Going Off-Script in the ‘Historic’ Age of Trump

This year, the Iowa Caucus, the State of the Union address and the National Prayer Breakfast all went haywire, writes Andrew Bacevich. Together, they hint at the vulnerability of other pseudo-events.

Articles of impeachment read into the Congressional Record by Reading Clerk Joe Novotny. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Andrew J. Bacevich

The impeachment of the president of the United States! Surely such a mega-historic event would reverberate for weeks or months, leaving in its wake no end of consequences, large and small. Wouldn’t it? Shouldn’t it?

Truth to tell, the word historic does get tossed around rather loosely these days. Just about anything that happens at the White House, for example, is deemed historic. Watch the cable news networks and you’ll hear the term employed regularly to describe everything from Oval Office addresses to Rose Garden pronouncements to press conferences in which foreign dignitaries listen passively while their presidential host pontificates about subjects that have nothing to do with them and everything to do with him.

Of course, almost all of these are carefully scripted performances that are devoid of authenticity. In short, they’re fraudulent. The politicians who participate in such performances know that it’s all a sham. So, too, do the reporters and commentators paid to “interpret” the news. So, too, does any semi-attentive, semi-informed citizen.

Yet on it goes, day in, day out, as politicians, journalists, and ordinary folk collaborate in manufacturing, propagating, and consuming a vast panoply of staged incidents, which together comprise what Americans choose to treat as the very stuff of contemporary history. “Pseudo-events” was the term that historian Daniel Boorstin coined to describe them in his classic 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.” The accumulation of such incidents creates a make-believe world. As Boorstin put it, they give rise to a “thicket of unreality that stands between us and the facts of life.”

As substitutes for reality, pseudo-events, he claimed, breed “extravagant expectations” that can never be met, with disappointment, confusion, and anger among the inevitable results. Writing decades before the advent of CNN, Fox News, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, Boorstin observed that “we are deceived and obstructed by the very machines we make to enlarge our vision.” So, it was back then during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, a master of pseudo-events in the still relatively early days of television. And so our world remains today during the presidency of Donald Trump who achieved high office by unmasking the extravagant post-Cold War/sole superpower/indispensable nation/end of history expectations of the political class, only to weave his own in their place.

As Trump so skillfully demonstrates, even as they deceive, pseudo-events also seduce, inducing what Boorstin referred to as a form of “national self-hypnosis.” With enough wishful thinking, reality becomes entirely optional. So the thousands of Trump loyalists attending MAGA rallies implicitly attest as they count on their hero to make their dreams come true and their nightmares go away.

Yet when it comes to extravagant expectations, few pseudo-events can match the recently completed presidential impeachment and trial. Even before his inauguration, the multitudes who despise Donald Trump longed to see him thrown out of office. To ensure the survival of the Republic, Trump’s removal needed to happen. And when the impeachment process did finally begin to unfold, feverish reporters and commentators could find little else to talk about. With the integrity of the Constitution itself said to be at stake, the enduringly historic significance of each day’s developments appeared self-evident. Or so we were told anyway.

While all parties involved dutifully recited their prescribed lines — no one with greater relish than Donald Trump himself — the final outcome was never in doubt. The Republican Senate was no more likely to convict the president than he was to play golf without cheating. No sooner did the Senate let Trump off the hook than the fever broke. In an instant, the farcical nature of the entire process became blindingly apparent. Rarely has the gap between hype and actual historical substance been so vast.

President Donald Trump holds up copy of The Washington Post during the 2020 National Prayer Breakfast, Feb. 6, 2020. (White House/Joyce N. Boghosian)

The effort to oust the president from office had unleashed a tidal wave of angst, anxiety, anger and hope. Yet a mere handful of weeks after its conclusion, the impeachment of Donald Trump retains about as much salience as the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, which concluded in 1868.

What does the instantaneous deflation of this ostensibly historic event signify? Among other things, it shows that we still live in the world of pseudo-events that Boorstin described nearly 60 years ago. The American susceptibility to contrived and scripted versions of reality persists, revealing an emptiness at the core of our national politics. Arguably, in our age of social media, that emptiness is greater still. To look past the pseudo-events staged to capture our attention is to confront a void.

Pseudo-Events Gone Wrong

Yet in this dismal situation, flickering bits of truth occasionally do appear in moments when pseudo-events inadvertently expose realities they are meant to conceal. Boorstin posited that “pseudo-events produce more pseudo-events.” While that might be broadly correct, let me offer a caveat: given the right conditions, pseudo-events can also be self-subverting, their cumulative absurdity undermining their cumulative authority. Every now and then, in other words, we get the sneaking suspicion that much of what in Washington gets advertised as historic just might be a load of bullshit.

As it happens, the season of Trump’s impeachment offered three encouraging instances of a prominent pseudo-event being exposed as delightfully bogus: the Iowa Caucus, the State of the Union Address and the National Prayer Breakfast.

Screenshot of CNN  feed of an Iowa caucus.

According to custom, every four years the Iowa Caucus initiates what is said to be a fair, methodical, and democratic process of selecting the presidential nominees of the two principal political parties. According to custom and in accordance with a constitutional requirement, the State of the Union Address offers presidents an annual opportunity to appear before Congress and the American people to assess the nation’s condition and describe administration plans for the year ahead. Pursuant to a tradition dating from the early years of the Cold War, the National Prayer Breakfast, held annually in Washington, invites members of the political establishment to bear witness to the assertion that we remain a people “under God,” united in all our wondrous diversity by a shared faith in the Almighty.

This year all three went haywire, each in a different way, but together hinting at the vulnerability of other pseudo-events assumed to be fixed and permanent. By offering a peek at previously hidden truths, the trio of usually forgettable events just might merit celebration.

Iowa Caucus

First, on Feb. 3, came the long-awaited Iowa Caucus. Commentators grasping for something to write about in advance of caucus night entertained themselves by lamenting the fact that the Hawkeye State is too darn white, implying, in effect, that Iowans aren’t sufficiently American. As it happened, the problem turned out to be not a lack of diversity, but a staggering lack of competence, as the state’s Democratic Party thoroughly botched the one and only event that allows Iowa to claim a modicum of national political significance. To tally caucus results, it employed an ill-tested and deficient smartphone app created by party insiders who were clearly out of their depth.

The result was an epic cockup, a pseudo-event exposed as political burlesque. The people of Iowa had spoken — the people defined in this instance as registered Democrats who bothered to show up — but no one quite knew what they had said. By the time the counting and recounting were over, the results no longer mattered. Iowa was supposed to set in motion an orderly sorting-out process for the party and its candidates. Instead, it sowed confusion and then more confusion. Yet in doing so, the foul-up in Iowa suggested that maybe, just maybe, the entire process of selecting presidential candidates is in need of a complete overhaul, with the present quadrennial circus replaced by an approach that might yield an outcome more expeditiously, while wasting less money and, yes, also taking diversity into account.

State of the Union 

Rush Limbaugh on Feb. 4, 2020, after receiving Medal of Freedom during State of the Union address. (White House/D. Myles Cullen)

Next, on Feb. 4, came the State of the Union Address. Resplendent with ritual and ceremony, this event certainly deserves an honored place in the pseudo-event Hall of Fame. This year’s performance was no exception. Trump bragged shamelessly about his administration’s many accomplishments, planted compliant live mannequins in the gallery of the House of Representatives to curry favor with various constituencies — hatemongering radio host Rush Limbaugh received the Medal of Freedom from the First Lady! — even as he otherwise kept pretty much to the model employed by every president since Ronald Reagan. It was, in other words, a pseudo-event par excellence.

The sole revelatory moment came just after Trump finished speaking. In an endearing and entirely salutary gesture, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, standing behind the president, promptly rendered her verdict on the entire occasion. Like a thoroughly miffed schoolteacher rejecting unsatisfactory homework from a delinquent pupil, she tore the text of Trump’s remarks in two. In effect, Pelosi thereby announced that the entire evening had consisted of pure, unadulterated nonsense, as indeed it had and as has every other State of the Union Address in recent memory.

Blessings upon Speaker Pelosi. Next year, we must hope that she will skip the occasion entirely as not worthy of her time. Other members of Congress, preferably from both parties, may then follow her example, finding better things to do. Within a few years, presidents could find themselves speaking in an empty chamber. The networks will then lose interest. At that juncture, the practice that prevailed from the early days of the Republic until the administration of Woodrow Wilson might be restored: every year or so, presidents can simply send a letter to Congress ruminating about the state of the nation, with members choosing to attend to or ignore it as it pleases them. And the nation’s calendar will therefore be purged altogether of one prominent pseudo-event.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tears up a copy of the president’s remarks at the end of the 2020 State of the Union address. (YouTube | PBS NewsHour)

The National Prayer Breakfast, which occurred on Feb. 6, completes our trifecta of recent pseudo-events gone unexpectedly awry. Here the credit belongs entirely to Trump, who used his time at the dais during this nominally religious event as an opportunity to whine about the terrible ordeal he had just endured at the hands of “some very dishonest and corrupt people.” Alluding specifically to Pelosi (and perhaps with Mitt Romney also in mind), Trump denounced his critics as hypocrites. “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” he said. “Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that that’s not so.”

Jesus might have forgiven his tormentors, but Donald Trump, a self-described Christian, is not given to following the Lord’s example. So instead of an occasion for faux displays of brotherly ecumenism, this year’s National Prayer Breakfast became one more exhibition of petty partisanship —relieving the rest of us (and the media) of any further need to pretend that it ever possessed anything approximating a serious religious motivation.

So if only in an ironic sense, the first week of February 2020 did end up qualifying as a genuinely historic occasion. Granted, those who claim the authority to instruct the rest of us on what deserves that encomium missed its true significance. They had wasted no time in moving on to the next pseudo-event, this one in New Hampshire. Yet over the course of a handful of days, Americans had been granted a glimpse of the reality that pseudo-events are designed to camouflage.

A few more such glimpses and something like “the facts of life” to which Boorstin alluded so long ago might become impossible to hide any longer. Imagine: No more bullshit. In these dark and discouraging times, aren’t we at least entitled to such a hope?

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.”

This article is from TomDispatch.com.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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10 comments for “Going Off-Script in the ‘Historic’ Age of Trump

  1. dean 1000
    March 3, 2020 at 17:23

    to Piotr Berman at March 2, 2020 at 06:03:

    I wasn’t suggesting that Prime Ministers can walk on water. I was suggesting that U.S. Presidents would behave better if they were subject to a vote of confidence like Prime Ministers.

    The leaders of the majority party you mention are a tiny minority but (may) be more representative of the public than a disagreeing minority.

    If institutions or a set of customs are not working for a majority of people there is absolutely nothing to suggest that customs or institutions what work for a political minority are any better. The tyranny of a ruling minority exists much more often than a tyranny of a ruling majority. Bills of Rights are essential regardless of who rules. We do know that those rights are not alway enforced when a minority rules. Julian Assange and the whistleblowers are prime examples.

  2. Fran Macadam
    March 1, 2020 at 16:52

    Sure, but Nancy’s spur of the moment” “unplanned” stunt was itself shown as phony as a stage magician’s tearing a pre-ripped phone book in two.

  3. dean 1000
    March 1, 2020 at 15:36

    Yes, we are entitled to no more bullshit and no more State of the Union BS. Trump’s statement that the Dems impeached him because they could not win an election was also true of the republicans when they impeached President Clinton.The partisan impeachments do remind us of how non-essential independent presidents really are.
    The thirteen colonies managed to win independence with just a Unicameral Congress. There was a dependent president ( until 1789 ) who was a member of congress elected by his colleagues to do whatever they wanted him to do. I don’t remember the name of the historian who wrote that the
    “President of Congress” looked a lot like an inchoate Prime Minister. His statement is axiomatic when you read it.

    Given the unruly and unlawful behavior of independent presidents over the last 231 years, dependent presidents would be better. Given also the abject failure of congress to prevent presidential wars, the Voters would be a more appropriate means of delivering a confidence/no confidence vote at mid-term elections. Even an advisory vote would have salutary effects on presidents and their appointees.

    Congress could also make the confidence/no confidence vote a constitutional measure by styling the ballot question as a constitutional amendment under the reserved powers of the people pursuant to the 9th Amendment. There is no constitutional bar to the voters passing a constitutional amendment by majority vote. Am I suffering from a severe case of wishful thinking? No. If you don’t want a democratic republic you may be suffering from an overdose of Oligarchy.

    • March 2, 2020 at 06:03

      I am not sure. You can look around the world for jerks being Prime Ministers, or in the case of Poland, leaders of the majority party. Institutions cannot work better than the set of customs surrounding them.

  4. Stan W.
    March 1, 2020 at 13:15

    Historic? Hmm, perphaps “Hysteric”?

  5. March 1, 2020 at 10:39

    I just finished reading Boorstin’s classic book a month ago and found it quite eerily prescient. It is a great companion to Alex Carey’s excellent book on propaganda, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty

    “Strictly speaking, there is no way to unmask an image. An image, like any other psuedo-event, becomes all the more interesting with our every effort to debunk it.” Daniel Boorstin (1961)

    “citizen-consumers are daily less interested in whether something is a fact than in whether it is convenient that it should be believed.” Alex Carey quoting Daniel Boorstin (1961)

  6. March 1, 2020 at 08:55

    I would expand more about absurdity of non-events. In the case of impeachment, Donald Trump committed a lot of offenses against Constitution and even a self-admitted double murder, but the opposition used their majority in the House to accuse him of something really doubtful, betraying our precious (but not THE MOST PRECIOUS) ally, Ukraine and colluding with our enemy (adversary?), Russia etc.

    State of the Union and Prayer Breakfast are purely ceremonial, so the discussion about them is like analysis if the description of gloves “made from genuine vinyl” is deceptive or not, vinyl being erzatz leather with a lot of undesired effects that leather lacks. Say that it was actually substituted with an even more inferior type of plastic… or crumbled in cold weather as expected (do not try any vinyl apparel under -40 degrees).

    Iowa caucuses, with arcane calculation rules (county delegates equivalent rounded to two decimal points? how can you expect corn growers, habituated to measuring actual corn, to calculate it?) where quite accurately estimated right away, but with faux drama. There was also a documented attempt to take away about 8000 votes from Sanders through an error in copying by hand from one piece of paper to another, something that was supposed to be done by a failing app, so it was a bit funny. Apps developed by supporters of one of the competing political tendencies have the potential of tilting the results, but they have to make an appearance of working properly… which they did not.

  7. March 1, 2020 at 08:38

    Upcoming pseudo-event, the invasion of the corona virus where a hysteria prone nation tries to hide from the deadly menace. Like the boy who cries wolf, the event managers are bound to be right sometime. So this could be the one, and while comparing other flu deaths, overwhelmingly greater than the “virus” at this point, prudent people still have to pay attention. They do not, however, have to run screaming in the streets at the terrible threat.

    Remember the anthrax debacle after 9/11 when people were urged to tape their windows and cowardly Congress went bonkers.

    In line with those who are always alert to conspiracies, like myself, one does have to wonder just why the stock dove last week

    Bacevich is always worth reading as are so many CN contributors.

  8. Gregory Herr
    February 29, 2020 at 21:10

    The Pelosi “gesture” was purely political theatre and merely added to the unadulterated nonsense. Pelosi is no more an opponent of Trump than my sister’s lap dog. Her cheering for Guaido speaks volumes about the nature of our duopolistic and duplicitous funhouse chamber of charlatans.

    Pelosi will be just fine with another 4 years of phone and facile “resistance” to Trump. She’s all about her Benjamins.

    • March 2, 2020 at 05:57

      Perhaps it is true, but apart from the existence of consensus within the elite on matters like Venezuela, Trump is a boorish and unpleasant person, finding joy in personal humiliation of others etc., so Pelosi cannot stand the guy. For that matter, why would Bloomberg hate Trump? Not because Trump does not give enough consideration to Israel (Bloomberg has strong emotions there), but simply because Trump is a jerk.

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