Donald Trump, the TV Show: A New Political Framework
The election of Donald Trump shocked many, including scholars of politics. Conventional tools of the discipline no longer seem adequate. Professor Alyson Cole of The Graduate Center and Professor George Shulman of New York University propose instead incorporating politics and culture, personal psychology, and social dynamics — an approach influenced by political theorist Michael Rogin.
In their paper, “Donald Trump, the TV Show: Michael Rogin Redux,” published in Theory & Event, Cole and Shulman argue that the media and public mistakenly engage in either/or interpretations, trying to fit Trump into a conventional box. “There’s this temptation, because he’s so narcissistic and makes everything about himself, to focus on Trump’s individual pathologies,” Cole said. “But by pathologizing Trump, we cast him as an anomaly rather than recognizing how he extends Republican and conservative politics. Equally mistaken is normalizing Trump as a regular Republican, minimizing how dangerous he is. We need to do both: clarify the patterns of rhetoric and politics that Trump draws upon and remakes, while also identifying what is novel or distinctive about this political moment.”
Rogin refined his theories about “American demonology” studying Ronald Reagan, which Cole and Shulman find especially useful. Both Reagan and Trump exploited their fame as celebrities to stoke common aspirations and fears, Cole explained. She noted, though, that while Reagan escalated racial retrenchment and intensified policing and militarization, he stopped short of calling for violence.
“Whereas Reagan’s affable demeanor and City Upon a Hill rhetoric smoothed over the divisive and violent character of his appeal and policies, Trump’s affect and rhetoric are dark and apocalyptic in its depiction of ‘American carnage,’ and openly violent and demonizing in its justification for deporting 11 million immigrants and refusing entry to any Muslim,” the authors wrote. Cole adds, “There is an undercurrent of racism on which this country was built that Trump reshapes and emboldens.”
The article is intended to provide a framework to understand Trumpian politics and how the public — Trump’s supporters and critics — participate in this historic moment. “How we frame political phenomena governs how we respond to it,” said Cole.