Trump Likes to Watch: The Visual Foundations of Modern Politics

January 1, 2017

Following the 2016 presidential election, Politico published a really interesting post (and podcast) about Chuck Todd’s experiences interviewing Donald Trump, with insights about Trump’s daddy issues, Trump’s not-laughing issues, and Trump’s manipulative-messing-with-the-media-pajama-interview issues. But far and away, the most interesting Chuck Todd insight concerned Trump’s visual-and-meta-visual issues, which captures a truth about contemporary politics that extends well beyond Trump to the structural foundations of our political imagination. The consequences of this visual perspective on politics are far-reaching and important for how we think about (and for the possibilities for realizing) abstract political goals involving democracy, justice, fairness, and equity.

Put simply, Chuck Todd told us, Trump likes to watch. He likes to watch others and he likes to watch himself. “He’s a very visual guy. He thinks this way, and look, it’s an important insight in just understanding him. The visual stuff is very real beyond just himself.” Trump’s weirdly meta-instinct to watch himself specifically registered with Todd. “Then there’s the amount of time he spends after the interview is over, with the sound off. He wants to see what it all looked like. He will watch the whole thing on mute.”

Visualized through the prism of Trump’s “visuality,” the 2016 presidential campaign suddenly acquires an irrefrangible, cobalt clarity. Yes, the instinct/internal mandate to watch himself gives us definitive evidence of Trump’s ancien regime solipsism and narcissism. But most of us already knew that. What did not fully penetrate our consciousness was the extent to which the visual intensity of digital media has liberated, through vast swaths of society, an emotionally triggering, trope-based stable of heuristics that have almost entirely subsumed our politics.

Symbolic Language

During the 2016 campaign, as Chuck Todd observed, while Hillary Clinton was going 1990s old-school with her briefing books (assuming facts, policies, interests, and logic were all that mattered), Donald Trump was connecting directly, via Twitter and via his campaign events, with tens of millions of Americans for whom facts, policies, interests, and logic, considered as the material of “truth” and “reality”, were elusive and dangerous. Trump instead effectively transacted a relationship based on emotionally resonant symbols, most involving the attribution to specific populations (whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Muslims, Christians, males, females) of emotional states (fear, loss, anxiety, anger), physical attributes (strength beauty, sexuality), behavioral propensities (violence, graft, laziness, promiscuity), moral conditions (virtue and depravity) and status ascriptions (winners and losers, intelligence and stupidity). This symbolic language liberated Trump supporters to entirely bypass the conventional neural pathways of Beltway politics and mainline directly the emotional euphoria of visual “truths” – that which is immediately and immanently in our field of vision.

The nation experienced aspects of this phenomenon during the primary campaign when trying to account for Trump’s odd speech patterns and language tics. Linguists have emphasized that Trump’s communication style, which depends heavily upon body language and signals consistent with oral tradition (perhaps specifically anchored to a Middle Atlantic patois), is validating and affirming rather than logical and empirical. Trump does not present arguments; he anticipates and triggers feeling states. This is why facts, as educated elites understand them at least, are irrelevant for Trump and his supporters. Words only matter to Trump supporters as a way to demarcate and crudely translate submerged emotional fibrillations surfaced, heightened, and reinforced by his speech patterns.

Post-election, Trump representatives serenely pivoted around the idea that “truth” is something that somehow whispers itself to Trump, so of course there is no need for him to pay attention to anachronistic concepts such as “facts”. But they also have specifically, and perhaps accurately, latched on to the idea that Trump is a kind of post-modern communications Jedi who speaks in koans and whose language is appropriately evocative and meaningful only for those who experience his words symbolically and metaphorically, rather than literally. Which is a brilliant spin, when you think about it, with the implication that academic, professional, and media elites, with their conniptions about our new “post-truth era,” are the buffoons, while common folk, fortified by a native common sense genius, display an intuitive appreciation for the “real” emotional truths Trump, literary maestro, symbolically expresses. And, indeed, this is entirely how Trump supporters view the divide between themselves and their antagonists, with a clear and savage appreciation for the incommensurability of these two perspectives on reality.

Visual Heuristics

If we connect these insights about the effectiveness of Donald Trump’s communication style to the visual way in which Trump experiences the world, his political existence starts to make sense. Consider the physicality of the Trump worldview, its primitive and extractive materialism, associated with monoliths such as his towers, his mansions, his golf courses, (formerly) his casinos, and (prospectively) his Mexican wall. Each of these physical structures represent a visual, totemic tally of his wealth and his worth. Oddly, however, these monoliths are also exculpations for the American everyman. Trump’s built icons affirm the primal desire for territoriality, for ground on which one can fully stand. The wealth they represent also justifies the status connected to associated appurtenances of this wealth. in the form of acquired decorative objects (most specifically women, but also, as one can easily imagine: steaks, vodkas, neckties, jewelry, furs, guns, cars, jets, servants, and sports teams).

Ironically, Trump’s material focus, because it is extractive and zero-sum, also intensifies sensations of threat and scarcity, the idea that anything solid can be taken from one, and will be if one does not defend and protect it. And it is at this threat intersection that the visual heuristics summoned by Trump fully come into play, as avatars of a primal set of truths and facts that run more deeply than logic or data. The symbolic and metaphoric meanings Trump subalterns assign to his Twitter fusillades do exist, and what they reliably invoke are visually conceived threat containers. Values such as wealth, beauty, strength, virtue, and knowledge are vectors with attributes consistent with crude and static, but visually meaningful, gender, racial, and national stereotypes. We are the product of, and should be valued in reference to, what we physically are and what we physically possess.

Lacking censors (or the capacity for reflection and nuanced judgment that can obviate the need for brute-force censorship), Trump himself deploys an almost exclusively visual stream of judgments that, as many have observed with admiration, are crudely “real”, but mostly in the sense that a fixed, static, built object like a dam or a cruise ship or an oil well is real, independently of the meaning any function or consequence of its existence may present. The nature, properties, and value (or lack of value) of these decontextualized objects is inherent, immediately apparent, and not really subject to negotiation. In the same way, Trump’s visual perspective has allowed him, as with a Kodak film camera, to make “snap” judgments (regarding African-Americans, Arab-Americans, Mexicans, Asians, War Heroes, Journalists, Heidi Cruz’s Face, Carly Fiorina’s Face, Ariana Huffington’s Face, John Bolton’s Mustache) that pretty much exhaust his universe of responses to the world as it presents itself to him.

Politics as Vector Graphics

What matters, however, is not that Donald Trump’s mind and world so closely resembles a vector graphics Scarface or Grand Theft Auto video game. It is that a vector graphics GTA game is also the reality of existence for so many of his supporters. We might, briefly, have been shocked to learn that Trump New York state campaign co-chair Carl Paladino’s hate-spumed “hopes” for 2017 regarding Barack and Michelle Obama were merely “old-style” humor. But on Fox News, Breitbart, and other online “conservative” communities extending into the darkest bowels of the Internet (4chan, Daily Stormer, etc.), this savage, unthinking language is the norm. In these communities, visual types instantly cue emotional responses.

In politics, particularly in the age of digital media (in which astonishing quantities of images are both created and consumed in vanishingly small doses), visual perspectives on the world increasingly conform to and reinforce (rather than challenge and disrupt) extremely simple, threat-based story lines, in which both individuality and complexity disappear because, both literally and figuratively, they take too much time to process. And so all we are left with cognitively are visual heuristics, tropes asserting a force-inflected, brutalist sensibility that leaves almost nothing to the other senses and to the imagination (consider a thought experiment in which humans did not possess vision, and we were required to organize our politics around sense of hearing, smell, touch, and taste only).

Human existence is a many-tiered, many-splendored thing, but visual imagination in the digital age is almost by definition flat, immediate, and limited. Visual heuristics short-circuit and obliterate the space between us, the complexities of selves each positioned uniquely in time and space, reducing possibilities for interpretation to binary categories. Grand Theft Auto and first-person shooter games are essentially nested sequences of patterned loops. They locate drama and excitement in fragmented, recursive, emotionally depleted, and apocalyptic story lines, herding individuals into flat, one-dimensional corrals that are nonetheless powerfully resonant emotionally. Cross-pollination between Gamergate and Breitbart was not an accident.

I Don’t See Anything In This Picture

If one were to further specify the incommensurability of the conventional Clinton and novel Trump perspectives on politics, it would be that Clinton’s politics were about goals and some concept of progress. Trump’s politics are really about maintaining feeling states. If one asks most Trump supporters to specify the world they would like to create, very few could provide a coherent answer. Much like Dolores in Season One of Westworld, they could only say “this doesn’t look like anything to me.” There is almost no way to reconcile these conceptions of politics.