Co-Illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication
(MIT Press, 2020)
David Levi Strauss’s Co-Illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication (2020) asks the fundamental question about the Trump presidency: “How did we get here?” An art critic and scholar of photography, Strauss grounds his observations and speculation in a deep understanding of the image, which can upend rational discourse and prevailing wisdom with astonishing speed. In his preface, he talks about the shift to “a new kind of iconopolitics,” political affiliation based on social media and other screen-based platforms—cable TV, YouTube, etc. Turning on a dime from Obama’s carefully crafted arguments of possibility and inclusion, Trump’s down-and-dirty blasts push fear, hatred, and separation. Asserting he is “one of the most brilliant manipulators of public sentiment in American History,” Strauss shows how Trump’s grounding in Roy Cohn’s “ethics,” ’80s tabloid media, and reality TV made him the right man at the right time to exploit the fissures in our deeply divided polity. Co-Illusion’s central claim is Trump’s words and images no longer point to a symbolic order that attempts to explain the world. Instead, as blunt instruments of his power, they smash whatever lies across their path, presenting a spectacle whose only goal is to establish dominance. Infuriated by the population and employment changes taking place in America over the last generation, his base, whites without a college degree, behaves more like fans than voters, rooting for Team Trump and the obliteration of an “Establishment” they know has ignored them.
Co-Illusion approaches its topic through a medley of voices, from Strauss’s own journalistic dispatches to the fictional rants of Trump and others. The first half of the book, “A Cold Fear,” consists of Strauss’s eyewitness accounts of the 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions, along with some key exposition on the new media dynamics Trump set into motion during that season. A veteran observer of the bizarre rituals of presidential elections since 2004, Strauss deftly brings to life the 2016 versions, aided by the photographs by Susan Meiselas and Peter van Agtmael, replete with giant screens of talking heads and rows of cheering crowds. In this section we hear echoes of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic on American presidential politics Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973), with its incisive takes on that deeply flawed process. Strauss even reminisces about his own involvement as an idealistic young Kansan working for McGovern’s disastrous campaign.
As with Nixon, Strauss shows Trump’s skill at orchestrating resentment to build a winning coalition. Harnessing the right-wing media universe of Breitbart News and Fox—the creation of Nixon’s media consultant, Roger Ailes—Trump stabilizes his freefall in August, leveraging an information ecosystem that insulates him from criticism. The power of this alternate reality becomes clear with October’s Access Hollywood tapes debacle, which catches Trump on video bragging to the host Billy Bush about his predatory behavior with women. Even members of the Republican party are ready to throw him overboard, but Trump’s base, consuming “alternative facts” purveyed by Ailes, Bannon, Conway et al., never wavers in its support. Trump ignores all advice to broaden his message, instead doubling down on fear and hatred, bringing the debased discourse of conspiracy theories, tabloid TV, and right-wing talk radio into the mainstream. This, according to Strauss, is the “New Reality,” where facts are negotiable to score political points. Like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking-Glass, Trump’s words and images mean whatever he wants them to mean.
The second part of the book, “The New Image,” tells the story of the Trump presidency up through the Mueller report. Strauss introduces us to a rogue’s gallery of opportunists and schemers, including Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Vladimir Putin, Mark Zuckerberg, but mostly Trump’s voice dominates. Looking into the mind of Trump, as it were, there are many clever passages, such as “Kulturkampf,” which begins with the excellent line, “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my dick.” There are some klunkers too, such as “My Guy in Moscow,” a cringey portrait of Trump’s man crush on Putin. We also hear from Trump’s base in the chapter “Fame and Freedom.” It is a chorus of nihilistic despair that might be Strauss’s best answer to “How did we get here?” A native Kansan with family ties to the inhabitants of “flyover country,” his sensitivity to the pain that leads them to reject reality for a con artist from Queens gives a much-needed perspective on the divisions that threaten America’s future. If we want to preserve our democracy, their pain is something we would do well to treat seriously.