by Douglas Kellner
French theorist Jean Baudrillard has long been one of the foremost critics of contemporary society, politics, and culture. A professor of sociology at the University of Nanterre from 1966 to 1987, Baudrillard was for some years a cult figure of postmodern theory. Yet Baudrillard moved beyond the discourse of the postmodern from the early 1980s to his death in 2007, and developed a highly idiosyncratic mode of theoretical and socio-cultural analysis that went beyond the confines of modern philosophy and social theory[i].
In Baudrillard’s postmodern world, individuals flee from the “desert of the real” for the ecstasies of hyperreality and the new realm of computer, media, and technological experience. In this universe, subjectivities are fragmented and lost, and a new terrain of experience appears, which for Baudrillard renders previous social theories and politics obsolete and irrelevant. Tracing the vicissitudes of the subject in contemporary society, Baudrillard claims that contemporary subjects are no longer afflicted with modern pathologies like hysteria or paranoia, but exist in “a state of terror which is characteristic of the schizophrenic, an over-proximity of all things, a foul promiscuity of all things which beleaguer and penetrate him, meeting with no resistance, and no halo, no aura, not even the aura of his own body protects him. In spite of himself the schizophrenic is open to everything and lives in the most extreme confusion” (Baudrillard, 1988, p. 27). For Baudrillard, the “ecstasy of communication” means that the subject is in close proximity to instantaneous images and information, in an overexposed and transparent world. In this situation, the subject “becomes a pure screen, a pure absorption and resorption surface of the influence networks” (ibid.).
Baudrillard’s Fatal Strategies (1983, translated in 1990 presents a bizarre metaphysical scenario concerning the triumph of objects over subjects within the “obscene” proliferation of an object world so completely out of control that it surpasses all attempts to understand, conceptualize, and control it. His scenario concerns the proliferation and growing supremacy of objects over subjects and the eventual triumph of the object. In a discussion of “ecstasy and inertia,” Baudrillard discusses how objects and events in contemporary society are continually surpassing themselves, growing and expanding in power. The “ecstasy” of objects is their proliferation and expansion to the Nth degree, to the superlative; ecstasy as going outside of or beyond oneself; the beautiful as more beautiful than beautiful in fashion, the real more real than the real in television, sex more sexual than sex in pornography. Ecstasy is thus the form of obscenity (fully explicit, nothing hidden) and of the hyperreality described by Baudrillard earlier taken to a higher level, redoubled and intensified. His vision of contemporary society exhibits a careening of growth and excrescence (croissance et excroissance), expanding and excreting ever more goods, services, information, messages, or demands – surpassing all rational ends and boundaries in a spiral of uncontrolled growth and replication.
Baudrillard’s world is fully realized in Donald’s Trump’s Amerika where the obscene President reveals his every thought, aggression, and inanity in his daily Twitter feeds and ec-static media performances where he lets it all hang out, revealing his hatreds, insecurities, and mendacities, often abstracted from the consensual reality of the mainstream media which has documented thousands of flat-out lies, absurdities, outrages, and outrageousness. The Access Hollywood tape, which reveals Trump in his full obscenity in an interview with Billie Bush just before the 2016 election, was spun over and over in the ecstasy of the media, obscenely presented The Real Donald Trump, a vulgar sexual predator whose celebrity creds allowed him to do what he wanted with women, “grab ‘em by the pussy.”
This tape, itself an exhibit of the ecstasy of communication in the hypermedia age, was dominating its media cycle some days before the 2016 election when WikiLeaks dumped its hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta’s leaked emails and the omnipresent hypermedia went into surrealistic overdrive turning to embarrassing tidbits from the Clinton campaign. Hence, damning footage of the obscenity of Donald Trump, Sexual Predator, was quickly lost in the next hyperreal flow of the mediascape, and the Donald’s improbable lurch into the Presidency was not derailed -– despite scores of women revealing explicit details of Donald Trump’s groping and other crude forms of sexual predatory behavior, a phenomena that had been going on for decades.
Yet after Trump dubiously assumed the Presidency, women, segments of the media, and those disgusted by Deplorable Donald, launched a full assault on the Trumpster, signaled the day after Trump’s inauguration by the Women’s March in Washington, one of the largest demonstrations in history. Soon, revelations came out of sexual harassment and assault on an epic scale by Harvey Weinstein, the King of Hollywood, and lesser lights in the film, television, and other media industries, as well as politicians. Soon ob-scene details of Trump’s sexual vulgarity, crudity, and assaults on women circulated throughout media world like a sliced salami, and parts of the Patriarchy like Harvey Weinstein, the most powerful mogul in Hollywood, and numerous other male media celebrities started going down in a paroxysm of cuts and sound-bytes as the #MeToo movement took hold, and, yet Trump escaped the fury of the women he had abused.
Hence, Baudrillard’s ecstasy of communication reveled in minute details of vile Patriarchs running amok and one-by-one many of the worst offenders were forced to resign or hide. The #MeToo movement hashtagged its way into and through the mediascape and Patriarchs faced trial and annihilation by the media. Porn star Stormy Daniels and her tenacious lawyer Michael Avinetti continued to reveal obscenities about Trump and his entourage. The raiding of the office of Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen in April of 2018, followed by revelations of the millions of dollars that flowed into Cohen’s account to gain access to Trump by major corporations, some with Russian oligarch connections, and to pay off women who had suffered the agonies of Trump and his cronies’ predations. Other criminal allegations against Trump and his cronies continued to mushroom through the daily media cycles throughout Trump’s presidency, as the Patriarchy was losing its luster and the Phallocracy shivered and shrank under the glare of the omnipresent media.
We have arguably been living in Baudrillard’s ecstasy of communication, open to everything and living in the most extreme confusion, since the heyday of Baudrillard’s popularity, but with the explosion of new digital media and social networking, revelations of the most intimate details of life – of celebrities, politicians, and ordinary people has intensified. At the same time, in the Trump era, advanced high-tech societies polarized and fragmented into a veritable media circus of pro and anti-Trump sites, as well as different individuals and groups who support #MeToo vs a witch’s brew of anti-women and anti-feminist voices, along with the racist, Islamophobic, alt-right and other fringe groups that Trump has brought out of the swamps and into mainstream cyber and media culture.
Tendencies described by Baudrillard have accelerated since his death in 2007, and Trump and his followers and critics have arguably intensified media noise, perverse explosions of aggression and hate in social media like Twitter, obscene (in JB’s sense) exposure of celebrities and politicians by themselves or their critics, as well as social networking promotion by individuals who revel in sharing the most intimate and perhaps shocking aspects of their personal lives.
Some believe that Trump and others use of social media is a distraction and deflection from focus on Trump’s right-wing, Republican-led attack on the basic institutions of US democracy, and while there is some purchase on this argument, it’s also true that the Trump attack on truth, alternative facts and fake news
–- defined by Trump and his minions as anything critical of Trump –- threatened to erode the heart of democratic discourse, civility, and the norms of democratic life.
The attack on media, truth, and critical discourse by the Trump administration attempted to erode the distinctions between the real and hyperreal in the postmodern world described by Baudrillard. Those who live in a Trumpian world, circumscribed by Trump’s twitter feed, Fox News, which is the first Kremlinesque state political propaganda apparatus, and supported by alt-right and conservative websites and social media, live in a Hyperreal Trumpscape impervious to rational argument, critique, or alternative facts. In this neo-Orwellian world, Trump was Big Father, and his propaganda apparatus are an often-conflicted and changing personnel define facts and fake news, good and evil, and friend and enemy, while attempting to drown competing discourses in Trumpspeak, creating a new hyperreal political scene for those who wish to participate and those forced to suffer the reign of King Donald.
Authoritarian populism often leads to and produces violence, as an enraged leader or group stigmatize and take out their grievances on minority groups who they blame for their own, or social, problems. This leads to demagoguery, outrage and hate which produces societal division and violence. The autocrat chooses an “Other,” who his followers see as an “enemy,” dividing the society and polis into “Us” and “Them.” Hence, Trump has blamed the COVID-19 pandemic on the Obama administration and the Democrats, the Media, the World Health Administration, and the “China virus,” which in a typical racist Trumpian trope, he denominated the “Kung Flu.”
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic shows that authoritarian populist leaders like Trump not only threaten democracy, its institutions, the Reign of Truth in politics, and the environment, but also the health and well-being of the population. Yet authoritarian leaders may generate resistance –- especially if the leader threatens the people with destructive wars or massive out-of-control pandemics like the current global epidemic. As people find themselves sick or dying, lose family friends, or loved ones, anger grows and people look to find who was responsible for pandemics like COVID-19 spreading without any significant government response or protections.[ii] Further, institutions, groups, and individuals that the autocrat attacks, and that his followers are led to demonize and hate, may fight back, mobilizing individuals against the autocrat and his anti-democratic forces in newspapers, books, mass media, public demonstrations and oppositional movements -– which we saw happening as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to intensify in certain regions like the U.S which was happening in the U.S. during the 2020 presidential election. In addition, significant Trump resistance movements arose in the multiple crises in response to the deadly virus attacking people’s health, democracy, and the sustainability of human life on the planet, accompanied by other resistance movements like Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers, and earlier the Occupy movement.[iii]
Moreover, crises as intense as the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to rage globally as I finish this article, create opportunities for constructive and progressive change. The health systems of the U.S., U.K., Brazil, and other major countries hit hard by the crisis have shown themselves to be inadequate and in many cases lacking, requiring a focus on public health and more adequate health systems. To the question of how to pay for better government funded health care, the answer is provided by Bernie Sanders, who along with Senate colleagues offered a bill to “Introduce Tax on Billionaire Wealth Gains to Provide Health Care for All.”[iv]
The failures of authoritarian leaders, such as Trump, show the necessity of electing leaders and governments that will protect the public, uphold their rights, and provide adequate health and welfare. Authoritarian leaders breed resistance, as I argued above, leading to the possibilities of governments that serve the needs and interests of the people rather than the Authoritarian Leader and his clique of insiders and political base.
Surely the plagues of the COVID-19 virus and authoritarian populism helped bring down Trump in the 2020 U.S. election against Joe Biden, as throughout Trump’s presidency he denied the seriousness of the pandemic, prescribed looney antidotes while failing to take any action, and contributing to the more than 500,000 U.S. citizens who died during his Reign of Error. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has brought down global markets, capitalist expansion, and commerce to a massive slowdown that provides for the first time since at least WWII the possibility of actually transforming the world from an unsustainable economic (dis)order and chaotic “market” economy into a more sustainable planetary community to deal with multiple crises of the future, including dire ecological crisis which Trump intensified by weakening policies that protect the environmental and undoing sound ecological policies.
Moreover—and most dramatically –, after Trump decisively lost the election to Joe Biden on November 3, 2020, he refused to concede the election, and he and his minions circulated the Big Lie that the election was a hoax and was stolen. Trump’s lawyers sued election commissions in over 50 precincts and not one piece of evidence of election fraud or wrong doing was found, and each court threw out Trump’s claims of a rigged election, including the Supreme Court which Trump helped pack. Nonetheless, Trump and his mob continued to spread the Big Lie and on January 6, 2021 when Congress met to ratify the election, Trump unleashed his most violent followers who came to Washington to protest the election and after a rally when Trump, Don Jr., his Consigliere Crazy Rudy G, and other members of Trump’s Thugocracy whipped the crowd into a frenzy, Trump and his capos urged his soldiers into attacking the U.S. Capitol.
The Alt-Right followers of Trump had planned their insurrection for weeks and stormed the Capitol, overpowering the police, and wreaking havoc in the House and Senate Chambers.[v] They chanted “Stop the Steal,” “Fight for Trump,” and “Kill Mike Pence,” Trump’s loyal Vice-President, who, however, refused Trump’s order not to ratify the election results. The rampage –- televised live in an ecstasy of communication — shocked the nation and the violence in the rampage caused major damage in the Capitol and left five dead, demonstrating the danger of Trump’s reign of lies and thuggery, dangers that continue to plague the polity.
It is clear, that Trump’s authoritarian populism has created crises and political oppression throughout the globe that threatens democracy, civility, and human life. In the aftermath of Trump’s hate speech against immigrants, one of his followers went on a rampage and killed at least 20, mostly Mexican-Americans, in a Walmarkt in El Paso, Texas during October 2020, with the shooter leaving behind rants against immigrants that showed he was influenced by Trump. Following Trump’s attack on China and the Kung-Flu virus, there have been a rampage of hate crimes against Asians, including one attack on a series of Georgia massage parlors in March 2021 that left at least ten dead.
Trump’s reality-show presidency had been played out for four years on Twitter and social media, TV channels like Fox News, and the Alt-Right internet as a TV reality show, with Trump as host, entertainer, and promotor, whose daily tweets attacked and vilified his enemies and energized his followers, thus dividing the country into pro and anti-Trump forces. While he claimed he was going to put “the best people” in his government, he chose “experts” from Fox News and Alt-right internet sites who praised him and promoted his ideas, while converting Trump to their whacky conspiracy theories, thus imploding reality and surreality, as Baudrillard had predicted.
Of course, there was from the beginning a vigorous anti-Trump Resistance, honorable media attempting to separate the true from the false, or at least provide more factual accounts of what is actually taking place and where it is leading us. And there have been throughout the Trump era resistance groups fiercely undertaking their own struggles like Black Lives, Matter, #MeToo, the Dreamers, environmentalists, and an array of progressivist groups, as well as individuals attempting to navigate through the contentious cacophony of conflicting voices. Never before has there been as intense a battle for the truth, the real, the norms of democratic culture, and other beacons of the Good Life, that have long been eroding and under assault.
It is, of course, impossible to predict where Trump and his followers will strike next and his ban from Twitter, Facebook, and Social Media while his January 6, 2021 insurrection, where he and his followers made a farcical attempt to steal the presidency, has forced the Trump Show to go dark during the first months of the Biden administration. Yet over the last four years during Trump’s reign never before has the ecstasy of communication unveiled so many revelations of so much piggery, and never has the obscenity of unfiltered racism, sexism, and multiple forms of reaction revealed so many of the ugly aspects of U.S. life, unleashed by an autocratic political regime that spewed into the mediascape daily hate speech and tirades of racism, sexism, bile, and loathing that has divided the nation. Yet never has there been such contestation of the President and an increasingly fascist autocratic regime by a resisting public and media in so many realms during the Trump presidency, and with such intensity. Thankfully, it appears, as with so many times before, that those who live by media may sooner or later go down and disappear in the media.[vi]
Trump was thus the first postmodern Post-Truth president who ran a Reality-TV show administrating collapsing politics into entertainment, and left behind a nation suffering under an ongoing pandemic that has sickened millions and killed hundreds of thousands, an environment threatened by climate disasters, and a nation where many still live in a fantasy world whose followers continue to assault U.S. democracy and who await the Word of their Maximum Leader to send them Into the Storm and return the exiled King. Hopefully, reality, truth, and a democratic citizenry has not yet disappeared and is ready to fight for democracy, health, the earth, and social progress against the unhinged enemies of Truth, Democracy, and a Better World.
[i] Asked to provide an article for Baudrillard Now, I went through my files and found an unpublished article on “Baudrillard and Trump.” First, written in the early years of the Trump administration, as it turns out, I believe it is an interesting reading of Trump and shows that Baudrillard’s work can be used retrospectively and that his theoretical corpus is still of relevance and use for analyzing contemporary reality. Thanks to Kanykei Tursunbaeva for asking me for an unpublished work I have on Baudrillard for this issue of the journal, and to Steve Best who rightly insisted I should update the article through the end of Trump regime, including the violent aftermath. All of the claims I make about Trump in this article are documented in my books American Nightmare: Donald Trump, Media Spectacle, and Authoritarian Populism. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers, 2016 and The American Horror Show: Election 2016 and the Ascent of Donald J. Trump. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers, 2017. Unfortunately, my Baudrillard analysis didn’t make it into these two books so I am grateful to the editors of Baudrillard Now for publishing this piece in their journal.
[ii] Many believe that Trump lost the 2020 U.S. Presidential election to Joe Biden because of his failed response to the COVID-19 virus. See Chris Cillizza, “How Trump lost the public on coronavirus” CNN, April 20, 2020 at https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/19/politics/us-election-2020-week-ahead/index.html (accessed January 24, 2021). 2021).
[iii] On the Trump and other resistance movements that sprung up during Trump’s authoritarian reign, see Douglas Kellner and Roslyn M. Satchel (2020). “Resisting Youth: From Occupy Through Black Lives Matter to the Trump Resistance” in The SAGE Handbook of Critical Pedagogies, Chapter 107, edited by Shirley Steinberg and Barry Downs. London: Sage Publications.
[iv] Bernie Sanders, “Rationale of the ‘Make Billionaires Pay Act’: It’s good for our health. The pandemic is helping the rich get even richer. It’s time to tax their obscene wealth,” The Guardian, August 11, 2020 at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/11/the-pandemic-is-helping-the-rich-get-even-richer-its-time-to-tax-their-obscene-wealth (accessed on August 12, 2020); see also Senator Bernie Sanders, “Sanders, Colleagues Introduce Tax on Billionaire Wealth Gains to Provide Health Care for All,” August 6, 2020 at https://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/sanders-colleagues-introduce-tax-on-billionaire-wealth-gains-to-provide-health-care-for-all- (accessed August 10, 2020).
[v] For an excellent documentary showing how one of Trump’s Alt-Right groups planned the attack on the Capital, see Alex Gibney’s six-part documentary just released on HBO Q: Into the Storm. The documentary centers on the rise of the Q-Anon Alt-right group that circulated crazy conspiracy theories and fervently supported Trump; the documentary shows how the Internet can give rise to extremist groups who literarily live in their own world of rightwing ideology. Another HBO documentary, Andrew Rossi’s After Truth: Disinformation and The Rise of Fake News (2020), shows how during the Trump era conspiracy theories and fake news dominated the Trumpian rightwing news-sphere, illustrating Baudrillard’s theory of the implosion of fact and fantasy in media spectacles.
[vi] Yet although Trump lost the 2020 election decisively to Joe Biden, proving again that those who live by the media may die by the media, the fact that they may also be reborn by the media is reason to recollect once again what a terrible president and person Trump was and what a moving target for all modes of critical theory and continued threat to U.S. democracy.