In the aftermath of the 2016 election that created this astonishing 2020 political environment, the same media that had mocked Donald Trump’s chances of winning scrambled to figure out how he had won. Russian hackers were mentioned a lot. George Orwell’s name was everywhere. Marshall McLuhan’s not so much. Certainly no one suggested that the roots of the unfathomable turn of events that made Trump President might be found in a 1969 issue of Playboy magazine.
Generally speaking, it’s unfortunate that McLuhan’s ideas have not received more attention in relation to US politics. Understanding the hidden effects of media was McLuhan’s forte. When seeking to understand the impact and influence of media in the smartphone era, McLuhan’s perspective is far more enriching than Orwell’s and certainly more useful than the red herring theorem of Russian Hackers and fake Facebook pages that flooded the media in the days and years since Trump won.
As the presidential and vice-presidential debates draw nearer we have a perfect starting place to exhibit the nature and value of McLuhan’s insight.
“Television is not a debating medium.”1 McLuhan wrote this to Pierre Trudeau in 1968, before Trudeau first was elected Prime Minister of Canada. In the 2016 debates, Trump’s behaviour embodied this little known but vital McLuhan tenet, which still seems to elude most Republicans, Democrats and political pundits to this day.
Since becoming obsessed with the first television debates in the history of politics – Kennedy vs Nixon in 1960 – McLuhan had detected that, unlike with medium of radio, the importance of television debates has little to do with the points being debated.
Excluding Fox News, of course, the media ridiculed Trump for not preparing for the 2016 debates. Clinton, on the other hand, was praised for losing sleep in her preparations. McLuhan would have found Clinton’s diligence unnecessary, if not foolish, in the current era of media.
“ [Hillary]looks to be hunkering down with homework, research, and rehearsals,” Monica Alba and Ali Vitali reported for NBC News, “while [Trump] seems to be taking an on-the-fly casual approach to what could be the most important 90 minutes of the presidential election.”2
Four years later, whatever Trump or Hillary said in those debates has been forgotten. What remains etched in the collective memory of a nation, however, is the odd way Trump hovered in the background as Hillary tried to answer questions. By hovering in this peculiar manner – as so succinctly parodied on SNL – Trump upstaged the event, undermined Hillary’s thorough preparation as well as whatever message she hoped to deliver. And still, even after this fiasco, McLuhan’s “television is not a debating medium” notion feels as safely kept as a state secret.
But could Trump actually have studied McLuhan?
At first glance it seems outlandish, ridiculous even, to think that this defiantly lowbrow president would ever have encountered the ideas of the dizzyingly erudite English professor-turned-media guru. When Fox News asked Trump about his scholastic habits, he replied “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time.” 3
If there is one publication Trump has ‘read’ religiously (sic), throughout his life, it is Playboy magazine. On the topic of religion, supposing that nothing short of a small miracle could have brought Trump into contact with McLuhan’s ideas … Well, then Playboy may well have been that miracle.
In March, 1969, as Trump was about to turn 23 years old, Playboy published an extensive interview with McLuhan.4 The interview consists of some of McLuhan’s clearest most accessible elaborations and prognostications involving media and politics.
Imagine a young, lascivious lad who would be someday president, sitting in the back of his daddy’s limo, flipping through the latest issue of America’s first mainstream skin mag. By accident he lands upon McLuhan’s words:
“TV is revolutionizing every political system in the Western world. For one thing, it’s creating a totally new type of national leader, a man who is much more of a tribal chieftain than a politician.”5
Or how about one that might explain the riddle of Trump’s hostile approach towards the media:
“It’s vital to adopt a posture of arrogant superiority; instead of scurrying into a corner and wailing about what media are doing to us, one should charge straight ahead and kick them in the electrodes. They respond beautifully to such resolute treatment and soon become servants rather than masters.” 6
Could this be where the man who made famous such terms as ‘fake news’, ‘lamestream media’ and the ‘failing New York Times’ picked up such a tactic? Logic tells us that attacking the media you depend on for publicity should equate to political suicide. Somehow, McLuhan saw it differently. Somehow, on some level, overt media hostility has worked for Trump.
Or, what about this?
“The new political showman has to literally as well as figuratively put on his audience as he would a suit of clothes and become a corporate tribal image—like Mussolini, Hitler and F.D.R. in the days of radio, and Jack Kennedy in the television era. All these men were tribal emperors on a scale theretofore unknown in the world, because they all mastered their media.” 7
Via social media, Trump has discovered how to wear his audience as one wears a suit of clothes.
In 2015, before Trump took office, a massive joke floated around the internet that Trump was “a comments section running for President”8. He was a troll just like all the trolls. He ate McDonalds. He didn’t read much. He loved football and TV. It worked. He became them. Via the electric media Trump was able to wear them like a suit of clothes and they, the “audience” became the “base”. And they all got to run for president together.
Throughout the Playboy, article McLuhan repeats the word tribal. Another totally unique McLuhan observation is that electric technology is returning humanity to the oral culture of tribal times.
Just as Gutenberg’s printing press began the demise of such orality, the spontaneity and ‘all-at-onceness’ of the electric age reversed this process and, as McLuhan repeatedly put it in the Playboy interview, “re-tribalized”9 humanity – returning the Global Village, in a way, to the times of Homer and Virgil.
Joe Weisenthal has made an astounding observation here: The grammatical structure of Trump’s insulting nicknames are designed for a tribal audience.
Though it may turn the stomach to liken Trump to the likes of Virgil and Homer Weisenthal gives concise insight:
“[T}he old masters of the oral tradition preferred to speak of “not the soldier, but the brave soldier; not the princess, but the beautiful princess; not the oak, but the sturdy oak.” That sounds familiar, right? Thus with Trump, it was never “Ted Cruz,” “Marco Rubio,” or “Hillary Clinton”; it was “Lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco” and “Crooked Hillary.” These endlessly-repeated epithets packed extra information into small, instantly-memorable packets.” 10
And they delivered a little bit of hurt in the process.
Tease. Challenge. Upset. Befuddle. Hurt.This is the formula of success for so many of the Trump narratives that have kept the mainstream, lamestream and social media fixated upon his brand.
It is also, oddly, part of the McLuhan formula. There’s a great clip on Youtube of McLuhan being interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1977:
Q: Professor McLuhan … If the world had not discovered your great thinking and your writing how would you go about creating a demand for it; what would be your advertising campaign, what would be the gist of it?
MM: I’d put people on. I put them on. Putting people on means teasing them, challenging them, upsetting them, befuddling them. Any comic puts on his audience by hurting them … a put on is a sort of situation that I study a great deal. 11
It’s all just the tip of a titanic iceberg where McLuhan and Trump collide. But as seen with Pierre Trudeau in Canada in the 60s, when McLuhan is the iceberg, such collisions tend to save, not sink, political careers.
- McLuhan, Marshall. Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Oxford University Press. Toronto, 1987 p. 354
- Full Text of Playboy Interview: https://web.cs.ucdavis.edu/~rogaway/classes/188/spring07/mcluhan.pdf
- Ibid. p 11.
- Ibid. p 12.
- Ibid. p 11.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtpX8A7Q2pE (timestamp: 00:08)