Shortly before his supporters stormed the Capitol, interrupting the official congressional tally of the Electoral College votes, President Donald Trump gave a speech at the “Save America” rally. He promised his supporters that he would provide them with “evidence proving that we won this election” and, thus armed, that together they would march down to the Capitol and demand that only “legal votes” were counted.
“You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” Mr. Trump explained, “you have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”
Mr. Trump didn’t have any actual proof of election fraud — at least not any that would stand up in a court of law. Mr. Trump instead offered his supporters conspiracy, urging them to action against their shared enemies.
Such rhetoric was not new or unusual for our outgoing president. To the contrary, this approach is at the heart of his political career, the most telling moment of which occurred almost exactly four years before the mayhem of his final week in office.
On Jan. 11, 2017 — nine days before his inauguration, and five days after the U.S. government released a report accusing Russia of attempting to “influence” the 2016 election in his favor — Mr. Trump held his first news conference as president-elect. Surrounded by an audience of family and employees who provided a laugh-track for his performance, the president-elect stood next to a table overladen with manila folders and assured the nation that he had separated himself from his business empire: “These papers are just some of the many documents that I’ve signed, turning over complete and total control to my sons.”
Mr. Trump promised that the papers proved that he and his businesses wouldn’t profit off the presidency, but when reporters asked to examine the evidence, the folders and papers appeared blank. Not for the first time nor the last, Mr. Trump had offered props instead of proof.
Such theatrics are baffling to scholars of serious presidential rhetoric, who expect presidents to provide credible evidence to support their claims. But Mr. Trump makes more sense when you think of him not as president, but as demagogue. Mr. Trump is a new kind of demagogue — part entertainer and part authoritarian, he is a demagogue of the spectacle.
French critical theorist Guy Debord coined the phrase “society of the spectacle” in 1967, using the term “spectacle” to denote a moment in history when representation had replaced direct experience as our epistemology — as our way of knowing. Earlier in the 20th century, he explained, we knew things because we experienced them directly (and one’s sphere of information and influence was necessarily very small). But by the second half of the 20th century, we had expanded our sphere of information to such an extent that we knew things only because we learned about them from media sources — most, if not all, of our knowledge had become mediated by others.
What was worse, to Debord, was that this new knowledge was commodified. It was a part of the capitalist system of production and distribution, which meant that it was always only partial knowledge. What was “true” was limited to what would sell.
This is the essence of Mr. Trump’s epistemology: “Truth” is merely what he can sell.
If we put Mr. Trump’s demagoguery into a spectacle frame, we ask different questions than if we judge him based on whether he is a good president, offering good arguments and solid proof for his positions or doing what’s best for the country and its people. As a spectacular demagogue, Mr. Trump uses strategies that he thinks will make great or compelling TV and dominate the news cycle. He asks: What will attract attention? What will divide people into teams to cheer for (or boo against) the story’s main character, me? What kinds of plots will distract from other stories? Just like any other brand or app or electronic device, Mr. Trump has engineered his demagoguery to gain and keep our attention.
Like an authoritarian P.T. Barnum, a con man who used hyperbole to profit off of our curiosity, Mr. Trump has used stagecraft, suspense, and outrage to keep us all engaged and on tilt, and thus to dominate our public sphere — no small feat in an attention economy like ours. Part of Trump’s success was that he dominated the conversation by saying things so outrageous that we could not look away and had to respond.
Voters ultimately held America’s authoritarian P.T. Barnum accountable by voting him out of office, denying him a second term. A record 81 million Americans voted for President-elect Joe Biden, but Trump is still trying to deny reality, still using his props to sell Americans on his version of “truth.”
Jennifer Mercieca is an associate professor in the department of communication at Texas A&M University. This essay was adapted for Zocalo Public Square from “Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump.”