The Triumph of Preposterousness

As impeachment proceedings move forward in the House of Representatives, Politico reports that US President Donald Trump has proposed to mobilize his network of backers to help fund the campaigns of several Republican senators facing serious reelection challenges in 2020. “Each of them has signed onto a Republican-backed resolution condemning the inquiry as ‘unprecedented and undemocratic,’” Alex Isenstadt writes. For those Americans who still ignore the meaning of quid pro quo, this could provide a new illustration to help them at vocabulary building.

If, as expected, the House votes to impeach Trump, the Senate will become the jury of his impeachment trial. In a tweet with a link to the Politico article, the former head of the US Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, said: “The accused is helping jurors raise money. Does it get any more preposterous than that?”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Preposterous:

In the realm of the now-dominant political system of plutocratic hyperreality, a synonym for normal and worthy of admiration

Contextual Note

The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following account of the meaning of the word: “1540s, from Latin praeposterus ‘absurd, contrary to nature, inverted, perverted, in reverse order,’ literally ‘before-behind’ (compare topsy-turvy, cart before the horse), from prae ‘before’ + posterus ‘subsequent.’”

When a system demonstrates consistent
principles of behavior, a disciplined observer will assume there is a
behavioral rule, or scientific law, at work. The strong correlation between
money acquired or spent and what is applauded as merited success in the current
culture of the US and most of the Western world points toward a new behavioral
norm that has turned older ethical instincts on their head. The value of any
item, deliberate act or even personal reputation has become synonymous with the
monetary price one places on it.

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When on “The Daily Show” this past week host Trevor Noah, interviewing former Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer, announced Balmer’s net worth of $51.7 billion, the presumably leftist, anti-plutocratic, Democratic audience erupted into spontaneous, admiring applause even before Noah could finish his sentence. Balmer invented nothing and became rich partly by chance, through his association with Bill Gates, and partly through his preposterous, over-the-top commercial style focused on money and success.

As an attorney specializing in government ethics who served under three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump —Schaub may represent one of the last of a dwindling minority in the public sector who accept that there are laws governing behavior in society that supersede the force of cash. On the strength of his belief in the existence of something called ethics, he judges Trump’s attempt to provide funding for his future jurors perverse, contrary to ordinary values, the opposite of normal and quite literally preposterous.

And yet the rest of the nation, including its media, appears to excuse Trump’s actions as simply self-interested and, therefore, normal. For most Americans relishing the fact that they live in a free country, because Trump has the ability to mobilize wealth — his own or the wealth of others — he should not only be allowed but even expected to do so.

This doesn’t mean that the notion of ethics no longer exists. Many people will see Trump’s gambit as unfair. But such behavior no longer seems “preposterous” to anyone whose profession doesn’t involve theorizing formal ethics. Instead, certain forms of preposterous behavior have become an implicit model commanding admiration. The easiest and surest way of achieving success is to break the ethical and moral rules, defy the conventions and, as quickly as possible, display one’s achievement measured by the money or power acquired. Trump’s election in 2016, weeks after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, validated that thesis.

Brazen lying, provocative actions, antisocial behavior in the form of sheer egoism, selfishness and narcissism, and successful bullying are acts the public now sees as either acceptable or inevitable attributes of those who succeed through their assertiveness. If coupled with monetary success, these traits are elevated to the status of a behavioral model. Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas and energy secretary, has just explained why he thinks Trump is the “chosen one,” comparing him to the Old Testament kings David, Solomon and Saul. It is part of “God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet in our government.” 

Trump is not alone. There is no end of telling examples among those who “rule and judge” in today’s political, industrial and media culture: Kanye West, Elon Musk, Boris Johnson, Rodrigo Duterte, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, the late Jeffrey Epstein, Dick Cheney, Bernie Madoff, Harvey Weinstein, Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, Mark Zuckerberg, O.J. Simpson, practically any televangelist… and the list goes on.

Some of them bully; some of them steal; several of them murder and rape; some “move fast and break things.” Most have learned or invented special ways of conning large numbers of people. All of them not only brazenly lie but insist on the veracity of their lies. Some of them, subsequent to their success and celebrity, have been caught in a legal trap simply because, besides ensuring their own fame, they tend to make enemies, often among those as brazen as they are.

In other words, “preposterous” no longer simply means “in radical violation of the norm.” Preposterousness has become a new norm, though reserved for the talented, wealthy few. It isn’t without risk. But it tends to be one of the quickest paths to success and wealth in a world in which wealth itself has become the strongest insurance against the legal, ethical and political challenges that society may still put forward to thwart preposterous behavior.

Historical Note

Because being successful with preposterous behavior requires a special talent, history has consistently produced a number of exceptionally talented individuals with the means of achieving fame, though not always fortune, through their preposterous acts. Unsuccessful and unconvincing preposterous behavior has usually tended to be classified as antisocial if not criminal.

Among the ancients, the Greek general Alcibiades, the cynic Diogenes, Nero and Caligula cultivated different styles of preposterousness that made them famous and, in some cases, dangerous. From Genghis Khan, Napoleon and on to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, conquerors and would-be conquerors — while concentrating on the material aspects of conquest — have at least played at being preposterous in the name of acquiring and consolidating power. So while it is not a new phenomenon, until recently preposterous behavior focused not on financial success or prowess, but exclusively on the power of the preposterous personality.

All that has changed in contemporary culture, thanks to an evolution in ethical norms due to the recently established role of monetary value as the supreme measure of worth. Wealth and the inexorable influence of money have taken a central place in our culture, complementing and, to some degree, even displacing personality and talent. Personalities such as Trump, Epstein and Madoff wouldn’t have had so much influence over so many people without the attraction of wealth. Those who have acquired wealth, often more by chance than talent, find that they now have a license to develop, display and even promote their preposterousness because of that wealth. Elon Musk and Kanye West illustrate that trend.

This past week, Musk offered an unintended demonstration of the power of preposterousness when he organized the unveiling of his Tesla electric pickup truck and watched as his proud claim of shatterproof windows was literally shattered in front of a live audience. In the aftermath of what for non-preposterous people would be a shameful and costly humiliation, Musk announced that he had received 187,000 orders for the truck. He left the fatal impression that he either lied about or — worse — misunderstood the technical characteristics of the technology he is admired for producing.

The fact that this failure in no way either dampened the public’s enthusiasm for his products nor stained his personal reputation proves that preposterousness associated with financial success works. He did, however (provisionally), sacrifice $770 million of his net worth as Tesla’s shares took a dive.

In presenting the Conservative Party election manifesto this past weekend, three weeks before December’s general election, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised investment in infrastructure, health care and other services, accompanied by no increase in taxes. More generally, he painted a picture of five years of British utopia, all of that thanks to his proclaimed ability and determination to push through Brexit.

Voters have good reason to doubt nearly all of Johnson’s promises and every reason to believe that this isn’t the first time he has lied to the nation. And yet he is projected to achieve a commanding majority in Parliament. In contrast, the very sincere Theresa May lost her majority in Parliament in 2017 and, while battling for two and a half years to fulfill what she believed to be her mission, could accomplish nothing. Preposterousness definitely pays.

Some may see as a degradation of democracy the fact that bombastic liars and corrupt manipulators are applauded and rewarded for their transparently disingenuous or utterly mistaken maneuvers simply because they dared to do it. Both Johnson and Musk — to say nothing of Trump — have created an image of a personality that dares to say or do preposterous things and, when they fail, to earn immediate forgiveness for their errors.

This has become a sign of leadership in a civilization governed by the values of celebrity culture. Those rare voices who invoke the notion of ethics and call such actions preposterous will not only never be publicly cheered, but their critique of preposterousness will at best be acknowledged as a quaint relic of a no longer relevant past in which people cared about integrity and moral values.

*[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.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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