The nomination process for the next presidential candidates is in full swing in the United States. Although this election cycle has been noteworthy for several reasons, the most notable is not only the success of billionaire Donald Trump, but of the self-proclaimed “socialist,” or at different times, “democratic socialist,” Bernie Sanders. Although both the Democratic and Republican primary races are fascinating, this analysis will focus on the Trump and Sanders and their ongoing presidential nomination campaigns. Specifically, what concerns me is the role of what Luke has called “entertainmentality” in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. Luke has suggested that:
Plainly, ‘entertainments’ are arrangements to keep one preoccupied, to engage one in a specified manner, or to maintain one as such. To speak of entertainment, one already moves rhetorically into spaces of ‘entertainmentality,’ or practices that keep us held in some mutually pre-specified manners (2002, 4; quoted in Nickel 2012, 168).
In other words, as Nickel has noted, this “preoccupation” with entertainment narratives “not only hold our attention while holding us apart, it also imparts a false sense of individualized entertainment as a form of togetherness” (2012, 169). These “celebrity parables” have turned the race for President of the United States into the equivalent of a TV reality show complete with heroes and villains, obscuring alternatives to crisis-ridden and contradictory neoliberal governance, or “roll-out neoliberalism,” that has continued under both the Left and Right (Peck 2010).
The current Democratic and Republican primaries represent the latest iteration of this entertainment narrative. Americans’ preoccupation with the celebrity character of the Democratic and Republican primary races, despite their ideological differences, is propelled by a “media spectacle” that precludes any “political #revolution” or anti-establishment politics (Kellner 2009, 783; Fletcher 2016).
Although I argue that all of the candidates fall within this entertainmentality narrative, Sanders and Trump have each proclaimed that they are “anti-establishment” candidates and thus beyond “political orthodoxy” (Roberts and Jacobs 2016). Both presidential candidates adhere to ideologically different views, but nonetheless embrace entertainmentality narratives and media spectacle. As a result, these continue to dominate Democratic and Republican election politics.
While we are continuously told that both of the potential presidential nominees treated here are tapping into the anger of the disenfranchised, the excluded and outraged citizens, Sanders and Trump’s campaigns are radically different (Brooks 2015; Savage 2016). Sanders has promised to lead a “political revolution” by securing major campaign finance reform and has embraced universal higher education and the breakup of big banks while also advocating New Deal-era style policy projects. He seems to be energizing the much-maligned Millennial generation, albeit to a lesser extent than “Obama’s miracle” accomplished in 2008 (Davis 2016; cf. Schaeffer 2016). This is not to say that Sanders is refusing to speak about issues that need to be addressed. The massive amount of student loan debt, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United that opened space for an almost unfettered role for money in politics, and the role of the banking-financial sector in the recent financial crisis, should be addressed. Yet, we must be careful when proposed remedies for these concerns are advertised as a “political #revolution,” when in reality, these ideas remain ensconced within a neoliberal narrative that presumes that we can solve our issues solely through offering more education, providing more jobs or repairing crumbling infrastructure (Halsey III 2015).
Trump, on the other hand, has espoused vitriolic, xenophobic and bizarre policies. For example, his statements on “irregular migration” from Mexico or his stance embracing torture are outrageous and have very little basis in reality (Porter 2015; Davidson 2016). Nonetheless, Trump’s presidential nomination campaign has gone from being a “joke” and a “public stunt,” to a serious political phenomenon. Indeed, unless the Republicans can somehow finagle a “brokered convention” and prevent Trump from gaining the required 1,237 delegates, the businessman may capture the GOP presidential nomination (RealClear Politics 2015).
Despite their significant ideological differences, the 2016 campaigns for the GOP and Democratic Party presidential nominations have fully embraced what Kellner has termed the “media spectacle,” a phenomenon marked by the promotion and production of would-be presidential nominees as “faux-celebrities propelled by the “implosion” of entertainment, news and politics” (2009, 716). This is perhaps no more evident than in the meteoric rise of Trump. Kellner has also highlighted the fact 2008 Democratic Party presidential candidate and presumptive 2016 Democratic Party presidential nominee Hilary Clinton enjoys the same faux-celebrity (Kellner 2009, 716). Clinton’s entertainmentality narrative has developed as a result of her husband, former President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal as well as the current “email server scandal” (Kellner 2009). Kellner has suggested that in the 2008 election:
… The spectacle of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—the first serious African American candidate versus the first serious women candidate—generated a compelling spectacle of race and gender. … As media spectacle, the Democratic Party primary could be seen as seen as a reality TV show. For the media and candidates alike, the Democratic primary was like ‘Survivor’ or ‘The Apprentice’ (‘You’re Fired’), with losing candidates knocked out week by week (2009, 717).
In retrospect, Kellner’s portrait of the 2008 Democratic primaries seems prescient, capturing both that Party’s nomination race and that of the GOP as well. Not only were there originally seventeen potential nominees to “knock out” during the Republican primaries, but the current delegate leader for the Republican Party nomination is also the former host of a reality television show, Celebrity Apprentice. Moreover, Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail and during debates has been deeply intertwined with his TV persona. Indeed, his constant references to his ability to “win” and the success of his business ventures connects his celebrity persona with his presidential aspirations (Porter 2015).
Sanders has also reached and embraced a certain celebrity status. Similar to the 2008 Obama campaign, whose “masterful leveraging of Web 2.0 platforms,” such as Facebook and Twitter, marked a “major E-ruption in electoral politics,” Sanders has also become a Web and media spectacle, across platforms that include, “Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash” as well as countless hashtags and videos on social media and the Web (e.g., #feelthebern) (Dutta and Fraser 2008; Dewy 2016). Similar to Obama’s presidential campaigns, Sanders has made effective use of YouTube, hashtags, Facebook and Twitter (Kellner 2009). The reliance of U.S politics on E-politics and media spectacle obscures the “real issues,” “interests” and “ideologies” behind the façade it creates. This form of campaign politics also reduces the potential for alternative(s) to neoliberalism within Democratic and Republican party politics to emerge (Ibid, 783). Yet, this is not to contend that Sanders’ campaign, partly modeled on the recent Occupy and Black Lives Matter social movements, will not help build a “more egalitarian and diverse Democratic Party” (Marcus 2016). On the contrary, regardless of whether he wins the Democratic Party nomination, he may have changed the direction and composition of the party for the future (Ibid).
In sum, although what Sanders espouses is no doubt imperative, the increasing entertainmentality of presidential elections, with Trump representing perhaps the pinnacle of this (con)fusion, continues to obscure alternatives to the currently dominant (neo)liberal public philosophy (Brown 2005). In the end, Sanders’ calls for a “political revolution” must be contextualized. Yes, inequality must be reduced; yes, higher education should be accessible; yes, our infrastructure must be repaired. Nonetheless, Sanders’ calls for a “hashtag revolution” and for Americans’ collective participation in politics remain superficial and just as deeply intertwined and even enthralled, with entertainmentality and spectacle.
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Johannes Grow is a student in the ASPECT (Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought) doctoral program. He received his Master’s degree in Public and International Affairs (MPIA) and a B.A in International Studies from Virginia Tech. His research interests include: Social and Political Theory, International Relations, Critical European Studies, Postcolonial Theory and Critical Geopolitics. He also teaches in the Department of History at Virginia Tech.