What could be more postmodern than a Donald Trump presidency? Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

November 3, 2020   5 mins

“In the beginning the United States had to unify a disparate population that comes from all the countries of Europe and had diverse traditions and tendencies. A way of rapid assimilation had to be found.” So wrote the devotedly pessimistic Catholic philosopher Jacques Ellul in his classic study of Propaganda in 1962.

For Ellul, that meant establishing the underlying myths that hold a society together: the American Way of Life, faith in Progress and Happiness. Everything, from conscious PR campaigns through to unconscious decisions by movie makers, connected people to these underlying myths: “Propaganda in the United States is a natural result of the fundamental elements of American life.” Ellul saw the country’s over-intense insistence on its cohesive identity as a symptom of uncertainty about whether it could hold together.

“There is only one America. No Democratic Rivers. No Republican Mountains” intones a Joe Biden Presidential campaign ad, with lush shots of the American landscape. It’s a message that goes right to the anxieties that have always lingered underneath the surface in America. The backdrop of today’s Presidential election is the fear that America is disintegrating as an imagined community. Americans are alarmingly polarised: increasingly more likely to dislike and distrust people from other parties; less likely to live near them and, as a recent Pew Research poll shows, placing their trust in different partisan media environments. In response, each Presidential campaign has chosen opposing strategies for its election ads. It’s a test not so much of policies but which dynamics are stronger: the forces pulling America together, or those pushing it apart?

“We’re the United States of America” stressed Biden in an epic ad last week, which showed a shower of images of people from all walks of life: a rainbow coalition brought together by the Democrats with Biden’s personal emotional experiences as the glue. Biden has positioned himself as someone who has experienced horrific personal loss with the death of his wife and two sons, meaning he can feel other people’s pain too. ‘We are united in our trauma’ is the message, with Donald Trump defined in absentia as the “divider in chief”, incapable of empathy. Biden’s betting big that even some possible Trump supporters are worried about the divides in American society and will vote for a candidate that stresses unity: Vote for Trump and we might lose America.

The Biden team have taken into account that, in a world where all the old Left-Right economic ideologies don’t cleanly define parties, the only thing that can bring a diverse coalition together is something more nebulous: a feeling that each can project its own agenda onto. Trump won 2016 with anger and resentment, now Biden is betting that more positive emotions can compete: “compassion” his ads say, “is on the ballot.”

The Biden campaign is also swimming with Christian motifs. In perhaps his most moving ad, one of his speeches is interlaced with Black Eyed Peas singing ‘Where is the Love’. “Father, father, father help us / Send some guidance from above,” they plead, and for a moment I wasn’t sure if they meant God or Biden. At the end of the ad we see a line from Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Then the word Love appears on a black screen, after which the word Vote appears, the Os of the two words crossing. There are echoes of the American Pledge of Allegiance: “One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Ellul argued that effective propaganda has to tap into existing myths to be successful: the ad needs to resonate with a big underlying thing that people live by already. And so Biden connects his own campaign with the powerful founding story of American religious redemption, the caring father of a nation that has lost its way in the last four years, but just needs to, as another of his ads puts it, “remember who we are”.

Part of Donald Trump’s propaganda power has also been to connect his own story with a fundamental American myth — that of the businessman, the dealmaker. It’s a myth he has played into his whole life and cemented when he hosted The Apprentice. The sophisticated arguments from Trump critics accusing him of crypto-fascism don’t resonate with audiences who know Trump as the guy who hosts a prime time business reality show. (How can he be Hitler when he was in Home Alone 2?) And he is constantly selling Americans some great new deal he’s sealed. In recent ads on a tour of Pennsylvania he even used clips of Biden admitting that Trump’s trade deal with Canada and Mexico is “better than NAFTA”. But the salesman role is not only metaphorical. When I checked Trump social media ads with the help of NYU’s ad-tracker tool, I found people were literally using The Donald as a way to promote their own deals: something called ‘Trumprack’ was flogging Trump whisky flasks and sweaters (“a sweatshirt for the silent majority” ran the tagline).

Trump’s critics also accuse him of being a cheesy, sleazy salesman — but maybe that’s part of his appeal. He can play every embodiment of the American wheeler-dealer drama, from a gauche Great Gatsby to the door-to-door salesman down on his luck. After he came out of hospital recently there was something pathetic and desperate in the way Trump begged pensioners to vote for him. Here was Trump as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman — but one who could then, in an ad filmed the same week, fly into the White House on a helicopter to martial music in scenes with a whiff of Mussolini. The Salesman dies — and is resurrected!

But the dealmaker myth is hard to tap into when the main threat facing the nation is one that can’t be flattered or bullied into submission. No matter how artful Trump is, Covid-19 will go about its business. And so the President is left invoking divisive ‘wedge’ issues: Biden will strengthen ‘the radical Left’ and usher in riots; Trump will defend wealthy suburban lifestyles from poor people in the inner cities. The ads are right out of B-movie urban apocalypse movies, with thundering cords and burning buildings; you half expect Kurt Russell to appear.

Trump seems to be hoping that the forces driving America apart are so strong he can further fuel them, then ride them to victory — or at least into confusion. Some fear that what might be just an ad campaign for Trump will be taken seriously by Right-wing militias. Every week I get a newsletter from The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a counter-extremism think tank, about the latest online campaign in the dankest parts of the internet. Such groups are already trying to seed doubt in the results of the election if it goes against Trump and planning pitched battles in its aftermath. They are waging a vicious civil war — but for now it remains in squalid echo chambers.

Whether Trump wins this week or not, can the cohesion Ellul saw as essential to the American project ultimately survive in a media landscape broken up into such information archipelagos?  The way Trump is both reality show and buffoon yet a symptom of things genuinely disturbing makes this election, like so much with the Trump era, seem simultaneously petrifying and silly. An ad from actor Mandy Patinkin, who is running his own pro-Biden get-out-the-vote campaign, captured the tension best. It starts with a sense of impending doom and drama: “This November 3rd everything is at stake” it bellows, only for the ad to break off and cut to a discussion in the recording studio between Mandy and his wife about whether he is being too hysterical. They try to re-record the ad in a more measured tone, but keep on slipping into angst, finally screaming “It’s going to just be more fucking chaos.”

Peter Pomerantsev is the author of This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.
He is a Senior Fellow at the Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University and at the LSE