Christian Fuchs’ new study “Donald Trump: A Critical Theory- and Political Economy-Perspective on Economic Power, State Power and Ideological Power in the Age of Authoritarian Capitalism” analyses economic, political and ideological dimensions of Donald Trump’s power. The study is based on Frankfurt School critical theory and works by some of its representatives such as Theodor W. Adorno, Franz Neumann and Erich Fromm. The piece published here shows how aspects of Frankfurt School theory allow us to understand Trump’s Twitter populism.
Donald Trump won the US presidential election against all expectations. Hillary Clinton organised a big data campaign that did not succeed against Trump’s ideological campaign that focused on scapegoating, American nationalism, friend/enemy-logic, political anti-correctness, breaking taboos, and the mobilisation of emotions.
Twitter and Trump as Culture Industry
A first aspect of Frankfurt School critique is that it analyses how culture for the matter of profitability is turned into an industry and a show. In mid-January 2017, Trump had almost 20 million followers on Twitter. The number of his followers increased rapidly after he had won the election. Trump is not just a president, candidate and capitalist. Trump is a brand and a media spectacle that celebrates itself and thereby accumulates capital, power and followers. Trump is also an ideology – Trumpology. Trumpology is Trump-style ideology. It is not the ideology of a single person, but rather a whole way of thought and life that consists of elements such as hyper-individualism, leadership, the friend/enemy-scheme, and Social Darwinism, and the fetishism of hard labour. This became evident in the way Trump acted as host and chief eliminator in The Apprentice. As US President, Trump has become the chief-populist-Twitterer, the master of 140-character-politics. The acceleration, compression, superficiality, tabloidisation and one-dimensionality of politics and ideology have found a new point of culmination in Trump’s Twitterverse. Critical theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno wrote about traditional commercial mass media that “[c]ommunication makes people conform by isolating them”. In the world of Twitter and Trumpology, communication makes people conform by networking them as “friends”, “followers”, “likers” and “re-tweeters” of their leader.
A second aspect of Frankfurt School critique is the analysis of authoritarianism and the authoritarian personality. The leadership principle is an important element of authoritarianism. Theodor W. Adorno writes that an authoritarian leader “characteristically indulges in loquacious statements about himself”. Twitter’s structure supports me-centredness by its focus on individual profiles, postings and the accumulation of followers and re-tweets. Trump likes to present himself on Twitter as lone wolf who is a winner and does it all his way:
Trump’s populist, aggressive, attack-oriented, offensive, proletarian language and style make him appear as a great little man, who is on the top, but at the same time an ordinary person. The great little man is according to Adorno “a person who suggests both omnipotence and the idea that he is just one of the folks”. The leader often presents himself as a lone wolf fighting against political elites. This comes along with “aversion to the professional politician and perhaps to any kind of expertness”. Trump-style politics are “post-truth” politics, where not facts, themes and debate, but ideology, personalities and emotions matter. It turned out that the great little man Trump appointed many representatives of the billionaire class to his cabinet. That a billionaire turns president means a significant change in the relationship between the state and the economy. Big capital has more opportunities to rule directly. Promising to challenge the rule of the political elite, Trump installed the rule of yet another elite – the billionaire class.
Nationalism is another feature of authoritarianism. Trump argues that he will make “America great again”. He promises prosperity, wealth, and worldwide recognition to American citizens. By playing with nationalism, Trump detracts attention from the actual class differences within the United States. Twitter’s allows the use of pictures and images for visualising ideologies such as nationalism.
Online Liking of Friends, Online Hating of Enemies
Another feature of authoritarianism is that it makes use of the friend-enemy scheme. Authoritarianism has an extremely polarised relationship to the powerful and the weak. Critical theorist Erich Fromm says in this context: “To the one group all good characteristics are ascribed and they are loved, and to the other group all negative characteristics are ascribed and they are hated”. Critical theorist Franz L. Neumann argues that in authoritarianism, “[h]atred, resentment, dread, created by great upheavals, are concentrated on certain persons who are denounced as devilish conspirators”. In such situations, the “fear of social degradation […] creates for itself ‘a target for the discharge of the resentments arsing from damaged self-esteem’”.
Trump constructs out-groups such as illegal immigrants, Mexico, China, Muslims, oppositional politicians, and his critics. They are presented as threatening the greatness of the American nation. The speed and anonymity of social media allows the fast and global spread of rumours, fake news, stereotypes, and prejudices.
Data scientists conducted a quantitative analysis of Trump’s tweets. They found that Trump tends to use language that is negative and scapegoats: “But what’s truly distinctive is how he uses adjectives: He combines an adjective followed by someone’s name a stunning 10 times more than any other candidate. This is primarily because of his proclivity for using Twitter to launch personal attacks on specific individuals, like ‘lightweight’ Megyn Kelly, ‘little’ Marco Rubio, ‘low-energy’ Jeb Bush, ‘dopey’ Bill Kristol, etc. […] Trump is also distinctive in his use of pronouns (‘I,’ ‘you,’ ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘we,’ ‘us,’ etc.). Trump uses pronouns in a very different way than the other candidates. ‘I’ and ‘me’ (as well as Trump’s own name) are used much more than other candidates. While @realDonaldTrump’s use of ‘we’ is within the range of other candidates’, Trump hardly uses the pronoun ‘us’ – a bit surprising for a presidential candidate who is expected to lead America to a ‘great’ shared future”.
Trump’s Twitter-politics is a politics of 140 characters that consists of a world polarised into friends and enemies. Via Twitter, Trump broadcasts news about how his personal friend/enemy-scheme evolves. There are two sides: The side of the friends, whom he characterises as great, impressive, nice, successful, and talented. And the side of the enemies, whom he characterises as bad, biased, failing, inaccurate, dishonest, nasty, not nice, one-sided, overrated, poor, rude, sad, terrible, untalented, or wrong. Trump’s politics is a world of polar opposites, in which representatives of the two sides have completely opposed characteristics.
Militarism and Patriarchy
Patriarchy plays a peculiar role in authoritarianism. The male warrior, who fights and does not show emotions, is presented as the ideal human being that should be imitated. According to Adorno, in authoritarianism the “model of the military officer” is “transferred to the realm of politics”:
For Trump, Twitter is a symbolic and communicative battlefield. Trump calls social media his “method of fighting back”: “It’s a great form of communication. […] I think I picked up yesterday 100,000 people. I’m not saying I love it, but it does get the word out. When you give me a bad story or when you give me an inaccurate story or when somebody other than you and another network, or whatever, ‘cause of course, CBS would never do a thing like that right? I have a method of fighting back. That’s very tough. […] I really believe that the fact that I have such power in terms of numbers with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et cetera, I think it helped me win all of these races where they’re spending much more money than I spent”.
The other side of militarism in patriarchal ideology is the disrespect towards women.
Tweeting Emotions, Tweeting Ideology
Critical theorist Wilhelm Reich argued that authoritarian politicians are convinced that one cannot “get at the masses with arguments, proofs, and knowledge, but only with feelings and beliefs”. Twitter is a medium that supports politics that are based on feelings, beliefs and irrationality instead of arguments, proofs and knowledge. Donald Trump has made emotionally laden ideological Twitter politics a key element of his political strategy. He uses Twitter’s brevity of 140 characters for a politics that does not rely on arguments, but on negative emotions that he communicates and tries to stir among his followers. Twitter is the best-suited medium for the emotional and ideological politics of outrage, scapegoating, hatred, and attack because its ephemerality, brevity and speed support spectacles and sensationalism. It leaves no time and no space for substantial debates. The custom of liking and re-tweeting on Twitter appeals to Trump’s narcissistic side so that he enjoys his status as a celebrity, brand and political leader. Trump makes use of Twitter for broadcasting 140 character soundbites about what he likes and dislikes.
Diplomacy is a form of political communication that requires direct communication, listening, empathy, compromise and agreement. In a world in crisis, diplomacy is of tremendous importance in order to prevent new wars. Trump’s 140 character-“Twitter diplomacy” operates by offense, unpredictability, provocation, attack and disagreement. What lots of people fear is that Trump’s personality is too uncontrolled and too revengeful, which could be dangerous in a ticklish political situation. China’s Xinhua news agency, a mouthpiece of the Chinese government, commented that Trump’s “obsession with ‘Twitter diplomacy’ is undesirable”
Liberal Media = Trump’s Political-Economic Allies
The New York Times saw its paid subscriptions increasing by 132,000 during a three-week period in November 2016, a growth rate ten times higher than during the same period in 2015. The first television debate between Trump and Clinton reached a total of 84 million US viewers, the largest audience ever in sixty years of televised US presidential debates. In the world of the capitalist spectacle, the capitalist media need Trump just like Trump needs the media. The mainstream media helped making Trump both economically and politically.
The mainstream media’s Trump spectacle also continues after the election. It has now become common that they devote front pages and entire articles and reports to Trump tweets. Either they report what Trump tweets or in a Kafkaesque manner discuss whether it is good or not that the media report about Trump’s tweets. The point is that they give constant attention to Trump and provide free Trump brand propaganda. The continued attention for Trump is itself the message. Trump makes strategic use of the fact that he sells attention. Trump: “The cost of a full-page ad in the New York Times can be more than $100,000. But when they write a story about one of my deals, it doesn’t cost me a cent, and I get more important publicity. I have a mutually profitable two-way relationship with the media – we give each other what we need. And now I am using that relationship to talk about the future of America. […] These media types sell more magazines when my face is on the cover, or when I bring a bigger audience to their television show than they normally attract, and by far. And what’s funny is that it turns out the best way for them to get that attention is to criticize me”.
A truly critical strategy would be to provide no free promotion to Trump by ignoring him. To say nothing, report nothing, and comment on nothing that is right-wing populist in character has to be part of breaking the right-wing spectacle’s spell. According to a report, NBC, CBS and ABC gave 23.4 times more coverage to Trump than to Sanders. An alternative strategy also requires changing the balance of forces in media coverage.
Trump’s tweets are the ultimate expression of populist and ideological communication in a capitalism that is based on high velocity, high one-dimensionality and high superficiality. The only practical hope for political communication is the struggle for dialectical forms of political communication that provide space and time for reporting and debating the world’s complexity.
Christian Fuchs’ study “Donald Trump: A Critical Theory- and Political Economy-Perspective on Economic Power, State Power and Ideological Power in the Age of Authoritarian Capitalism” can be read here.