First, children in cages, now Greenland: Donald Trump keeps escalating matters until we can no longer cope with the sheer volume of monstrosities, and the temperate treatment by the media adds to the confusion.
Oh, this Trump. Now he wants to buy Greenland, how absurd. He even cancels a meeting with the Danish prime minister because she doesn’t want to negotiate. Inconceivable! The U.S. president has been in office for 2 1/2 years, and both editorial media and the social media have yet to find a response to Donald Trump’s strategy of continually escalating matters.
We all keep falling into the trap again and again: politics, the media and you, the public. And me, too. And it’s supposed to be my job to understand the digital present, to identify and explain patterns. Trump’s conduct shows how easily the public of liberal democracies can be manipulated—and not only by him.
Personally, I can understand the impact of the Greenland stunt. I was actually still in the process of understanding another Trumpian outrage. Last week, the Trump administration was defeated in court because it argued in all seriousness that migrant children did not need soap or a clean bed. Soap! Beds! Then came the Greenland episode, and my trepidation and horror over the fascist, racist, completely inhumane treatment of children yielded to another sentiment. I tried to trace the source of this displacement.
The Spectacle Pierces the Evil
Trump’s Greenland action elicited an irritation in me that consisted of two essential components: on the one hand, I was validated in my judgement that Trump seems to have a serious mental disorder. On the other hand, I felt – yes, I did – amused by the absurdity. The part of my brain that’s responsible for analyzing world events was downright relieved. Because a monstrosity that left me feeling enraged but helpless was replaced by an easily processed antic. It couldn’t have gone better for Trump in my mind.
Unfortunately, I’ve realized that I can hardly process more than one of Trump’s eruptions at a time. By now, I can hardly remember off the top of my head any of Trump’s worst offenses. Two, maybe three. I do know that I have thought at least three dozen times since late 2016, “Good Lord!” But what I do remember is the spectacle.
The spectacle pierces the evil. It’s no news that Trump has let loose a hailstorm of monstrosities in which individual, significant monstrosities dissipate among the crowd. It’s a tried and true communication strategy of right-wing extremists to keep escalating matters until the sheer quantity of atrocities can’t be handled. But it’s still too difficult for me to prioritize them.
Is that a catastrophic lie or a mistaken expression? Is that an inhumane act or just a symbolically problematic act? Is that a provocation that is supposed to provoke rage or just another step toward barbarism?
The Model of Political Suppression PR
Unfortunately, I’m not the only one feeling like this. I see similar dismissals in the editorial media, not to mention in social media. In this hyperconnected world’s continuous stream of news, it’s extremely taxing to rationally differentiate between what’s important and what’s interesting. Fun is like medicine, and Greenland is the topic of conversation everywhere, front and center in the newspaper. It’s an easily recognizable model of political suppression public relations, a new form of so-called agenda cutting, regardless of whether Trump is serious or is really mentally sound or not.
This propaganda of distraction is highly effective given Trump’s great readiness to lie, on the one hand, and the tendency of the media to mitigate his actions on the other. The world of elite media highly valued objectification and playing down of events in the latter half of the 20th century. The daily news does not report that “a bomb lacerated and maimed the bodies of 30 children,” but rather that “a car bomb exploded this morning in front of a kindergarten. Officials estimate that the victims number more than 20.” You can discuss the pros and cons of such playing down of events in the media—but for a 21st century public that is so strongly influenced by social media, it drifts easily into the realm of trivialization.
When One Is in Shock, the Question of Why Retreats to the Background
Under the Trump administration, small children have been separated from their parents and locked in cages under horrifying conditions. These measures originated with a man named Stephen Miller, described by many in the media (including Spiegel Online) as “ultra-conservative.” According to the introduction to one article, Miller is “a hardline conservative for whom apparently only white America matters.”* Racist. The painfully absent word is racist. An example of how the news media’s 20th century practices of playing down the news continue to operate and bear fruit that ranges from strange to problematic.
In essence, spectacular but unimportant news interferes with monstrous, but cautiously formulated news. And I, too, fall into this trap time and again. Sometimes because I want to, to shake off that which I can’t grapple with by superimposing Trump’s newest monstrosities upon it.
The longstanding state of global affairs and the continuous bombardment of news has the effect of automatically making context less important. The essential, but often difficult to answer question of “why” retreats to the background. That leads to compartmentalization of news events and a feeling of being overwhelmed, even for active, expert, digitally well-versed observers.
Media scholar Bernhard Pörksen writes in his book “The Great Irritation” about the “simple law of decontextualization.” He sees a “shock of the immediate present, the complete presence of the event.” Apparently, when in shock, we forget all too easily to ask about background.
On the Role of the Public
But Trump is not the only one who can manipulatively hack both editorial and social media. Two American, Democratic congresswomen also proved that they know how to do so. Trump had demanded that Israel deny entry to the two Democrats. And, in fact, Israel prevented them from entering the country, because the congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which, in my opinion, is a clearly anti-Israel, anti-Semitic movement.
We can disagree over how strategically clever this move by the Israeli government was. But in conjunction with the anti-Israel bias of many Western media, its decontextualization led to Tlaib and Omar being able to present the entry ban as an unusual and inconceivable act, across social and editorial media outlets.
The EU, for instance, enacted an entry ban in 2014 for 150 people, including many representatives of the Russian Duma. The list was set to be expanded again in February 2019. Denying entry to political representatives may not be a nice kind of sanction, but it isn’t unusual. Yet Tlaib and Omar falsely implied that they were denied entry due to their Muslim faith.
In a way, the two Democrats beat Trump at his own game of manipulation, even if only in the very internationally accessible field of Israel-bashing. Only idiots would consider that a positive development, even if one disregards one’s position on Israel-related issues. Because the liberal democratic public must provide a role for political dialogue between elections, as well as a corrective presence through sustained public outrage.
Countering right-wing manipulation of the sort pursued by Trump with (supposedly) left-wing manipulation of the sort pursued by Tlaib and Omar is like fighting the plague by deliberately spreading a cholera epidemic. We are losing the fight for our minds.
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, neither this quoted remark nor its source could be independently verified.