Alex Ross had a piece at The New Yorker yesterday about Donald Trump as the ultimate vindication of the Frankfurt School’s social critics:
As Stuart Jeffries points out in his recent book “Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School,” the ongoing international crisis of capitalism and liberal democracy has prompted a resurgence of interest in the body of work known as critical theory. The combination of economic inequality and pop-cultural frivolity is precisely the scenario Adorno and others had in mind: mass distraction masking élite domination. Two years ago, in an essay on the persistence of the Frankfurt School, I wrote, “If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized.”
I spoke too soon. His moment of vindication is arriving now. With the election of Donald Trump, the latent threat of American authoritarianism is on the verge of being realized, its characteristics already mapped by latter-day sociologists who have updated Adorno’s “F-scale” for fascist tendencies.
The most incredible thing about this moment is indeed how ludicrously “on the nose” it is, as Ross writes. Trump’s election is an event that would be over the top in all but the very preachiest satires or dystopian works on the deadness of American cultural life and the political questions it obscures (Infinite Jest, perhaps the preachiest of them all, notably includes a Trumpesque celebrity president of the “Organization of North American Nations”).
Minima Moralia‘s been on my reading list for an embarrassingly long time, so I can’t claim full command of Adorno’s ideas. But it seems that many of the insights of the Frankfurt School have become, or perhaps always were, commonsensical, broadly accessible, and, at this point, clichéd notions about the nature of popular culture and how it interacts with political power—everyone who’s ever griped about the American “sheeple” or muttered about “bread and circuses” seems, I think, to grasp the basics of what Adorno had to say. I suspect that many of Trump’s own voters share that cynicism and would acknowledge themselves, if pressed, that Trump is the product of a hollow and narcotizing mass culture. But they voted for him anyway. And the rest of us have spent decades helplessly watching that culture metastasize.