The Tweetium is the Messacre: The Performance as President and the Politics of Negation
by E.W. Wilder
When Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media in 1964, he ushered in a whole new way of thinking about communication. Even though it has fallen into common parlance (and perhaps as an example of McLuhan’s main point), the phrase “the medium is the message” deserves further scrutiny for its demonstrative power. McLuhan’s idea is that the form of communication embodies its reception and influences its receiver. To McLuhan, the medium is, in fact, more important than the “content” of the communication—“content” being another of McLuhan’s terms that now define conversations about media. The fact of a text message, for example, is definitive of an entire way of being, a kind of personal connectivity that also implies a right to one’s attention and a kind of relationship defined by a personal phone, in (contra)distinction with a “house” phone or a “land” line that belongs to a household and is connected to a local community within its web of communities, grounded in time and space.
In politics, of a McLuhanite approach it might be said that the medium of presidentiality determines the electorate and not the other way around. Far too much has already been said about John F. Kennedy being the first “television” president: young, good-looking, photogenic. He looked like he fit on the cleaned-up and gleaming medium of TV. Likewise, Ronald Reagan is remembered as “the Great Communicator” despite having said very little of substance: that we remember such commonplace phrases as “there you go again” or “tear down that wall” or “the government is the problem” as “great” communication indicates that what we recall was not about things Reagan said but about the fact that Reagan said them.
In true McLuhanation, Reagan himself was the message: he presented with a vaguely avuncular look reminiscent of a bygone era redolent of smoked sausage over a campfire, an era in which the Western could seem, unironically, like a viable artistic form. The Reaganite medium created what the United States wanted to be in touch with; the policies that came along with him were immaterial to Reagan’s voters, and, in fact, continue to harm those very people.
In a similar vein, we have Bill Clinton, who came along at a time when playing the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show was exemplary of the presidential medium. The medium of a president as performance, established by Kennedy, continued by Reagan, was now fully realized. It was not what Clinton did while in office that upset Republicans—indeed, Clinton’s policies could only narrowly be discerned from their own. The real reason Republicans hated him was that he usurped the medium of the president as performance, one they thought Reagan had secured for them after the debacle that was Richard Nixon. George W. Bush, then, was the Republicans’ successful restoration of control over the president as performance, and Donald Trump is its somewhat inevitable apotheosis.
We see in Trump the ultimate realization of the power of the form. If Twitter had not existed prior to his run for office, it would have had to have been invented in order to make way for it. Just as television is the confluence of radio and film, and a distinct medium of its own, so too is Trump the confluence of the celebrity as leader that was Reagan and the American dynastics that brought us George W. Bush.
We could, at this point, lose ourselves in an exploration of how Trump is the coming together of America’s two great myths: that of the celebrity and that of the tycoon. But that would be pointlessly sociological and distract us from our important business of McLuhaning. These two myths are only useful to us to the degree that they comprise the medium of celebrity, but the medium is what we must deconstruct if we are to come to understand it.
When a Trump supporter says “I like him because he speaks his mind,” what he is really saying is that the Trump medium is a “cool” medium, one that requires us to fill in the gaps regarding what that mind actually is, gaps we fill with what we want to believe. The medium of the president as performance is much more important than what the content of Trump’s mind is and is made all the more compelling by the fact that perhaps there is no real content there whatsoever. When Trump says “I’m going to build a wall—a big, beautiful wall,” the feasibility of this or its price tag are not at issue. Indeed, it is difficult, on the face of it, to figure out what would make such a wall “beautiful.” There are some walls, of course, that are fancier or dressier than others, and one might imagine a shade of paint more pleasing to the eye than not. But that would, again, be missing the point: a border wall exists solely for its utility, and so “beautiful” in this case is not about rhetorical or dramatic flourish but about negation. The very contradiction it creates instantly vaporizes the content, bringing the audience back to the main event, which is the fact of Trump himself, Trump qua Trump.
These kinds of negations are all over the Trump medium, and they are necessary for its success. Thus when Trump says that his cabinet picks have “the highest IQ,” or that this or that will be “great, if not the greatest,” or that a detractor is “sad” or “pathetic,” or that China is “raping” us or that they have perpetrated “the greatest job theft in history,” he is using superlatives or other extreme forms of language to back up the unprovable. On the surface, this is done to circumvent the expectation of evidence, but, in keeping with the Trump medium, these forms are used to undermine meaning and negate content. Analysts, who haven’t yet grasped the Trump medium or McLuhan’s ideas, search in vain for something to analyze and consequently fall all over themselves. In the attempt, Trump wins: the analysts look like fools and then resort to a tacit admission: “It’s just Trump being Trump.” Content is not merely a distraction from the message that is the Trump medium; content itself is made toxic by it.
The reason Hillary Clinton lost, then, is not because of scandal or style. Clearly, Trump’s style is that of a used car salesman, a buffoon, and his scandals are too many to count. Hillary Clinton lost the election because her campaign was devoted to content, and like a cell infected with the Trumpian virus, content becomes a factory for a somatic poison, sickening the body politic and turning it all to Trump. The cursory attempts to fit what reporters and politicians know about the presidency into Trump are already following similar patterns to that of the campaign. The presidency has already fallen away and has been replaced by the medium of Trump, the Trumpocracy. Anything that the presidency might have done is now rendered pointless (content), replaced by a negation in the form of a tweet. By questioning, simultaneously, the number of women who marched on Washington after the inauguration and whether or not they voted, Trump is again playing the negation game: if there were so few of them, they could not have swayed the election anyway. But, of course, such analysis belongs to the world of logic and is therefore beside the point: this very negation is the emptying out of substance that leaves nothing to speak of but the very fact of Trump himself.
One could argue that because reporters have begun fact-checking Trump’s speeches (even his inaugural address), there is some type of democratic immune response to the toxicity unleashed by the medium of Trump. But just as radio exists alongside television, reporting exists alongside Trump. Reporting is a fact-based medium; it is built from data points woven together with narrative. Reporters fact-check not because it will in any way change the outcome of an event or even change a mind; fact-checking is simply a feature of the medium. A fact is to journalism roughly the same as focusing a lens is to a photographer. It has no effect whatsoever on the medium of Trump, and, in fact, it may serve to reinforce that medium by bringing attention back to it.
And none of this notion of the medium of Trump should be conflated or confused with Trump the man, who is as immaterial to it as the content of a tweet or a speech or a policy proposal. The fact that voters may not be getting what they think they are getting or that, perhaps, Trump the man does not seem to think what he says he thinks is not important. What is important is that the Trump medium equals “He says what he thinks.” Inasmuch as there is any real similarity between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, it is this: they both trade on the medium of “speaking one’s mind,” though “speaking” and “mind” are not, in the end, at issue. This negation of content allowed some Sanders supporters to jump to Trump without experiencing cognitive dissonance. It allowed conservative Christians to declare Trump a “godly man,” even though there is no indication of godliness anywhere in Trump’s history—in fact, quite the opposite.
What the Trump medium as the ultimate iteration of the performance as president means for democracy is not exactly clear. To the degree that democracy itself is a medium, Trump is likely to pose a challenge, as Trump seems to have already successfully replaced democracy for almost half of the electorate. For the rest of us, democracy was still seen as a functioning part of our lives and identities—though it had clearly ceased functioning for many politicians some time ago. This enabled them to accept campaign donations that hobbled the democratic process and allowed them to “spread” democracy around the world by supporting dictators and dropping bombs.
For the millions of Trump supporters out there, it is probable that Trump will be replaced with a more compelling medium, the content of which will be, again, largely unimportant, but the continual engagement in which will be necessary while the rest of us roll up our sleeves and get down to the tedious business of rebuilding what has crumbled away.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Signet. 1964.
Trump as Medium, The.