Media scholars like to distinguish between two kinds of news: “events” and “pseudo-events.”
Smart politicians know how to play the media. “If it bleeds, it leads.” “Sex sells.” “Man bites dog is news.” So they do their best to give the media what they want: profitable news that, unlike true events, arrive regularly and when needed.
And while politicians have long understood the benefits to effective pseudo-events, no one seems to have grasped this quite so completely as President Donald Trump.
The president’s administration is chock-full of examples of pseudo-events, spanning the gamut from cloying showmanship to the downright frightening. While he may not be the first president to embrace these news control devices, he is the first to fully weaponize their usage.
Donald Trump is, in short, our first Pseudo-President.
Let’s start with the plain silly. Remember when Trump orchestrated a reality-tv style showdown for his first Supreme Court pick by having the two finalists—Neil Gorsuch and Thomas Hardiman—drive toward D.C. just before his own news conference to heighten the drama?
If that were the extent of Trump’s use of pseudo-events, this would be harmless.
But it isn’t. More troublingly, Donald Trump weaponizes the media against itself.
Eager to distract from new Stormy Daniels news, the president attacked “The Squad” with racially-charged language. To this single example we could add countless others.
Such distractions potentially frustrate the media’s ability perform its watchdog function: keeping public figures accountable for their actions. Distressing though it may be, however, Trump is far from the first politician to use pseudo-events to distract from negative coverage.
What do make Donald Trump unique—and uniquely dangerous—are his repeated attempts to secretly weaponize the media against his domestic political rivals.
Consider President Trump’s attempt to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.
Republicans claim that Ukraine never felt pressure to open an investigation and that, even if they did, they never conducted one. They assert, essentially, “no harm no foul.” So the president is off the hook.
Except he isn’t. Because that talking point fundamentally misconstrues what Donald Trump was after and just how close he came to getting it.
Note what I said above: it isn’t that President Trump wanted an investigation into Biden and his son. He simply wanted the public announcement of an investigation. Specifically on a cable news channel.
Trump wanted a negative story about his domestic political rival, untraceable back to him, that he could use as ammunition in a presidential election. And he attempted to extort that story—what would have amounted to billions of dollars in news coverage—with the help of American-tax-payer-funded military aid.
In other words, he wanted an orchestrated event. A pseudo-event. And he wanted us to pay for it.
If this whole thing were a one-off, that would be one thing. We could all rest easy believing that Trump learned his lesson and would refrain from such abuses in the future.
But of course Ukraine isn’t the first time.
Remember when then-candidate Trump mentioned Wikileaks hundreds of times to attack Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election? At the time, we believed, Trump had no knowledge of Wikileaks’s plan (we now know that Roger Stone kept the candidate in the loop).
This appears to be his modus operandi: introduce beneficial news stories, play dumb as to their sources, and stoke outrage. All to his benefit.
Pseudo-events are generally benign. Before now they have not threatened to undermine our political or constitutional systems. But Trump’s patent perversion of this media phenomenon is qualitatively different. It is, in all frankness, domestic political propaganda.
It’s dangerous, and in all probability it will stay with us.
We have seen with the rise of the Imperial Presidency that power once garnered—especially the power to lie—is not given up. It becomes a part of the institution.
Last week, the Senate acquitted Donald Trump of the charges that he abused his power. As of that moment, the president’s use of pseudo-events gained senatorial blessing.
In short, the Pseudo-Presidency has formally arrived.