The following is an excerpt from Heather Gautney’s latest book, The New Power Elite (Oxford University Press, 2022) released last week. Gautney, a renowned sociologist and Fordham professer who worked on both the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns of Sen. Bernie Sanders, offers a critical analysis of the key wielders of government, corporate, and cultural power across politics, business, the media industry, and within the military to expose how the elites continue to dominate at the expense of working people and democracy.
As America’s celebrity president gathered his cabinet for its first official meeting of 2018, he sat in a leather chair at the center of a long mahogany table and quipped to the press, “Welcome back to the studio. It’s nice to have you.” It was an obvious reference to the boardroom scene in the president’s reality TV show The Apprentice in which contestants sat before him to be judged at a similar kind of table, with Trump seated in a leather chair—oversized, to emphasize his authority.
As president-elect, Trump told his aides to consider each day of their administration as an episode of a TV show in which he “vanquishes rivals.” That debased, throw-down manner marked his long, storied career from Atlantic City casinos, to Miss Universe and WrestleMania, to golf resorts and New York City skyscrapers and the for-profit Trump University—an all-around showman of the P. T. Barnum “a sucker is born every minute” variety.
The Apprentice was crucial to Trump’s political success. It was a vehicle for rescuing his brand from a series of business failures; and it was the means through which he presented himself, on a mass scale, as an executive and dealmaker-in-chief.
Trump’s aim to cast himself as an American success story was apparent in the show’s title sequence, which featured a montage of him, steely faced, ascending into a Trump-branded private jet, juxtaposed with a gratuitous shot of a homeless man sleeping on a bench, and a glistening Statue of Liberty: “I fought back and won—big league,” he boasted. “I used my brain. I used my negotiating skills.” The Apprentice brought Trump into people’s homes and helped make him electable by rendering him as both familiar and exceptional. He parlayed that primetime celebrity into political power by playing up his Washington outsider status and using the techniques of shock jocks and insult comedy to captivate audiences and lure ratings-hungry media.
In many ways, Trump was a caricature of what the presidency had already become. By the 1970s, it was widely accepted that major political figures would be part of the world of show business, and that mass media and show business would be part of politics. FDR used the fireside chat. Eisenhower went on the Ed Sullivan Show with Abbott and Costello. JFK was the first major political candidate to be interviewed on late-night TV. Nixon met with Elvis at the White House and quipped, “Sock it to me?” on Laugh-In. Ford and Kissinger appeared on Dynasty. Reagan was a famous actor and president of the Screen Actors Guild of America. Carter quoted Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan and sat for an interview with Playboy. Bill Clinton was a playboy who slalomed in and out of tabloid sex scandals and donned shades while playing sax on The Arsenio Hall Show.
Then there was Obama, poised and photogenic, who crooned Al Green, “slow-jammed the news” with Jimmy Fallon, and inspired audiences with his high school graduation–style speeches. When Obama appeared before over a million people in Berlin as a presidential candidate, his opponent, Senator John McCain released an attack ad called “Celeb” likening him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton: “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world. But is he ready to lead?”
Trump’s presidency marked a departure from that of his predecessors, however, who all used pop culture to achieve political ends but nonetheless employed legal-rational means of governing and the tools of law and bureaucracy. In contrast, Trump was a purely charismatic leader who used the tools of celebrity to govern, and who exploited government to expand his celebrity. His was a distinctly anti-institutional form of authority that de- rived its legitimacy from emotions rather than norms and laws.
According to German sociologist Max Weber, charismatic leaders tend to gain traction when rational forms of government and institutions fail, when people lose faith in the establishment, and desire escape from the dehumanizing and alienating effects of bureaucratic life. Unlike kings, who draw power from legacy and tradition, or heads of state, whose authority is vested in their role in a legal-rational order, a charismatic leader’s power is rooted in his or her followers’ belief and desires for transcendence. When the leader’s allure fades or their rebellion is routinized, the basis of their authority breaks down.
Trump exploited every opportunity to play to his supporters’ emotions, desire to be entertained, and distrust of the establishment. His many critics tried to discredit him for his lack of expertise, flagrant disrespect for presidential norms, and practice of embellishing wins and distracting from losses. But they consistently failed to undermine his appeal and delegitimize his power, perhaps because his supporters held him to a different set of standards that corresponded with how they had come to know him, through The Apprentice. After all, reality TV audiences know that the shows are staged, and that cast members are performing images of their authentic selves, but they tune in and take pleasure in it anyway.
In this regard, Trump’s presidency exposed some inconvenient truths about American capitalism and the culture industries that operate on its behalf. Among them is the fact that large swaths of the U.S. electorate preferred their corrupt and undemocratic government in the form of a bombastic showman, rather than shrouded in technocracy and legalism. It also revealed that masses of people are willing to accept affective stimulation as a substitute for actual political power. And it is a grim reminder of the compatibility between neoliberalism, celebrity, and autocracy that was made apparent during the first neoliberal experiments in Pinochet’s Chile.
Critical theorists of the postwar era grappled with similar dynamics in studying the role of celebrity, entertainment, and emotion in fascist propaganda. Nazi propagandists used radio and film to forge the Nazis’ pathway to power, lacing musical entertainment with political rhetoric, and staging mass rallies starring Hitler, an international celebrity.
According to German philosopher Theodor Adorno, fascist propagandists used mechanical rhythms and repetition to displace critical thought and, through film and spectacular public demonstrations, exploited the magnetism of the pack to foster surrender to both dictator and nation (which were one and the same). In the patterning of fascist propaganda, such surrender was of a libidinal nature, involving the excitement of release and a sense of belonging.
Followers viewed the dictator as a father figure with total authority over the family (the nation), but also as one of them—relating to his expressions of vulnerability and victimhood, but also venerating him as a symbol of national strength. In him, and him alone, was the resolution of their yearning to escape the repressive routines and civilizing processes of modern
The parallels between Trump’s celebrity presidency and the patterning of fascist propaganda are plain to see: the relentless repetition and disinformation, the scapegoating of the Other, the strongman identity and victimhood, and the equating of his executive leadership with the greatness of the nation. Those are in addition to his arbitrary application of law, disdain for rules and bureaucracy, and substituting of mass entertainment for political power.
Trump was not driven by allegiance to a coherent ideology like some of those in his administration. But his grandiosity, love for chaos, and penchant for tabloid-inspired emotion over fact, recalled history’s greatest autocrats—many of whom were also charismatic showmen guided by profits, image, power, and the old P. T. Barnum adage that “The bigger the humbug, the better people will like it.”
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