Interview on DMU site:
The role of social media in Donald Trump’s presidency and the Brexit vote is discussed and debated in a new book by a De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) academic.
Professor Jason Lee, Professor of Film, Media and Culture at the Leicester Media School, says he wanted to explore the links between hateful posts on social media and violence, following the rise in hate crime after the Brexit vote and the 2016 US Election.
The result is Resist! Protest Media and Popular Culture in the Brexit-Trump Era which also looks at the increasing fascination with celebrity culture and politics.
Twitter announced it had banned President Trump’s account permanently following a review of tweets
“Brexit and Trump in many ways gave permission for people to advance hatred more publicly,” he said. “Trump today for me is a kind of cult and Twitter is so tied to this – it’s the pulpit for this fake messiah.”
This week saw President Trump banned from social media for the first time in his presidency following the mob attacks on the US Capitol. His account on Twitter was banned and his Facebook account has been “suspended indefinitely” according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
How did the book came about?
It started as a conference planned in Belfast that never happened, also called ‘Resist!’. Many of the chapters focus on social media, which has the potential to disrupt societal ideals and hierarchical structures, while at the same time perpetuating them, as the editors put it. The aim was to draw on a range of social science and humanities disciplines in an interdisciplinary fashion. What interested me was the Brexit-Trump era paradigm. I had written about violence and Trump in my book Nazism and Neo-Nazism in Film and Media (2018), but not much about Brexit. Hate crimes went up after the Brexit vote and after the 2016 American election, and I wanted to explore this further. Brexit and Trump in many ways gave permission for people to advance hatred more publicly. Think of the murder of pro-Remain MP Jo Cox by a neo-Nazi 2016, and the increase in violent crimes in the Trump era linked to white power movements.
Trump was pretty much the first President to live on social media – how much of his social media presence is responsible for his popularity?
It’s huge, isn’t it? One Tweet by Trump can send the stock-market rocketing or crashing. He can cut through what he calls the ‘lame-stream’ media, saying whatever he likes, including fake news like he won the election, and his followers believe it and react like pack animals. Personally, I’m not a fan of Twitter and I’ve stopped using it. Most of it is noise and bragging – like Facebook. It’s often an animalistic reaction, rather than a human measured response. It enables humans to explore their id, their primitive brain – and that is what Trump appeals to; as Biden put it, by pouring oil on the fire. We all have fears, but if we are human enough, we manage to grow up and not respond to them. Trump today for me is a kind of cult and Twitter is so tied to this – it’s the pulpit for this fake messiah. The fact that the mainstream media bothers to report his Tweets is alarming, buying into that narcissism. It should all strengthen the push for real investigative journalism, rather than the PR, gossip, and spin that tends to dominate.
What kind of material have you included in Resist? Can you give us some examples of celebrities/popular culture references?
The book has 15 chapters, from work on Kanye West to TV heroines, to work on Black Lives Matter. Popular culture is often considered trivial, bubble gum for the eyes, but it shapes our politics as well as our culture. And, if we aren’t careful, our core being. There’s also work on the TV shows House of Cards, which I totally loved at the time, and The Handmaid’s Tale which is very influential.
Do you think that the Trump presidency has sparked a new interest in politics, that it has for better or worse galvanised a disinterested generation?
Personally, I’m naturally interested in politics; I wish I could stop talking about Boris and Trump! And that’s the point really, isn’t it? We tend to fixate on these big personalities, when really that is so distracting to what politically is really much more important. I think Trump’s presidency has sparked a new interest in politics, yes, absolutely. More people voted than ever in America. There are many factors, including the hard work of people in the Black Lives Matter movement, but the way Trump caused such attention to go to himself meant many voted who had never voted before. He furthered binary divisions that fuelled people to get out and vote even during a pandemic. Some queued for eleven hours to vote. Can you imagine people in the UK doing that? No.
What’s the future for celebrities getting involved in politics? Will it change?
I wrote in 2010 in my book Celebrity, Paedophilia, and Ideology in American Culture, that celebrity annihilates meaning by virtue of its superficiality, yet paradoxically it makes people feel meaningful because they can project aspects of themselves onto the other and have an object of worship, which reflects and mirrors their narcissistic desire. Trump is the ‘evil genius’ of this behaviour, as documentary filmmaker Michael Moore put it. Trump, like so many other celebrities, becomes an object to be purchased. Celebrity culture consumes and annihilates reality, for reality is based on difference, and celebrity culture swallows up all difference, leaving indifference to anything other than the accumulation of wealth. Trump may run again in 2024 and perhaps other celebrities will join him. He’s certainly not the last.
I was hoping and praying that Covid-19 might have changed attitudes to celebrities – that we would re-adjust our values – but that was over optimistic. The way Beckham ran off to his place in the Lake District, breaking lockdown, but people still buy the watches he advertises. Will it change – no, I don’t think so. We need to remember that Trump is not a monster – like all celebrities he encapsulates whatever desires people want to project onto him. Perhaps he will do a deal with Kanye. I think it’s a shame Oprah didn’t run for president. Perhaps she still could. How about Judge Rinder in the UK? Eddie Izzard dreams of being an MP, and wanted to be mayor of London. It seemed to help Lembit Öpik as a Lib Dem MP to be dating a Cheeky Girl, making him less boring! People believe celebrities will be different to ‘normal’ politicians, that’s part of their popular appeal, but to break through binary political systems seems impossible. That’s the theme of my next book that examines the transrational – how we overcome our binary thinking.