I still remember when it was the Left who had more fun. It wasn’t just that they were younger and had better hair, music, and drugs (though all of that certainly helped); it was that the Left was fabulously irreverent. Whether nominating a pig for president, or raining dollar bills on the New York Stock Exchange, these were pranksters and media activists who tweaked their noses at authority and undermined the foundations of consensus society.
Today, it’s Trump and QAnon who have taken on that countercultural mantle, using the media available at their disposal to destabilize fact-based reality and promote conspiracy theories — and to do it all so cheekily that we can’t even tell if they actually believe what they’re saying.
Trump’s gaslighting calls to mind the 1960s counterculture at its most effective, when satirists and pranksters began applying some of the principles of postmodern art to protest. At its core, postmodernism was about rejecting big, overarching ideologies. If we could deconstruct these top-down narratives, the philosophy held, then we — the formerly passive spectators — could have as much power over the perception of reality as the authorities broadcasting it. The trick was simply to sow doubt by enacting stunts that make people question their own belief systems, revealing accepted truths as arbitrary illusions.
Although Europeans have understood the power of postmodernism since the Dadaists, in America it was probably counterculture writer Paul Krassner who first weaponized the idea, publishing the first intentionally “fake news” story in his satirical magazine The Realist. Meant as an antidote to the anodyne treatment of John F. Kennedy’s assassination by mainstream books and articles, Krassner’s piece claimed that while the president’s body was being transported on Air Force One, Jackie Kennedy walked in Lyndon Johnson sexually penetrating the exit wound in her husband’s skull. Given LBJ’s well-known crudity and lust for power, the myth gained traction as both news and metaphor.
Likewise, we saw Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and the Yippies declaring in 1967 that they were “now in the business of wholesale disruption and widespread resistance and dislocation of the American society,” and embark on a project to encircle the Pentagon in order to levitate it and exorcise it from evil. As Allen Ginsberg explained, “The Pentagon was symbolically levitated in people’s minds in the sense that… the authority of the Pentagon psychologically was dissolved.”
Today, it’s the orange man playing the part of the clown, with QAnon as his Yippie minions.
Robert Anton Wilson eventually claimed all of this activity as part of “Operation Mindfuck” — the collective countercultural effort to destabilize myth surrounding the American dream. What made these performative, po-mo protests work so well was that they were cheeky. While their ultimate intentions were of existential importance — ending the Vietnam War, race murder, and economic oppression — they didn’t take themselves seriously at all. This is part of what made them so powerful. How do you fight a clown?
Today, it’s the orange man playing the part of the clown, with QAnon as his Yippie minions, pranking the public with fake news and metaphorical stunts that work whether or not they’re taken seriously. In fact, the less serious they seem, the more wiggle room they create — for confusion in the audience, and denial by the prankster.
The Republican National Convention may have been the most blatant celebration of authoritarianism in American history, but it was also postmodern theater. An appearance by a couple whose sole qualification for speaking was having waved guns at BLM protestors marching by their home; Melania Trump dressed in a military-themed outfit almost identical to Hitler’s; Melania following up the next night in a chroma-key green dress, as if to say “project onto me whatever you want;” and Trump himself responding to accusations that it was illegal to use the Rose Garden for a campaign by acknowledging his White House backdrop and joking, “we’re here, they’re not.”
The progressive Twitterverse responded to each taunt with greater outrage, posting side-by-side comparisons of Melania’s epaulets to Hitler’s, scoffing at Trump’s use of the White House as a set-piece, and dutifully superimposing anti-Trump imagery on Melania’s chroma-key dress. Triggered, provoked, and destabilized, the Left loses touch with whatever issues it may hold dear, drawn instead into a frenzy of speculation about Trump’s rhetorical pyrotechnics.
Did the Trumps really mean to accomplish all this? Maybe. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter, as long as we obsess over trying to figure it out. This is the desired effect — the mindfuck — of propaganda pranksterism. As Walter Lippmann, the founder of the field of public relations, explained back in the 1920s: The object of the game is to create a “pseudo environment” between people and reality by simply “putting pictures into their heads.” People’s imaginations take care of the rest.
Trump has been able to seize the power of all this semiotic play because the Left has relinquished it. In part, it’s because the Left is now in the position of the top-down broadcasters, and Trump has assumed the mantle of the countercultural rebel. Indeed, the Left “won” the culture wars. Mainstream society accepted — at least the principle — that women, people of color, LGBTQ, and every intersectional group deserves equal rights. But this put the Left on defense, always on alert for language and imagery that violated its hard-won cultural victories.
Meanwhile, the artsy cheekiness of Abbie Hoffman and Paul Krassner went from the streets of Haight-Ashbury to the ivory towers of academia. There, it became the dead serious discipline known as critical theory — an earnest analysis of the way language and culture are controlled by those in power. In deconstructing the way the perceptions, labels, and language of a powerful group can be used to limit what seems possible for a less powerful one, they concluded that words can be a form of violence. It’s at the heart of today’s identity politics, wokeism, and the Left’s high sensitivity to labels, language, and other triggers. And — when facing an adversary willing to say anything — it may also have become the Left’s Achilles’ heel.
Trump certainly sees it that way, which is why he’s so happy to deliver a daily dose of language and imagery guaranteed to get everyone on CNN, MSNBC, and my Twitter feed in a tizzy. He said what???? That would be bad enough, but he’s also playing the spoilsport at the very same time, winking and nudging at the preposterousness of the game itself, as if to say, You saw a military dress on Melania at the RNC? What do you project tonight onto her chroma-key gown? It doesn’t even matter if he consciously realizes any of this at all. Whether the result of strategy or intuition, it works.
The object of the game is to create a “pseudo environment” between people and reality by simply “putting pictures into their heads.” People’s imaginations take care of the rest.
Critical theory and the linguistic sensitivity it engendered doesn’t seem to be serving us very well as we attempt to fight back against the post-modern antics of Trump and QAnon. Because now it’s the alt-right using pranksterism to promote fascism, and the formerly cheeky Left now stranded in the hall of mirrors it once created to destabilize the Old Guard. Wordplay and mindfuckery are great tools for revolution, but terrible ones for building consensus or sustainable civics. They can distract us from the real conditions on the ground, and the facts on which our best arguments rest.
I don’t even think this was entirely the Left’s fault. There’s more at play here than an academic theory run aground on the shoals of the real world. It’s that the approach itself only really worked in the prior media era when all we could really do is shout back at the TV screen. Interpretation and deconstruction are great for broadcast audiences. But we’re not in a spectator democracy, anymore. We’re participants in a digital media environment. We’re not just hearing and watching things; our responses become part of the story.
As computer scientist Norbert Wiener foretold, we’ve gone from command and control to cybernetics. Our relationship to power is more like a feedback loop, where everything is both the cause and effect of everything else. It’s impossible to parse whether the public is responding to the president, or if the president is responding to a Tweet because it’s both. BLM protests are a response to white abuse, yet white fear is also a triggered response to Black protests, leading to more abuse, and then more protests. There’s no longer a point of origin. It’s as if no one and everyone is responsible. The feedback loop spins out into a cycle of plausible deniability. The crazy 17-year old is on the streets with a rifle, and people can’t agree whether he’s a victim, a terrorist, or both.
These feedback loops are what spun out the Tea Party and Occupy into the current culture war, only now, fully divorced from conditions on the ground or class consciousness. It’s all “out there” on Twitter and cable TV, in symbolism, framing, and word choice. But there’s an actual way things are, which gets thrown out in the process. These culture wars concede reality itself. No one has any ground for discussion or engagement. And this is largely social media’s fault, in that we accept our algorithmically derived profiles as some measure of who we are.
But when we pull back and look at what’s going on here, we see a whole bunch of poor, disempowered people of every color being programmed by social media to fight against one another instead of against their mutual oppressors. And sure, they can each see how the other side is being manipulated — but can’t see how they, themselves, are being radicalized the same way.
As this all spins out of control, we find ourselves on the brink of what a full third of Americans believe may even become a civil war. People actually shooting each other in the streets based on crazy-ass fake bullshit — and giving more ammunition to a president and media that both thrive off this artificial and unnecessary conflict. Chaos and violence work in their favor — that’s what the administration says out loud — because then cops get more nervous, shoot more Black people, who then protest, who then bring out the Trumpers, who then create more chaos and violence.
But as with all feedback loops, there’s a way to stop them.
Just like when a musician hears that awful screech of feedback on stage, we must pull the microphone away from the speaker, or the speaker away from the microphone. It’s that simple. Break the cycle. That doesn’t mean ignoring the news or our president’s online antics (though we could all ease up on the doom scrolling right now) but maybe engaging with them in a different way. Not poised to reflexively tweet and retweet, but to slow down, pull back, and understand.