Fascism is a box office smash. Over the past five years, as Donald Trump oversaw the systematic torture of children, sabotaged a pandemic response causing hundreds of thousands of people to die, and encouraged a violent overthrow of the democratic electoral process, multinational corporations were able to fill up their champagne flutes and declare, “Happy days are here again!”
The payday celebrations which marked the Trump presidency are a feature of the national character, as Alexis de Tocqueville remarked two centuries ago, “As one digs deeper into the national character of Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: ‘How much money will it bring in?’”
No matter the danger Trump posed to the lives of millions of people, how he summoned the worst instincts of the extremist American right, or laughed as the planet raced toward catastrophic levels of heating, he made massive amounts of money for the right people. The beneficiaries extend far beyond the obvious corporate boards, CEOs, and shareholders whose profits soared during Trump’s White House term of chaos and disaster. Demonstrating Wall Street’s fatal detachment from human life, the Dow Jones skyrocketed even as millions of people suffered unemployment, bankruptcy, and hunger as secondary effects of Covid-19.
The bizarro world contrast of markets curving upward, while lines of cars at food banks stretched for miles illustrated one of the many consequences of extreme inequality; a condition of a society where the wealthiest ten percent own 84 percent of stock.
Among this group are the major players of the mainstream media. Trump’s sociopathy produced heretofore unseen levels of commentary and media indignation, but there was an elephant in the greenroom all along: the profit that accompanies high ratings and circulation. Major media companies in television, print journalism, radio, and publishing are contributors and profiteers in the same system that created Trump, and created space for his tornadic path of destruction.
With a professional wrestler’s sense of combative showmanship, Trump and even a few key figures within the media acknowledged their symbiotic relationship. Former CBS chairman, Les Moonves, said in 2016, “Trump’s success may not be good for America, but it is damn good for CBS.” Jonathan Klein, the former president of CNN, recently lamented the “boring situation” of Joe Biden’s presidency, explaining that media companies will find it difficult to entice viewers “without an antagonist.” Forbes and media trade journals reported how various major media corporations were “mulling” the end of the “Trump bump bonanza.”
Given his narcissistic addiction to receiving press, Trump was fond of consistently taunting his foils in journalism with boasts of how he was responsible for their publications and networks earning the highest subscription increases and ratings in their respective histories.
Bestselling books from the big publishers focusing on all aspects of Trump’s villainy made it seems as if the subtitle phrase “in the age of Trump” was a legal requirement. One began to expect literary explorations of “Dieting in the Age of Trump” and “Exercise in the Age of Trump.”
Aside from a few successful singular protest events, there was never a mass movement in the streets to oppose the Trump presidency and the worst of its policies. Nevertheless millions of people became consumers of protest products – books, documentaries, television programs, fictionalized depictions of Trump, and digital news subscriptions – driven by their aversion to all Trump represented. It is important to consider not only why fascism sells so well, particularly in the United States – a place that Wall Street Journal reporter Joel Millman posited is “not a nation, but a market.” – but also how resistance to the Trump message was so easily marketised with it.
Rare in all the analysis of Trump is there an acknowledgement that he was uniquely positioned to take advantage of the debasement of national politics according to market methods and standards. His familiarity with tabloid culture, mass marketing techniques, “branding,” and reality television enabled him to act as the culmination of “infotainment” – that is, treating and presenting the news as entertainment – and the packaging of politicians as products.
Various right wing forces groomed Ronald Reagan for political life after correctly identifying many qualities of appearance and personality that could lead to the B-actor’s electoral triumph. When another actor-turned-politician, Fred Thompson, ran for president in 2008, he was made to answer for embarrassing reports that after flying into town on his private jet, he would have a limousine drive him to a parking lot a few blocks down the road from his rally location. There he would don a cowboy hat and work jacket, and start the engine on a waiting pickup truck, which he would then use to make his grand entrance. He originally performed this trick during his 1994 Senate campaign. It’s naive to assume that this performance duped many, even among his supporters, but its professional levels of spectacle gave Thompson what every politician in the USA needs even above voters: an audience. The crude mechanisms of mass marketing allow that audience to purchase a candidate like they would an item at the shopping mall, even if they realize, on some level, that the marketing is deceptive. Hence, Donald Trump, leaving his golden penthouse on his private plane to sell himself as an anti-elitist, man of the people to a ravenous crowd.
Far from merely a Republican issue, the marketing of Barack Obama represented such a zenith of political product advancement that the campaign won two prestigious advertisement awards, one of which called the campaign, “Marketer of the Year.” The press dutifully cooperates with the market heuristic by providing closer analysis of the candidates’ respective charisma, or lack thereof, personality traits, and “background” than of their policy proposals, accomplishments in public service, or influential relationships with donors, lobbying firms, and industry representatives.
Neil Postman famously and presciently lamented the rise of an entertainment ethos as supreme in American life with his polemic, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. The title alone offers a sad preview of the Trump administration. While thousands died every day from a pandemic, Trump remained the source of amusement for many Americans, at least judging by the popularity of parodies and jokes on Saturday Night Live, late night talk shows, and viral social media videos. Critical to keeping the ratings high, the royalty checks in the mail, and the laughter at high volume was avoidance of the term that best described much of Trump’s behavior: “fascism.”
Fascist behavior from a buffoon, as long as it isn’t correctly labeled, is a ratings success. erious and sustained analysis of one of the risk of one of the world’s oldest democracies becoming a nominally democratic but functionally autocratic state in the style of Poland or Hungary appears not to interest most of the public, or appease the advertisers who keep the cameras rolling in the studios of cable news.
In addition to Trump’s obvious idiosyncrasies, the capitalistic reconfiguration of politics in national life allowed for the marketing of the former president, and the enhancement of profits for everyone from literary agents to cable news hosts. Considering that presidential elections occupy the center of politics, and that presidential candidates meet the American people in the same fashion as a product line off the corporate shelf, it is only predictable that the voters would enact their “purchasing power” in response to a presidency gone criminal, fascistic, and homicidally negligent.
Voters might very well see themselves as purchasing a product, or making an investment, when they exercise the franchise. Like window shoppers at the mall, if dissatisfied with their previous transaction, they will begin to browse a different store, signaling that they are in the market for different commodities.
As Sven-Eric Liedman explains in his biographical analysis of Karl Marx, A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx, “In the exchange of commodities, people exist for each other only as representatives of the commodity. They are nothing more than ‘the personifications of the economic relations that exist between them.’”
Trump, or any presidential candidate for that matter, represents a brand. No longer even a conduit for ideas, candidates are the personifications of product lines as substitute for real politics. “Make America Great Again” makes about as much sense as “I’m Loving it!” or “Just Do it!” but it also attracts or repels the same consumer response.
Conversely, the voter as consumer feels no investment in actual policies, no matter how urgent and dire their consequences. The steady demolition of faith in democracy among average citizens means that an increasingly apathetic mass of Americans will feel that decisions of governance might as well transpire on another planet.
While brash American nationalism sells when packaged in the familiar clown figure of The Donald, it is not always a hot ticket as a theme for mass media. We can compare the surfeit of entertainment products manufactured to mark the ascendancy of 45 with another moment of cultural reflection in America during and immediately following the Iraq War. Similar to the refusal to “market” Trump as a fascist, because that involves policy and should provoke strategic activism, the same major media companies that laughed all the way to the bank during the Trump years could not successfully market the Iraq War. Yet nearly every movie about the criminal invasion of Iraq failed to turn a profit, leading a writer at the American Prospect to ask, “Why are Iraq War Movies Box-Office Flops?” Film scholar Martin Barker went as far as to call Iraq War films a “Toxic Genre” in his book of the same name.
The heavy metal band Megadeth once asked in song, “Peace sells but who’s buying?” Reese Witherspoon, Sean Penn, and other Hollywood A-listers learned that the answer is almost no one. With only a tiny minority of American families having any connection to active military personnel, and the obfuscation of the war with conflicting geopolitical theories, even many who disapproved of American foreign policy could detach themselves from its disastrous effects. This is to say nothing of the jingoism, Islamophobia, and provincialism that would later make Clint Eastwood’s paean to the late sniper, Christopher Kyle, a runaway hit.
It is a smart bet that the inevitable movies about Covid-19, climate change, or the January 6th coup attempt, especially if overtly political, will lead to significant losses for studios and streaming services.
That leaves us with the sad reality that, in the absence of a political figure who manages to make catastrophe entertaining for late night comedians and their audiences, pop culture is unlikely to activate much political interest in the public.
“Amusing ourselves to death” and “laughing all the way to the bank” are two ways of describing the same modern calamity.
David Masciotra is the author of five books, including I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters (I.B. Tauris, 2020). He writes regularly for Salon and No Depression.