The Trumpire and the Integrated Spectacle

It is now time to go back and revisit some of the earlier comments of this space with regards to the notion of the Trumpire. As some of the earlier entries attempted to show, the Trumpire is the name given to the merging of the power of the traditional military-industrial complex and all its ancillary institutions with the power of the global media apparatus. Upon his election, the person of Donald Trump was perhaps the most perfect instantiation of these two monolithic entities coming together. On the one hand there is Donald Trump, the tabloid figure and reality television star whose savvy for publicity and connections in the public relations, advertising, real estate and other trademark industries of late capitalism have made him a household name, even if that name was often uttered with a tinge of disgust. On the other hand, President Trump represents a man with unorthodox foreign policy and national security views taking control of the United States’ uniquely dominant military arsenal. These two Trumps merge together to lead an assemblage of power that has never had this kind of command over the material infrastructure of both hard and soft power simultaneously. Such a fusion deserves its owe unique moniker—the Trumpire.

Debord’s concept of the integrated spectacle gives a fuller appreciation of what the Trump Administration represents. Recall that the integrated spectacle fuses many of the old totalitarian elements of the collapsed Soviet Union with the more enticing practices of entertainment and consumer choice found in the west. It is not that the regimes in the west are any less totalizing in their suffocating of individual creative spirit or autonomy, it is just that the regimes of the west made this totality more fun and luxurious. In both regimes, the state and its attendant social institutions made ambitious claims on the time of the average worker, often demanding formally or informally they perform tasks of inane drudgery and sullen banality for often low pay and little job satisfaction. The west, with a freer economic system, had shinier cars and better sitcoms.

Yet when the two elements are combined, something new and more sinister takes hold of which we are starting to see the first signs. We can see this in how the Trumpire has dealt with the problem of terrorism in the Middle East. First, however, let’s see how Debord conceives of terrorism. In 1998, he argues that terrorism in the integrated spectacle is largely a construction of the state. To elaborate, the state:

     …constructs its own inconceivable foe, terrorism. Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive. The spectators must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.[1]

The state, Debord is saying, seeks to amplify and distort the nature of terrorist attack not because of any grand conspiracy, but because it is a rational behavior of a national security complex operating in a world where the values and priorities of the integrated spectacle have taken precedent. “We should expect,” Debord writes, “as a logical possibility, that the state’s security services intend to use all the advantages they find in the realm of the spectacle, which has indeed been organized with that in mind for some considerable time.”[2] A society organized around the spectacular nature of consumer capitalism—where the need to keep the masses enraptured with the pursuit of ever new products, services and experiences—serves as an ideal platform for also disseminating uncertainty, mystery and fear. The social agents and interests that control the institutions of the state are naturally drawn to the prospect of using the spectacle to legitimize their hegemony by conjuring up the image of nefarious enemies and displaying them through the communications apparatus to a mass public whose tastes have already been adjusted to a diet of fantasy and illusion in the commercial sphere. But instead of the sexy imagery of glamor and luxury summoned up by the advertisers and marketers, there is the savage imagery of brutality and death invoked by the forces in charge of protecting the status quo. This conjuring up of the sights and sounds of danger and threat by the prevailing complex of power is the essence of Debord’s notion of terrorism.

Thus, the recent missile strikes on Syria or the dropping of the MOAB bomb in Afghanistan is less about actually stopping terrorists and more about going through the pantomimes of the war on terror to preserve the status quo assemblage of power, which has used terrorism as its “inconceivable foe” since September 11th. These strikes fulfill a number of purposes—they give the appearance that the US is “doing something” in the wake of gas attacks and the continued persistence of ISIS, they allow the elements of the military-industrial complex to test out weapons systems and keep sharp on the procedures for using certain kinds of ordnance, they are ratings gold for media companies and their news operations which can fill its never-ending 24 hour news requirements with audience pleasing imagery of bombs exploding and keen sounding commentary from its on-staff military experts, and they serves as messages to other potential adversaries that the US is still the most heavily armed and capable military force in the world. One could add dozens more elements that these missile and MOAB strikes produce. What they don’t produce, however, is any real resolution to the present conflicts and the larger “war on terror.” And this is how we know the system is running as it should, because if Debord’s notion terrorism (or any threat that posed as existential by hegemonic forces) is correct, the terrorists are as much a part of the system as the bombs raining down on them.

     [1] Debord, Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, 24. Italics in the original.

     [2] Debord, Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, 25.

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