During the heat of the of the 2016 presidential campaign some thoughtful observers mused that if Donald Trump became president, the White House would become a TV reality show. The national news cycle should be sufficient evidence that this is exactly what’s happened.
We are now watching The Apprentice and Survivor in raw form whenever we turn on the TV. Our news feeds are comic strips highlighting the most bizarre presidential behavior ever witnessed in the history of the republic.
And it isn’t going to get better.
We have entered a new age of electronic politics unseen since the advent of commercial television 70 years ago. Celebrity power, an early byproduct of photography and cinema, has not diminished with new media, but has grown exponentially with it.
While Oprah Winfrey’s contemplation of her own fitness for high office seemed spontaneous, it was actually quite calculated. “Oh… Oh,” she percolated to Bloomberg Media, “I never considered the question…I thought, ‘Oh, gee, I don’t have experience.” …And now I’m thinking…’”
Well, of course.
It was Ronald Reagan who demonstrated that a former B-movie actor could be elected not only governor of a large state but also to the highest office in the country. In his wake came Sonny “I Got You Babe” Bono (U.S. representative, 1995-1998), Jesse “The Body” Ventura (Minnesota governor, 1999-2003), Arnold “I’ll be back” Schwarzenegger (California governor, 2003-2011), and Al “Saturday Night Live” Franken (U.S. senator, 2009-2018).
The prospect of The Rock or Oprah becoming president only makes sense in a world where image penetration translates smoothly into political power. But image penetration does not necessarily translate to fitness for office, because a person’s image is not the same as a person’s essence.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. might have been one of the first to recognize this truth. Photography was just being introduced to newspapers and magazines when Holmes, a student at Harvard, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly prior to the Civil War that the advent of the photograph would separate form from reality. He predicted that the “image would become more important than the object itself, and would in fact make the object disposable.”
A century later, historian Daniel Boorstin built on Holmes’s observation with the publication of The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. “We have used our wealth, our literacy, our technology, and our progress to create a thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life,” Boorstin said. By “pseudo-event” he meant the potential for images to be mistaken for reality itself. Americans had confused the copy for the original, and even more tragically, the copy was actually preferred to the original. The hero, a person once distinguished by his noteworthy achievements, had been replaced with the celebrity, a person distinguished solely by his image.
About the time color televisions became a fixture in the American household (1969) media theorist Marshall McLuhan told Playboy magazine that TV would revolutionize politics in the Western world. “For one thing,” he said, “it’s creating a totally new type of national leader, a man who is much more of a tribal chieftain than a politician.”
McLuhan’s use of the word “tribal” was entirely intentional: he saw the world hooking up in a way that we can only now fully understand. More than 40 years before the introduction of the iPhone, McLuhan told a New York audience there “might come a day when we [will]…all have portable computers, about the size of a hearing aid, to help us mesh our personal experience with the experience of the great wired brain of the outer world.”
The great wired brain of the outer world was a poetic way of describing electronic interdependence or what McLuhan called the global village. It was one of McLuhan’s best aphorisms. As with primitive tribal villages the global village vibrates daily with the beatings of the tribal drum, summoning our attention from the four corners of the earth.
The Twin Towers come down. Boom, boom, boom goes the tribal drum. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un launches another missile into the sea. Boom, boom, boom it goes again.
McLuhan hypothesized that politicians who mastered the media of their day would be more successful than those who didn’t. Hitler had infused his tirades into the media of film and radio, these media being relatively new in his time. (To see Hitler now spitting and steaming on a screen is somewhat of an oddity for those of us more accustomed to a gentler style of discourse.) Here in America, FDR communicated to the American people with his fireside radio chats and Ronald Reagan mastered the medium of television.
Conversely, Richard Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960 because he did not master television. Nixon was not “cool” enough for TV, McLuhan said, because he came across looking like a railway lawyer there to swindle the little folks in town. Television demanded a smoother persona, like Kennedy’s, who came off as a reserved young sheriff. McLuhan suggested Nixon cool down his image—maybe grow sideburns.
Not to repeat the same mistake, Nixon appeared on Laugh-In when he ran again for president in 1968 and spouted the show’s renowned line: “Sock it to me.” Only Nixon ended the expression with an upward inflection, turning it into a question and ironically foreshadowing his political demise. (We should remember that it was print media that helped usher Nixon out of office.)
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a leading scholar of presidential political rhetoric, explained Reagan’s success by picking up on McLuhan’s term. The Gipper’s winsome persona—his charm and affability—was the embodiment of coolness. In her book Eloquence in an Electronic Age, Jamieson employed her own term for coolness—the effeminate style, a demeanor that is conversational, nurturing, and conciliatory. In contrast, political rhetoric as far back as the Greek city-states and up until the advent of television was characterized by the masculine style, in that it was “hot,” using battle metaphors as one waged war, throwing down opponents and defeating enemies. The masculine style existed simply because it was men who occupied the political landscape.
So how did Donald Trump, a hot bull in a china shop, manage to get elected president?
The answer lies in the fact that something happened on the way to the electric forum. Garry Trudeau recognized the shift in his Doonesbury comic strip when Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota at the turn of the millennium. How could a “land of small farmers, Norwegians, Lutherans, taciturn, slow-moving, button-up, sensible types” put a professional wrestler into the highest office in the state? The strip had Ventura saying, “Everyone’s bored. I’m like free cable.”
The proliferation of new media—cable in the 1980s, the internet in the 1990s, and social media in the 2000s—meant that Boorstin’s idea of the pseudo-event was suddenly placed on steroids. As a result, today’s media environment is a dense and sultry jungle of hanging vines, formidable undergrowth, and screaming monkeys.
Trump’s genius was recognizing that a candidate now had to be shrill if he wanted to stand out. He had to be a charging rhinoceros. He had to be the white-faced Joker with a bomb in his hand. This was not Einstein-level genius, but television executive-level genius. Trump was elected president because he, above all the others, was the noisiest, the rudest, and the crudest. He did not master television or Twitter so much as he made them crackle and pop. Outrageous had always been an element of the image culture, but now it became the new cool for political discourse as well.
Trump is a showman in the same vein as was P. T. Barnum when he showcased a mummified mermaid at his New York museum. Later, the spectacle was discovered to be a dead fish with a monkey’s head attached. When Barnum died in 1891 the London Times characterized his relationship with this public as a “comedy of the harmless deceiver and the willingly deceived.”
Still, circus tricks are one thing; political discourse is quite another. Social critic Neil Postman, McLuhan’s intellectual protégée, spent the last two decades of his life warning about what could happen in an image-driven information environment. In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman argued that the age of deep reading was unique to democracy, as it gave us “a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity of detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.”
Thus far the Trump presidency has exemplified exactly the opposite of these qualities. And it isn’t just the matter of the president shunning books. Like McLuhan, Postman knew very well that the medium is the message. The shift from a print-oriented culture to an image-oriented one threatens democracy because in order for the Great Experiment to work, it’s necessary that a certain degree of rationality be fostered among a reading public.
The tragedy of our times is the same as Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. Like the character Mildred we have been conditioned to the Wall Screen and the White Clown. Trump signals the unfortunate reality that we will now vote for the shrillest voice over all the others.
Arthur W. Hunt III is professor of communications at the University of Tennessee at Martin and author of The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World (2003) and Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Man-Made Environments (2013).