Opinion: messages of resistance in troubled times tend to emanate from the culture industry so is this true of Trump's America?

By Victoria McCollum and Giuliana MonteverdeUlster University

It is entirely unsurprising that the current president of the United States Donald Trump has proposed to cut spending on the humanities. After all, the humanities,  which has been broadened and modernised by the study of popular culture, is the kingpin of education. The humanities are key to producing competent democratic citizens and intimately connected with education, mass communication, production and a society's ability to access knowledge. 

Humanities scholars are likely to recoil in horror at Trump’s threatening dramatic cuts to the humanities, arts and public media, though we are all too familiar with attempts to ignore and trivialise our disciplines. Those of us devoted to the study of popular culture - or "trash’ culture", low-to-no-brow texts with mass appeal, as many conservative journalists and scholars see it - have grown accustomed to thinking of our fields in crisis and shrouded in heated debates concerning legitimacy. This is partially due to the distinction often made between science and the arts, and between high art and seemingly "low" culture. 

The semantics of catastrophe have long dominated perceptions about popular culture and its acceptability as a vehicle for academic research. As it has been forewarned for at least five decades already, popular texts threaten to conspire with the Left Marxist "plot" to indoctrinate the masses, thereby subverting apparently the moral compass of society. In other words, popular culture has the potential to create profound shifts in audience values and ideals and therefore poses a threat to dominant ideology (especially if brought into the classroom). That said, there is very good reason to ignore and obscure the aesthetic dimensions and critical possibilities of popular cultural forms, especially if one leans toward tyranny.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Marian Finucane show, a discussion on Donald Trump's inauguration with Christopher Nixon-Cox (grandson of former US president Richard Nixon), Alice Butler Short (Virginia Women for Trump), Simon Carswell (The Irish Times) and John Steinberger (chair of the Charleston County Republican Party in South Carolina). 

The arrival of Trump

The contentious inauguration (or "inaugu-rage" due to the divisive and volatile nature of the event) of the least popular president-elect in modern history marked the "Don of a New Day" for the United States. It ushered in an era characterised by increasingly hard-line policies and rhetoric which favour nationalism, America firstism and xenophobia. So dramatic, hotly contested and consequential was this victory that British newspaper The Independent ominously stated "So Help Us God".

Trump, a billionaire reality television star, or "a hypercapitalist pig [obscenely branded] into a political candidate" as cultural studies scholar Douglas Kellner puts it, evoked a dark vision of patriotism and protectionism. Trump’s authoritarian populism is an American nightmare and appears to represent a clear and present danger to democracy, US global peace and stability. 

When the tools of democracy and diplomacy fail due to the authoritarian instincts of anti-democratic strongmen, such as Trump, what ammunition remains to resist them? Much has been said about the lethal implications of Trump’s war with the media, not to mention his loathing for honest scrutiny, as indicated by his insistent use of the term "fake news" to undermine and counter serious media coverage.

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, Alyson Henry, reports on the women’s protests across America and the globe against Donald Trump's inauguration

The cost of dissent in Trump’s America is high, perhaps even more so than the Bush-Cheney era, which is saying something considering the severity of Bush’s own war on dissent after 9/11. It is under such repressive conditions, as Marxist German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin famously posited, that messages of resistance tend to emanate from the heart of the culture industry. Protest and resistance media have long called attention to the injustice and exploitation inflicted by autocrats, despite threats of censorship, violence or public degradation.  

The cultural resistance

So how have protest and resistance media responded thus far to the rise and reign of Trump? His election surely prompted questions within the cultural industry (especially amongst film executives and television showrunners) about how to best entertain the great mass of Americans that voted for Trump, who appears to deploy his own reality TV smarts on a daily basis. In fact, according to the New York Times, Trump advises aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.

This begs the question if Trump-era popular culture is mutating to gratify the president’s agenda and his supporters, or is it pushing back against the current social climate and appealing to the great majority of Americans feeling depressed, angered, paranoid and hopeless? What could the answers to these questions mean for popular cultural forms in the age of Trump?

Trailer for SEAL Team

On the one hand, a plethora of recent American military TV dramas and contemporary staunch religious entertainment serve to support the theory that red (state) is, indeed, the new black and it quickly becomes evident that they fail to resist and instead appeal to the present administration and its following.

From broadcast’s military drama trend with SEAL Team, Valor and The Brave to revived classic sitcoms like Roseanne, the texts, discourses and political potentials within them pivot toward the archetypal values, evangelical tone and war theology of quintessential Republicanism and the people who elected Trump. When "Trump TV" leans toward reinforcing cultural hegemony by feeding into the status quo, one is poised to consider the broader ramifications and responsibilities of living through periods of extreme political turmoil. 

On the other hand, a strain of counter efforts has emerged in the form of media created in response to this seismic period of political change and media that more broadly deals with themes related to populism, politics and power. This swathe of TV, film, radio, podcasts, social media, memes, political cartoons and so on leans toward scrutinising and unravelling the events, aspirations, anxieties, discourses, dogmas and socio-political conflicts of the era, encouraging audiences to think, reason and ask questions creatively and critically.

Trailer for The Handmaid's Tale

For example, consider the questions that the fictional world of dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale raises in which women are forced into reproductive slavery by the political ruling class, and the parallels that can be drawn with the grave violation of women’s rights in Trump’s America. This media not only forcefully reflects, but also provokes, a certain sense of how the world is, as well as the capacities for our relations within it. 

How to ruffle Trump's feathers

All of this is the subject of our upcoming book Resist! Protest Media and Popular Culture in the Brexit-Trump Era which examines both media that fails to resist and media that engages in the struggle for resistance against repressive forces and with fascinating means. Hashtag activism, the celebrity politician and celebrities in politics have a role to play in the protest media of the Brexit-Trump era, as does political fiction, fictional politicians and the unbreakable women that have begun to saturate recent American political drama.

The American dream has been mutated into a global nightmare in recent Trump-era horror, and whilst the revolution might not be tweeted, the spectacle of violence will be. The aesthetics of protest (visibility, visual culture and creative communication) has become more significant than ever, especially as singing newspapers and political choirs take to the streets and fashion (pussyhats and Handmaid’s robes) becomes a powerful tool in anti-Trump protest. Even popular sports have become a site of identity politics and power as figures like American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick and soccer player Megan Rapinoe (who most recently ruffled Trump’s feathers by standing in silence during the national anthem at the Women’s World Cup 2019) demonstrate that one should respect existence or expect resistance. 

From RTÉ 2fm's Game On, Jeff Shepard talks to Damien O'Meara about Colin Kaepernick

Unpicking the processes whereby individuals and communities create and experience media - understanding the world around us - is more important than ever. Trump’s hostility towards the discipline (and arts and public media more generally) makes much sense: suppressing the stories we tell and the lives we see stifles democracy – a move that he has borrowed from the world’s finest dictators.

It goes without saying that Trump’s trivialisation of the humanities threatens to undercut our understanding of the meaning, purpose and ambitions of the things that surround us – the things that we consume. The implications run deep: without furthering the appreciation of singular historical and social phenomena, we nip in the bud interpretive methods of finding "truth". In the age of Trump, and cuts to the humanities, we need cutting-edge humanities more than ever.

Dr Victoria McCollum is a lecturer in cinematic arts at the School of Arts & Humanities at Ulster UniversityDr Giuliana Monteverde is a lecturer in Broadcast Production at Queens University Belfast, and a researcher at Ulster University. Both are the co-editors of "HBO's Original Voices" and the upcoming collection "Resist! Resistance Media and Popular Culture in the Trump-Brexit Era"

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ