American Nightmare. Donald Trump, Media Spectacle, and Authoritarian Populism

Donald Trump developed skills in marketing and show business, as a savvy self-marketer and a reality TV star, able to exploit new media — to plaster his name on the side of buildings, on boxes of steaks and on a fake university. He’s something of a 21st century version of P.T. Barnum, able to garner popular attention, but with new media unavailable to the 19th century showman/con-artist.

Douglas Kellner’s American Nightmare. Donald Trump, Media Spectacle, and Authoritarian Populism examines Trump’s political rise against the backdrop of contemporary media but also the work of Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Theodor Adorno.

Kellner holds a Chair in the Philosophy of Education at UCLA. He is known for early work on the Frankfurt School, Marxism, and Postmodernism, but he has done more recent work on media culture. The first part of American Nightmare provides the media theoretic and philosophic framework for the book. The latter part focuses more on specific instances during the Trump campaign and early presidency in which Trump generated media spectacle. In his final chapter, before the “provisional conclusion,” Kellner indicates that the analysis of Trump in this thin volume (109pp.) is to be continued.

“Media spectacle” is one basic concept that Kellner uses to analyze Trump’s political rise. Such spectacles are “media constructs” that “disrupt the habitual flow of information” (3). The constructs seize people’s attention and emotions and can come to dominate a short news cycle or become be of more long-term interest. Especially in our emergent new media landscape, with the rise of social media and new sources of information, such media spectacles are playing an increasingly important role in politics. Kellner had already analyzed Obama in reference to his use of media spectacle, “blending politics and performance” (4). Media spectacle thus does not originate with Trump. However, Trump has especially benefited as “a successful creator and manipulator of the spectacle” (5). Indeed, Trump rode to his election success as one “whose use of the media and celebrity star power is his most potent weapon” (6).

As the host of The Apprentice, Trump had found a popular following, and one that had an interest in a “Trumpian pedagogy of how to succeed in the cut-throat corporate capitalist business world,” where “aggressive, highly competitive, and sometimes amoral tactics are needed to win and gain success” (8). Trump’s presidency attracted many of those who admired his alleged no-nonsense business background. In any case, Trump was able to draw on a popular base through a TV audience and to exploit that media, while at the same time mastering Twitter and using it to frame issues as he wanted and to draw attention to himself and incite emotions.

The Republican primary became a media spectacle dominated by Trump. Using inflamatory remarks on TV and Twitter to generate attention, by mid-June 2015, when he announced that he was running, through mid-July, “Trump was in 46% of the news media coverage of the Republican field, based on Google news hits; he also got 60% of google news searches.” Further academic research on this is being conducted. Trump, for his part, explained the attention he was getting: “RATINGS…it’s the ratings, the people love me, they want to see me, so they watch TV when I’m on” (11). This media saturation was a key to Trump’s election success.

While Trump was happy to use the media for his purposes, he was also undermining any media sources that were critical of him. As he noted: “The media is simply a business of distortion and lies…the press writes distorted and untruthful things about me almost daily” (qtd. 16). This attack on the media has by now become a refrain of the Trump administration. A part of his “branding” is to discredit any media messages that counter his own messaging.

In the early middle chapters of the book, Kellner moves from an analysis of Trump’s use of the media spectacle to an analysis of Trump and Trumpism that relies on the work of Erich Fromm and the Frankfurt School, especially their psychological analysis of authoritarian personalities. Wanting to avoid a too strict of comparison with the particularities of Nazi Germany, Kellner labels Trump not a fascist but an “authoritarian populist” (20) An analysis of Fromm’s Escape From Freedom nonetheless show that certain parallels between Trump and the earlier demagogues are clear. Like Hitler, Trump has organized a mass movement outside and critical of traditional party politics. Many of Trump’s base, whipped up by anger and rage, have a similar “idolatry toward their Fuhrer” to that shown by earlier supporters of dictators (21). Like such dictators, Trump presents himself as a quasi-magical leader, the only one who can set things right and “make America great again.” Much of his base adopts what Fromm characterized as “authoritarian idolatry.” Like various dictators, Trump plays on widespread “rage, alienation, and fears” (24). As in the context of those dictators, this generates a extremist support from his base. He may have correctly understood the fanaticism of his base when he stated “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and  I wouldn’t lose voters.”

Like various dictators, Trump presents a bleak view of the present political reality that resonates with his base and points to himself as  the only possible leader who can allow escape from this bleak reality. However, he lacks the typical discipline of the well-known European dictators. Much of the time Trump plays on these emotions in apparently undisciplined Tweets or media outbursts.

Kellner approvingly quotes Evan Osmos’s analysis from The New Yorker of Trump’s unique brand of populism: “From the pantheon of great demagogues Trump has plucked some best practices — William Jennings Bryan’s bombast, Huey Long’s wit, Father Charles Coughlin’s mastery of the airwaves — but historians are at pains to find the perfect analogue, because so much of Trump’s recipe is specific to the present” (25).  In Trump the appeal to authoritarian populism is coupled with “celebrity politics.” Many of those in his “mobocracy” also simply find Trump quite entertaining (27-8).

Kellner refers to Fromm’s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness as a further part of his personality analysis of Trump. Using the Freudian terms adopted by Fromm, he sees Trump as “the Id of American politics” (29) He is “often driven by sheer aggression, narcissism, and rage” (29). “Trump, like classical fascist leaders, has an underdeveloped superego” — understood as referring to the voice of conscience and morality (29). Kellner points to Trump’s Ego, “that has fully appropriated capitalist drives for success, money, power, ambition, and domination” (29). He proudly “brags of his ruthlessness in destroying competitors and enemies” (29). Unsurprisingly from someone who seeks continual domination, he has few long-term friends and has numerous failed relationships.

Trump has the typical characteristics of the “authoritarian character,” as described by the Frankfurt School.  He displays characteristics of a sadist, described by Fromm as “a person with an intense desire to control, hurt, humiliate, another person” (30). He deflects blame continually, and is extremely vindictive to those who have been critical of him. He also has the classical characteristics of a narcissist. As Fromm describes it: “Narcissism is the essence of all severe psychic pathology. For the narcissistically involved person, there is only one reality, that of his own thought, processes, feelings and needs. The world outside is not experienced or perceived objectively, i.e., as existing in its own terms, conditions and needs” (qtd. 31).

Kellner views Fromm’s psychoanalysis of Hitler as describing ” the authoritarian leader” in a manner that is “an uncanny anticipation of Donald Trump”: “he is interested only in himself, his desires, his thoughts, his wishes; he talked endlessly about his ideas, his part, his plans; the world is interesting only as far as it is the object of his schemes and desires; other people matter only as far as they serve him or can be used; he always knows better than anyone else. This certainty in one’s own ideas and schemes is a typical characteristic of intense narcissism” (qtd. 31). Similar depictions of Trump’s narcissism in the meantime proliferate. As Christopher Lasch notes: “diagnosis of Trump” has become “a kind of professional sport” (31). Not only are his narcissism and authoritarian character clear, but so is his “malignant aggression,” evident in his “spontaneously lashing out at anyone who dares to criticize him…” (33).

Much of the second part of the book chronicles instances in which Trump has exemplified some of the characteristics described and used the media as spectacle to whip up the emotions of his base. Here, we see Trump’s disregard for the facts and for standards of law play prominent, and play well enough with his base. We see this in his incitement of his base at rallies throughout his campaign, where, for example, Trump offered to pay the legal bills of anyone who might be taken to court for beating up dissenters at his events, or where the crowds would recite “Lock her up” as kind of chorus to Trump’s references to “crooked Hillary.”

On display throughout his campaign and, sadly, since are such appeals to violence or force. Not only was Clinton threatened with jail, but other forms of force were hinted at in innuendo. At one rally, where Trump talked of Hillary appointing judges, he noted first that there would be nothing that his people could then do, but then added “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.” The appeal to threats of violence clearly resonate with much of his base, again showing the tendencies not only of Trump but of his movement to authoritarian populism.

Another element shared with dictators is Trump’s desire to be taken at his word. A turn of phrase Trump continually came back to in his campaign was “Believe me!” — something Kellner sees as a “revealing sign of an authoritarian demagogue who wants his followers to [accept] his promises as binding and his Word as the Truth to which they must submit” (57).

To this is added his continual attack on the press. Like other demagogues, Trump has moved to undermine external criticism and the reliance of a narrative other than his own. Those who should believe him would better not have his messaging interrupted by the press. In line with this, Trump has not only recently brandished mainstream media as “fake news.” On his campaign he also promised to open up libel laws, so that it would be easier to sue journalists. As Kellner notes “never before has a presidential candidate threatened to curtail freedom of the press, or ban certain publications that criticize him from rallies and public events” (65).

Kellner wrote his book as the campaign had ended, with a focus on the campaign and the earliest days of Trump’s presidency. Since the publication of the book, Trump has shown little sign that he is letting up. In Charlottesville, where right wing extremists killed a protester, Trump spoke of “some very fine people on both sides.” His attacks on the media have grown only louder, and increasingly been accompanied by attacks on the justice investigations and the court system. Trump undermines, thus, not only the fourth estate, but the constitutional order itself in a way very similar to demagogues who the Frankfurt School analyzed. As noted, much of the later part of Kellner’s book simply catalogues the instances in which Trump displayed his manipulation of the media and put his demagoguery on display. It was clear to Kellner when he finished the book that such a chronicling would need to continue. It does. The early sections of the book provide some tools to help in the analysis. At present, we are still moving down the road Kellner began to analyze and we can still conclude with him: “It is … worrisome to contemplate that Trump has developed a large following through his demagoguery and that authoritarian populism constitutes an American Nightmare, and a clear and present danger to US democracy and global peace and stability.” Let’s hope the nation soon wakes up!









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