of the United States, the second tear will get us nowhere.
For months I’ve flipped on the radio or scrolled through news and suddenly been struck that the headlines were too much. They felt like something right out of a dream. A joke, even. I must be living in an alternate reality because Donald Trump is running for president? Donald Trump? The name even sounds like a character. But I know I am not. The dream, this Entertainment Program, is real because enough people have chosen to make kitsch their reality.
There is, however, a third tear. “They cry,” says documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, “because they are aware, finally, of the tragedy of escapism.” You shed the third tear because you have participated in the first and second tears — because you were part of the collective emotional manipulation. A tear because, at the expense of making a better reality, we have allowed ourselves the fantasy of escape.
Allison Coffelt lives and writes in Columbia, Missouri. She works for True/False, a nonfiction film festival, and her writing has appeared in Hippocampus, The Los Angeles Review, The Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere.