#Trumpistan: On the Cunning Familiarity of the Authoritarian Absurd

From the Series: Lessons for Liberalism from the “Illiberal East”

Photo by Ines Zgonc, licensed under CC BY.

In January 2015, a New York Times article about a mountain-climbing misadventure inadvertently established a fictional country: Kyrzbekistan. The typographic composite of two Central Asian states resulted in a terse apology from the sports editor, who admitted the following day that Kyrzbekistan “does not exist.” Within days, Kyrzbekistan had become an Internet phenomenon, complete with Twitter avatars for members of the Kyrzbek government, a flag, a national anthem, a capital city (“Bishkent”), a uranium storage problem, and a president with penchant for kidnapping brides. On Twitter, the “president” soon accumulated several thousand followers and was merrily trolling world leaders. Should Iran need somewhere to park its excess uranium, Kyrzbekistan announced to (the real) foreign minister of Iran, “we are happy to take it off your hands.”

Kyrzbekistan’s online identity plays with the generic legibility of the Central Asian “-stan.” This is Stan-the-composite, Stan-the-absurd. We know Stan for its big-bigger-biggest flagpoles; we know its gold-plated statues that rotate in the sun; we know its high-living diva first daughters with their Harvard degrees and pop-star ambitions; we know its halls of sycophantic officials who clap enthusiastically at the president’s latest book. These form the register through which politics in post-Soviet Central Asia has filtered into Western news channels, into big-screen comedy, and into small-screen documentaries such as the United Kingdom’s recent series Dictatorland. That Stan in this formation is a composite and a caricature is precisely the point. When Melissa McCarthy as a fictional Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live yells to the White House press corps about Trump’s meeting with an unpronounceable Central Asian president, it is precisely the Stan-as-generic that produces the joke effect:

President Trump is going to meet with the leader from Central Asia, President, oh boy, ummmm, Almaz . . . Alzmabek Atamajabeybey to discuss the unrest in Kahaga, Kahagizstan . . . specifically in—oh, Jesus—Ota-otamana-otamanwanna-ota-otamanwanna-otamanwanna-abad. So write that!

One consequence of the generic familiarity of Stan-the-absurd is that when the United States elects a misogynist and kleptocratic president with an overinflated ego, a penchant for gold elevators, and a trenchant disregard for the rule of law, we have a ready interpretive script and a hashtag to go with it. We know this politics from somewhere, or so it seems. We know this land of crazy, and the forms of gallows humor that it inspires. This is America as Trumpistan—or more precisely, as #Trumpistan: the hashtag condensing politics, place, and person, as well as the liberal observer’s discursive distance from all three. It is perhaps unsurprising that one of the public registers through which the post-Soviet subject has been most audible in recent U.S. political (and comic) commentary is as an expert on surviving autocracy with one’s gallows humor intact. #Trumpistan tells us that we can get through this, and in surviving, even laugh.

if pointing out the authoritarian tendencies of #Trumpistan invites us to recognize warning signs, to notice alarming parallels with other authoritarian regimes, to be shocked out of our complacency, isn’t that a good thing?

What’s the problem with this, we might ask? After all, if pointing out the authoritarian tendencies of #Trumpistan invites us to recognize warning signs, to notice alarming parallels with other authoritarian regimes, to be shocked out of our complacency, isn’t that a good thing? Certainly, there has been some insightful analysis that has done just that. Sarah Kendzior has invited us to play “guess the dictator” by pointing out the uncanny and disturbing similarities between Ivanka Trump and Gulnara Karimova, both of whom serve to normalize a father’s politics through a soft and glamorous feminism and a lucrative sideline in luxury goods. Kendzior’s article is deliberately intended to shock the U.S. reader to see how deep the comparisons go. Kendzior also happens to have an anthropology Ph.D. based on research with the Uzbek opposition-in-exile.

But #Trumpistan doesn’t really do that. On the contrary, the “-stan” of #Trumpistan is Stan-the-generic, Stan-the-absurd—the Stan of Saturday Night Live. It does not invite us to compare it with any particular authoritarian regime (or any of the other complex political forms that are found in actually existing -stans), generative as that might be. Still less does it ask about the specific and located histories that authorize and celebrate the tycoon-bully as embodiment of a certain version of the American dream—nor the appeal of this figure among significant portions of the American public when he promises to “drain the swamp.” On the contrary: in pointing out the absurd and our capacity to recognize it (that gold elevator! that hairdo! those Twitter rants!), #Trumpistan has a strangely insulating effect. For one thing, the bizarre tends to get more airtime than the truly disturbing or the globally consequential. Geopolitical alarm bells get drowned out by digestible news bites, such that—like the authoritarian presidents we know for their horse-riding, their questionable singing, or their books about tea—we see Trump as dimwitted more than dangerous, ignorant more than impeachable. Hard authoritarian politics, the message seems to be, wouldn’t, couldn’t really happen here.

Second, and more consequentially, #Trumpistan leaves unruffled our conviction that we can see through the crazy; that we can call out the absurd; that we won’t be complicit. It’s that gap that allows the joke effect to work: we recognize the surface similarities to which #Trumpistan gestures, confident that our sensibilities, our institutions, and our capacities to hold power to account will protect us from that shit ever really seeping beyond the surface. In that respect, what remains untouched—perhaps even bolstered—by calling out Trump-the-absurd is the figure of the tenacious liberal subject who can see through this grimy politics and stand outside it; the subject whose mode is irony, whose commentary is critique.

If anthropologies of social life under authoritarian regimes in Central Asia and beyond teach us anything, however, it is precisely that cynicism is no insulation from complicity; that publics can critique and yet conform; that ambivalence is the very hallmark of making a livable life in circumstances of political disillusion or disgust. The forms of the outside cultivated through critique are not immune to incorporation. The cunning of #Trumpistan might lie precisely in leading us to expect that Trump’s America will be any different.