Trump and the Dialectic of Enlightenment

Charles Durning as Pappy O'Daniel in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
[Ed. note: this post is part of an editorial discussion on “Media and the City in Light of Trump, Brexit, and the Global Far Right.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Johan Andersson writes “Contemporary Hollywood…is often explicit (and literal) about its frequently liberal politics yet conservative with regards to form.” Does this formal conservatism become a tool in affirming a culture industry that hews fairly closely to the realist intentions of those who devised the film apparatus in the late nineteenth century, which have long been a part of the medium’s technological legacy? Arguably, reality tv has mined this formal conservatism to create a genre that employs the medium in its most reductive terms. And Trump, even more than Ronald Reagan, is the man made for and by television. While Reagan was an actor in films and television, whatever his limitations and egregious effect, he had a long career as a GE spokesman and then was a two-term governor of California before being elected president, facts that reveal his broader engagement with a discernible politics. Only Trump went directly from the soundstage to the oval office.

He is a distinctly twenty-first century formulation who has managed to do what Fred Thompson, Pat Paulson, Wendell Corey, and “Pappy” O’Daniel could not. The Donald’s rapid transition from the rectangular screen to the oval office requires us to emerge as vocal critics of that powerful realist form and its embedded populist resonance, and particularly in its appropriation by the political class. Indeed, Trump’s performance strategy draws from the lesser medium of talk radio, from the performative locutions of Rush Limbaugh and others, while accelerating and embellishing their impact through the strategic manufacture of an authoritarian image. The passing of the Trump image from two dimensions to three, from image to reality, suggests that the political nightmare envisioned by Bud Schulberg and Elia Kazan in A Face in the Crowd (1957) has come to pass. Looking at our available resources, we are left to ask: Can this reality effect be dislodged by critical theory alone? Can a constant attention to the material line between fact and fiction mitigate, and then undo, the political impact of propaganda?

This strong man image, the snarling caricature of the patriarchal boss, that made Trump a star takes its resonance from some embedded cultural desire for order in times of disorder. It was out of the ashes of world war and depression that Hitler and Mussolini emerged in Europe. Huey Long and Father Coughlin were creatures of the depression-ravaged 1930s in the U.S. All of these men were decidedly enhanced by their use of the mass media of their age, radio and cinema respectively. Our media saturated environment in the post-9-11 world allows for the exponential enhancement of a given figure, a truly pervasive presence that is geometrically more powerful than what existed in 1935.

Like Richard Nixon, who was decidedly not a man created by the camera – but more likely undone by it in the 1960 television debates – Trump has made his mark as an anti-urbanist, which remains an element of his populist appeal. Indeed, Trump’s campaign not only employed some number of Nixon’s men, it also employed some elements of his rhetoric. Nixon’s 1968 campaign promised the return of law and order – a promise reiterated verbatim by Trump – presenting a vision of the present as chaotic and affirming the need for a return to the terms of order from the past. In this 1968 campaign commercial, we see a Trump-like plea, but without the personal theatrics.

Such a legacy, as Mark Shiel trenchantly points out, places “Donald Trump’s racially-charged demonization of inner cities alongside Oswald Spengler’s.” With hair sprayed into place, Trump and his proxies have taken the cynical, Roger Ailesian (a former Nixonite) image of urban disorder (circa 1968), and repurposed it to embellish a megalomaniac, one who threatens to send troops to Chicago, one who claims that only he can repair our chaotic world. As urbanists we must challenge this racialized caricature.

That lines from the campaign such as “What do you have to lose?” – directed at African Americans – did not disqualify Trump’s candidacy is astounding and emblematic of a deep and uninterrogated racism. The facts: inner cities include wide swaths of expensive real estate and most African Americans do not live in cities. Yet these realities seemed diminished by the image of the authoritarian, by the reiteration of recurring phrases and motifs. That his mendacity and broad racist rhetoric had little or no impact on his potential pool of voters makes me despair. But there is no time to linger in that despair.

Like virtually all of my fellow essayists in this forum, I call for a dedicated and persistent resistance, a campaign of analysis and truth-telling While our audience is relatively small, we must inform our students, however directly or indirectly, of the threat and dangers of autocracy. As Sabine Haenni tells us, “At a time when the President of the United States classifies humans as ‘aliens’ as a way of denying them rights, we should not relinquish the complex power of humanism.” We as media scholars and critics must seek any forum available to resolutely undo the Trump aura. However circumscribed our tools, we must employ them to their full extent.

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