Justin Webb

Justin Webb presents Radio 4’s Today programme and was previously the BBC’s North America Editor

October 2, 2019

As we await the impeachment of Donald Trump, how tempting it must be for the Democrats to say, “We told you so.”

And how tempting to go further: to suggest that the presidency itself was an aberration, a disaster brought on by Putin, or Racism, or other forces, dark and malign, that gripped the hands of the voters in polling stations around the nation and made them vote Trump in 2016.

But this is a trap. Democrats were told to take Trump seriously but not literally. They should take his supporters seriously and literally. They should offer them respect for their choice, understanding that it was mostly a genuine choice freely made – they literally did vote for Trump and all that he was — but calmly and pleasantly suggest they think again next time.

A book out this autumn provides a model in how not to approach the Trump folks. Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television and the Fracturing of America is quite a relief in one respect: it is not about the Russians. Or even the Ukrainians. It does at least see this White House as an American phenomenon.

But, then, it gets whacky in a way that, for me, epitomises the failings of the false consciousness approach to Trump-ism.    The book is by a TV critic, James Poniewozik of the New York Times, who, like the President, watches too much TV.  He tells us:

“Trump got elected.  But TV became president.”

And:

“Fusing himself with culture’s most powerful force, he became possessed by it.”

Oh do come off it. This is a thesis aimed at, and much praised by, the kind of folks who inhabit Woody Allan films: cultural commentators who spend their weekends power-walking around Central Park in Birkenstocks. They are discombobulated by The Donald (who isn’t?) and they seek solace in sociology.

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How tempting it is to overcomplicate the Trump presidency. This book serves as a warning against doing so — though it does, I have to admit, have some compelling moments. In particular, his ‘TV is boss’ thesis is well-argued.

“As long as TV has existed,” James Poniewozik, tells us, “science fiction has imagined it as a handmaid to dystopia.” Think Orwell or Huxley. But always, in the various ways in which TV would assist in the suppression of the masses, the relationship was clear: the oppressors would be separate from TV and use it to get their way. The masses would be consumers. And in the television age, oppression could come via seduction: as the brilliant American sociologist and
media watcher Neil Postman put it, “In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother doesn’t watch us by his choice, we watch him by ours.”

What Poniewozik suggests is that even Neil Postman (and Huxley) failed to grasp the way in which the oppression would evolve. Instead of Big Brother remaining aloof, and TV remaining a tool, a situation arose which the dystopia prophets had failed to spot: “They foresaw leaders who would wield media as a weapon. They did not foresee media that would select for a certain kind of leader who shared and would propagate its psychology.”

The TV really is in charge. Yikes! That’s why the presidency has been so full-on crazy, so punctuated by cliff-hangers and dramas and subplots. Big Brother is not Trump, it’s the tube. That TV our parents kept in the corner of the sitting room — sometimes modestly boxed — has broken out and now controls the entire political life of the world’s most powerful nation.

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And the result is the pickling of the minds of a generation. Poniewozik quotes the great Hannah Arendt on the dictatorships of the mid-20th century: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world, the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true.”

Remind you of anything happening right now? On both sides of the Atlantic? It’s persuasive and well-argued. Trump as TV monster. Trump as TV anti-hero.

“After 9/11, antihero culure,” Poniewozik points out, “openly raised the question of how much goodness we required in our
protectors, and how much was a liability.”

Back in 1981, the pioneering TV cops show Hill St Blues had included a scene where a policeman, in order to catch a criminal, smashes a coin box in a laundry to make a phone call. It was cut because NBC forbade any depiction of the police being casually indifferent to the law.

Now we live in the world of 24 — the hugely successful series on terrorism-busting — in which the hero does plenty more than plunder coin boxes in the public good.

And Trump, when he ran for office, tapped into this change of mood. He made the case that kindness was a liability against enemies who would see the world burn. “Someone like him, outside the normal structures of power, someone unencumbered by scruple, needed to be given a free hand,” Poniewozik tells us.

But here is my problem with this and with the wider picture of the presidency as a ghastly mistake caused by this force or that, impacting on dim-witted deplorables who ultimately had no agency because, well, Putin, or Racism, or The Power of The Telly.

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Could it not be the case that Donald Trump was elected because, well, folks just thought it was time for a change? And the drivers of that thinking was not television, but rather a skewed elite culture that had made these people feel small. Not television, but an economy that was shackled by regulations that many felt were onerous. Not television, but an utter and perfectly reasonable disgust at a Democratic candidate who appeared to regard large numbers of her fellow citizens as pond life. Not television, in other words, but reality?

They just made a choice. It wasn’t controlled by their TVs, it was controlled by them. After all, they had made pretty much the opposite choice only four years earlier — also in the post 9/11 age and also in the age of reality TV. So they changed their minds. They elected a man widely regarded as a corrupt racist because they fancied giving him a go. Maybe we all just have to get over it.

False consciousness is the last refuge of the befuddled intellectual. I am not suggesting it is always foolish or wrong. Plainly (as Hannah Arendt did indeed point out), societies can go awry in the most ghastly ways and mobs can believe any old nonsense with horrifying ease. But all the Trump voters I have met have been pretty capable of seeing through him, and all politicians. The danger, it seems to me, is that we overcomplicated Trump, and overcomplicate politics.

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“On one level, the level of gut and story and memory,” Poniewozik tells us, “politics is an ongoing battle of cultural criticism. Beyond politics and laws, it’s an argument over what our canon is and how to read it.”

Well, ok bro. That might be the case in Manhattan. Seems to me if you want to dump Trump, you want to get a Democratic candidate with charm, a decent set of policies and a believable schtick about what they want to do and bingo! It’s really not that complicated.

The Trump presidency is currently doing a passable impression of one of those shocking videos you sometimes see of helicopter crashes, a shaky picture of wild rotation while the muffled voices of onlookers in the background can just be heard – “oh God, Oh no!” As it plummets downwards, the need for focus among its critics seems to me to be never more vital.

Did he commit an impeachable offence? Have taxes for most people gone up or down? Is healthcare better or worse? Is North Korea a reduced threat or not?

Boring, eh? But overcomplicating Trump is a condition of our times. It creates employment for authors but fine words and fancy theories butter no parsnips when it comes to understanding The Donald. Someone should write a book about that

 

Audience of One: Donald Trump, television and the fracturing of America will be released in the UK on 8th October 2019.