Media studies can sometimes be the annex of the most self-aggrandising nonsense, particularly when one enters the realm of post-structuralism of the most incoherent sort, when it is not coming from the place that was occupied by Sergei Eisenstein or Chomsky and Herman. Yet at the same time I think now the time is ripe for a media analysis of the spectacle that has been the 2015-16 US electoral extravaganza.
Eisenstein formulated in both his writings and films the theory of montage, of which he wrote:
The foundation for this philosophy is a dynamic concept of things: Being as a constant evolution from the interaction of two contradictory opposites; and synthesis arising from the opposition between thesis and antithesis.
His efforts were an attempt to visualise the dialectic and its progression in nature as a phenomenon that defines history. This was well before Stalin basically scuttled the Russian dialectical project for a generation and turned it into a mechanical Manichean vision of the world that would embarrass a grade schooler.
And so we are presented with two figures, Trump and Clinton. My effort here is not to critique their respective policies, mostly because that is a banal chore, as much as present them as signs in a linguistic sense. One embodies a nativist revolt against neoliberal economics and resulting identity politics. The other embodies those two antagonizing forces.
Bill Clinton, who is certainly savvy of the media as an engine of electioneering, knew exactly what he was doing when he called Donald Trump up in spring 2015 to tell him he might have a shot as a political candidate. Clinton knew that the public had as much interest in his wife as a chance for staph infection. Try as they might since 2012, they never were able to tap into a public interest in the idea of President Hillary. The book tours were stilted, boring affairs that would make Tolstoy complain about the length.
A lifelong union man and Vietnam vet friend of mine put it best, “It’s her election to lose and she is doing a phenomenal job of it.” Hell, an ornery New Deal-Great Society Pentagon Keynesian with a harsh Brooklyn accent and all the style of Statler and Waldorf on The Muppet Show nearly wiped the floor of the electoral stage with her upholstered behind! This was National Lampoon’s Presidential Campaign from the start.
The only thing worse than a Clinton would be a Donald Trump, a raving lunatic whose chauvinist remarks to the media over the previous eight years were only challenged in vulgarity and depravity by the three decades prior when his audience was limited to that cesspool of white animus aimed at people of color that walks around his self-branded tower in Manhattan, itself a gold-plated, ribbed-for-her-pleasure phallus that a Bond villain would call gaudy.
Who could have dreamed this up? Our media, that’s who!
There have been madman millionaires who made bizarre bids at the executive office before. Ross Perot was crazy enough to buy an infomercial to explain the economy in the final days before PowerPoint (a little slice of ’90s late night nostalgia that is still great fun to watch despite Perot’s own flaws) but I also seem to recall talk of Ted Turner throwing his hat in the ring every once in a while. But unless these rich boys like Steve Forbes, Mitt Romney, or any of the Kennedys were mainstream party players, guys who could be trusted to do the bidding of the elites, they were made into sideshow spectacles and quickly forgotten.
But here, with Trump, the media, who know how powerful they are, broke their own rules. They gave airtime to Donald’s nauseating verbal flatulence. They gave serious coverage to xenophobia, Islamophobia, nativism, and other obscenities that had, up until 2015, been the territory of Fox News alone.
If you go back over the last eight Obama years, Trump would pop up once in a while with his ridiculous Obama birth certificate conspiracy theories and be relegated to the same space in the newscast given the local puppy dog salesman, right in between weather and sports. In more concrete terms, as a sign he functioned as a target of ridicule, programmed into a section of broadcasting that is reserved for jokes and public service announcements.
Why did the media break such a basic rule and allow for the violence that has broken out because of Trump? Was it because of a populist upsurge? Was it because it made good television?
Return to the propaganda model provided by Chomsky and Herman: How will this impact ownership? How will this impact our advertisers? How will this impact the willingness of our regular sources, such as the White House or 10 Downing Street, to provide us with information? What sort of ‘flak’, negative reactions, will we get from our consumers and particularly those consumers within the established power structure? Can the subject(s) of this story be presented in a fashion that would be broadly described as either anti-Communist or based on notions of fear so to preserve the credibility and unchallenged authority of the power structure?
The media has been the sole party that is responsible for both the hegemony of neoliberalism and the rise of Trump. Both are instances of how they serve their advertisers.
It was PBS in the 1970s that flooded the airwaves with the grammar of seemingly-sane neoliberalism while the advertisers took up the frontal action of extolling “markets” and their infinite wisdom. Simultaneously the US engaged in a new cold war, restarted by Carter after the detente policies of Nixon, so to thoroughly demonize not just “Communism” (though the Soviet system was everything but that by the end) but anything remotely akin to “central planning in the economy”.
Trump is a rear-guard assault, though it seems now with Mike Pence on the ticket Wall Street feels more comfortable. The media props him up in the way it propped up “terrorists” to justify the militarizing of the police and the shredding of the Bill of Rights and habeas corpus. He scares well-intentioned but still-racist white liberals into a self-aggrandizing pity party wherein they will say anything and everything about how we just must elect Hillary Clinton. They fail to recognize and accept that Clinton has been targeting the Social Security system for privatisation for decades.
The Democratic Party platform plank supporting Social Security seems as adamantine as wet toilet paper, capital wants that public resource on Wall Street and Obama himself has been making moves over the last eight years to actualize that plan.
Trump scares the sheep into the wolf’s den while Bernie Sanders barks at them should they go astray. And Trump is only able to do that with the aid and support of a corporate media that throws up a farcical wall of integrity and objectivity so to actualize it.
This is the synthesis of Trump and Clinton in the montage Eisenstein described. Both are pro-war, anti-Social Security, racist, misogynist, awful people. One and the same in almost every sense.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Clinton/Trump Neoliberalism: a Media Critique’.