Though less than a week has elapsed since the firing of James Comey, a conventional wisdom is already emerging. This has been expressed by a fairly broad cross-section of elites, pundits and academics who all espouse both the unprecedented nature of Trump’s dismissal of the former FBI Director and the harbinger of doom for the future of the republic it represents. CNN legal analyst and status quo junkie Jeffrey Toobin used the phrase “grotesque abuse of power” to describe Trump’s sacking while Erica Chenoweth, a scholar of political resistance movements at the University of Denver, made clear in a recent Vox piece that Trump’s actions were vintage authoritarianism and that “this is not a drill.”
The firing of Comey clearly has the look of a chief executive trying to figure out how to consolidate his power and there is very much a cause for concern, but in the end, will anything really be done? Will the hemming and hawing result in substantive action being taken against Trump and his administration by ostensibly independent bodies within the government or pressure groups and movements outside of government? To answer this question, previous precedents and references to past parallels to the days of Richard Nixon are not much help–the popular mindset and media environment is very different in the early twenty-first century than the mid-to-late twentieth century. And to make this point, I will invoke the theme of this blog, Guy Debord’s notion of the spectacle.
In the Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord says “Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the project of the present mode of production. It is not a mere supplement or decoration added to the real world, it is the heart of this real society’s unreality.” In a world that demands the production of endless streams of news, information and entertainment to keep all of us staring at our televisions, radio, computers and smart phones, this bombshell of an event should be seen less as news and more of another episode of an indefinite reality show constructed around the presidency of Donald Trump. The first “season” of this show—the campaign Trump for the Presidency—should have demonstrated to everyone that all the conventional wisdoms, replete with their traditional unspoken protocols and unwritten codes of conduct and informal norms and behaviors, did not apply when popular discontent with neoliberalism combines with an insatiable media apparatus ready to serve every wish, desire, fantasy, and dream of the disillusioned body politic. Mainstream commentators and traditional academics assuming the laws of political physics that applied to past presidents have failed to notice we are now on a different planet and a new set of physical laws operate here.
Debord also writes, “The tautological character of the spectacle stems from the fact that its means and ends are identical. It is the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the globe, endlessly basking in its own glory.“ Trump, largely through instinct more than acumen, appears to understand this better than most. In the society of the spectacle, the media needs news and events to sensationalize and turn them into infotainment. It is largely unconcerned about the moral or ethical dimension to the news stories that it covers. One only need to observe how CNN or Fox or MSNBC political shows bear more than a faint resemblance to ESPN or Fox style sports show. Indeed, this space spoke last week of the crisis in sports media brought about by social sharing platforms. Much of the same trends are at play in “regular” journalism as well, and the news that Comey was fired was met by these cable news channels with OJ Simpson style coverage, including helicopters following Comey’s SUV through the freeways of Los Angeles while advocates for the various feuding parties engaged each other in meaningless verbal fisticuffs for the sole purpose of filling the airtime with drama and tension in the hopes the audience does not change the channel.
This goes to the heart of what Debord says in the quote about the “sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity.” The effect of all this coverage is not an outraged mass public that demands accountability for the corruption and overreach of certain segments of the government, but a still better act the next time around–that the next bit of Trump related news be juicier and more jaw-dropping than this. To the “this is not a drill” warnings from the likes of Chenoweth, Trump replies, figuratively speaking, “are you not entertained?”
Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley, California: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 3.