The perpetual warfare of the populist president

This extract from Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants pg 343 captures something important about the sociology of Donald Trump’s presidency. I think he’s correct about the use of constant strife, echoing the argument by Will Davies about the blurring boundary between war and peace, to dominate the media agenda in a way which ensures the fixity of the president’s role in public life. There’s just too much going on for the opposition to make themselves heard in the mediated public sphere while those who are fans of the show lap it up with unbridled enthusiasm:

It has long been clear that no spectacle is more absorbing than a fight, and the centerpiece of the White House’s media strategy, at least in its early days, was continuous warfare, both figurative and literal. As if following an episodic structure, Trump in his first months in office waged war on a new opponent every week. In his first hundred days, he had launched attacks on the U.S. intelligence agencies, immigrants from Muslim countries, Barack Obama, the federal judiciary, “professional protesters,” the House Freedom Caucus, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, China, Mexico, Australia, Syria (with real missiles), and, above all, the media, the very “enemy of the people.” By any traditional measure, it would have been folly to pick so many fights with so many opponents at once. The unnecessary battles, predictably, yielded some spectacular defeats that cheered his opponents. Yet the warfare serves to give the president a role, not unlike that on The Apprentice, where he employs his naturally abrasive energies to generate a riveting spectacle. As in Orwell’s 1984 (film version): “The war is not meant to be won. It is meant to be continuous.”

It reminded me of Richard Seymour’s observation in the most recent in his series of incisive analyses of platform fascism:

What one must understand is their feeling of glee, of triumph, the fist pumping in the air, as Bolsonaro says something like, “Indians are evolving and more and more are becoming human beings like us.” His fans gasp: he said it! They gather to see him in public, wearing Bolsonaro meme t-shirts. They say: he’s real, he speaks his mind. Even if they think they disagree with his worst provocations, they can still get a kick out of it. As James Smith puts it, “People who don’t think they agree with these racist, philandering pre-Oedipal devourers nonetheless can enjoy the performance of unregulated desire they put on.” Trump, Duterte and Bolsonaro: all offering the same combination of renewed repression and joyful release from the liberal superego.

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