Back in 1858 Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas conducted seven debates throughout seven of the nine congressional districts in Illinois as they campaigned for the United States Senate. Each debate was scheduled to last three hours. What they said was recorded by stenographers, reprinted and distributed throughout the United States. People discussed and argued the issues that the two candidates raised. No one listened to them on the radio, saw them on television, or live streamed them; instead they read the debates in newspapers. This was democracy at its finest—candidates identified and framed the issues and citizens discussed and debated with each other.
Contrast that with the image of Donald J. Trump in Mexico City standing side-by-side with Mexican president Peña Nieto calling him a friend and referring to the Mexican people as “amazing people.” A few hours later in Phoenix Trump, standing in front of American flags, talked about creating a “deportation task force” to round up Mexicans (rapists and murderers?) who had illegally entered the country and send them back to stand at the end of the line to re-enter the land of milk and honey. Trump’s visit to Mexico provided him with a great visual—standing at a podium next to a grim-faced Mexican president. Then, hours later, creating another image as he blasted away at illegal Mexican immigrants. Whatever he said in either venue was irrelevant; it was the image that was significant.
In Mexico he created an image of a world leader capable of standing up to leaders of hostile nations (for Trump Mexico is a hostile nation). Back in the friendly confines of Arizona he reverted to the image of a “non-PC” candidate “telling it like it is.” Forget what Trump is saying (he often says things that are not true), image is what the Trump campaign is about.
It has been argued that Trump thrives upon, and even encourages, misinformation; that uneducated angry white men are flocking to him; that he is followed by “deplorable” people (the latest by Hillary). I think that is too simplistic. His appeal is broader. Trump is an extension of a presidential campaign phenomenon that began with the advent of television, was realized by Ronald Reagan, and became an art form with George W. Bush. These presidents (really their advisors) understood that reality had become “contested,” and they attempted to define it for their own political purposes through images, not words. Politics today is not a battle of ideas (ala the Lincoln-Douglas debates) but a battle of images. “Dubya” even went so far as to hire an image team composed of professionals drawn from the major networks to stage “message of the day” backdrops for pseudo-events to convey a simple yet coordinated message.
So Trump is not unique in his use of images. What is somewhat different about Trump is that he lacks virtually any substance at all. While candidates such as George W. Bush were taken to task for not being as informed about issues as presidential candidates should be, Trump’s ignorance about basic political issues and his lack of policy proposals is stunning. Still, it may not matter. Image becomes its own reality.
The difficulty with images is that they disempower the American citizenry. At their best images are effective at raising questions, but they do not provide people with information and perspectives that can provide the basis of democratic dialogue among citizens. How do you argue with an image? Images merely “are.” They can be pleasant, attractive, ugly, and disturbing. But they don’t provide the kind of information citizens need to engage in democratic discussions. Substantive arguments (which the Lincoln-Douglas debates provided) possess the possibility of engaging citizens in dialogue about important issues.
But images are effective on the campaign trail because they tap into people’s feelings, and those feelings often override rational thought. Unfortunately image creation and manipulation represents our present-day approach to presidential campaigns. As three-time Grammy Award winning guitarist Adam Jones once said: “It doesn’t matter what [the image] is about, all that matters is how it makes you feel.” Trump is creating an image that taps into people’s emotions and those emotions may very well overwhelm rational discourse.