Last weekend, a “Unite the Right” demonstration assembled what the Southern Poverty Law Center called “the largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades” in Charlottesville, Virginia. Thousands of torch-wielding white supremacists, Nazis, neo-Confederates, Ku Klux Klan members, and miscellaneous racists swarmed the University of Virginia, waving Confederate flags and shouting “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” The rally showcased how emboldened its participants felt to openly act on racist beliefs.
Shortly after a local emergency had been declared and minutes before Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe classified the scene as a state emergency, President Trump’s Facebook account heralded a news update, broadcast from Trump Tower. He had not yet commented on the havoc in Charlottesville. “Join Lara Trump as she brings you the latest news from the President’s week. #MAGA,” the Facebook post teased. It was the third installment of “Real News,” Trump’s new homemade weekly “news” broadcast, a minute-and-a-half-or-so roundup meant to hype the administration. Like the first two episodes, the segment featured an anchor — so far, the role has alternated between two telegenic avatars, with former CNN analyst Kayleigh McEnany appearing when Lara does not — praising Trump for alleged policy accomplishments in front of a chintzy backdrop, with an aesthetic reminiscent of Tomi Lahren’s short stint as a blond Facebook provocateur. In this edition, Trump’s daughter-in-law, a former entertainment news producer, gaily attributed the bullish Dow Jones Industrial Average to Trump. Charlottesville went unmentioned, and there was no follow-up bulletin when, according to police, a suspected white supremacist killed 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer.
The contrast between the “Real News” episode’s triumphant jubilation and the day’s grim events was galling, but it was not a mistake. Team Trump seemed to deliberately maintain the gulf. In the kickoff “Real News” segment on July 30, Lara Trump hyped the program as an antidote to “fake news,” parroting her father-in-law’s favorite epithet meant to discredit journalists. After the second episode, it drew immediate comparisons to the state television broadcasts of despots. “That was like state news crossed with a school announcement,” Seth Meyers joked. Huffington Post called it “full North Korea.” Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted that it was “eerily like so many state-owned channels I’ve watched in other countries.” While the comparisons are apt, they are also incomplete. It is important to note that President Trump’s discount-bin Ri Chun-hees are not a new divergence from mainstream media but a continuation of his long-standing habit of remixing established attention-grabbing practices for his own ends. While the aesthetics of “Real News” mimics the censorious broadcasts of foreign adversaries, its underlying mission and methods are a quintessentially Trumpian grifter pastiche.
“Real News” has a strong basis in the right wing’s interest in creating backdoor state media, to the point that it evokes Korean Central Television. In 2011, Gawker dug up a memo titled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News” in the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, revealing a pre–Fox News Roger Ailes plan for a television propaganda campaign for President Nixon. While the memo was unsigned and undated, Ailes hand-wrote comments and suggestions on the document, which suggested that the Nixon administration work to create a television network “to provide pro-Administration, videotape, hard news actualities to the major cities of the United States.”
“Basically an excellent idea,” Ailes wrote on the memo, although he noted that it wasn’t thinking big enough. “It should be expanded to include other members of the administration such as cabinet involved in activity with regional or local interest.” In the 1990s, the GOP produced its own television show, Rising Tide. “The Republican version of Entertainment Tonight looks just like a ‘real’ television program — except [then–RNC chair Haley Barbour and his subordinates] interview Republican politicians and activists and slant the news to reflect their party’s agenda,” Rolling Stone wrote in 1996. That same year, Ailes and Rupert Murdoch launched the Fox News Channel. Trump has a well-documented obsession with cable television news, specifically Fox News, and he eventually brought Ailes on as a campaign adviser after he was ousted at Fox. Although Ailes died earlier this year, “Real News” is an echo of his thinking, a hyperpartisan broadcast that cheerleads Trump’s agenda while obfuscating the repercussions of his incompetency. “Donald Trump beat Roger Ailes at his own game,” history and media studies professor David Greenberg wrote in a 2016 Politico piece on their relationship.
The game didn’t start with Ailes, though. “Our successful politicians have been those most adept at using the press and other means to create pseudo-events,” historian Daniel Boorstin wrote in his 1962 book The Image. “Knowing that newspapermen lived on news, he helped them manufacture it. And he knew enough about news-making techniques to help shape their stories to his own purposes.” Boorstin was talking about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but the description applies to every president since FDR in varying degrees. Boorstin coined the phrase “pseudo-event” to describe manufactured media spectacles, like press conferences and presidential debates, which he argued have distorted and debased both how the media reports on the world and how the public understands it, championing celebrity and well-knownness at the expense of evaluating actual achievement or merit. The Image traces the rise of presidential participation in and manipulation of the media, from President Polk sending the first wire-transmitted message to the media in 1846 until the televised debates between Kennedy and Nixon. While Boorstin was a cultural conservative with a tendency to lament the loss of the good ol’ days, his critique of the “pseudo-event” reads like a damning road map for Trump’s campaign (and arguably, his entire public life).
In his earlier years, Trump latched on to preexisting pseudo-events. The Forbes 400 list, for example, is a publication that describes itself as the “definitive list of wealth in America.” Trump muscled his way onto the Forbes 400 not by being rich but by insisting that he was rich. “Donald insisted on impossibly high figures for his net worth and then, in a faux fit of complaining, settled for an estimate that Forbes convinced itself was conservative — even though it was often wildly high anyway,” Timothy O’Brien wrote in a 2005 New York Times piece adapted from his book about Trump’s wealth.
Trump has cannily embraced a variety of methods to create pseudo-events to inflate his celebrity, from planting news stories to calling press conferences. He realized early on that he could glom onto the apparatuses of the entertainment and political worlds to build his reputation in business. Wayne Barrett’s 1992 book Trump: The Deals and the Downfall (updated and republished last year), a terrific pocket history of the president’s early days of P.T. Barnuming his way to fame, emphasizes that since the beginning of his public life, Trump has conceived of his image specifically through the entertainment-sports-world prism. “The venture that made Donald Trump a national figure wasn’t a real estate or casino project,” Barrett wrote, noting that Trump’s first newsmagazine profile was in Sports Illustrated, and that his entrance into the arena of full-fledged celebrity came when he got involved in professional sports. “Football became Donald’s way of achieving his ultimate objective — the mass marketing of the Trump name.” Trump never succeeded as a mogul in the United States Football League, but he used the high-profile climate of professional sports to enhance his reputation as a wheeler-dealer nonetheless. And when football didn’t work out, Trump turned to professional wrestling, starting a fruitful relationship with the WWE by hosting WrestleMania at Trump Plaza in 1988 and ’89. By 2007, he had become an ancillary character in the world of wrestling; at WrestleMania XXIII, he body-slammed and shaved the head of Vince McMahon.
Trump understood what Roland Barthes called “the spectacle of excess,” and he has reveled in it like a pig in shit. “The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees,” Barthes wrote in 1972’s Mythologies. For Trump, politics was professional wrestling. It was all professional wrestling. This eventually extended to his presidential campaigning style, as Jeremy Gordon pointed out in The New York Times Magazine last year. “There was even a heelish consistency to [Trump’s] style at early debates, when he actively courted conflict with the moderator, Megyn Kelly, and occasionally paused to let the crowds boo him before shouting back over them,” Gordon wrote.
“Say what you will about him, he really understood the media. He really understood how to float a story, how to deny a story, how to attack his enemies, how to get even. It was sort of stunning. Some people who probably have higher IQs don’t hold a candle to him in terms of understanding the power of the media and the power of image, and of getting your message out there, despite what the reality is,” Jeannette Walls, who wrote New York magazine’s Intelligencer column in the late ’80s and early ’90s, recalled recently during an interview with that magazine.
Trump is the first reality-television star to become president, and his success on NBC’s The Apprentice kept him in the public eye more than any of his frequently unsuccessful real estate deals. Although it was unlikely that Trump would’ve kept his hosting gig after winning the GOP candidacy, his hand was forced when NBC fired him in 2015 for making racist comments. (He had said of Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”)
The second “Real News” broadcast, although only 91 seconds long, manages to accuse immigrants of lowering American wages in that brief time. (The link between overall immigration and a general dip in wages is spurious and unsupported by evidence, and also plays directly into Trump’s nativist anti-immigration stance.) This fits a pattern. Trump has devised a speciality in creating pseudo-events that use racism and xenophobia to advance his position. Recall: In 1989, he spent $85,000 to place full-page advertisements in New York papers calling for the return of the death penalty in the midst of the furor surrounding the Central Park Five (to whom he never apologized for spearheading a campaign for their execution, even after they were exonerated). In 2000, he secretly bankrolled a series of bigoted advertisements showing drug paraphernalia. “The St. Regis Mohawk Indian record of criminal activity is well documented,” the ads warned. They were an effort to use racist fear-mongering to turn people in the Catskills against a competing casino.
Trump fashioned himself into a populist politician by using media interviews to amplify a manufactured narrative that President Obama was not born in the United States. Trump’s ascent into the mainstream political arena was the direct result of this xenophobic mission, in which he was given a national platform to argue that a black man with a non-Western name could not possibly be a real American. Bringing the birther movement into the mainstream was one of Trump’s most cynical and successful pseudo-events.
“If the press were not fake and if it was honest,” Trump told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday, “the press would have said what I said was very nice.” Standing in the lobby of Trump Tower, the president was in the middle of a combative question-and-answer session, in which reporters asked why he had waited so long to condemn the white supremacist violence that killed Heather Heyer. When questioned further on his conduct, Trump defended “very fine people” who had marched with Unite the Right, and blamed violence on neo-Nazi and white supremacist protesters and anti-Nazi and anti-white supremacist protesters, whom he dubbed the “alt-left.”
Trump is an extremely unpopular president, and even an anchor for his beloved Fox News Channel has criticized his behavior regarding Charlottesville. Trump did build an empire by employing canny media manipulation skills; that these skills are failing him is slightly heartening. While Trump was able to win an election in part because of his skill as a showman, the pseudo-events he has staged regarding (and conspicuously not regarding) the racist violence in Charlottesville have showed how rotten his shtick has become. While the defensiveness and proclivity to side with racists was not new, the clumsiness was.
Trump’s original pseudo-events were grounded in the narcissistic desire to be a celebrity. Along the way, he picked up a tendency to lean on racist tactics and the support of bigots to accomplish his ends. As he becomes more paranoid and defensive, he is also becoming more baldly in thrall to his darkest impulses. Unlike his time in the private business world, where Trump learned to compensate for his foibles through his showmanship, he cannot hide his ineptitude in the White House. “The politics of resentment served to catapult Trump into the White House, but they can carry him only so far as his minimal practical comprehension of his job will allow,” my colleague Justin Charity wrote last week.
Trump is not a mastermind or a skilled political operative, his ignorance is a national disgrace, and his talent for pageantry has always appeared more intuitive than analytical. “In appearing to make it up as he went along, his calculations and fabrications seemed authentic, even when they consisted of easily debunked lies. It feels less like a lie when you’re in on it,” Nathan Jurgenson wrote in 2016, shortly before the election, in an essay for Real Life magazine. Jurgenson captured Trump’s huckster intelligence, his ability to spin celebrity from contrivances and cons.
And yet Trump’s brand of ringmaster prowess appears to be waning. Instead of embracing the trappings of presidential communications, Trump has chafed against them, leaning into his heel role without realizing that the stakes have changed. He did not hold a press conference from July until January, breaking with presidential tradition; when he has held them, they have almost uniformly gone poorly, even prior to the Charlottesville charade. (In February, for instance, the usually aggressively milquetoast USA Today declared a Trump presser “angry” and a “spectacle for the ages.”) “Real News” is supposed to be an antidote to these criticisms; instead it’s only serving to highlight them.
The only solace I take from watching the “Real News” segments is the fact that they are the culmination of Trump’s obsessive, narcissistic quest to turn pomp into substance, and yet they do resemble the berserk, isolated broadcasts of hermetic, failing regimes. This is where he is now: The gilded boy-king of New York real estate, once capable of spinning scandal into cultural currency, now sputtering defenses of white supremacists in person and hyping claptrap propaganda infomercials on Facebook.