by Jean Stimmell
Trump has an uncanny ability to orchestrate pseudo events.
Any doubts I might have had were erased after talking to an acquaintance, a smart, honest, and successful trades-person. I had always found him confident and upbeat, but today he felt besieged: he explained he’d been on edge since the election but now was on high alert, after receiving a text, warning that a BLM [Black Lives Matter] gang was headed to New Hampshire, including his town, to loot and plunder. He said he was ready: “my whole family is “locked and loaded.”
Unfortunately, fantasy had been winning the battle against reality, long before Trump. I first became aware of this dangerous trend after reading The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, published in 1962 by the political historian Daniel Boorstin. Praising the book 54 years later, Atlantic Magazine said it had predicted the future “so neatly that it reads, in 2016, not just as prescience, but as prophesy.” 1
Boorstin defined a pseudo-event as an ambiguous truth that appeals to people’s desire to be informed. He argued that being in the media spotlight was a strong incentive for public figures to stage artificial events, which became real and important once they had been validated by media coverage. Boorstin further warned that if the voting public continued to be inundated with pseudo-events, these media stars would soon dominate the political landscape.
Think Trump and his mass rallies.
P.T. Barnum proved not only that people could be fooled, but that they wanted to be, according to Boorstin. We have made illusions so vivid they have become our lives: “Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very experience.”2
Boorstin’s book first came out when I was a junior in high school, but I didn’t discover it until attending college, after a long tour in Vietnam. Majoring in the social sciences, I was flung down a twisting rabbit-hole without end, stranger than any drug trip by his book. Wrapping my head around our crazy descent into pseudo reality was like listening to Gracie Slick sing her anthem at Woodstock about the White Rabbit and Alice ten-feet tall. History since then continues to be this wild ride through an increasingly socially constructed fantasy.
Flashing closer to today, Chris Hedges wrote Empire of Illusions in 2009, at a time when the gap between the affluent, well-educated folks and the rest of the country was rapidly widening. As NPR said, after reviewing the book: “One side is based in reality and able to separate illusion from truth; the other side is rooted in fantasy.” 3
We are all, by now, familiar with how Trump was able to hone his P.T. Barnum skills during the years he was star of “The Apprentice,” a virtuosity he practices daily, having expanded his reality show to include the whole nation.
Chris Hedges takes us further back in Trump’s career to when he was a professional westling promoter, revealing how he first learned how to tap into and validate the rage and hopelessness of alienated white workers. He was really good at it, even getting inducted into the celebrity division of the wrestler’s hall of fame.
Professional wrestling, according to Hedges, is a venue expressing the “raw unvarnished expressions of the white working class…appealing to nationalism and a dislike and distrust of all who were racially, ethnically, or religiously different.” 4 Using his old wrestling promoter skills, Trump is able create super pseudo events at his rallies: ratcheting up the audience’s raw, angry passion to a fever pitch, and then channeling all that negative energy toward the designated fall guy (or a woman named Hillary).
Though Trump will soon be gone, there are no easy answers in how to restore reality after our long slide into fantasy. Two things could do it but are probably as likely as seeing a white rabbit ten-feet tall: A stimulus program to lift up all boats, ensuring that every American is able to live a secure and dignified life; and a quality and affordable public education system, available to everyone, from cradle to grave.
1 – https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/12/the-image-in-the-age-of-pseudo-reality/509135/
2 – Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion (p. 15). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.
3 – https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=106853619
4 – Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion (p. 6). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition