I just finished teaching a class on World War I last week, and we ended with the last chapter of Modris Eksteins' Rites of Spring, wherein he connects the cultural modernism unleashed by the conflict to Nazism. Eksteins shows how fascism was politics as theater. Outside of its upper echelons its followers were drawn less by ideology and more by membership in a massive spectacle. In those torchlit parades and glittering rituals giving oneself over and turning off one's mind became a whole lot easier. The Triumph Of The Will is to this day a horrifying document in its ability to make evil seem attractive.
As I read that chapter I realized that a lot of people (myself included) who have discussed Trump in the context of fascism have missed the boat when it comes to this particular issue. I was suddenly reminded of the point when I realized that Trump's candidacy stood a good chance of succeeding. It was in September of 2015, when he gave a speech on the deck of the decommissioned battleship USS Iowa. He did not speak for very long, and he did not seem all that coherent in what he said. The optics, however, were very good. He was positioned right below the massive guns of the ship, leaning over the podium with a red Make America Great Again cap pulled low. This man who dodged the draft bloviated about veterans, the subject of what he was saying, as always, more important than the actual content. Most importantly, he was shot from below, giving this ridiculous figure an air of command. In that moment I realized that the inchoate longings for an authoritarian ruler that have long lurked beneath the surface of American society could be called forth by this man.
Trump is described as a real estate developer, but he is in reality a television personality. His ability to manipulate the levers of television was his huge tactical advantage. He made himself into the spectacle that got the ratings, and so the news stations just aired his rantings unfiltered and unmediated. Too many journalists, happy to cash their checks, failed to take him seriously. I remember watching that speech in September, and Rachel Maddow cutting back in and laughing bemusedly at what she had just witnessed. Too many realized too late that, in the words of Morrissey, that joke wasn't funny anymore.
Trump's obsession with spectacle continues. He still attacks "fake news" even in interviews with the AP and other mainstream news outlets that give him a platform. In his most recent interview he has infamously gloated about how his ratings on cable news were the highest since 9/11. He has defended Sean Spicer's ineptitude by citing his "ratings" as well. He dropped the much-promoted "Mother Of All Bombs" in a military operation that was more spectacle that war. He has called the entire Senate to come be briefed by him in what is likely a photo-op rather than a national security summit.
However, I see signs of hope in all of this. Trump's main avenue of spectacle is indeed cable news, which would have been much more effective in the 1990s. Outside of a campaign, his rallies are only preaching to the converted. Trump may be trying to utilize politics as spectacle, but their effectiveness may have hit their peak in November of 2016. He has built a house on shaky ground, and it is our duty to provide the earthquake.