It’s a head game. When you know you’re faking and the audience knows you’re faking and you know the audience knows you know you’re faking because the fact that pro wrestling is fake has been documented, verified, and repeated to the point of cliché, and yet you stay in character on the walk from the locker room to your Mazda just in case someone is pointing his phone’s camera at you from a window above the alley—that’s kayfabe.
Modern right-wing populism as codified by Donald Trump relies on entertainment principles to exist; the co-option of the opposition as kayfabe ‘enemies’ both brings them into a communal relationship instead of attempting to exclude and ‘other’ them, and is used to evade fixed definition necessary for effective censure. The inability for the opposition to define what the populist is (Donald Trump: clown, Fascist, messiah? Boris Johnson: disheveled lush, cynical manipulator, the only man that could Get Brexit Done?) is entirely by design. This relationship caricatures the opposition, making it over in the populists image, and is likely to produce fewer defenders of democratic institutional norms as the ‘entertainer-politician’ gains ascendancy.
The ability for institutions to handle the rise of populist authoritarianism is negatively impacted by the information age, itself a misleading moniker. ‘The information age’ connotes a modern era of enlightenment, arguing that with the higher prevalence of information there is a commensurate increase of understanding. This was the basic argument of techno-optimists during the rise of the internet; more information would lead to better informed citizens would lead to a better society.
Instead the rising tides of accessibility and interaction are drowning us. To stretch the metaphor, this rising sea is the one that populist entertainer-celebrities swim in. They exist by the rules of this new informational world (Donald Trump is legitimated by the logic of Twitter and Facebook, not political debate, speech at prestigious university or positive op-ed in well respected newspaper).
We are watching the news media attempt to transform itself to compete in this new landscape with creatures decades ahead of them in the manipulation of attention. Broadening means of communication are quickly eroding the bottlenecks institutions were created in; newspapers no longer need to be printed and delivered, there is no such thing as ‘the nightly news’, news is continuously broken and disseminated directly out to the public 24/7. These bottlenecks created the personalities that facilitated them. The image of the staid newscaster, the muckraking journalist, a privileged elite that cohabited in the upper echelon of society, was fading under the rising tidal wave of informational technologies, until it was saved, recreated, recast, revitalized by its hated opposition.
“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
– Karl Marx, 1851-1852
It’s November 4th, 1980. The United States elects a movie star President.
It’s 1984. The movie star wins reelection with the highest electoral margin in United States history.
Ronald Reagan was a throwback candidate, a man who lived through the great depression and served in World War 2, who was a cowboy (on screen) and fought for Goldwater in 1964, who cemented himself as the candidate of social conservative, Norman Rockwell painting, white picket fence Americans (‘Let’s Make America Great Again’ is a Reagan campaign original).
Donald Trump was (and is) a throwback candidate. He is a creature of the 1980s, the hedonism, cocaine, shoulder pads and remade American self confidence of Ronald Reagan’s performative presidency. Trump harkens back to a world where the larger authority of the performative adult still existed (Americans who had lived through/fought in the Second World War). He is the meta version of that earlier Reagan attitude.
Which brings us to the opposition. Donald Trump was a godsend for traditional news media, single-handedly raising the sinking ratings of mainstream cable news with his antics. Much is made over the amount of coverage networks gave to him, and the obviously outsized political advantage this generated during the Republican primary;“Over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history”(NYT March 2016). The converse is rarely talked about; the amount of money that covering Donald Trump generated/generates for the news media, how much of their business model is supported through their opposition to a single person.
The economic incentive collides with the entertainment spectacle that Trump embodies (in one of many ways) thus; Trump says something that most people think is funny/entertaining/interesting (“She should be running”(CBS Feb 2016)), the news media writes articles about it, has people on primetime to react to it, generates revenue for themselves and media coverage for the candidate. Which sounds like an okay formula for how the news should work, except for one detail; this insult, characteristic of most of the coverage of candidate Donald Trump, has nothing at all to do with being President of the United States.
The American public has been conditioned to believe the only thing they can ask for from the executive is a performance. Who can blame them for wanting that performance to be entertaining.