From comedians to political commentators everyone says they have never seen a presidency like Donald Trump’s. Whether it is his (and his press secretary’s) press conferences, or the perpetual campaigning, his alternate “facts” or the spectacle of the wall, Trump is seen as outside the mainstream or unique. Although Trump has taken it to a new level, his use of American spectacle is the fulfillment of a trend in politics since at least the post-WWII period that has blurred the lines between fact and fiction and eroded trust in the office of president.
A recent television episode of “Mysteries at the Museum” recounted a now forgotten American spectacle from the beginning of the Cold War. From 1947 to 1949 a “freedom train” visited all 48 states and was seen by some 3 million citizens in over 300 cities. Seen by the Truman administration as an opportunity to reflect on American citizenship, the train contained original copies of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation and Magna Carta among other priceless documents.
The train’s proposed route, however, confronted obstacles in the form of city officials in Birmingham and Memphis who insisted on “separate but equal” viewing for blacks and whites. The foundation set up to implement the project rejected this segregation and, in retrospect, some labeled this action a harbinger of the civil rights movement. What this account excludes — aside from the irony of a “freedom train” containing “freedom documents” encountering unfreedom — is a backstory that involves the rejection of any black members for the foundation’s board, the refusal of include Executive Order 8802 (fair employment practices) and collective bargaining as recommended by the National Archives, and the threat of NAACP-led boycotts if the train stopped in Birmingham and Memphis. And, of course, rather than the “freedom train” opening the way for integration in these two cities, it would take two intense human rights campaigns to gain social justice in Birmingham and Memphis.
The “freedom train” episode is a prime example of the spectacle providing illusory unification and meaning while distracting attention from group conflict. According to Berkeley political scientist Michael Rogin, the spectacle aims either to keep the reality principle entirely at bay or to seize control of the interpretations placed on its intrusions. Spectacle goes private by organizing mass consumption and leisure (reality TV). Key to the function of American spectacle is political amnesia (and its corollary racial amnesia) that is a kind of motivated forgetting which when insistently represented becomes by being normalized to invisibility — absent and disappeared.
Spectacle, then, provides both a lens for viewing and an explanation for the actions of Trump and his predecessors. If we confide ourselves to the post-WWII period following Truman, we can easily recall Eisenhower’s press conference denying American spying on the Soviet Union to be contradicted almost immediately when Moscow produced not only a wrecked U-2 plane but also its captured pilot Gary Powers. My students were always amazed when I said that prior to this incident, most Americans automatically accepted what the president said as true!
John Kennedy was largely successful is keeping secret several personal flaws and it was only after it ended in disaster that the covert Bay of Pigs invasion was revealed. Political amnesia keeps us from seeing it as almost leading to a nuclear holocaust as well as rendering invisible LBJ’s lies about our march to victory in Vietnam (it was the Vietnamese that provided the spectacle of the Tet offensive).
It was Richard Nixon and Watergate that provided us with a spectacle so severe that it changed our view of the character of presidential leadership. For example, political scientist Harold Barger found a dramatic drop in presidential trust levels among the school children (especially Whites) in San Antonio following Watergate.
The presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter may have restored some level of latent goodwill to the office but the former suffered from his pardon of Nixon while the latter was seen by voters as too honest in his talk about American malaise. It was Ronald Reagan who restored our national confidence through the spectacle of American troops taking on the Marxist regime in tiny Grenada on the pretext of protecting American medical students. Covertly he denied knowledge of the Iran/Contra scheme that helped privatize our foreign policy. Domestically Reagan began to blur the lines between fantasy and fact as repeatedly used an apocryphal story about a “welfare queen” in Chicago to slash social programs.
Just as Reagan used states rights to trigger “dog-whistle” politics in Philadelphia, Mississippi at the start of his campaign, George H. W. Bush used Willie Horton to similar effect in 1988. Yet both claimed racial amnesia when it came to their domestic politics with Bush separating campaigning from governing saying it was history and “didn’t mean anything anymore.” Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman” and George W. Bush’s “You’re doing a heck of a job Brownie” to the head of FEMA following Katrina speak for themselves as spectacle detached from reality. Obama’s “beer summit” provided spectacle without addressing the reality of continued police misconduct.
Donald Trump has upped the ante of American spectacle. Instead of Mao’s permanent revolution, we have Trump’s permanent campaign providing the spectacle of him attacking Hillary, the press, the FBI or any other opposition on a daily basis. Regular media that might provide a check on reality are bypassed in favor of live events, twitter and interviews with friendly reporters. Political amnesia not only extends back to statements of yesteryear but even yesterday. Having conquered and coopted the conservative critics and religious right of his party, Trump has now taken on the world. A multinational-dominated internationalized economy that resists state control might serve to check and balance his administration. Trump and Bannon have countered this with a militant, reactionary nationalism. More spectacles are guaranteed.