Gilbert: There’s a quote in the book from Hitler, who describes citizens as “a vascillating crowd of human children who are constantly wavering between one idea and another,” and how the art of propaganda consists of finding ways to capture their attention. Do you think culture wars are about uniting people or dividing them?
Thompson: Well, I don’t want to generalize because it’s a complex media landscape, and certain actions do in fact bring people together. But to say something kind of weird, I know a lot of people say love trumps hate—they use that phraseology—but I would say fear of the other is a more historically powerful force. Fear is one of these things in our emotional toolkits that gets a reaction out of us as people very fast. In our psychology, fear doesn’t have an opposite: It is the dominant emotional register. I say that because it’s useful to understand that fear is something we’re very vulnerable to, and because of that it will continue to be used. It’s a weapon we use on all fronts, because it’s how we function. This is the way things tend to have played out historically, and are playing out now.
Gilbert: What did you make of the inauguration? What kind of message did it project?
Thompson: It was interesting—there was so much footage of anarchists breaking windows, and I thought, this is the same media impulse that couldn’t take its eyes off Trump. An alternative title for the book certainly could have been, “If It Bleeds, It Leads,” and you see that same addiction to hyperbole, addiction to sensationalism, ratings, clickbait. I watched that and was so infuriated by it, because it just felt like nothing was changing in terms of the way we’re reading the world.
Gilbert: I wanted to ask, too, about the concert the day before, with Toby Keith and The Piano Guys. Eight years previously we saw this huge cultural event with Bruce Springsteen and Beyoncé, and the recent concert was also touted as a big inaugural event but the talent was markedly different. Do you have any thoughts on the message of that?
Thompson: There’s been such a different range in this election with cultural strategies, and here I’m talking capital-C culture, like arts and entertainment. Because, of course, we all know Trump had a difficult time getting acts to agree to come, and certainly had he had his druthers, he would have had the Rolling Stones or someone big-name and mainstream, but it didn’t go that way. Quite frankly, I don’t think Trump thinks of himself as appealing to the demographic that actually ended up playing the inaugural concert.
Gilbert: I thought about the protests, too, when I was reading the section on Campbell’s soup, and the power of branding for charitable causes, like pink soup cans for breast cancer. It seems there’s immense power in this instant visual iconography, like a sea of pink hats everywhere.