Trump, Tabloids and Twitter: “Spectacle Society”, Celebrity Culture, and Politics in a Post-Truth World.
Guy Debord’s 1967 Thesis Society of the Spectacle was a scathing admonishment of the contemporary brand of rampant materialism that he witnessed in Europe and America in the mid-20th Century. Debord made the claim that many facets of human life had become fabricated representations (what a postmodernist like Baudrilliard would call “Simulations”) of what people actually thought they were experiencing. This, according to Debord was because of the over-consumption of mass media and the homogeneity of culture and social interaction that were both caused and represented by mass-media. To a degree, Debord went even as far as to liken his observation of mass media consumption to Marx’s famous observation of Religion as the “opiate of the masses”, personifying the brand of mass media he was referring to as “…not a collection of images; rather…a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” That relationship today has transmuted into something more prevalent and, ultimately more sinister than it was in Debord’s time, but the nature of Debord’s message remains essentially the same.
More than fifty years after the initial publication of Society of the Spectacle, mass media has become more prevalent, and more pervasive with television, the internet, cellular devices and social networking allowing our “relationship” with mass media to become a 24/7 pursuit. This new state of omni-connection allows consumers of mass media and popular culture to now “follow” every action and even every thought of their favorite celebrities and figureheads thanks to multimedia microblog outlets like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. The interactions allowed by these tools are freakishly available- on Twitter or Instagram, the degree of separation between any social media user and any celebrity user of the same platform becomes the same degree of separation which that user might have with their own friends and family on that platform. Thus, an illusion of intimacy is created via these outlets- any Twitter user can interact with say, Kim Kardashian via Twitter as easily as they can their parent, sibling or spouse one room away in the same building. There is absolutely no line drawn between simulated entertainment and everyday personal interactions. As Debord says, “… just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing.”, and thusly the hyperreality of social media interaction has fabricated the appearance of a personified and tangible relationship with the spectacle (mass media).
There is a danger inherent in this mass culture, and it has manifested itself via Donald Trump’s rise to power. Trump, who’s rise to prominence can be largely credited with his long-time gig as the host of the reality television show “The Apprentice”, is an avid Twitter user with approximately 30 million followers- and he Tweets frequently- usually multiple times a day- and receives tens of thousands of interactions and replies to each Tweet. Thanks to his celebrity background, Trump expertly placates the illusion of intimacy and accessibility that social media users glean from Twitter. Trump- a purported billionaire born into a Neo-Aristocratic family who frequently makes public displays of his freakish wealth- has in many ways crafted a Populist image of himself. Yes, one of the ways he has done this, as several journalists have pointed out in the past is by speaking to the frankly inherent nastiness of many people through his thinly veiled racism, his schoolyard-bully “strongman” persona, and his rejection of the so-called “swamp” of entrenched political elites in Washington. Twitter, however, has in its own way, vastly contributed to Trump’s success. The so-called President is able to interact with his literal and proverbial followers and has created this bizarro-Populist aura via the same phenomenon that has nurtured an omnipresent obsession with celebrities.
Furthermore, because of the celebrity/entertainment-driven fixation with social media, Trump is able to sway national political discourse his way whether there is truth or reality behind anything he says or tweets. In the same way that Celebrities colonized the reality of social interaction via Social Media, Trump has colonized the existence of truth. On January 9th, 2016, 11 days before his inauguration as President, Trump sent out a Tweet praising Ford for “expand(ing) in Michigan and U.S. instead of building a BILLION dollar plant in Mexico.”. Even several major news outlets, such as NBC credited Trump for Ford’s decision. This is all despite a) Trump not yet even becoming President, thus enacting absolutely zero policies that could realistically influence Ford to make any decision as to the production of its vehicles, b) the fact that it seems more likely that a series of agreements with and economic incentives provided by the State of Michigan might have led to Ford opening a new plant in that same state, and c) the fact that Ford is not closing, but rather is relocating its Mexican plant to an already existing plant and that said plant was always intended to produce cars for consumer-consumption in the Mexican market in the first place. Regardless of the facts and circumstance, “truth”, thanks to Twitter and the way that mass-media is consumed is irrelevant to Trump and his fans, and exists only so far as Trump can create it. Trump’s tweets are performance, the same way Kim Kardashians are- they are being consumed the same way by millions, yet are coming to be treated more and more like political canon.
We are obsessed with performance. Everything is entertainment. The fact that we’ve been treating every aspect of our lives as entertainment- politics, social issues, you name it- might be the reason an entertainer is now president.
Regardless of their differences in expressed opinion, Trump and somebody like Meryl Streep are the products of the same 21st Century “culture of consumption”- another Marxist buzzphrase frequently referenced in Society of the Spectacle. Streep’s speech at the Golden Globe awards- rousing and empathetic as it may have come across- is simply performance, and should not be interpreted as anything more. The overconsumption of mass media performance- be it through Donald Trump’s Twitter account or a speech at the Golden Globes essentially becomes different heads of the same Hydra. The fact that we give more weight to what celebrities (people as insulated from the real world and as aristocratic as Trump) say about politics and social issues than we do to economists, political scientists, sociologists, and even to poor and disenfranchised people is the most glaring symptom- the black, pussing bubo-of the very plague that has brought us a Trump presidency.