January 20, 2021

2021: Breaking the Spell of the Trumpstacle Mythology

“A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.” – Martin Luther King’s Sermon on Courage, March 8, 1965.

The era of fake news ushered in with President Trump has culminated in a near anarchist coup d’état. Even Senator Mitch McConnell commented that the mob that stormed the Capitol was “fed lies,” acting on the fake news President Trump circulated regarding false claims of voter fraud, as Trump’s last-ditch effort to overturn the election. Fortunately, as President elect Joe Biden prepares to take the oath of office, he says: “there’s always light.” The light of truth has never been more critical to the United States’ democratic principles that have nearly been destroyed in the last four years under what I call the Trumpstacle mythology.  

Why be provoked by a myth? By focusing on Trump as entertainment during the 2016 presidential debates, the media created a simulacram of a candidate worthy of the oval office, a candidate worthy of attention. A simulacram, as defined by French media theorist Jean Baudrillard, is a representation that replaces reality. The representation no longer refers back to a reality. Trump was creating a double simulacra by cultivating an image as opposed to a reality, and people played into his Trumpstacle simulacrum by reacting to his empty provocations throughout his presidency. This culminated in an attack on democracy as a mob of Trump supporters mobbed the nation’s Capitol.

Trump is the quintessential example of what French cultural theorist Roland Barthes meant by the mythology of privileging spectacle and sensationalism over content and reality. As Barthes observes in regards to mass culture: “The public […] abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.” The people are provoked, which fuels Trump’s mythological image. This mythology is what Barthes aptly describes in 1970, foreshadowing the trumpstacle to come: “A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out […] The function of myth is to empty reality: it is, literally, a ceaseless flowing out, a hemorrhage, or perhaps an evaporation, in short a perceptible absence.” Trump’s cultivation of image over reality, and the public’s reaction to it did not manifest randomly or autonomously, rather it is the epitome of a centuries old practice in the media dating to the Roman empire.

Sensationalism can be traced to the ancient Roman Acta, where announcements were circulated throughout the illiterate masses to achieve inflammatory reactions. Roman leaders discovered that reporting on crime, violence, and sex could be manipulated to produce incendiary responses and more importantly, attention. This practice continued throughout the centuries and reached its apex in American journalism. Joseph Pulitzer employed sensationalism in the 1880s to attract an audience of readers for his New York World with titles such as “Little Lotta’s Lovers,” but it wasn’t until television appeared that the image became the omnipotent sensationalist instrument.

On September 26, 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon faced one another in Chicago for the first televised presidential debate in history. Pioneering media theorist Marshal McLuhan drew attention to the critical role the image played in this historic debate. McLuhan portrayed Kennedy as a cool personality based on his alluring image, and Nixon as a hot personality that conveyed discomfort with the media based on the visible signs of facial sweat and awkwardness. Trump was a teenager during this historic debate season, and he may have learned one of his first lessons about image versus reality.

As an adult, Trump gained an education into what French philosopher Jean Baudrillard calls the Hyperreal by curating images by way of reality television. As Baudrillard describes it, the Hyperreal can be any image of reality that takes the place of reality itself; the image becomes the reality. Trump can make outrageous statements that Muslims should be banned, Mexicans are rapists, women are Miss Piggy and Miss Housekeeping, because the public has been oversaturated with sensationalist media to the extent that there is indifference and little serious reaction. The curated image no longer holds attention. This practice of simulation, as Baudrillard calls it, takes place when the image has no relationship to reality.  

Trump’s platform, political experience, and purported wealth did not gain him the privilege of participating in the presidential race of 2016.The media and the public treated him as a spectacle throughout the primary race, which became mythologized and led to the rise of “fake news.” Witnessing the Trumpstacle became a national pastime throughout his presidency—abhorred and loved by divergent audiences—as he cultivated hatred and racism, and ratified violence as no president has done before.

Storming the Capitol is precisely what the Founders feared as they wrote and edited the Constitution. They had just liberated this budding country from the subjugation of George III—a monarch that was mentally ill and erratic—and sought to define democratic ideals that they knew would be vulnerable to tyranny. As we step away from the era of Trump—the era of fake news and a budding dictatorship that refuses to cede office as if it were a totalitarian regime —let’s remember the astuteness of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she writes: “Nothing is more characteristic of the totalitarian movements in general and of the quality of fame of their leaders in particular than the startling swiftness with which they are forgotten and the startling ease with which they can be replaced.”

How does one grant hegemony to a spectacle? Fuel it. How does one discredit a mythology? Ignore it; refuse to grant it credence. Without light to shine on his darkness, Trump’s simulacrum is destroyed.

As we recover from four years of fake news, let’s consider that if the meaning of the message is in the hands of the reader, (as theorist Stanley Fish claims) then let’s elucidate the verity of the text, the word, the image. May President-elect Biden guide us back to truth-seeking in a post-mythological era, away from the diabolical pull of tyranny and towards the fragile democratic ideals upon which this country was founded, towards the light. May President Biden be a keeper of the light of democracy, and may we be fellow light-bearers in the early days of 2021. Veritas, probitas, iustitia