“I wouldn’t be here without Twitter” — Donald Trump
“Dude, your Trump bump looks wicked” — Urban Dictionary
Note: articles making similar points that have come out since this was written have been backlinked.
Donald Trump’s apparent lack of consistent vision, values, or objectives, along with his bombastic vacillation on any question more complex than being the best at everything, has its own consistency, leading to two consequential and subversive impacts on established news media.
First, it projects to his base the spectacle of radical, Id-like freedom. He can and will do his will, fuck you very much. Second, it wreaks havoc with any interpretive framework which news organizations must appear to possess to seem credible.
A news org’s capital lies in its power to make significant sense of a sequence of events, statements, motives and moves within a field of known players. Civil rights, gender politics, mass-murder, and class inequity provide relatively simple templates enabling news coverage to efficiently deliver “new” data to an audience that shares those templates. If stories about these issues don’t seem like news, it could be because they’re using the same old templates, only the names have changed.
Trump undermines this rote approach. No news organization can reliably pin labels on someone who destabilizes alleged positions with a single tweet. Trump negates something we habitually attribute to our elected officials: responsible adherence to an intelligible framework from which his/her administration’s policies and actions proceed. Through this negation, Trump becomes the bad boy on the world’s stage — a Till Eulenspiegel who’ll probably kiss the Pope’s ring and steal his slippers.
Trump has flippantly discarded respect for institutions and government bureaucracies whose thinking and experience of history once was a sine qua non of enlightened policy development. His citing Breitbart, Fox and Twitter as sources is less about their authority than about a refusal to see any difference between them and the traditional think tanks and Cabinet departments that presidents traditionally turn to for support.
Trump evinces no responsibility to articulate positions, goals, or even a practical consistency of approach. His insouciance mimes the free play of pure power, delighting his base with antic jabs at anything resembling statesmanship. Tweeting with chaotic abandon deprives opponents of any coherent narrative that pretends to make sense of what he is doing. (See George Lakoff’s observation (tweeted 1.3.18) that Trump’s tweets are tactical rather than substantive, with this diagram:
If what Trump says one moment can be contradicted the next, news orgs lose their stature as authoritative analysts and predictors. What’s to analyze if there’s no there there? NPR/NYT/WAPO has no more clue than the average Joe. Wonks and pundits are all average Joes now, their analyses indistinguishable in interpretive value from the lumpen.
If the high-tone news orgs do know what Trump is doing, they should tell us:
- failing his promise to be Presidential?
- defying all Obama policies, regardless of their merit, simply because they were set by his predecessor?
- making America great again?
- reflecting alt-right agendas that have him by the short hairs?
- fully in his senses “because he knows exactly what he’s doing”?
- looting the world through a series of money laundering moves for a dark global cabal?
- exhibiting the profile of an unstable narcissist who injects high and venomous risk into every social tension and every international pact he can, simply because he can?
- or . . . ?
Whatever story we tell ourselves about Trump, it will fail to cohere with alternate sets of facts, other stories, that are equally plausible. This Schrödingerian capacity produces a wounding epistemological instability: The “knowing aura” that serious news orgs used to wear like ascetic robes now seems like an elixir used to maintain an illusion of importance, seriousness, and necessity (1).
Collective teeth on edge, we keep eyes peeled for the next epiphany of the Absurd(2) to crack the patina with which established media are pleased to dignify our National Leaders. Watching Trump console a grieving war widow, we steel ourselves against a sudden pussy-grab. Those seeking to represent History in Action will do well to consult the devices of absurdist theater.
Every hard-charging news person faces a clear and present dilemma: If they make a go of respecting the standard dignities of office under “President Trump,” they distort reality. If they report Trump’s triumphal deconstruction of these pieties accurately, their diligent exegetical labors tend to devolve into a steaming pile of SnapChat.
Trump inverts the role of Court Jester, whose job it was to remind soi-disant omnipotent monarchs of their human limitations. Now the monarch wields his fool’s cap like a tribal fetish, daring anyone who’d commodify their proprietary understanding of his presidency to do so with a straight face. (2)
“After us, the Savage God!” cried Yeats, at the cataclysmic debut of Ubu Roi. Almost 121 years to the day after that event, the gods have issued a correction: “Savage fool.”(3)
(1) One manifestation of how troublesome this is can be seen in how NPR, for example, has resorted to stories about racism, sexism, and classism with a kind of compulsion — the use of familiar templates helps preserve the appearance of the organization’s mastery over a fast-moving field it no longer comfortably understands. Addendum: See Eve Fairbanks’ analysis of “savvy” journalism (via Jay Rosen on Facebook).
(2) See Jay Rosen
See Erasmus, Praise of Folly
(3) “What he offers is spectacle. This is the potent lifeblood of his movement: the appearance of action.” — A Fractured 2017 — Roger Cohen column in NYT of 12.4.17 — cited here for its accord with my argument that Trump is operating spectacle.