Celebrity Warfare: Image and Politics in the Age of Trump




DONALD TRUMP IS the most powerful man on earth and the world’s foremost celebrity. The difference is increasingly negligible. Power and celebrity are becoming one and the same. If Kanye West were to declare his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, no one could stop him — not the press, not the party functionaries, not even Saturday Night Live. Other celebrities are openly considering the newly revealed electoral possibilities of their positions. On Saturday Night Live just last week, Dwayne Johnson and Tom Hanks announced a run for president in the opening monologue. They were joking, but The Rock has sounded much more serious about the possibility on other occasions, saying that “the idea of one day becoming President to create real positive impact and global change is very alluring.” In the United States in the 21st century, real candidacies can easily be born out of jokes anyway. Does anyone imagine that if The Rock jumped into the presidential race some merely successful senator could challenge him? American politics is turning into something you do after you become famous.

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Trump’s election has been taken as the end of traditional politics. It is of course an end, of many things. But it’s also just the beginning. Even after years of witnessing the Trump spectacle, political observers in Washington remain flummoxed by the new administration, drifting from shock to shock. They are stunned because they’ve never viewed celebrity as anything but a distraction from the real business of politics: creating public support for policies and enacting those policies. Celebrity is beneath them — they studied history and economics and political science and law, not The Bachelor. Unfortunately, The Bachelor matters much more to the American public than history or economics or political science or law. Donald Trump is not a creature of ideology or of party. He doesn’t have any strongly held beliefs or partisan loyalties. He has never belonged to any apparatus of the state. He’s not even a lawyer. His campaign and his presidency alike have been pure entertainment. Donald Trump is the president of the United States because he plays the president of the United States on television.

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Trump as administrator is pure chaos. Trump as entertainer could not be more basic. He employs the crudest formulae available, sometimes nakedly — bringing two candidates for an empty Supreme Court seat to Washington and announcing his pick in primetime just like on The Apprentice. Reality television has always thrived on outrage. Why would a reality television president act any other way? Stumbling from crisis to crisis may look like a disaster in Washington, but it has been the definition of triumph on reality TV for at least a decade. In the media environment we inhabit, pathological narcissism is an effective strategy.

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“For reasons not well understood, reality seems to have become a weaker constraint in the sphere of Western democracies,” Jay Rosen, NYU professor of Journalism, acknowledged in a recent lecture. The reasons may not be well understood by political journalists, but they are obvious to anyone who follows pop culture. Reality television and social media, and the new virulent celebrity spawned by the fusion of the two, have been shredding reality for 15 years. The most powerful forms of pop culture are the ones that can create believable fictions that overwhelm reality. Another way to say this is that, if you don’t understand professional wrestling, then you don’t understand what’s happening in American politics right now. Well before anyone else, World Wrestling Entertainment understood the twin distinctions, real versus fake and authentic versus inauthentic. They figured out that the market will happily trade reality for a sense of authenticity. Over the course of the Attitude Era that began in the late 1990s, WWE blurred the line between commentary and action. The action outside the ring was always more entertaining than the action inside. The story lines made the corporate workings of the entertainment machinery itself into plot points. The “Montreal Screwjob” of 1996 moved rivalries from inside the ring to behind the scenes, and included the company itself as a stage. This was the original fake news.

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When the crowds at Trump campaign events booed the media, the reporters who were the subjects of their taunts believed they were witnessing the rebirth of fascism. That’s because they’d seen films in school about fascist rallies and had never attended a wrestling match. The crowd felt an unprecedented level of comfort at Trump’s rallies because they already knew how they worked. They were used to booing the establishment. Journalists are not dispassionate observers to the American public: they are performers in a spectacle of authenticity. Taking on this role is not a choice journalists have made. It’s simply a fact of their altered reception. It is the role that journalists play in the drama of reality television celebrity, which has now swallowed the drama of politics.

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Wrestling divides humanity into two character types: faces and heels. Faces are typically American underdogs who are rule following. Heels are typically foreigners who are dominant and strong. Hulk Hogan was a face; Iron Sheik was a heel. But such status is never fixed. The biggest wrestling star of all time is Stone Cold Steve Austin, who began as a heel and converted into a face. This process is called the turn. There can be a sudden or hard turn, or there can be a soft turn, a slow change over time. There can also be double turns in a single match, where a heel turns face and a face turns heel. Steve Austin and Bret Hart performed one of the most famous double turns in 1992, at WrestleMania 13 in Chicago. Vince McMahon, the owner and producer of WWE, began as a face commentator, played the character of the owner of WWE, became a wrestler himself, and moved effortlessly between face and heel. The line between fantasy and reality must be ever more completely blurred in order to maintain the grip of the illusion. The more the audience wills the illusion, the more powerful the myth.

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American politics in 2017 is a side plot of the wrestling narrative, and wrestling is a side plot of the political narrative. Donald Trump appeared on World Wrestling Entertainment in 2007, in the Battle of the Billionaires, where he shaved Vince McMahon bald. Now Linda McMahon, Vince’s wife, is chief of the Small Business Administration.

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Wrestling fans are not idiots, and neither are Trump supporters. They know they are watching a performance. The pleasure comes in believing the drama while being above believing it. Trumpists enjoy Trump while hating much that he says. How else could he have the overwhelming support of the military while insulting prisoners of war? How else could he have the support of a majority of white women when he says that the right way to treat them is to grab them by the pussy? The pleasure of believing while not believing is neither red state nor blue state. Reality television works the same way as wrestling, almost exactly. It creates a fiction that overwhelms reality, and its narratives are inhabited by characters who are by turns faces and heels. The first episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians dealt with the fallout from Kim’s homemade sex video — the original double performance. In “public,” she apologized on The Tyra Banks Show; in “private,” she confessed to her sisters that the reason she made the tape was because “I was horny and I felt like it.” The reality television celebrity must offer degradation and exaltation, permeability between the pariah and the icon, the hated and the worshiped. Donald Trump lives on that line.

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It’s true that reality television took a right-wing tilt just before Trump’s election — e.g., Duck Dynasty, The Gosselins, The Deadliest Catch — but self-aware fakery drives The Apprentice and Swamp People and My 600 lb Life and all the others. Orwell’s definition of doublethink offers a perfect description of the psychological process of producing and consuming reality TV:

To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies.

The viewer knows the producers had to shoot the bachelor from both sides as he went for a contemplative walk to consider his love life in “private”; they can see the mic while he’s walking. But this knowledge does not spoil the enjoyment. No need for a Big Brother to impose doublethink on the American people — it’s the basis of their most successful entertainments.

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Trump’s opponents should understand that, as long as reality television is the operative mode of American politics, narrative fluidity is total. Reality and illusion are interchangeable. The heel may become the face who may again become the heel. The establishment may become the outsider that may become the establishment again. Those who might be taking some solace in Trump’s historically low approval numbers should remember that he doesn’t need approval. He needs attention. After all, heels are popular too.

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Celebrity politics has different rules than traditional politics. Trump has practicing Orthodox Jewish grandchildren but is a hero to the Ku Klux Klan. This makes no sense if you consider him a representative of a political organization or an ideology. It makes perfect sense if you consider him a showman. The whole point of the circus is that everybody loves it. You can sell it in every town.

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The most obvious difference between traditional politics and celebrity politics is its handling of scandal. For generations, the whole point of a politician’s existence was to avoid scandal, while the role of the press was to uncover it. Yet, two decades after Bill Clinton was impeached for a consensual affair, a leaked video of a presidential candidate describing, in detail and with relish, the commission of sexual crimes was not sufficient to derail him. Again, what makes no sense in terms of traditional politics makes perfect sense in terms of celebrity culture. Scandal has always been the soil of celebrity. The first truly modern celebrity, according to most historians, was Lord Byron, who was “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” His readers believed he had committed incest with his sister. It only made him more fascinating and his works more popular. Scandal helps Trump because scandal is a weapon in the battle for attention.

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What Trump knows — or rather has intuited from long experience — is that, so long as his face is projected in the media, influence will follow. Celebrity drives out all other forms of culture, just as the power of the image and the scripted story drives out the power of ideas. Donald Trump has put his faith in the widespread multiplication of the image of his face, and this faith has thus far been totally justified. What Donald Trump does works. And it will work for whoever follows him. The celebrity politics that has empowered Trump is not conservative and it is not liberal. Canada’s Justin Trudeau is a progressive who makes shrewd use of the same techniques. Viral videos of him with pandas have rendered traditional debates about policy more or less moot. Indeed, all the powerful machinery on the right — all this sophisticated application of celebrity to electoral politics — is nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the media manipulation potential of the left, which has gone more or less completely unexploited. If you are afraid of fascism in the United States, don’t worry about Donald Trump. Worry about Mark Zuckerberg. Hearst, at his peak, controlled 30 newspapers. Zuckerberg controls somewhere in the vicinity of two-thirds of all news access in the United States. Consider a President Zuckerberg. Not only would he control nearly every citizen’s primary mode of digital identification, he would literally possess a device for altering the nation’s mood and spending patterns.

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“Let me furnish the amusements of the nation and there will be need of very few laws,” P. T. Barnum, the great impresario of the circus, told the New York Sun in 1880. In his essay “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Norman Mailer noted a strange depression at the 1960 Democratic convention, which didn’t make any sense until he saw John F. Kennedy in the flesh:

I understood the mood of depression which had lain over the convention, because finally it was simple: the Democrats were going to nominate a man who, no matter how serious his political dedication might be, was indisputably and willy-nilly going to be seen as a great box-office actor, and the consequences of that were staggering and not at all easy to calculate.

We are now living in the world Barnum and Mailer predicted. The United States has become a histriocracy. We are ruled by celebrity. Whether or not Trump himself is in power will not change this fact.

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The rise of social media will only increase the reach and sway of celebrity. Social media imports the reality-bending drama of faces and heels into our private lives; everyone becomes the minor star of their own existence. Social media is just like wrestling: warriors versus trolls. And the trolls are currently winning. Jeff Giesea’s 2015 essay on “memetic warfare” spells out the terms of the new culture war quite clearly. A think-tank theorist working for NATO, Giesea developed the techniques of disinformation that were employed by alt-right operatives during the 2016 election. While he imagined these strategies being used against Daesh (the Arabic language acronym for ISIL) rather than Democrats, the approach was the same:

One could systematically lure and entrap (i.e. “catfish”) Daesh recruiters, as three Russian girls did in early 2015. One could water down its recruiting propaganda using fake “sockpuppet” Daesh accounts, creating hall-of-mirrors confusion for sympathizers and recruits. One could expose and harass people in Daesh’s funding network, including their family members. One could even play on Daesh’s prejudices, fears, and hypocrisies, enlisting gay activists worldwide to start and spread an #ISISisgay hashtag, the idea being to denigrate and ridicule Daesh in a way that weakens its appeal to recruits.

Russia provided Giesea’s basic model, particularly its disinformation campaign against the Ukraine, with its fake videos and Wikipedia pages and media outreach. The techniques Giesea identified are not difficult to master. It is simply a question of will. As Marshall McLuhan once said, “World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.” As usual he seemed crazy at the time, but in the end his ideas didn’t go far enough.

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The left, in general, has never understood the intersection of politics and culture, despite the fact that almost all cultural producers are left-leaning or claim to be. Remember culture jamming? The entertainment industry appears to be progressive, of course, and now more that ever. Hollywood has gone into resistance mode. Every time a celebrity makes any kind of political statement whatsoever, it’s against Trump. For the next four years at least, Hollywood is going to sell virtue signaling to whoever will buy it. Most critics, high and low, stupid and smart, were so confused before the 2016 election that they believed we were in the middle of a feminist uprising led by celebrities. Take a well-known example of pop activism: Beyoncé’s appearance at the Super Bowl halftime show, where her dancers paid homage to the Black Panthers, posing with raised fists to signify their defiance of the powers that be. It was radical politics as citation, a fashion statement in the midst of gladiatorial combat; whatever comment it made was subsumed into capitalist bloodsport spectacle. And the bodies of the dancers were subject to the first rule of celebrity politics: you are allowed to make a statement only if you are first a desirable object. The contradiction has nothing to do with Beyoncé’s choices, obviously; it is inherent in the structure of celebrity itself. When Katy Perry stands up to address a Hillary Clinton rally, the implicit comment of her presence matters much more than any political ideas she might share. It goes without saying that a woman with a body like hers has to be worth listening to.

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If political commentators have completely failed to understand pop culture’s influence on electoral politics, pop culture critics have equally failed to understand how politics moves through pop culture. Pop culture is a space for the fulfillment of identity that reduces everyone to a commodity. The only celebrity with enough self-consciousness to understand the contradiction has been Kanye West. His political rants around the time of Trump’s election were treated as a mental health crisis, a breakdown. But in hindsight they were the comments of a highly intelligent maniac recognizing facts others could not face. In San Jose, he stopped his show to give a 40-minute ramble worthy of Fidel Castro: “Rappers are philosophers of our now, celebrities are the influencers of our now, just look at the president, he wasn’t in politics and won.” Somebody threw a shoe at him when he seemed to voice support for Trump, but he understood the underlying meaning of the gesture: he signed the woman’s Yeezy and gave it back. In the politics of the future, make sure you own a piece of the shoes they throw at you.

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The cliché has it that those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it. There is a counter-failure too: those who study history tend to fit the realities of the present into the comforting categories of the past. Trump is no fascist. True, Trump and the fascists share an obsession with manipulating the media, but that’s where the comparison ends. Fascists used mass media as a tool for the enactment of political programs. Trump is the opposite: any political program he happens to subscribe to is at the service of his public image. He has no interest in the military or health policy or the tax code. He cares about how he looks. He threatens to deport millions in order to project personal strength. He destroys the sanctity of the law for a bump in his ratings. The inherent instability of showmanship has been injected into the machinery of the state. If North Korea were to hit Seattle with a nuclear missile tomorrow, the first question the president would ask is: “How will it make me look on television?”

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Celebrity is also the major vulnerability of Trump’s presidency. During his infamous rambling press conference on February 17 (“I’m not ranting and raving!”), it went virtually unnoticed that the ostensible rationale for the spectacle was the replacement of Secretary of Labor nominee Andrew Puzder, a man with a long history of violating labor laws, with Alexander Acosta, whom the AFL-CIO heartily endorsed. It’s all just a show. The future Trump is building in the United States will not look like autocracy anywhere else. The United States is not going to become Turkmenistan. The president is not going to shut down CNN or The New York Times. The real danger of our moment is that Trump doesn’t need to muzzle the press. “What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed?” Hannah Arendt asked in a 1978 interview. “And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.” But what if you didn’t need to shut down the press to deny the people their sense of reality? What if people wanted to lose their sense of reality? What if they chose the illusion of their own accord?

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Laurence D. Fink — CEO of BlackRock, the largest asset-management company in the world, with $5.4 trillion under management — described art as one of “the two greatest stores of wealth internationally today.” (The other is real estate.) Art is more powerful now than it has ever been, just not in the way we thought it would be. No matter how angry any work of art may be, no matter how much resistance it may promise, it’s just more stuff for rich people to exchange in the marketplace. Pop culture operates under the same contradiction, its resistant impulses yoked to a mechanism for generating celebrity, a machine that turns people into image commodities. At the very least, the unspeakably naïve poptimism that has defined the recent past must be abandoned. Taking celebrities at their word is for suckers. There’s one born every minute.

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Someday this will all end — the midnight tweet storms and the rambling rallies, the Sean Spicer press conferences, the Kellyanne Conway appearances, Ivanka with Justin on Broadway, the taped-together ties and the burnt steaks and the awkward handshakes with world leaders. Whether it’s three years from now, or seven years, or sooner, the Trump show will end. But the celebrity-political complex that gave rise to Trump will not. The inherent weakness of democracy has always been that elections are determined by public image rather than policy substance. Plato warned against the meretricious allure of poets and rhetors in The Republic. Rousseau declared, in his Letter to D’Alembert on Spectacles, that actors shouldn’t be allowed to run for office because their persuasive techniques could overwhelm the public interest. The technological and cultural transformations of the past 20 years have made these incipient threats quite real.

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The threat is also the fulfillment of a dream. Trump is not imposing distortion on American voters. He’s just catching up with the marketplace. A people of screens will inevitably choose screened people to lead them. That’s how democracy works, after all. You find out what people actually want.

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Stephen Marche is a novelist and writer for Esquire magazine. His latest book is The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the Twenty-First Century.

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Hero image from Saturday Night Live.


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