Adam examines the reasons why he and the pop culture consensus differ in opinion.
Almost immediately after the news media concluded its coverage of the 2016 election, it turned its focus to considering what role the news media’s coverage played in the 2016 election. Much of that analysis questioned whether the feverish attention paid to Donald Trump helped to legitimize and, ultimately, elect him. Here, these analysts echoed sentiments voiced in a German book released just a few years ago.
In 2012’s Look Who’s Back, Timur Vermes imagines a world in which Hitler inexplicably reappears in modern-day Germany and decides to recapture the political power he and his party had some 70 years ago. It’s a ludicrous scenario and Vermes works in a comedic register throughout, but he makes clear the target of his satire. The media, recognizing the potential for spectacle, takes to Hitler with eagerness, granting him free press and his own television segment (assuming him to be a performance artist critiquing Nazism and not an actual Nazi). Audiences – out of shock and amazement and sheer curiosity – tune in to hear what he might say or do next. Within months, Hitler has developed a broad fanbase and popular support.
Five years later, we might feel tempted to draw clean parallels between Vermes’ fiction and our political reality. In the US, a celebrity rode a wave of breathless media coverage for eighteen months until it landed him in the White House. The spectacle of his campaign overshadowed the bigoted, hateful character of his rhetoric and the assumed barriers between entertainment and politics finally collapsed. Style beat substance in history-making fashion.
This is perhaps too generous an interpretation, though. Vermes is right to identify the media’s encouragement of dangerous politics, and his concerns about the growing entertainment/politics overlap have been vindicated many times over. What this analysis underplays, though, is the unsettling but necessary reckoning with the idea that millions of people are embracing far-right politics out of genuine desire, and not simply because they’ve been swindled by a pliant media.
Fascism is, in some respects, a violent power fantasy made real.
There are different reasons that could explain why people might turn to this kind of authoritarian politics, and they often intersect. Desperation, in a material sense, might push people there. The decision can be motivated by sincere hatred and bigotry. Some may see this political shift as an exciting social movement to get involved with. Whatever the motivations, though, it is important to recognize that support for far right, nationalist politics is not necessarily superficial. Free press and fawning media attention for fascists is disastrous, to be sure, but these alone can’t explain our current circumstances.
Fascism is, in some respects, a violent power fantasy made real. It engages reactionary, regressive impulses – racism, misogyny, aggressive militarism and xenophobia, among others – and makes them the core of a cultural movement. For a nation that has spent centuries telling itself stories of its own exceptionalism (at the intentional cost of ignoring those that exceptionalism has oppressed and excluded), it can be an uncomfortably short leap from patriotism to nationalist authoritarianism. It’s a goal of the fascist project to eliminate that distinction, anyway.
Focusing too exclusively on the media’s role in Trump’s win risks underestimating the country’s support for his politics and misunderstanding what kind of response is urgently needed from his political opposition. The media will play a significant role in this confrontation, just as it did in assisting Trump, but the situation also demands that the political alternative to Trump be reshaped in a meaningful way. If American fascism is to be combated, the fight will require that the substance of politics, not just the messaging, be engaged and changed.
Trump’s ascendance is difficult to imagine without a media environment that encouraged and celebrated him at every opportunity. But the story of Trump’s rise is not a story that begins with the announcement of his campaign in June, 2015. His victory reflects an ugly history that stretches back to this country’s founding and persists through to the present. Any analysis of the current political climate that hopes to strengthen the resistance must acknowledge this reality.
Adam Boffa is a writer and musician from New Jersey. You can follow him on Twitter @ambinate