Donald Trump is best understood not as a politician but instead as a type of meme where his identity and politics are perceived as being one and the same thing by his followers. Trump, the meme, uses social media and other digital technologies (as well as more traditional media and communication tools such as television) to maintain and build support with MAGA and to attack his enemies while undermining any sense of shared reality and truth.
The Age of Trump has been an emotional rollercoaster.
The American news media have largely failed in their responsibilities to stop Trump and his neofascist movement, in large part because, even after having seven years of experience, they lack the conceptual tools to grasp the true nature of the crisis and what it represents.
So in an attempt to make better sense of how the Age of Trump has disrupted our understanding of the relationship(s) between the media, politics and society — and what may come next in the country’s ongoing democracy crisis — I recently spoke with David L. Altheide. He is the Regents’ Professor Emeritus on the faculty of Justice and Social Inquiry in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University and author of the new book “Gonzo Governance: The Media Logic of Donald Trump.” Altheide other books include “Terrorism and the Politics of Fear” and “The Media Syndrome”.
In this wide-ranging conversation, Altheide explains that Trump and the Trumpocene are the product of what he describes as “Gonzo Governance” and a new media and digital culture that American society is still struggling to comprehend. Altheide argues that the American media elevated Trump to power because his performance style, meme identity, politics, and extreme behavior were and remain a perfect fit for a superficial society that has a limited attention span and is fixated on amusement and distraction.
At the end of our conversation, Altheide offers advice for the American news media about how to better respond to the demands and disruptions of the Age of Trump.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Given the tumult and norm norm-breaking and general chaos of the Age of Trump and beyond, how are you trying to make sense of it all?
These are troubling times. The most worrisome thing about the Trump years is what will remain after he leaves the stage: undermining our institutions, and damaging civility that is essential to a diverse society like ours.
Some social scientists foresaw the political moment we are in and wrote about it for decades. My colleague, Robert Snow, and I argued more than four decades ago in our book, “Media Logic,” that new information technologies and media formats were changing our social institutions, including religion, education, sports, and politics.
But like many research-based conclusions and suggestions, our concerns were ignored. Our current moment is one borne of our entertainment-oriented mass media and popular culture that fosters conflict and drama. The goal of commercial media in the U. S.—and social media are commercial media—is to attract audiences and users to deliver them to advertisers. How to do this? Entertainment was the answer. And one of the tried-and-true ingredients of entertaining messages and performances is fear.
Essentially, the same underlying media processes are at work that gave us entertainers like Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, and numerous other popular culture and sports figures and heroes. Now, it is Donald Trump, a reality TV show actor. The thing to keep in mind is that the sole fault lies not with Trump or Reagan or others; it is the audience involvement with various media formats, especially visual ones, and particularly today’s social media that are instantaneous, personal, and visual. This has led to what I describe as “Gonzo Governance” and the damage to our major social institutions.
Given your expertise in media and culture, how are you “seeing” and processing the Age of Trump and America’s democracy crisis and the larger moment?
The most important thing you can know about someone is what they take for granted.
Power is the ability to define a situation for you and others.
The mass media and communication formats—how messages are selected, organized, presented, and interpreted—are key for what people understand and take for granted about their everyday lives. Repetitive images, symbols, language, metaphors, and overall discourse affect what people take for granted, while also shaping how they perceive and interpret information.
Part of the answer involves how to cultivate and cash in on fear. Media are key. Trump is very good at this, but he had a lot of help with decades of sensationalized TV news and popular culture—about minority groups, crime, drugs, gangs, gays, terrorists, immigrants— that sold fear as entertainment to mass audiences. Fascists play to fears.
The Trump approach went beyond anything that we’ve seen before: He preached that whatever institutions disagreed with him were corrupt, could not be trusted, and must be changed. He said that citizens were being left behind because the social institutions they counted on had failed them. Many institutions could not be trusted; they were corrupt. This included the news media (fake news), election procedures and basic democratic processes, law enforcement, science, education, and military. Other officials feared his wrath and fell into line parroting the same slogans.
Properly understanding (and defeating) the Age of Trump and ascendant neofascism really demands the expertise and insights of experts in cultural studies, media, popular culture, performance art and theory, race, power, philosophy, psychology, political science and history and other related fields. Unfortunately, those perspectives and experts are not featured by the mainstream news media or among the commentariot.
There have been numerous attempts to explain why Donald Trump received nearly 63 million votes for President of the United States in 2016 and more than 74 million in 2020. Many analysts focus only on media content, but more importantly, it is the way that our culture is mediated, and cut through with media logic. For example, Brad Parscale, candidate Trump’s digital media advisor in 2016—along with several Russian and other foreign hackers—developed thousands of Facebook advertisements that were instantaneous, personal, visual, and often negative.
Twitter-internet writers are technologically forced to limit utterances to 280 characters; users and receivers of tweets expect this and become accustomed to short-handwriting to save space. It is understood that tweets are not elaborate statements of explanation or justification; they tend to be evocative. They invite simple recognition, slogans, and individual participation and sharing. This is consequential when it becomes a normal form. And it is very important for memes.
“The thing to keep in mind is that the sole fault lies not with Trump or Reagan or others; it is the audience involvement with various media formats, especially visual ones, and particularly today’s social media that are instantaneous, personal, and visual.”
It is apparent that President Trump’s messages are reflexive of his digital identity, in a kind of digital circuitry. Hard-core Trump supporters, like religious zealots, cannot easily be dissuaded by his actions, law enforcement, court victories, or even election results.
Trump is a reflexive propagandist, meaning that messages are tailored to the audience’s expectations and use of the formats and digital logic of Twitter and the internet, as well as the reciprocal posting of Fox News.
Becoming a meme representing oneself can convey an open-ended meaning to viewers, who may interpretively select a wide range of content to lend meaning. Virtually anything tweeted will resonate meaningfully and emotionally with sympathetic supporters who are looking to confirm rather than challenge their champion. Even his detractors will process the messages as digital circuitry.
Who and what is Donald Trump? Note my emphasis: the man vs. the symbol; the semiotics of Donald Trump and his movement.
The short answer is that he is a meme.
President Trump’s pursuit of attention-based politics with digital media became institutionalized and he ritually performed as expected by alluring supporters. His message and persona are joined. In one sense, he is a quintessential communicator: His identity and presence speak volumes to those who matter.
A digital media persona like Trump relies on social media to gain attention, promote himself, and attack critics, including those who use his own words to challenge his credibility and consistency.
Journalists and critics use conventional referential syntax, but Trump’s tweets are often evocative, vulgar, ad hominem personal attacks. He steps outside of convention and norms and boundaries of acceptable speech, especially by politicians and other leaders.
He adopted a tough street code to violate rituals of civility and align with alienated supporters. This gonzo break with tradition focused media attention on his persona as the solution.
A meme is a cultural element, meaning, or ideological identification that is widely shared. Memes are similar to an urban legend with an emotional or bizarre appeal, but they tend to be shared via electronic technology and digital formats, often including a visual or graphic along with a few words or a phrase. Memes stir emotional responses and can create meanings and framings of issues and events. The precise meaning of a specific post is less salient than the supportive interpretation of an audience member.
The Gonzo Trump spectacle became objectified as a meme. The evocative character of memes takes on added significance for President Trump. A large percentage of his tweets are in opposition or a reaction to a statement or action by others. The Twitter routine and the response are communicative independently of the specific content; it is Trump again! The postings may be considered as Donald Trump, the meme.
What does Donald Trump mean to different audiences and publics?
Trump represents a mythical salvation and relief of nascent fear and a better future where the only rules that will apply are those that help individuals achieve rapidly changing goals.
This is the new normal of gonzo governance that has emerged from our communication order featuring digital media that provide instantaneous, personal, and visual information.
This entertaining conflict-ridden media logic promotes evocative reaction rather than referential and reflective communication.
“Recovering from Gonzo Governance will require planning and perseverance to reaffirm a civic culture at home, and maintaining, reassuring, and rebuilding domestic and international alliances.”
Gonzo, or breaking the mold of a conventional activity, was popularized by Hunter Thompson’s deviant-drugged-edgy lifestyle and approach to journalism.
A key feature of a gonzo perspective is that individual actors use media performances to rail against a fearful disorder that needs drastic correction. Politicians cultivate and pursue the emotional appeals to audiences and potential constituents. Gonzo rhetoric requires attention-grabbing bold action that only the savior can provide, such as Donald Trump. Gonzo Governance is becoming institutionalized as routine resistance to the election process and the rule of law.
We are in the age of “content” across this late capitalist society. In an attention economy where the public is constantly distracted and “fear of missing out” rules so many people’s behavior, democracy and any form of serious public deliberation and reflection are in real trouble.
Everyday life today is a media cauldron. Everyday life has also changed with and through media changes. The ease of access of digital media in short doses provides enough news and evocative information for conversations, but no depth. Marketing dominates news. The rise of visual media and availability have altered even traditional network news, which now routinely uses meaningless visual vignettes of animals, car chases and crashes. So, we have a lot of access to information vignettes but little depth, or context, and thus, little understanding.
Demagogues are nothing new in human history. But Donald Trump is truly very much a product of this era of digital media and communications.
I believe that digital media were key for Trump’s impact and election. He is not just a populist demagogue but is a meme that resonates the politics of fear and vengeful emotions against institutions that have denied him legitimacy. His future success depends on weakening major social institutions.
The long history of entertaining fear along with a changed media environment and new information technologies that are personal, visual, and instantaneous were foundational for audiences to be receptive to crude messages of hate and institutional revenge.
Most efforts to use fear to win elections relied on rhetoric. Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s propaganda took the politics of fear to a new level by promoting the fear of immigrants, especially Mexicans, while demonizing Muslims.
Many American citizens supported this fear with ballots as well as large increases in hateful attacks on Mexican Americans, Jews, Muslims, and minority groups. Creating political theatre with clashes between unidentified federal agents and protesters is a new level of manipulation, one that is aided by TV networks’ pursuit of exciting visual coverage that can distort a more complex reality.
What are some of the more serious errors that you have seen the mainstream American news media make during the Age of Trump and beyond?
It is important to understand that President Trump’s tweetable news and influence were aided by entertaining news formats that favored dramatic visuals with emotional appeal in the pursuit of high ratings.
News organizations enable propaganda with presidential politics, albeit with occasional disclaimers and challenges to the blatant lies, because of two things: First, there is a commitment to report daily and heavily on the president and now Republican candidate under numerous indictments; even absurd tweets.
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Second, news coverage—especially TV— is guided by an entertainment format that prefers evocative drama, conflict, and violence. It was estimated that in the first two months of the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump received more than three times the coverage of his political opponents. The Chief Executive Officer of CBS said of Trump’s candidacy, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” CNN’s president admitted, “We put him on because we you never knew what he was going to say.” Trump continues to command news attention as journalists play along and he benefits.
If you were to give a talk at a journalism conference or at a leading publication like the New York Times or CNN, what suggestions would you make about how to better adapt to the Age of Trump?
There are many fine journalists, but few can operate independently of the bonanza of wealth and hubris of their organizations. Academics’ op-ed submissions routinely are rejected. Americans are ill-informed about so much—domestic problems, foreign affairs, etc.—and, ironically, it is not totally their fault. Public airwaves and even many print outlets have not provided systematic coverage of these topics, preferring to go with what grabs the audience, brief, evocative, dramatic, conflictual—and almost always, visual—renderings that basically tell audiences what they might already know. These same media strategies underlie the assault on our own institutions and entrenched values and goals that require significant forbearance and support for their continuation. It is time to change and counter established broadcast formats.
Here are a few specific suggestions.
Recovering from Gonzo Governance will require planning and perseverance to reaffirm a civic culture at home, and maintaining, reassuring, and rebuilding domestic and international alliances. Hopefully, more informed voters will simply reject the people, politics, and policies that are gonzo driven. The vote and election results are key. This is why elections, voting rights, and independent voting oversight are being attacked nationally. However, as we saw in the resistance to the January 6 insurrection attempt, citizens and politicians differ in their allegiance to this destructive movement and respect traditional guardrails.
Key organizations and institutions should join in a well-publicized national and international communication campaign to convey their commitment to help retrench and reinforce basic American values including equality of opportunity, voting rights, non-discrimination and equal rights for women, racial, religious, and ethnic minorities, support for science and international treaties, affirmation of scientific research for collective health and well-being, as well as diplomatic solutions to major world problems.
In addition, we must understand the role of the mass media, digital media, and propaganda in promoting an entertainment-based politics of fear that was part of the foundation for the election of reality-TV star Donald Trump.
Another important step involves journalism training, ethics, and responsibility. With the explosive growth of fake news by propagandists—Russians included—journalists and internet and digital service providers must become more critical and bolder in refusing to report on blatant lies, or at least greatly qualifying the fallacious claims.
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