By Kevin Pollack
After Donald Trump slowly descended a golden escalator in his eponymous tower and announced his presidential campaign June 16, 2015, much of the political establishment responded (perhaps naively) with equal parts amusement and indifference. More than five and a half years later, after a record-breaking two impeachments and a consistently tumultuous presidency, Trumpism will clearly continue to be a major force in American politics. Sympathy for autocrats, the embrace of widespread misinformation, and disdain for both democratic institutions and democracy itself have all, in some form or another, become part and parcel of the Republican party’s modus operandi.
But beyond the ideological tenets of Trumpism that have already proven ruinous — both for Americans and for people around the world — American politics has transformed from a negotiation for people’s well-being and “who gets what, when, how” into a spectacle without any substantive regard for truth or progress. This spectacle has infected various members of Congress, plaguing the entire U.S. political system and threatening to stymie the nation’s restoration.
Guy Debord’s 1967 work, The Society of the Spectacle, offers a salient explanation of the amoral posturing that plagued us during the Trump era. The French philosopher argues that our lives become a spectacle — “the heart of this real society’s unreality” — when the economy, politics, and culture of a society become dominated by forms of performance. The spectacle, though, does not simply happen to us; rather, by lending our attention to it, we legitimize and reinforce the spectacle in a vicious circle. Furthermore, the Debordian concept of unanswerable lies — a state in which truth ceases to exist — eerily defines what professor and historian Robert Zaretsky has described as the Trump regime’s “frantic and fantastical, nihilistic and numbing nature.”
In updating Debord’s theories and relating them to contemporary politics, cultural theorist Douglas Kellner reinforces Zaretsky’s views. He posits that a “digitally mediated spectacle” contributed to the rise of Trump and, more generally, right-wing populism and authoritarianism. Kellner uses the term “megaspectacle” to describe the ways such performances have come to define both political and cultural institutions writ large.
The most heinous example of the (mega)spectacle of contemporary governing comes courtesy of the most appalling member of Congress, conspiracy theorist Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). After Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.) put up a transgender flag outside her office in the Longworth Building on Capitol Hill to honor her trans daughter, Greene responded by posting an antagonizing placard reading, “There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE. ‘Trust The Science!’” Greene’s sign not only flies in the face of actual science, but it also suggests she believes her role as a member of the House of Representatives is to engage in shallow, frivolous spats with colleagues in order to generate as much attention as possible.
Fellow Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), a close second to Greene, similarly exemplifies the obsession with aesthetics over substance, especially in her February appearance before the House Natural Resources Committee with three large firearms displayed prominently behind her. In this environment, eyes and ears are the only currency, whether they are critical or supportive.
This method of governance will have devastating consequences for political speech, rendering accountability a worthless concept, so long as politicians contribute to the spectacle of U.S. politics. Consider Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who denounced Trump as practically and morally responsible for the Capitol insurrection of January 6, 2021, only to promise weeks later to endorse him if he runs again. McConnell’s about-face regarding Trump’s role in the future of the Republican Party demonstrates a complete absence of principle, a sole devotion to scoring political points by any means possible. McConnell’s stances and statements have become functions of the grand performance, further turning politics into a mockery.
As a result of this form of governance by spectacle, politics has transformed into an aesthetic, visible in the incessant impersonations of political figures on “Saturday Night Live” or in Biden’s inaugural special hosted by Tom Hanks and featuring celebrities, musicians, artists, and athletes. This “aestheticization of politics” — a term coined by cultural theorist Walter Benjamin — is inherently dangerous. In his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin argued that the “logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.” Trump’s enthusiastic courtship of white supremacists and his support for a violent insurrection on the day Joe Biden was certified as the 46th president reinforce the notion that the Trump administration met more than one criterion of fascism.
But this aestheticization did not simply materialize with Trump at its vanguard. Constance Grady, a staff writer at Vox, has examined the so-called Writers meme, a common joke on Twitter that the happenings of the Trump presidency were actually episodes on a television show. As Grady explains, “at the core of the joke is the complaint that the Trump administration (was) destructive in an aesthetically unpleasant way.” To assign aesthetic value to politics is to conflate it with entertainment, leisure, and diversion, rendering it possible to “make human suffering pretty for political gain,” a cornerstone of fascism, according to Benjamin.
As more politicians embrace aestheticism, the country will have to deal with more Greenes and Boeberts (albeit not necessarily strictly from the right), as well as the continuing fusion of art and politics, as witnessed at Biden’s inaugural event. If the objective of politics becomes aesthetic rather than practical, misinformation and disinformation could become dominant strategies of communication, and the increasing incidence of deepfakes and other technologies that obfuscate the truth could threaten to advance further this retreat from truth.
In spite of the horrors of the Trump presidency, the country generally avoided the self-reflection and reckoning that must follow the departure of an autocrat from office. But the questions remain. How exactly did we end up with President Trump? Where do we go now that he is gone? And how do we ensure we do not arrive in this same place again? We do not yet have many answers, and without confronting the socioeconomic inequities and political malformations that got us to this turning point, the door to another aspiring despot (or a second act for the same one) remains ajar.
With periodic threats of political violence since Jan. 6, more mainstream acceptance of murderous and preposterous conspiracy theories, and remarkably high levels of polarization, this new configuration of politics will be difficult to overturn, much like the rest of Trump’s horrid legacy. It seems as though Debord’s prescient argument that the spectacle becomes the prevailing way of life could force us to live in an “unreality” of our own creation.