EVERYWHERE LEADERS: LITTLE MEN, BIGLY
When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down.
What do presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump have in common? Each was or is extraordinarily successful at working out the terms of his particular media environment. Lincoln’s eloquence was borne of circumstances that placed a premium on virtues specific to the rhetoric of the printed and oral word. The first Lincoln-Douglas debate ran to three hours of talk before a local Illinois audience. A later one totaled seven hours (not counting a break for dinner). Roosevelt’s fireside chats ran to about thirty minutes each; they were likewise instrumental in allowing him to justify his policies within terms of apparent heart-to-heart intimacy—tens of millions tuned in with attentive interest to hear the refined and magnetic voice of a frail-looking man. Reagan was not the first president of the television era but, like Kennedy, he looked the part: it is only within a media environment in which television predominates that actors like him become viable political candidates. Trump is, along the same lines, our first internet president. The whole world logs in to watch and comment.
Some permanent features of online politics are easy to forecast: the micromanagement of election campaigns by data—a fine-toothed approach to political ads, grassroots recruitment and fundraising—is surely here to stay. The days in which candidates for anything will knock on doors are likely numbered. And social media demands a kind of vis-à-vis familiarity that has been put to good effect by the social-media broadcasts of politicians as different as Beto O’Rourke, Matteo Salvini and Benjamin Netanyahu. Other developments are harder to extrapolate, since we cannot yet separate them from Trump’s meteoric success. It is true that he first entered into public consciousness not on the internet, but on TV. It is also true that he represents only one type of possible online politician—a president who, despite his background, has managed to claim “somewhere,” or nationalist appeal—and that we have not yet seen what the globalist “everywhere” alternative to him would be in this country. (Obama might have fit this bill in some ways, but it was not through his conscious, strategic use of online media. Justin Trudeau and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are better approximations.) However, that President Trump has thrived by galvanizing the new medium, that the internet has been a necessary instrument of his political success, that he has shown a special genius at channeling current media forces in a way that will be impossible for future politicians to simply dismiss or ignore, is a near certainty. He has gained an edge online that others will and must match in some way. What, then, have been the formal or rhetorical conditions of his presidency?
Trump has, generally speaking, understood that politics must be riveting and sensational online, more so than on television; that the fact of being in the spotlight is more important than the reasons for it; that having an influential “brand” matters more than being right; that catching attention by controversy and polemic is, day in and out, to set the terms of debate. He campaigned with free publicity, to which he gained access by virtue of already being a recognizable celebrity. (Not any kind of celebrity, furthermore, but one iconic for the reality-TV performance of authority.) He is, as is often noted, the best thing that has happened to traditional media, which have seen resurgent numbers of readers and subscribers: he is walking clickbait, a steroid to the metabolism of the daily news cycle. He has been extraordinarily successful at marketing phrases and putting them into wide circulation (nasty woman, Little Marco, Pocahontas, Lyin’ Ted, to name some of the PG-rated ones). His showmanship has extended to his major policies: a wall is more straightforward and meme-ready than other more effective solutions (its symbolic appeal being precisely that it offers up a brute concrete fact in a world of shifting virtual identities).
More importantly still, he has realized that words are cheap and that logical consistency has almost no importance within our online media environment. Where “I was for it before I was against it” was a gaffe that sunk John Kerry’s candidacy, Trump has realized that the sheer amount of headlines he can generate every day makes flip-flopping irrelevant. (“I don’t see any reason why it would be Russia” became “wouldn’t be Russia” the next day: not a retraction, but a new version.) He has taught us not to mind his words or their coherence, except as speculative bids for more publicity. He scarcely may be said to formulate arguments for his positions: there are no reasons or values, only interests. He has felt the void in public reason and has used it to weaponize information in order to castigate his opponents (“fake news!” “hoax!”)—the fact of contesting what is said is more important than what or why. He understands that you may change your mind as often as you like, so long as you do not admit you were wrong. He has realized that speech online is all talk, and that all talk is for show.
He has presented himself as the president of authenticity. He has used social media to great effect, effacing any sharp line between his ruminations about Celebrity Apprentice and policy announcements, firings and other presidential decisions. (He tweeted over 2,500 times during his first year in office.) He has succeeded in presenting his bluster and vulgarity as a kind of special truthfulness (@realDonaldTrump), cultivating the style of confessional intimacy that we have been taught to expect from reality television and online celebrity. His supporters like that he “tells it like it is,” that he “doesn’t parse every word”: in other words, he has mastered the equation in our popular imagination between what is crude and what is heartfelt, between breaking rules or flouting conventions and being true to self. He has thrived on vicarious outrage against political correctness and its pieties. His shoot-from-the-hip, “honey badger” brazenness has somehow rendered him impervious to criticism to many of his own party, who give him a pass as prone, like any marketer, to embellishment and exaggeration. (“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”) He has been successful by managing to seem more “unfiltered” and shameless than any of his opponents.
He has presented himself as a president of immediacy, one possessed of a mandate directly representative of the people, presenting the media and the technocratic elite as obstacles or intermediaries between people and their will. He campaigned as an outsider, as someone whose lack of political experience was an asset, as someone who is not identified or affiliated with political institutions. He has continued while in office to campaign on the disruption of existing norms and institutions, on skepticism of expert opinions, on draining “the swamp,” on destroying the “deep state”—his is a “wrecking-ball presidency,” his statesmanship is “shock-jock” diplomacy. (He has bragged about not having the patience to sit through long, detailed briefings.) He has strived to “disintermediate” politics by forgoing the usual norms of the office and by going so far as to present himself as an adversary to state agencies under the executive branch, surrounding himself with staff and cabinet with little or no experience of government. He has in this way sought to be the “Uber of politics” (as Pippa Malmgren has called him)—his political theory has been to seek direct rule, the immediate exercise of authority, while avoiding the staple principles of postwar political dealing, which at least paid lip service to multilateralism and negotiation.
All of these principles have made him an extraordinarily polarizing figure. Yet he has also managed to turn his very unpopularity into his greatest political asset, consistently presenting himself as an emblem of “one of us” rather than as “one of them,” alternating the roles of bully and victim. Since he himself hardly typifies his average supporters, this identification has been achieved by establishing that he has been rejected by the same cosmopolitan elite that has rejected or is rejected by them. He has thrived on the sense that he is a victim of unreasonable and unthinking persecution (“witch hunt!”). His presidency squarely depends on the conflict between cosmopolitanism and nativism—he does not take himself to speak for the people, but for his people. He has understood the connection between identity politics and the politics of grievance: he has made white (or white male) identity politics the center of his minoritarian strategy. And he has understood that within a situation of widespread anxiety about globalism, atomism, placelessness and diffuse identity, a stronger hand is more attractive, actually serving to cement a new, sharpened version of that identity—a self-reinforcing project, since being a Trump voter means something much more definite than being a Reagan voter ever did or could.
Trump is of course the consequence of conditions other than the internet; where political processes of compromise and negotiation are jammed, the paranoid style of politics is more likely to arise. His boosters will claim that American politics was already void of substance and that he has only understood how to maneuver with clarity within that situation. How one finally feels about him will depend on what one thinks about the china shop. Still, what is perhaps most remarkable about the whole of his presidency is the unprecedented breakdown between words and deeds, between rhetoric and policy, and between means and meaning. And this should be a telltale indication that the online medium of his presidency finds itself, to an unusual degree, at odds with the message—that we are in the process of shifting our national politics into a new key.
I mean that many or most of the controversies surrounding the Trump administration are not really substantive. They involve what the president has said and how others have reacted— how it has looked, sounded or played. And yet, when he vituperates particular newspapers or TV channels or websites, when he does not unequivocally disavow the support of white nationalists, when he is obliging to foreign dictators or refuses to acknowledge their full role in meddling with American elections, when he disparages members of his own cabinet or developing countries, when he trades insults with sports stars or with dictators possessed of nuclear weapons, when he badmouths the war record of decorated veterans and their families, it is difficult not to take his words, in some sense, seriously.
There has been a rhetorical shift away from the sense of words that Americans had long expected from the office of the presidency, and toward a different kind of reading of them, as gambits for position and attention—as social media performances, that is—with but tenuous connection to the offline world. At the same time, to be forced to disregard the ordinary, public sense of the words of the nation’s single most important public servant is to deny that they have any meaning at all for the purposes of supposedly deliberative, democratic life. The restraint once deemed appropriate to the role or office of the president—however imperfectly maintained, however flagrantly hypocritical it so often seemed—was not simply a matter of optics. It was a means of expressing the fact that the executive should not be a contender, but the expression of the people’s will: the living law. When Trump casually and persistently attacks rights and institutions, when he blurs the distinction between policy disagreements and personal vendettas—even if (and especially because) it is “only” a matter of words—he is therefore not simply expressing a difference of opinion within the conditions of his authority, but is degrading the very framework that sustains it. Winning is good so long as one is on the winning side: but norms and institutions exist precisely as a means of protection against the fact that one is not always winning, and that even in loss there must be ways of governing in common.
Just how consequential this form of presidency proves to be to the institution, just how much online speech is hollowing out our shared principles, will only become gradually clearer. However, that the form does not simply leave the content intact, that a national discourse that is at odds with its political reality may then corrode and eat into the latter, is the chief insight of media studies. With the invention of writing, empires replaced nomadic tribes all over the world. Two or three millennia later, those empires bit the dust when a German artisan figured out movable type: the birth of the nation-state. What now?