On November 2nd, Columbia law professor Tim Wu tweeted: “What is the political press going to do for ratings after this blockbuster election winds down?” It’s a funny question, but a serious reflection on the disturbing amount of coverage the Republican candidate has enjoyed. The U.S. has a private media, but the coverage has been skewed one way, and even in his most controversial moments Trump has mostly profited from the millions of dollars of free advertising he has received. Every time you turn on the TV or head to a website’s home page you see one person. Wu draws an interesting parallel between this phenomenon and totalitarian regimes, like North Korea where everywhere you look you see the Great Leader, or China in the ‘60s, where Mao’s face was omnipresent. Trump is inescapable.
It’s just one of the strategies the candidate shares with fascist regimes – and before we go any further, Wu is clear that he is not comparing Trump’s views to those of fascist leaders; he is highlighting the similarity of their methods.
Wu’s latest book The Attention Merchants is an ethnography of advertising culture, examining the way external forces and agendas creep into our minds and influence us – a practice politics is also deeply tied into. Trump is, as Wu says, a “master attention merchant”, and upon breaking down his strategy it turns out he understands something many fascist leaders in the past have also understood: the best way to attract attention and inspire intensity in your audience is to make them afraid. Trump has tapped into the unconscious fears and hatreds of his supporters by overstating the danger the United States is in, and creating enemies much greater than reality supports. “If you study carefully the rise of the Third Reich, it is fascinating how well the speakers of the Third Reich targeted unconscious, unspoken but truly present fears, hatreds, powerful emotions, you know, far beyond the thinking mind,” says Wu. “And I think that those techniques whether or not you’re a Nazi or Hitler, whatever you are, are effective for anyone who wants to captivate their audience and inspire an angry rally.”
Tim Wu’s most recent book is The Attention Merchants The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.
Tim Wu: Trump has followed an ignoble history of attracting attention using techniques that other Totalitarian leaders used before him, particularly the Fascists. Now I’m not saying those are the views of Trump but I’m saying he does use the same methods. And one of the keys – this is something that Adolf Hitler in particular understood is that the most compelling way to fire up your audience is to speak to their unconscious fears and hatreds and give voice to them in a way. And that seems so really in terms of intention just grab people in this very intense way. So if you study carefully the rise of the Third Reich it is fascinating how well the speakers of the Third Reich targeted unconscious, unspoken but truly present fears, hatreds, powerful emotions, you know, far beyond the thinking mind. And I think that those techniques whether or not you’re a Nazi or Hitler, whatever you are are effective for anyone who wants to captivate their audience and inspire an angry rally. And so I think there’s some similarities. One of the things I also think is very interesting about the rise, you know, Trump’s success in the, particularly in the primary campaign. He’s obviously a master attention merchant and a master at getting people to just want to see what he does next. And, you know, we have a private media. We don’t have a state media. Nonetheless, there has been for the last year the phenomenon where you turn on the television or you turn on any website and there’s Trump’s face.
You know as time reminded me of the heights of some of the Totalitarian schemes or like North Korea where everywhere you looked there’s a great leader or in China during the 60’s everywhere you looked there was Mao. Everywhere you looked you could not get away from this. And I think, you know, Trump may come to lose this election but I think the rise has been terrifying. The use of the private media to effectively propagandize and get billions of dollars in what has been effectively free coverage has been something to learn from. And every republic is always in some danger of tipping over into an authoritarian regime and it usually is control of the media that begins that process.