The United States of Spectacle

The politics of showmanship has increasingly real consequences

Bonny Brooks
Jan 13 · 5 min read
Trump supporters, including QAnon members, unlawfully enter the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Saul Loeb/Getty)

In Death to 2020, Charlie Brooker’s latest mockumentary rounding up the year, one of the comedy interviewees — a Brit with wide green eyes and a deadpan blink — her box-set binges:

I got into this show called America. They have this sort of election fight happening between a bloke who looked like a ticket inspector on a ghost train, and an inflatable orange maniac who didn’t seem to be dealing with the plague. … I’m thinking this storyline’s farfetched, but I’m well into this, I’m bingeing the shit out of it. That was when the whole programme sort of turned into a really complicated gameshow format.

We laugh, of course. But does it matter that in “real life”, with increasing frequency, we seem to conceive of hugely consequential political processes as if they were Netflix series?

Yes. Yes, it does.

In a strange kind of meta-irony, the politics of spectacle is becoming ever more “real” in its consequences. It is increasingly difficult to tell where the spectacle of politics ends and the politics of spectacle begins. They feed on each other symbiotically, and whatever his other stupidities, Donald Trump understands this instinctively.

That his tumultuous reign should end with a group of right-wing cosplay revolutionaries storming the Capitol and taking selfies was only unpredictable in its success. (We’ve all said it: the Capitol Police should have expected this, and the MAGA army should never have managed to make the breach.) That it should come with the infamous , proud , and placed outside the RNC and DNC, should give us pause before we politics watchers play jaded “it’s just a bunch of losers” commentary. We talk about LARPers (Live Action Role Players), though as others have pointed out, the Ku Klux Klan wear stupid outfits, proffer ridiculous names, and enact bizarre rituals — but look at the horror they’ve managed to unleash.

As Bellingcat has , there is a veritable ecosystem of LARPers on platforms like 4Chan, each riffing and feeding off each other — the soil in which QAnon grew up as a “crowdsourced conspiracy.”

The sense such crowdsourced conspiracy-mongering offers must surely be enticing; a sense of being part of something. That tantalising notion of bravely fighting the “Deep State” to enact a revolution is a personal meaning-making extravaganza, conferring special status on its participants.

Even if, as our Arc colleague Berny Belvedere recently , conservatives have been anything but oppressed in recent times. And even while members of their insurrection mob turned and wailed at the first spray of .

It would surely be unwise to divorce January 6, 2021 from the larger social context of performative politics and politics-as-consumption. For all the echo chambers we inhabit thanks to news source fragmentation and social media algorithms, consuming political spectacle offers a sense of togetherness — now more than ever, huddled in our houses, waiting to reclaim our lives from Covid.

An event like the Capitol Hill riot was decades in the making, with talk radio and cable news spearheads of “take back our country” discourse. Increasingly, politics is entertainment — including for many people that used to take no interest. And while our various tribes may consume alarmingly different narratives about the same events starring the same characters, real time spectatorship and speculation offers drama and that precious sense of togetherness.

Such drama can be addictive. There is strong neuroscientific evidence that outrage stimulates the reward centres in the brain, but your own experience alone offers weight. How often do you find yourself hate-clicking links?

After years of political arousal from the outrage-monger in chief, how easy might it be to wean ourselves off constant political spectacle? We are in a loop, a vicious cycle, and Trump’s departure from office doesn’t by itself spell an escape.

The Biden campaign promised to ; Obama’s stump speeches basically said as much. The trouble is, many incentives point precisely away from boredom and toward drama. This is not conspiracy, just media market forces. Trump the spectacle has been fantastic for cable news and clicks. He always was.

Will he still be able to launch a “Trump TV” project? Who knows. Major corporations are currently blackballing him. But corporate clampdowns feed the Trumpian oppression myth perfectly, which is likely to drive demand among his base for content. A cohort of MAGAers just getting high off being pissed, and right-wing grifters happy to take their money. The current political media business model thrives on outrage, and others axed from the mainstream, like Glenn Beck, have managed to do it.

Bizarre political spectacle abounds across the globe.

The current Ukrainian president is a comedian who played the president on a TV show. And the U.K.’s Prime Minister probably owes his current job to TV. Yes, he’s been a jobbing politician for many years now, but Boris Johnson’s name recognition came from a role as presenter of popular news panel comedy show Have I Got News for You. One can’t be sure if, were it not for that show, Britain would have exited the EU at all. And throughout the Brexit negotiations, it was common to hear about “the finale” and “Meaningful Vote Three” — as if the fate of a country were a zombie film franchise.

So, yes, spectacle politics is trending throughout the world. But America is at the forefront. Here is a country that for a century has ruled much global popular culture. Here lie the scripts and the montages of a thousand hero disaster movies, backdrop for the fantasists that stormed the Capitol with their smartphones.

Political coverage in the States has out-emoted the rest of the Anglosphere for years. As scores of TV producers I’m sure could attest, when you adapt a reality TV show for an American audience, the added drama, the speed, the flashing lights and life or death music are givens. It’s a more emotionally extroverted culture than for example, Britain. But the U.S.’s enormous cultural influence means other countries often follow its lead.

Some British commentators have rightly pointed out that a sitting British MP was murdered on the streets of Britain by a far-right extremist. But the idea that Blighty’s current polarisation levels are on a par with America’s is for the birds. Brits can only pray, that with the coming arrival of GBTV, the closest thing to Fox News Britain has ever seen, their holds.

As the saying goes, (often) when America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. Which is partly why other countries watch her politics so closely.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

Bonny Brooks

Written by

Associate Editor at Arc Digital. Former IPS Research Fellow at Library of Congress & AHRC researcher. Writer. Politics geek.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

Bonny Brooks

Written by

Associate Editor at Arc Digital. Former IPS Research Fellow at Library of Congress & AHRC researcher. Writer. Politics geek.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

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