How Culture Became a Powerful Political Weapon

Nato Thompson’s new book explores the history of how music, TV, games, and advertising have been used to influence consumers.

Melville House

When it comes to living in a democracy, Nato Thompson argues, nothing affects us more directly and more powerfully than culture. Culture suffuses the world we live in, from TV to music to advertising to sports. And all these things, Thompson writes in his new book, Culture as Weapon, “influence our emotions, our actions, and our very understanding of ourselves as citizens.”

But comprehending how dominant culture has become also means thinking about the ways it can be, and has been, employed to manipulate consumers, by politicians, brands, and other powerful institutions. In Culture as Weapon, Thompson delves into the culture wars of the 1980s, the early origins of public relations and advertising in the early 20th century, how culture became a powerful vehicle for reinventing cities, and how brands associate themselves with causes to shape their own reputations. He looks at how artists have responded to these impulses, and how the emergence of the internet contributed to a new kind of immersion in culture, in which we’re more deeply absorbed in it than ever.

Thompson is the artistic director of the nonprofit arts organization Creative Time, which commissions and supports socially engaged works of art. He spoke to me by phone. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Sophie Gilbert: Your book explores how arts, entertainment, and culture in the larger sense color our view, as citizens, of how we interpret current events. Do you think this played out particularly in the last election?

Nato Thompson: I feel like it plays out in every election. And to put a cautionary note around it, I’m game on for talking about the urgency of what Trump presents, but the misleading part of that is that it makes us think that those who didn’t vote for Trump are somehow outside of the bubble, which I totally do not believe. It falls too conveniently into the idea that the masses are somehow hypnotized by the media-culture machine but the progressive rationalists escape it, which just isn’t true. Our ideological terrain is much murkier than that.

Gilbert: That’s interesting, because my next question was going to be about how you explore in the book how people and companies use culture to expand and maintain their influence. And one thing about the last president was that he was really a master of this, and in using cultural soft power. Can you talk a little bit about how he used culture within his administration?

Thompson: Just the way Obama ran was interesting. He ran on a “change” platform, which is also what Trump ran on, obviously. Certainly this was the post-Bush era, and change was welcome to a country totally exhausted by the Iraq War and the War on Terror, and so the “brand” of Obama, to put it in those terms, was, “Yes we can,” and, “Change you can believe in.” Which certainly appeals to the heart, but could also easily be an ad for Pepsi-Cola. That said, he was extraordinarily personable, and probably the coolest president we will ever have. He was extremely deft on a talk show, he was the first president who could do a mic drop, he was the first president up there shooting hoops where you actually thought he was good. He was cool, but certainly not without a brand image.

Gilbert: The first chapter is largely about the culture wars that emerged during the Reagan presidency, and it feels in some ways very familiar, especially with the current threats to NEA funding. Do you feel like history is repeating itself?

Thompson: Yes, although at a very different speed. One of the lessons that we’re all learning that Reagan knew, very well in fact, is that controversies are on your side. When it comes to the culture wars, paradox is your friend. So when Trump says he’s going to build a wall—which I think is going to be the most iconic artwork of this era—it’s meant to make people angry. Some people think Trump is a master media strategist, but whether he is or not doesn’t matter. His personality happens to coincide with the needs of the media itself, and his behavior is such that the camera can’t get off him, and that’s something that the Christian right learned with the culture wars. When Jesse Helms went after “sodomites,” not only was he able to galvanize what he called the silent majority, but simultaneously he was able to gay-bash, to talk viscerally about sex, while pretending to hate it. He could have his cake and eat it. Trump does that too, I think. He enjoys condemning things because the things he’s condemning obsess the media.

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.

Thompson: As far as I’m concerned, that march could have been led by a myriad of different issues, but thank goodness it was a women’s march. It was great for that, it had a different tone and a different feel, and the pink hats led a lot of that, a feeling of literal texture. The Campbell’s thing is a little different because that chapter is about how companies like to brand themselves as social-good companies, like how Google’s motto is “Don’t Be Evil.” I think that under Trump we’re going to be in for a lot more of brands for social justice, because, I suspect, a lot of people are going to be unhappy with him, even if they supported him. A lot of the energy with him was against something—against Hillary—and now she’s out of the picture that’ll have to shift to another target. And a lot of companies will be able to position themselves as being against the current system, when really in fact they’re not against it at all.

Gilbert: The idea in the book too about the massive psychogenic illness of social media, and our self-perpetuating bubbles was fascinating. Because right now, every time I go on Twitter, I get a feedback loop of doom.

Thompson: I think we’re all in a national and international learning curve with that. It’s almost like there’s an emotional logic to social networking that we’re all learning together, collectively. We’re learning the emotional responses that happen to us online, we’re learning that we’re all kind of trolls when it comes to the internet. We’re watching everyone freak out but also learning that freaking out emotionally wears us down. We’re all on this strange emotional rollercoaster ride together. This is such a new way to receive news, it’s such a new way to relate to people close to us. Who knows where it’s all going? But that, certainly, is very different from the culture wars of the ’80s.

Gilbert: How can we, as consumers of culture, be aware of the ways in which our emotions might be being manipulated by it? While also not being afraid of it?

Thompson: Well, it’s a good question. I think mindfulness, certainly, and I’m no therapist, but I’m a big fan of talking things out in groups and getting some distance from how things affect you before you react to them. There’s an early analysis in the book of Walter Lippmann [his thoughts on democracy, and how he believed that people acted emotionally rather than rationally]. I would say the same analysis applies to media. I don’t want to dismiss democracy as a concept, but certainly key pillars of it—that citizens vote rationally—are inaccurate when it comes to who we are as people. Part of that, then, is really getting a handle on how people know what they know. A lot of what drives culture is branding, and a lot of the driving engine of our society knows already exactly who we are and how to get us to do things. The logic of most industries actually works very coercively. So, I’m not answering your question, but I think it’s good to be aware of how intimate and deeply fearful we are.

Gilbert: What I took from your last answer is that since we’re begin targeted so effectively by brands based on our identity, maybe we should start mixing things up? I should start consuming culture that isn’t typically my kind of thing?

Thompson: Quite honestly, on a more strategic level, it’s good to just get outside of your bubbles. Looking at the red state/blue state thing, it’s not really about states. If you throw a rock 40 minutes outside of a city, you’ll probably hit a Trump area. But what that demonstrates, too, is that geographical proximity also has a huge power over who we think we are. The people around you inform you more than the internet does. This says to me that what we need is for people from the country to come to the city, and people from the city to come to the country, and we need to have honest and open conversations about what we’re thinking about.