TRUMP

It is hard to imagine two more different beings than Donald Trump and Marshall McLuhan.  McLuhan was an almost ridiculously erudite Cambridge alumnus who was faithful to his wife, anchored his being upon literature, prayer and the Roman Catholic Church. Trump is  “ a divorced adulterer who ran a gambling empire.”  As for literature, when asked about his reading habits, the US President told Fox news: “I read passages, I read

areas, chapters, I don’t have the time.”

If we treat Donald J. Trump not as a person, but as a sort of hologram inflicted upon the screen of our minds via electric media, then gaze into this hologram,  we can begin to discern the many angles of what McLuhan was saying.  

Their success in achieving fame via media is perhaps the most obvious piece of common ground that unites them. Not just that they got famous, but that both intentionally sought fame as a means of achieving their personal goals. Both succeeded to an extent massively disproportionate to any reasonable expectation.

However, if we treat Donald J. Trump not as a person, but as a sort of hologram inflicted upon the screen of our minds via electric media, then gaze into this hologram,  we can begin to discern the many angles of what McLuhan was saying.  

Yes, Trump was a rich white kid – but America is full of rich white kids who want to be President. Many, like Trump, try.  Trump won the game. He became president, officially. That alone is proof of victory 

About one full generation before Trump, Marshall McLuhan used the techniques Trump would later use, to, like Trump, become famous to a proportion no one could have predicted.

When McLuhan came back to Canada, after Cambridge, he knew that one great experiment he would have to conduct to test his ideas about media, would be to try to become famous himself. 

McLuhan’s big challenge was to get the media aware of him, and interested, to begin with. He found it pretty easy.  His methods for doing so – as he himself revealed – were not so far different from Trump’s media tactics during the 2016 Presidential campaign. 

If an English professor, born in Edmonton, raised in Winnipeg, could become famous on the global stage, then anything was now possible via the electric media.

As the legendary Canadian establishment journalist Robert Fulford has explained it:
“Marshall was a publicity hound; he was the professor as self-promoter. At the beginning of his career he imagined that he would make a lot of money selling his ideas to businesses and industry, perhaps governments. He imagined that he was such an idea man that his ideas would flow out and people would buy them. And in order to do that, he had to be famous; he wanted to be famous. Fame was not thrust upon him, he sought it and sought it with great care”.

That McLuhan got famous in the first place, is about as unlikely as Trump becoming president.   McLuhan was an English professor, and one in Canada at that!  In McLuhan’s time, as in this one, anyone who accepts a job as English professor in a Canadian university is signing up for media obscurity.

Hawking became world-famous by putting forward ideas no one understood, which is exactly what McLuhan did in the 60s and early 70s. McLuhan, however,  was able to do so without the aid of the mouth-controlled wheelchair or robotic voice simulator that Hawking used to speak through his trachea.

Stephen Hawking, a fellow Cambridge fellow,  is the only academic in recent history to have achieved a level of fame comparable to McLuhan’s.  For a while it looked like Jordan Peterson was headed for these ranks, but his ideas have since proved bereft of substance.

Hawking became world-famous by putting forward ideas no one understood, which is exactly what McLuhan did in the 60s and early 70s. McLuhan, however,  was able to do so without the aid of the mouth-controlled wheelchair or robotic voice simulator that Hawking used to speak through his trachea.

Ordinarily, these latter ‘extensions of man’ might not seem so advantageous; however, in the perverse world of media spectacle, they equipped Hawking with added gimmick-power, and transformed the Lou Gerhig’s disease sufferer into a mythical creature – a highly meme-able living metaphor for the power of mind over body.

Observe McLuhan’s answer to a clever question from an Australian journalist:

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. (McLuhan, 1977) 

One would have to ‘Youtube it’ to appreciate the deadpan mask McLuhan wears as he blinks stoically and explains to the very serious panel of intellectuals and advertisers in attendance that he is actually putting them on, that he puts people on habitually, as matter of course.  

McLuhan’s answer also serves as a succinct description of Donald Trump’s media technique – a total put-on, a technique that has consisted almost entirely of hurting its audience since the day Trump entered the race for the Republican nomination- a race in which he began as a total underdog and proceeded to destroy everyone in his path.

Trump’s put-ons are a trap, an advertising strategy, intended to catch an audience.  From the perspective of McLuhan, the mainstream media’s focus on the content of Trump’s behaviour is completely missing the point.

In his Fahrenheit 11/9 documentary Michael Moore contends that even Trump’s initial press conference declaring his intent to run for President was a put-on – a publicity stunt aimed at coercing NBC to pay him at least as much as Gwen Stefani, of all people! 

Trump’s put-ons are a trap, an advertising strategy, intended to catch an audience.  From the perspective of McLuhan, the mainstream media’s focus on the content of Trump’s behaviour is completely missing the point. Whether we are enraged or delighted by the continuous supply of tabloid level pseudo-scandal that Trump continues to feed the media machine, by continuing to react to it we prevent ourselves from the broader perspective necessary to truly perceive the forces of influence at play in the age of electronic media. 

Trump’s propensity to tease, challenge, upset, befuddle and hurt his audience remains on display well into his presidency. That Trump continues to intentionally to raise the ire of America’s mainstream media seems rather counterintuitive.  Although, since the mainstream media – the big newspapers and television networks – no longer comprise the dominant media of communication, it is now possible to win elections even when these once-indomitable forces have turned against you and are conspiring to bring you down.

Eighteen years later,  Trump reported in the autobiography that he paid someone else to write, that negative media coverage could be immensely valuable. What McLuhan had said in that 1969 Playboy issue, Trump was now able to confirm first-hand. 

‘One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, the more sensational the better… The point is that if you are a little different, or outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you… The funny thing is that even a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business.’ (p. 56)

Even, evidently, the business of getting elected president.