Trump and the Media Are Not Enemies

Before the media’s attention turned to Houston and the unfolding flood disaster there, there was much rumination on the political rally of Donald Trump in Phoenix on August 22nd. The event was a throwback to the large campaign rallies that were the hallmark of the Trump presidential campaign and were a big part of his success with a large segment of the population. Of particular interest were Trump’s comments about the media, especially the following:

“Look back there, the live red lights. They’re turning those suckers off fast out there. They’re turning those lights off fast. Like CNN. CNN does not want its falling viewership to watch what I’m saying tonight, I can tell you.”[1]

This as well as other comments from the rally were more evidence that Trump was intentionally stoking the dislike of the media among his fans in order to rally their support and distract the larger viewing public of Trump’s declining approval ratings. [2] Moreover, it gave some hope that now, finally, Trump had gone too far and that his Teflon-like resistance to bad press and public condemnation would cause his star to fall. But such is not to be the case. If anything, Trump’s anti-media comments at the Phoenix rally give special insight as to the source of his power and why so many who are eager to pronounce the death of his presidency will continue to be disappointed.

At the heart of Trump’s anti-media comments is a key paradox. Trump’s supporters—and much of the larger general public—do indeed despise the media.[3]  The reasons for this are usually chalked up to partisan politics—conservatives see the mainstream media as in the tank for liberal values and the Democratic Party while progressives see conservative outlets as repugnant Republican propaganda. This explanation, however, while no doubt reflecting part of the answer, overlooks the larger structural and global aspects of how the media are organized and what compels it to produce the propaganda that it does.

This space will offer an alternative explanation. Because it is devoted to exploring the ideas of the spectacle put forth by Guy Debord, the answer sketched out here will draw its explanation from Society of the Spectacle, and in particular thesis #13:

“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”[4]

The French gloire, similar to English, implies a shine and magnificence, but one can replace the word “glory” with “infamy”, and in doing so, one can get a better idea of what Debord might be referring to in the context of Trump’s relationship with the media. Instinctually, Trump is aware that the media cannot help themselves whenever he goes on one of his rants in front of his fans or sends out an outrageous tweet. Though the individual reporters and editors may loathe to cover such developments, the internal logic of the media and of spectacular capitalism demands that such provocations and declarations be covered and analyzed. This gets to what Debord is referring to by the idea of the means and ends of the spectacle—Trumps outrageous commentary garners substantial ratings, which benefits news and media outlets that cover said comments. These news and media outlets then fill their substantial amount of airtime and print space with commentary about the commentary—whether it is critical of Trump or supportive of him is not important, just so that there is an abundant supply of it and that it sustains the ratings the original comments brought. Inevitably, the media commentary and punditry, combined with the demands of governing and outside events, results in Trump making new, often more outrageous comments, which then unleashes a new cycle of commentary and counter-commentary ad infinitum. All the while, the ratings remain high, revenue from ads are robust, and those who own, control and benefit from this arrangement become more powerful. So long as Trump continues to be Trump, there is no reason why this arrangement will end. Indeed, the real threat here is if Trump every decided to not talk/tweet. The system may not be able survive such a scenario.

For some evidence of this arrangement and why it is not going away anytime soon, see these two quotes from high ranking media executives commenting on Donald Trump. The first is from Les Moonves, Chairman of CBS:

  “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS… Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun….I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”[5]

This quote is from the head of CNN International Tony Maddox:

“[Trump] is good for business…It’s a glib thing to say. But our performance has been enhanced during this news period…If you look at the groups that Trump has primarily targeted: CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Saturday Night Live, Stephen Colbert…every single one of those has seen a quite remarkable growth in their viewing figures, in their sales figures.”[6]

This still leaves the question of what is going on with the popular hatred of the media and the masses that both loathe the media but also can’t stop watching. Again, part of it is partisanship—Fox viewers hate all the media except Fox, who they give a pass to, while a similar thing happens with viewers of more centrist media outlets (with one or two exceptions, there really is no  left wing media in the US).  But if one watches both Fox and MSNBC or CNN carefully, what one is struck by the similarities that exist in terms of presenting a vision of an idealized consumer life that is, for the large part, beyond the reach of many of its viewers. As Debord said in Society of the Spectacle:

“The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep. “[7]

In between all the partisan bickering and canned discussion are an endless stream of human interest stories, celebrity profiles and advertisements that glamorize and glorify a way of living that are bursting at the seams with passion, pleasure, prosperity and happiness. Or, put in a more vulgar, (but also perhaps more effective language), Matt Taibbi says, “America’s TV networks have spent the last forty years falling over each other trying to find better and more efficient ways to sell tits to the 18-to-35 demographic.”[8] The media establishment barrages the viewer with titillating images to sell its products and get the masses to watch its shows by appealing to the emotions, fantasies, fears, hopes, and dreams of its audience. Eventually however, people start to realize they are, to use Debord’s figurative words, “in chains.” They realize the images and dreams on the screen are illusory, but they also don’t want to give up the slim hope that they might still come true for them (if no one else). The appeal of Donald Trump stems from the fact that, realizing the media dream is fake, they are drawn to someone who is “strong” enough to go after this machine that holds them in a state of paralysis. They delight in Trump’s denunciations of CNN as “fake news” because in a certain, strange way, he is right….ironically, it is not the news that is fake, but everything else on the channel—the ads, the phony perkiness of the anchors, the contrived interest of the reporter interviewing the obscure reality television star with apparent bated breath. They are tired of being spoon fed this drivel but can’t detach themselves from it when it is all their body can now digest. Their one hope is a man who knows this awful media apparatus so well he can identify its weak points and attack it where it will do the most damage.

But the lie here is that Trump isn’t attacking any weak points. He is only making it stronger. The audiences, as the quotes from the media executives show, are flocking to them in greater numbers, hoping to see if the media monster will be slayed and not realizing that this is not really in the cards. Trump’s success is the media’s success and vice versa. If something like the Mueller investigation succeeds in setting forth a chain of events that end the Trump presidency, the media will suffer for it in the long run. But it won’t be destroyed. And that is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this—the only entity that can truly be vanquished here is Trump. The media, and the society of the spectacle that it helps to create, will persist long after Trump is gone.

[1] See http://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2017/08/23/president-trump-phoenix-rally-full-entire.cnn

[2] See https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/8/23/16189198/cnn-don-lemon-rebuke-trump-phoenix-speech

[3] See http://www.gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx

[4] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 5.

[5] Les Moonves quoted in:  http://www.politico.com/blogs/on-media/2016/02/les-moonves-trump-cbs-220001

[6] Tony Maddox quoted in http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/taibbi-blame-media-for-creating-world-dumb-enough-for-trump-w499649

[7] Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 7.

[8] Matt Taibbi, “We’re Hiding from the Ugly Truth in the Imus Scandal” http://www.alternet.org/story/50726/we%27re_hiding_from_the_ugly_truth_in_the_imus_scandal

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