Before taking the stage at his Florida rally on Saturday, President Donald Trump was asked whether it wasn’t a mite early in his term to start campaigning again. “Life is a campaign,” he replied. “Making our country great again is a campaign. For me, it’s a campaign. To make America great again is absolutely a campaign.” With these words, Trump implicitly promised that he’s going to continue to act as he has since June 2015: holding large rallies where he feeds off the sinister energy of a riled-up crowd, lashing out against his imagined enemies in the press, the Democratic opposition, and even backsliding Republicans in Congress.
It’s hardly a surprise that Trump would rather campaign than take up the less flashy, more private chores of actual governing (attending meetings, reading briefing reports, negotiating with legislatures, helping draft laws). For almost all of his adult life, he has been a lover of the limelight, ever hungry for the validation of public attention, from seeing his name in print to becoming a reality show star. And campaigning is the aspect of politics closest to such media spectacle.
Trump’s real focus can be seen in his behavior since winning the election. In an unusual move, he kept his election campaign organization together after the election to lay the groundwork already for his 2020 reelection bid. As president-elect, he held rallies to thank his supporters in states like Ohio. In his press conferences and on Twitter, he has stayed on campaign mode, focused in reiterating slogans like “make America great again” and on attacking his foes (as in a tweet defining the media as “the enemy of the American people”).
As University of Houston Professor Robert Zaretsky argued Monday in The New York Times, Trump is a vindication of Guy Debord’s theory, expressed in his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle and a follow-up two decades later, that we live a world where media-driven image saturation has overwhelmed traditional civic engagement. In this televised carnival, Trump is the ringmaster.
Since [inauguration], as each new day brings a new scandal, lie or outrage, it has become increasingly difficult to find our epistemological and ethical bearings: The spectacle swallows us all. It goes on, Debord observed, “to talk about something else, and it is that which henceforth, in short, exists. The practical consequences, as we see, are enormous.” Indeed. Who among us recalls the many lies told by Trump on the campaign trail? Who can re-experience the shock felt when first seeing or hearing the “Access Hollywood” tape? Who can separate the real Trump from the countless parodies of Trump and the real dangers from the mere idiocies?
Trump’s constant campaigning is not only shaping how the public understands his presidency, but the operation of the presidency itself. This is why, in terms of governance, Trump is already shaping up to be a disaster.
Trump’s signature executive order on immigration was stayed by the courts. His national security advisor, Michael Flynn, resigned under a cloud of scandal which may implicate others in the administration, including Trump. In Europe over the weekend, Vice President Mike Pence contradicted Trump’s anti-E.U. stance. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis recently contradicted Trump on America’s commitment to NATO and, speaking in Baghdad on Monday, on plundering Iraq of its oil. The Trump administration has suffered from a remarkable number of high-level leaks that portray him as woefully unprepared for the position.
It’s precisely because Trump finds governing so nettlesome that he seeks comfort in the people who really love him: The hardcore supporters who come out to his rallies. Talking Points Memo editor and publisher Josh Marshall shrewdly noted last July that Trump’s interactions with his supporters radicalized him, pushing him towards more extreme positions to satisfy the people he had riled up. This was particularly true of his online interactions, but could also be seen in his rallies, where he was clearly energized by the passionate response—“lock her up!”—he would get when he lambasted Hillary Clinton.
Because of this—intuiting his audience and almost total ignorance and indifference to policy questions—Trump’s core racism and authoritarianism have been amplified and accentuated, even radicalized to an almost unprecedented, perhaps unique degree by his interaction with his supporters...
Trump started with a racist, authoritarian message, drew around him a supporter base of racists and authoritarians and has been in a feedback loop of mutual radicalization and openness ever since.
This has troubling implications for the running of the country over the next four or eight years. Last fall, after Trump won the election, President Barack Obama suggested that becoming president would have a sobering effect. “Regardless of what experience or assumptions he brought to the office, this office has a way of waking you up,” Obama said. But if Trump continues to campaign as president, the normal moderating effects of assuming high office won’t materialize. By holding rallies, he can refuel the resentment and anger that brought him into power, while also avoiding the sobering effect of office. He is still drunk on his popularity, limited though it is.