Russiagate and the Spectacle

The release of a summary of the key findings of the Mueller investigation into the alleged malfeasance of Donald Trump has caused a stir in the media world. Though the complete report has yet to be seen, the summary suggests the most tantalizing of the various accusations against Trump—his possible collusion with or being an agent of Russia—is either untrue or cannot be sufficiently proven given the information uncovered by the two-year probe. All this despite the fact that much of the news media, especially those outlets and personalities who have taken an oppositional or “resistance” stance with regard to the Trump presidency, have been weaving an intricate narrative of a complicated and clandestine plot that, once discovered by the Mueller investigation, would result in multiple arrests of Trump’s family and inner circle, the impeachment and removal of Trump from the White House and possibly a prosecution of the now deposed president on charges as grave as treason. With the release of the summary, however, it appears that these narratives were mostly fantasies brought about by wishful thinking or projections of suppressed shame and guilt on the part of a portion of the media industry unable to confront its role in bringing Trump to power in the first place.

A handful of writers skeptical of these narratives (and who feel a certain sense of vindication in what the summary report suggests) have suggested the media’s behavior throughout the entire Russiagate hullabaloo resembles the last time American (and to certain extent Western) media collectively adopted and mutually reinforced a dubious narrative about a major news event—the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in weeks and months leading up to the invasion in 2003. There, most of the major news media outlets disconnected their critical capacities and largely repeated and amplified the standard story about Saddam Hussein developing a sophisticated weapons of mass destruction program and a series of crafty platforms of deploying it (including remote-controlled drones). This narrative proved to be an essential component of the larger myth of justification for the invasion that succeeded into creating majority support for the invasion among both politicians and the general public. It was only later, when the invasion bogged down into a chaotic occupation and the popular jingoistic fever dream that accompanies the opening days of war subsided, was it revealed that no weapons of mass destruction were found and the supposedly rock-solid intelligence that was proof of their existence was a corrupt combination of speculation, dubious sourcing and outright falsehood.

But as bad as this episode was in terms of demonstrating the gullibility and groupthink of the media, the journalist Matt Taibbi thinks the Russia controversy is worse:

As a purely journalistic failure, however, WMD was a pimple compared to Russiagate. The sheer scale of the errors and exaggerations this time around dwarfs the last mess. Worse, it’s led to most journalists accepting a radical change in mission. We’ve become sides-choosers, obliterating the concept of the press as an independent institution whose primary role is sorting fact and fiction.

Taibbi then concludes:

We had the sense to eventually look inward a little in the WMD affair, which is the only reason we escaped that episode with any audience left. Is the press even capable of that kind of self-awareness now? WMD damaged our reputation. If we don’t turn things around, this story will destroy it.[1]

The question at this point centers on why the various elements of the national and international media fell into this trap of exaggerating and amplifying the most contrived and spectacular aspects of a major story like Russiagate? This question is especially pertinent given that if one were keen on trying to discredit Donald Trump and had an agenda of prematurely removing him from office, there was still plenty of corruption, malfeasance, venality and evidence of illegal or immoral activities to justify a campaign for impeachment and possibly indictment. Why latch onto the one story that, while certainly having the biggest blockbuster potential, was also going to be the hardest to prove? A conventional answer to this question lies in the commercial aspects of American media, with its focus on maximizing ratings and clicks in order to deliver the largest audiences as possible to advertisers. However, a deeper and more theoretical explanation is found by looking not just at the profit motive of the media companies themselves, but their place in the larger holistic world of the society of the spectacle—a world where appearances have the ultimate sovereignty over any material realities and, in the words of Guy Debord, “the true is a moment of the false.”[2]

As has been discussed here before, the spectacle is a world order built by the current iteration of global capitalism. It represents a world where the bulk of value-added assets come not from manufactured goods or commodities, but from the imaginary aura created by the sum-total of these commodities into various competing lifestyles and cultures. Each of these cultures conjure a menu of dreams, fantasies, aspirations and fears that individuals seek by associating themselves with a galaxy of brands, logos, and other signifiers through the purchase of the goods and services affiliated with those brands. For most individuals living in the spectacle, life becomes and endless effort to imbibe and emulate the sensory output of the spectacle, not just for the mere purposes of entertainment, but because this pursuit creates a ready-made existential meaning for individuals and communities in world that otherwise provides no such meaning. As Debord argues, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.”[3]

What this means in terms of Russiagate is that certain material realities, such as Trump’s venality and the allegations of possible Russian interference in the 2016 get treated as the ingredients for an elaborate and sophisticated cloak-and-dagger intrigue resembling the plot from a spy novel written by a best-selling author rather than a story of banal quid-pro-quo style corruption that, while still constituting a genuine crime requiring investigation and prosecution, falls far short of the spectacular parameters of the pulp-fiction political thriller or summer blockbuster action movie. The problem is that in the spectacle, where millions observe and interpret politics and politicians along the lines of the fantastical portrayals in popular culture and “infotainment” news media, the existence of the clichéd and timeworn forms of corruption Trump is guilty of become invisible. The day-to-day conversations and arrangements by unremarkable middle-aged white men engaged in garden-variety conspiracy fail to capture the imagination of the masses who, after consuming endless hours of comic books, movies and streaming television, cannot recognize the banality of evil when they see it. They expect to see supervillains clad in dark hues or featuring grotesque physical deformities of the kind seen in a Tolkein or Brooks story. What they get instead is a cadre of pasty retirees, and whatever physical deformities they possess are the result of the excesses of consumerism rather than any “evil” that is growing inside of them.

So pervasive is the power of the spectacle that those who have active roles in creating and perpetuating it are no longer conscious of its existence (if they ever were). One of the more sinister elements of the Russiagate phenomenon was the ability of a few individuals on a few platforms to amplify the pageant to its epic proportions. Cable news, one of the central manufacturing hubs of political spectacle in the United States, proved to be an assembly-line of relentless speculation, opinion-making, partisan debate, and general myth making/busting on all facets of the conflict. On MSNBC, Rachael Maddow would present in breathless tones the latest kernel of rumor and conjecture on the status of the Mueller investigation and conclude that the day of reckoning for the Trump presidency will soon be at hand. Sean Hannity at Fox News would arrogantly dismiss the same rumor or conjecture and reassure Trump’s most ardent supporters that nothing would stop Trump from making American great again. CNN would feature endless panels of interchangeable pundits robotically espousing the talking points of the factions they represented. On social media, a swarm of Facebook posts, tweets, Youtube videos and Instagram pics went forth from the world’s TVs, computers and smart phones to devour the cognitive matter of whomever placed themselves in the path of this pestilence.

Yet nowhere in this audio/visual ecosystem was there anything that might be recognized as the truth—or at minimum, a sober narrative. In the Society of the Spectacle, Debord explains the reason for this:

The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudo-world that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world has culminated in a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived.[4]

Perhaps most importantly, the farcical fantasy that was at the core of so much of the Russiagate coverage was a symptom of what put Trump in the White House in the first place. So much of the storytelling and mythmaking that comes out of the contemporary media is so detached from the lived realities of most people that, like a drug addict who hates the life chemical dependency has created but can’t break away from the euphoric effects of the drug they are using, keep consuming the same stories and internalizing the myths because its preferable to facing the grimness of reality. At some subconscious level, they know that part of the reason they find their life so thoroughly inadequate is due in part to the implied promises and subtle seductions of most media output—from the television advertisement that makes the purchase of a product the first step in a life of excitement and adventure to the binge-watchable serial drama that creates a relationship between the viewer and its characters more intimate than what that viewer experiences in the “real world.” On an instinctual level they know that something about this arrangement is not right, but cannot articulate this discomfort and are paralyzed to act when moved to try to change this situation. Along comes Donald Trump, who is a creature of this world and can provide a narrative of interpretation the people themselves struggle to produce themselves. He arouses and articulates the despair and rage of those whose lives turned out less beautiful and glamorous than what was presented in the various forms of media consumed and offers a ready-made list of culprits and enemies to blame for their discontent. That all this is yet another false narrative that will make things worse in the long run matters little. For now, Trump is providing a stronger and more potent myth that will temporarily ease the pain of the audience’s existence.

The spectacle, in its sinister way, now provides an alternative set of myths, stories, theories and conjectures that provide those whose existential crisis is connected to the threats to the status quo presented by the election of Donald Trump. While there are clearly examples of a growth in active engagement among certain segments of society, resulting in things like the turnover of the House of Representatives to Democrats in the 2018 election, for those who imbibed most deeply in the story, Russiagate was to be the sequel where the heroes win in the end—where Donald Trump is ousted from his perch in the White House and, perhaps through some extra-constitutional maneuver, Hilary Clinton takes her rightful place in the Oval Office. The key finding in the summary of the Mueller Report that no collusion existed between Trump and Russia shatters that fantasy, leaving those who pinned their hopes to this story left in a state of denial or despair. Unfortunately, with the spectacle, this is where everyone winds up in the end.



     [1]Matt Taibbi, Hate Inc. (OR Books, 2019). Forthcoming

     [2] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, (Berkeley, California: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 4.

     [3] Ibid., 2.

     [4] Ibid., 2.

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