The pseudo-event ethic in the political world and other institutions of power is today so deeply internalized among institutional participants that it is naive to think we can reverse the trend. When systems of power are addicted to the creation of bullshit, and the masses to its consumption, we're in dire straits. Perhaps the best we can do is (1) label and critique the pseudo-event phenomenon and try not to enable the exploiters of it and (2) work with principled citizens' organizations committed to rising above the BS while advocating for sound public policy. Neither is easy, but each is necessary.
The Media Rants column can [at least try to] help with the labeling and critique. In this rant I'd like to focus on a particular type of pseudo-event gaining traction in the Trump years, mostly among Republican politicians. I call it the "Public Display of Affliction" (PDA). In the remainder of this piece I will describe the essential features of the PDA, give some examples, and briefly address the consequences of it.
The epitome of the PDA occurred on October 8th, 2017. That was the day Vice President Mike Pence, in a highly calculated maneuver consistent with his overall midwest Machiavellian style, traveled to Indianapolis to walk out of the Colts/49ers game in response to players taking a knee during the national anthem. Immediately after leaving the event, the Veep tweeted that "While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don't think it's too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem." In Pence's staged event we can locate the essential features of the PDA:
*The chief participant (in this case Vice President Pence) needs to look pained and hurt; i.e. he must be visibly afflicted.
*The audience must identify with the chief participant's pain. In VP Pence's case, viewers were supposed to say, "I too would walk out if I saw spoiled athletes disrespecting our flag." Indeed, three weeks after the VP's stunt, two referees walked out and refused to officiate a high school game in New Jersey after players took a knee during the anthem. Their rationale parroted Pence: "What they are doing with this kneeling and everything, they have the right to do that, but the National Anthem has nothing to do with them kneeling."
*The PDA seeks to distort the message of the targeted group. In spite of the fact that NFL players have been clear from day one that their protests are about racial inequality and police brutality, VP Pence continued to repeat the alt.right canard that it is about soldiers, the flag, and the anthem. The irony of course is that while the Vice President and POTUS put on an act of affliction, the NFL players are calling attention to real, ongoing, actual afflictions in America
*The PDA attempts to marginalize the targeted group. Already called "sons of bitches" by the POTUS, on October 8th the protesting NFL players experienced further piling on by Pence. In response, San Francisco 49er Eric Reid said, "This is what systemic oppression looks like. A man with power comes to the game, tweets a couple of things out leaves the game with an attempt to thwart our efforts."
The Public Display of Affliction pseudo-event genre did not begin with Vice President Mike Pence walking out of a football game. As with all rhetorical genres, it is impossible to locate one genuine starting point. However, the calculated PDA as I've described it does seem to have deep roots in the efforts of politicians (mostly Republicans) to offer up "thoughts and prayers" for victims of mass shootings. The "thoughts and prayers" for victims of gun violence, typically offered up by those politicians in receipt of most gun lobby campaign contributions, substitutes personal affliction for public policy. It's like Bill Clinton's legendary "I feel your pain" pronouncement on steroids.
Almost every word out of President Trump's mouth is a form of PDA. He reminds us continuously of afflictions he suffers as a result of unfair attacks launched by the "failing" New York Times and other establishment news media, late-night comics, members of the US Congress, football players, Steph Curry, the mayor of San Juan, the wife of a fallen soldier, and many others. Almost never does the president address in any meaningful way any of the issues at the root of his conflict(s) with these people and institutions; instead he shifts the focus to how terrible it is that they all "hate Trump." In true Trump fashion, after the Charlottesville tragedy he somehow found a way to make himself the victim.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's extraordinary statement supporting President Trump and attacking Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson suggests that Public Display of Affliction might now be the official communication strategy coming out of the White House. Rep. Wilson had critiqued the president for what she said was an inappropriate condolence call to Myeshia Johnson, widow of fallen soldier LaDavid Johnson. Generally Kelly, who in the speech inaccurately portrayed remarks by Rep. Wilson, seemed to take the condolence controversy as a personal affront:
It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred. You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That's obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life -- the dignity of life -- is sacred. That's gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well.
What are the consequences of powerful people persistently employing Public Displays of Affliction as a rhetorical strategy? Three things come immediately to mind. First, public displays of affliction make it all but impossible to resolve--or even address--issues at the root of the conflict between the powerfully afflicted and their targets. A strong leader would try, for example, to use the bully pulpit of the White House to address inequality, police brutality, and other issues sparking the NFL protests. Because they have 24/7 media attention, all presidents in a real sense role model how the population at-large should treat controversies involving emotionally charged subjects. What kind of model have President Trump and Vice President Pence set when it comes to the NFL protests? That whenever a group makes a public statement of protest you should distort the message and make the issue about how pained the protest makes you feel? Seriously? Is that what leaders do?
Second, PDA coming from the powerful has a kind of domino effect: before you know it, the default response of almost everyone to everything is some kind of highly charged personal revulsion. Think of the supreme irony of Republicans in the White House and Congress creating the PDA domino effect. For years they have chastised the political left for being intolerant, taking everything too personally, and substituting "political correctness" for legitimate clash over ideas. I don't think the political left ever engaged in those behaviors to the level portrayed in the conservative caricature of them, but today there can be no doubt that in the Trump era the political right now behaves that way in the extreme.
Finally, Public Displays of Affliction seem to be the latest sign of the erosion of political conservatism as an intellectual force in public life. Charlie Sykes, once the Dean of Wisconsin's conservatives, has argued cogently that the right "lost its mind" and consequently conservatism in the Trump era dedicates itself almost exclusively to mocking and trolling liberals. The Public Display of Affliction rhetorical strategy is but one more sign of that. This is tragic because conservatism--by which I mean REAL conservatism rooted in an understanding of the Constitution and Bill of Rights as living documents that ought to inform current debates--can and should be a powerful force for generating creative public policy options. That kind of conservatism is dying a slow death right before our collective eyes, drowning in a pool of public displays of affliction coming from those who have co-opted the conservative movement.
Candidate Trump told us that if he got elected we would win so much that we would be "sick of winning." President Trump's given us the culture of the Public Display of Affliction, and I know I'm not alone in saying that I'm sick of the WHINING.