The Crisis of the Spectacle After Trump

With the election of Joe Biden to the office of President of the United States, the reign of the world’s most spectacular head of state comes to an end. The legacy of the Trump term will likely be debated for years to come with little prospect for any immediate consensus on what this long strange trip of a presidency means in the greater historical context of the current era (and this of course, looks past the fact that Trump could regain the White House in 2024 as part of a “comeback special” that would fit very well within the television-oriented mindset Trump operates.[1])

Within the society of the spectacle, however, a greater crisis looms. Whatever one thought of Trump’s manners, leadership style or policies, his place at the center of the world’s political universe was a boon to the various media outlets that covered, commented or criticized the comings and goings of the 45th President. Traditional cable news channels like Fox News and Fox Business Channel became a magic mirror for Trump to stand in front of and be paid flattering comments from the networks’ sycophantic reporters. Even more profoundly, the upstart One American News Network, which came into existence a few years before Trump’s election, flailed in obscurity until it re-oriented itself as the unofficial mouthpiece of the Trump administration.[2] Meanwhile, several broadcast and print platforms took to performing a critical role in the face of what was seen by traditional elites as a quasi-authoritarian Trump government and heavily scrutinized Trump’s policies (such that they existed) and disparaged his surly demeanor. The most noteworthy examples of this included the evening programs of Chris Hayes, Rachael Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, Anderson Cooper and Don Lemmon on CNN and the written print columns of Jonathan Chait and Paul Krugman in the New York Times (among countless others). And these represent just the mass media outlets—the online blogs, websites, podcasts and social media accounts that reveled in or reviled all things Trump are too numerous to count.  

The result of this fawning programming and critical counter-programming was enormous profits for the various media companies involved. While Fox News had long generated a small windfall of revenue as the informational safe space for ideological opponents of Obama, cable news outlets like CNN and MSNBC as well as the regular news operations of NBC, ABC and CBS and news and opinion web and social media sites enjoyed a flood of new viewers and subscribers who liked the daily castigations of all things Trump. Especially when the Russiagate scandal broke, viewers eager to see Trump get his comeuppance for his alleged clandestine ties to Vladimir Putin (or see these allegations explained away by Trump-friendly personalities) swelled the ratings for news media operations that were used to having audiences smaller than those that watched coverage of soccer matches in foreign countries. In a comment that has gained a certain amount of infamy at this point, Les Moonves, who was president of CBS network in 2016, said regarding Trump’s antics in the presidential primary race, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”[3] Few statements capture the idea Debord was talking about when he said in thesis 34 of The Society of the Spectacle that the spectacle is “capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images.”[4]

But now Trump is gone and the question now is what will the spectacle offer in his place that sustains the new expectations of the contemporary media political economy? The specialty of the spectacle, as Debrod describes it, “is the concrete manufacture of alienation. (…) The “growth” generated by the economy developing for its own sake can be nothing other than a growth in the very alienation that was its origin.”[5] What Debord is suggesting here is that economic growth requires the creation of an ever greater gap between the material reality of the present-day assemblage of power and the lived experience of that reality by the general masses. For example, a complicated discussion of the material reality of wealth disparity and who is responsible for the creation such disparities is rarely provided among the spectacle’s leading institutions in favor of sweeter and more digestible treats of scandal and salaciousness. Even before Trump’s arrival on the scene of presidential politics, the coverage of political campaigns assumed a reality-show like structure that emphasized sports-talk style analysis of each candidates “electability” and the meticulous delving into every action and statement by the candidates in the hopes of unearthing a bouillon cube of controversy that could be made into a full soup of scandal. The complexities of the world and the forces that vie for control within it rarely receive illumination. The result, as Debord argues, is an individual that may make a good-faith effort to understand the world around them, but “the more he contemplates, the less he lives, the more he identifies with the dominant image, the less he understands his own life and his own desires.”[6]

Trump upended this process not by withholding controversy, but by controlling it and serving it up to serve his interests. Like passing motorists that cannot help but stop to gaze at a car crash, Trump instinctually seemed to know that media institutions, desperate for ratings and viewers, could not help but point their cameras at him and cover whatever faux car crash he conjured through his outrageous statements, rude insults and shameless braggadocio. Audiences that watched this pageant unfold increasingly began to identify with some element of this alienated presentation. Some drawn by Trump’s supreme confidence and aggression toward elites and “liberals” found themselves increasingly devoted to supporting him and his success even though what little in the way of policy he offered was unlikely to benefit them materially. Conversely, those who found his antics repugnant were entranced by tropes of resistance fighters struggling against a fascist dictator or concocting elaborate spy-novel like scenarios that made Trump to be a secret asset of clandestine Russian intrigue. What both these approaches to Trump had in common was their fabrication within the framework of the spectacle, the growth of the financial benefits of the primary institutions of the spectacle (media outlets, political fundraising operations, etc.) and the deepening alienation of those who consumed the pageant.

Which brings us back to the looming crisis. What will the spectacle do now that Trump appears to be on the way out? If the spectacle is capital accumulated to the point at which it becomes an image, and capital itself, as David Harvey paraphrasing Marx argues, “cannot abide a limit,” then we should expect some new contrived abomination conjured up by the spectacle to overcome this new obstacle.[7] What follows are three possibilities among countless others.

  1. The Second Coming. Donald Trump eventually and reluctantly accepts that he has lost the election. He vacates the White House without formally conceding his defeat and still insists massive fraud was the reason why he lost. He makes no overtures or gestures to the incoming Biden Administration and spends his last weeks in office doing a kind of “farewell tour” where he teases the idea that he will run again in 2024—a statement that delights his still substantial following. In the succeeding months, Trump becomes a staple on conservative and insurgent right media, even hosting a show on One American News Network where he viciously savages Biden and the Democrats and occasionally does live mass rallies which continue to be well attended. After the midterm election in 2022, he declares his intention to run for president in 2024 and a similar series of events unfold as in 2016—wall to wall coverage of primary debates as Trump swats away “mainstream” Republicans who campaign on the promise to bring “dignity back to the Republican Party” but gain no real traction in the face of Trump’s usual antics. Choosing some media personality like Mike Lindell (the My Pillow guy) or Kanye West, Trump easily gains the Republican nomination and is poised to reclaim the White House. Left-oriented media outlets and operations resume their familiar position as banner-carriers of the so-called “resistance.”
  2. Fragmentation and Internecine Warfare. Trump continues to insist he is not going to concede the race and even refuses to vacate the White House as Inauguration Day approaches. This obstinacy alienates many members of MAGA nation, especially those in more elite perches who are worried about their ability to secure gainful top-level employment with elite law firms, think tanks and consulting groups. Many of these personalities go on Fox News to express their displeasure to the consternation of more hard-core Trump surrogates who launch their own broadsides against these traitors on the more fringe media outlets like One American News Network and Newsmax. As Biden takes the oath of office, conservatives find themselves in a savage process of ideological cleansing where once stalwart Republicans–including those members of the Lincoln Project–are accused of being communists or socialists. Meanwhile, though things seem calmer on the left side of the spectrum, certain vocal online voices begin to demand a purging of their own—starting with what many are calling an out of touch ruling gerontocracy in the Democratic Party that includes Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. News outlets like MSNBC rush to the defense of establishment figures of the technocratic center, but they suffer from a thousand small cuts from the podcasting and social media universe encouraging key progressive elected politicians to stall and block any legislation that is deemed too tepid and timid. A massive conflagration of endless guerilla media attacks on both the left and right are funded by thousands of Patreon and Substack subscriptions while legacy media struggles to survive in a spectacle where everyone must pick a side in order to survive.
  3. The Chosen One. Finally realizing that all his legal posturing is not going to give him the results he wants, a dejected Trump concedes the race and very somberly and sadly goes through the rituals of the hand over of power to Joe Biden. The sight of a defeated Trump briefly causes despair among the MAGA nation before a series of cryptic messages from obscure message boards loosely connected with the QAnon phenomenon begin to speak of a “chosen one” who is the real messiah of the conservative movement and will complete the work that Trump began—a kind of Jesus Christ to Trump’s John the Baptist. Depression and sadness quickly turn to joy and anticipation as far right media speculate who will fulfill the prophecy–perhaps a well-connected media figure like Tucker Carlson or an upstart fire-eater like newly elected Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Boebert. Media tied to evangelical Christianity will get into the act as well, blending apocryphal Bible prophecy with key conservative policy issues. But most spectacular of all will be the attempts to paint political figures on the left as agents of Satan—lightning rod figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar will be invoked in select churches and suburban barbeques around the country as tools of the devil resulting in an avalanche of online threats and even a few assassination attempts. As the presidential race begins in 2022, many Republicans will attempt to claim the mantle of the chosen one, but as with most Messianism, a consensus on who the chosen one actually is never emerges. Nevertheless, this discourse of a chosen one fills countless hours of programming on cable news networks, radio programs and a wide array of podcasts, blogs and social media accounts.   

[1] https://www.vulture.com/2017/01/donald-trumps-tv-rating-obsession-a-history.html

[2] Indeed, some of Trump’s cohort outside of the government have floated the idea of purchasing the channel. See Chung, Juliet; Driebusch, Corrie; Ballhaus, Rebecca (January 10, 2020). “Trump Allies Explore Buyout of Conservative Channel Seeking to Compete With Fox News”.The Wall Street Journal.

[3] https://www.politico.com/blogs/on-media/2016/10/cbs-ceo-les-moonves-clarifies-donald-trump-good-for-cbs-comment-229996

[4] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 11.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 10-11.

[7] David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press: 2010), 47.

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