Donald Trump, Master of the Pseudo-Event

The president-elect is a pro at marshaling ambiguous unrealities to his advantage.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Days ago, President-elect Trump broadcast this message to his 16.7 million followers:

Shortly thereafter, Donald Trump’s lawyers “stated unequivocally that there was, in fact, no evidence that any voter fraud had occurred,” declaring outright in one Michigan court filing, unearthed by the Washington Post, that “all available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake.”

How should Americans understand this president?

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In 1961, the historian Daniel Boorstin warned about the rise of a new American type, the celebrity “who is known for his well-knownness.” This purposely fabricated figure is “made by all of us who willingly read about him, who like to see him on television, who buy recordings of his voice, and talk about him to our friends,” he wrote. “His relation to morality and even to reality is highly ambiguous.”

The passage appeared in a book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, that “remains as poignant as it is prophetic,” my colleague Megan Garber observes, for it anticipated not only the rise of figures like “the Real Housewives,” Kim Kardashian, and Trump, but the way that their mastery of a certain phenomenon might affect politics—and the unnerving feeling that, as Garber puts it,  “we don’t quite know what reality is, anymore. And, more worryingly, we don’t seem much to care.”

For Boorstin, the pseudo-event is at the root of this loss of clarity.

To illustrate the term’s meaning he conjures a hotel. Its owners wish to increase its business. “In less sophisticated times, the answer might have been to hire a new chef, to improve the plumbing, to paint the rooms, or to install a crystal chandelier in the lobby,” he wrote. Instead, the hotel retains a PR counsel, who “proposes that the management stage a celebration of the hotel’s thirtieth anniversary.”

He continues:

A committee is formed, including a prominent banker, a leading society matron, a well-known lawyer, an influential preacher, and an “event” is planned (say a banquet) to call attention to the distinguished service the hotel has been rendering the community. The celebration is held, photographs are taken, the occasion is widely reported, and the object is accomplished.

Now this occasion is a pseudo-event, and will illustrate all the essential features of pseudo-events. This celebration, we can see at the outset, is somewhat––but not entirely––misleading. Presumably the public relations counsel would not have been able to form his committee of prominent citizens if the hotel had not actually been rendering service to the community.

On the other hand, if the hotel's services had been all that important, instigation by public relations counsel might not have been necessary. Once the celebration has been held, the celebration itself becomes evidence that the hotel really is a distinguished institution. The occasion actually gives the hotel the prestige to which it is pretending. It is obvious, too, that the value of such a celebration to the owners depends on its being photographed and reported in newspapers, magazines, newsreels, on radio, and over television. It is the report that gives the event its force.

About pseudo-events generally, he goes on to say that their relation to underlying reality is ambiguous—and in fact, that its interest arises largely from its ambiguity.

He recalls President Kennedy giving a speech shortly after the practice of releasing advance text to the press began. Early editions of the next morning’s newspaper reported on the speech per the words given to newsmen ahead of time. But Kennedy’s remarks as delivered departed significantly from the text—and later editions of the newspaper emphasized not the substance of the speech as delivered, but the fact that it was different from a draft that was never in fact spoken.

“We begin to be puzzled,” Boorstin wrote, “about what is really the ‘original’ of an event. The authentic record of what ‘happens’ or is said comes increasingly to seem to be what is given out in advance. More and more events become dramatic performances in which ‘men in the news’ simply act out their script. The story prepared ‘for future release’ acquires an authenticity that competes with that of the actual occurrences on the scheduled date. In recent years our successful politicians have been those most adept at using the press and other means to create pseudo-events.”

Conversely, incompetence at creating pseudo-events can backfire.

Recall George W. Bush donning a flight suit, landing on an aircraft carrier, and having his picture taken in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner years before the end of the war in Iraq. Were contemporaneous observers to conclude that the mission in Iraq had been accomplished? That President Bush believed the mission was accomplished? That Bush knew the mission was not accomplished, but wanted the public to believe that the mission was accomplished? That Bush knew the public would not be convinced by a banner and a photo-op, but wanted the press to report on the event with a photograph of the words “Mission Accomplished” because it would provide a positive news cycle or crowd out bad news?

Did it matter that the crew of the ship rather than a White House staffer originally requested the banner, wanting to draw attention to a discrete deployment? In light of all the possibilities, and the impossibility of knowing what was on Bush’s mind or the minds of the dozens who participated in creating the event, what was the news?

Even now it is hard to say.

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In 2012, Donald Trump and his children created a video to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Trump International Hotel and Tower. Harkening back to what made the New York City property an ostensible success, Trump told this story about its address: “At the time it was called Columbus Circle. But really it was on Central Park West. I worked very hard and was able to secure Number One, Central Park West. And it’s turned out to be one of the best addresses in the world.”

By then, Trump, who began his career in real estate with aspirations to be a builder, had long since transitioned from trying to erect buildings as the centerpiece of his business to selling his image through licensing and branding deals. His name would appear on the tops of many buildings he neither built nor owned.

He starred in The Apprentice, a program on reality TV, the beating heart of the pseudo-events industry, where teams competed in pseudo-projects to avoid being pseudo-fired.

And Trump’s start in politics?

Boorstin wrote that Joseph McCarthy, a bygone master of the pseudo-event, had “a diabolical fascination and an almost hypnotic power over news-hungry reporters,” adding that “many hated him; all helped him … without the active help of all of them he could never have created the pseudo-events which brought him notoriety and power.”

He quotes a reporter who served in the press corps during the McCarthy era and later wrote:

He knew how to get into the news even on those rare occasions when invention failed him and he had no unfacts to give out. For example, he invented the morning press conference called for the purpose of announcing an afternoon press conference. The reporters would come in––they were beginning, in this period, to respond to his summonses like Pavlov’s dogs at the clang of a bell––and McCarthy would say that he just wanted to give them the word that he expected to be ready with a shattering announcement later in the day, for use in the papers the following morning.

This would gain him a headline in the afternoon papers: New McCarthy Revelations Awaited in Capital.” Afternoon would come, and if McCarthy had something, he would give it out, but often enough he had nothing, and this was a matter of slight concern. He would simply say that he wasn’t quite ready, that he was having difficulty in getting some of the “documents” that he needed or that a “witness” was proving elusive. Morning headlines: “Delay Seen in McCarthy Case––Mystery Witness Being Sought.”

Trump began the most consequential phase of his political career by declaring his doubts about President Obama’s birth certificate and sending or pretending to send a team of investigators to Hawaii to probe the matter. Roger Ailes would reward him with recurring interview segments on Fox News, each a pseudo-event in itself. On those segments, pseudo-events were discussed by Trump and pseudo-journalists. Among actual journalists, there was deep disagreement about whether Trump’s statements about running for president should be taken seriously.

As Trump prepares to enter the White House, similar questions are being raised about his public statements, especially the ones that he makes through Twitter. “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag,” Trump wrote last week. “If they do, there must be consequences––perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”

Observers were divided about how to receive the statement. Was it off-the-cuff venting or tweeted with a purpose? A signal that the president-elect would crack down on freedom of expression, or a fleeting outburst he’ll never return to? An attempt to distract the media and the public from news stories about the Trump administration’s conflicts of interest? A gambit to induce anti-Trump protestors to burn the American flag, alienating centrists? A statement that was better ignored to avoid falling into Trump’s trap, or an attack on the Constitution that would be dangerous to ignore? These are just some of the plausible theories that were aired.

The challenge for the press is not entirely unfamiliar.

Writing about the officially sanctioned leak, Boorstin pointed out that “the reporter himself is often not clear whether he is being told a simple fact, a newly settled policy, an administrative hope, or whether perhaps untruths are being deliberately diffused in order to allay public fears that the true facts are really true. The government official himself (who is sometimes no more than a spokesman) may not be clear. The reporter’s task is to find a way of weaving these threads of unreality into a fabric that the reader will not recognize as entirely unreal.”

A reporter can, however, decline to report on a leak that seems designed to manipulate the press or the public.

In the Twitter era, the press cannot ignore statements on the president’s feed that will always be crafted to game current standards of newsworthiness, but neither can it responsibly report on those statements as if they are events rather than pseudo-events. To ignore their unconcern with truth, or that they are written and broadcast in part to provoke certain kinds of reactions in the media, is to become complicit in manipulation. A reporter who weaves Trump’s threads of unreality into a fabric that the reader will not recognize as unreal is guilty of aiding and abetting fabrication.

At the same time, confidently deconstructing a Trump tweet or speculating as to its “true,” hidden meaning can be irresponsible, too. Unverifiable analysis can be faulty. The presumption that there is a discrete meaning or clear motive behind a given pseudo-event could be wrong. Covering a powerful serial manipulator with no regard for truth is hard, so long as one adheres to higher standards of integrity than he does.

Doing so as well as possible is the journalist’s charge—and the stakes are high.

“We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions,” Boorstin wrote. “We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in place of reality. To discover our illusions will not solve the problems of our world. But if we do not discover them, we will never discover our real problems.”

The press cannot prevent Trump from using pseudo-events to distort reality, nor can it ignore them. But if the press is to convey reality, it must convey the nature of pseudo-events to its readers—their ambiguous relationship with truth, their inseparability from the media attention they are designed to receive. And if the press is to fulfill its obligation to focus on real problems that face the country, even as powerful actors attempt to distract the polity with shiny objects aplenty, it must resist the temptation to let coverage of pseudo-events dominate its output.

That temptation is rooted partly in the incentives that the president and the press share—both stand to profit, in different ways, from public interest in pseudo-events.

And it is also rooted in widely held assumptions about the presidency itself, assumptions like the ones articulated unusually explicitly by the late Clinton Rossiter, a Cornell political scientist, in his 1956 book, The American Presidency. That book argued that the president of the United States is the leader of public opinion. “While he acts as political chieftain of some, he serves as moral spokesman for all,” Rossiter declared. “The president is the American people’s one authentic trumpet, and he has no higher duty than to give a clear and certain sound … and whether or not he enjoys this role, no President can fail to realize that his many powers are invigorated, indeed are given a new dimension of authority, because he is the symbol of our sovereignty, continuity and grandeur as a people.”

Gene Healy observed in his 2008 book, The Cult of The Presidency (now available free online), that few Americans now find anything amiss “in the notion that it is the president’s duty to solve all large national problems and to unite us all in the service of a higher calling. The vision of the president as national guardian and redeemer is so ubiquitous that it goes unnoticed … In their rhetoric, presidents stoke the public’s inflated expectations, promising moral leadership and government action that can heal the country and the world. Americans don’t quite believe it, but can’t bring themselves to give up the dream. From popular culture to the academy to the voting booth, we curse the king, all the while pining for Camelot.”

He warned against conceiving of the president’s role so expansively, contrasting the modern vision with the original view of the office. The Framers designed our system of government so that the president would be “a constitutionally constrained chief executive with an important, but limited job,” he wrote. “To defend the country when attacked, check Congress when it violates the Constitution, enforce the law—and little else.” Insofar as the press conceives of the president, even implicitly, as an authentic trumpet of the people, with no higher duty than to sound, it will feel obligated to pay his pseudo-events undue attention.

In contrast, conceiving of the president as one of many elected officials, with limited, enumerated duties—as no more authentic a trumpet of the people than the members of Congress with co-equal standing in government—inoculates Americans against being swept up in presidential pseudo-events toward unrealities of his making. Exploding the pseudo-fact that the president is owed stature as an exhorter and commentator in chief, that the occupant of the office is due ‘a bully pulpit’ unmentioned in the Constitution, is one way Trump may make America great again.