“We’re never gonna stop the launch on time,” the Boss Baby (an intelligent baby in a business suit) bewails after barely missing the opportunity to tip his parents off to the antagonist’s evil plan. To this, the older (normal) kid brother replies, “Who cares, our parents are in danger!”. “I care,” replies the baby-adult, “Baby Corp is going to go out of business!”  This all takes place in a key scene leading up to the climax of the original Boss Baby animated film. In the Kantian ethical constellation the Boss Baby views his parents as a means to an end (of saving the company), while the boy sees his parents as ends-in-themselves (to be saved even if the company cannot). Recently in “bright red” Texas, the incumbent US Senator Ted Cruz squared off in a prominent debate against the surprisingly formidable challenger from the liberal near-left, Beto O’Rourke. Here again arrises the distinction between means and ends, in the rhetoric of the two candidates. When Mr. O’Rourke (who has a certain boyish quality) cited the famous precept, invoked from Aristotle to Adams, “we are a nation of laws and not of men”,  he effectively reinforced the standard liberal avowal to equity — to uphold the principle of individuals as ends-in-themselves — through overture to ‘rule of law’. While Cruz (who coincidentally looks like a man with a baby face) on the other hand stood by the tried conservative pragmatism of means-to-ends. When asked about the controversial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, Cruz stated, “I believe Texans want constitutionalists on the Supreme Court,”  ostensibly meaning, ‘the constitution is what matters, not whether one is morally right or wrong.’ The Republicans see winning as a means to the end of saving the business — sorry — the country, while the Democrats are still on the ideological hook to be on the ‘right side of history’, even if that sometimes means losing.
On a more fundamental ideological level though, Cruz and O’Rourke are both still caught in the egoist economy of utilitarian ‘good’ which is ultimately self-serving. Both are free to ‘enjoy’ their service to the public because it never deviates from their narcissistic imago of ‘the person they want to be viewed as’. In other words, neither is willing to make the sacrifice of bucking the party’s trend because their pride is vested in being what the party wants. However, the precepts of American maximalism demand that at the highest level there be no compromise between being justified and being victorious — winners are always right.
Now I would like the reader to imagine a sequel to Boss Baby, one set in an alternate universe where at the end of the first film the baby doesn’t stay and live with the family, but returns to work for Baby Corp. In the sequel’s first act we watch his miraculous rise to the top of Baby Corp using high-handed, gritty tactics like back-stabbing, manipulation and shameless self-promotion. Then in the second act, with seemingly nothing left to achieve, he encounters a tempestuous yet gifted up-and-coming baby executive to whom he takes a liking. He sees himself in the cocksure upstart and in a tender moment decides to share with him the ultimate secret to his success. President Trump recently invited Kanye West to the oval office. This is not a non-sequitur.
One can only guess what Kanye was thinking might happen during his visit. He assuredly did not think the President would rescind his support right there and then for the highly controversial stop-and-frisk policy in Chicago, West’s home town, or Kanye wouldn’t have brought it up in the feckless manner that he did. In fact, little to no substantive dialogue was had during the twenty minutes the two shared the room together; what mainly transpired could best be described as a tedious display of bootlicking. But nonetheless, as is usually the case with a highly scrutinized interchange, what was said was not nearly all that was communicated.
After being pressed again by an attendant reporter about stop-and-frisk, what Trump communicated, not what he said, was key. His response reads like standard Trumpian obscurantism. “We all agree they have to do something that’s for sure… It’s also a respect issue. They respect this guy [Kanye]… Right now, they’re not respecting, let’s say your mayor or let’s say your leadership in Chicago.”  The word ‘they’ (and its curiously vague antecedents), repeated here three times, is the exegetic term. The first use refers to either the Chicago police or politicians. Then in the second case switches to rap-listeners or Kanye admirers and, by inference, the apparent victims of stop-and-frisk. With this, then the antecedent to the third ‘they’ is sufficiently obfuscated and can only doubtlessly be determined by what it is not — that is to say, to whatever the first ‘they’ was referring, it isn’t. What was said can easily be translated into an Aristotelian deduction: ‘they’ are not us; you and I, Kanye, are necessarily us; therefore, we are not ‘them’ (whoever ‘they’ are).
In order to parse out the underlying ‘communication’ one should note the way Mr. Trump’s evasive rhetoric here mirrors the basic political bureaucratic countermove; the three ‘d’s’: deflect, deny, defy. What is notable in this case is the very ordinariness of appearance. Where the President’s tenure has been marked by a characteristic contrarian zeal, this ‘business as usual’ behavior sticks out as strictly anomalous. And this maneuver, to make active the typically passive assignation of ‘normalcy’, is the fundamental mark of separation between Mr. Trump and his predecessors. The line about a winning Presidential candidate that goes, ‘despite being extraordinarily driven to achievement, he still happens to be a regular guy’ is inverted. Trump goes out of his way to perform ‘normalness’ despite happening to be a winner. Take the case of his notorious boastfulness, specifically when he is gloating about his victories. Is this not an effort to actually lower his prestige to that of an everyday braggart while also simultaneously serving to reify the very sovereignty of his ‘betterness’ by sowing an internalized, subjective doubt that then the individual must consider against his own merit?
The ‘pathologizing’ of Normal is not to be taken lightly. The popular truism “history is written by the winners” is being updated to: “revise history to show you have won”. The example of white ethno-nationalists publicly chugging from milk gallons in order to “draw attention to a genetic trait known to be more common in white people than others — the ability to digest lactose as adults”  makes clear this battle for ideological hegemony. By symbolically coopting a harmless grocery staple, they intend to alter the foundational presuppositions of society. Furthermore, it is the symbolic level on which Trump’s low-brow gestures function that lend them permissibility and also protection from high-brow critique. The Žižekian notions of cynicism (faking a public belief in what one privately mocks) and irony (secretly believing in what one publicly mocks) are crucial here . When during a ceremony to honor Navajo code talkers President Trump takes an off the cuff swipe at Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren by calling her Pocahontas , at the processal level of enunciation he ironically publicly mocks these gentlemen’s ethnic heritage while appearing to have a ‘private’ moment of crass rapport with them, while then at the reflexive level of enunciated he cynically publicly maintains his Republican political allegiance while appealing to the private extremist views the party tries to disavow. Which one was he, the ironic racist or the cynical embattled politician? Or both? The symbolic efficiency is located in this shift from hearing and having heard. By trying to determine the man’s intention, a necessary re-registration of what is expected, or what is normal, must occur.
In the unambiguous, easily digestible Hollywood climactic scene of Boss Baby 2, the baby-CEO will say to the rising executive-baby, “You wanna know why I’m so successful? It’s because through it all I’m still just a normal, regular guy.” The difference between this flat representation of things and their real-world counterpart is that Trump is really just pathologically normal. With the complete dissolution of value of things-in-themselves to things-as-cultural-capital and the all out multiculturalist war for hegemonic determinacy, Trump understands that Normal is the preeminent justification par excellence — i.e. it is the trump card. But as Slavoj Žižek often points out, there is more truth in the mask than what lies underneath, and even if one only pretends to believe in something, this performance is what actually determines the person’s actual position . In the case of Kanye West taking a bureaucratic snub to the chin in full view of every major news outlet, his best recourse quite possibly could have been to disappointedly remark, “I should have figured. You’re just a regular politician after all.”
Nobu Massiah is a graduate of the Maurice Kanbar School for Film and Television at NYU with a BA in Film and Television.
1. MgGrath, T. The Boss Baby, (2017), Dreamworks
2. Youtube. (2018, Sept. 21), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efTm9eZ1qvM&t=1756s
3. Youtube. (2018, Sept. 21), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efTm9eZ1qvM&t=1756s
4. Youtube. (2018, Oct. 11), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLmQ57mEGFs
5. Harmon, A. (2018, Oct. 17), Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (and Why Geneticists Are Alarmed), https://www.nytimes.com/
6. Less Than Nothing, page 71
7. Youtube. (2017, Nov. 27), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GuXc3IenURc
8. Less Than Nothing, page 72