Skip to content Skip to footer

The Demise of Democracy Under Trump Proves the Frankfurt School Right

It warned that the structures integral to democracy, such as a free press, could end up destroying the system.

Seen through a viewfinder of a TV camera, President Trump speaks during the Faith & Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority Conference on June 8, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

The conservative media-entertainment complex has transformed U.S. politics. It leverages traditional media, the IT “revolution” (and its associated social media), and official communications to provide a torrent of content aimed not to inform but rather to distract. To accomplish this, it strategically changes subjects, seeking to flatten and render meaningless all important factual and ethical distinctions. It heavily influences the rest of media and now threatens democracy. Can a theory explain this baffling development?

There have been many attempts to account for the success of the conservative media phenomenon, from the observation that traditional establishment media is simply uniform and boring, to the claim — initiated by Edith Efron’s The News Twisters and endlessly repeated by Republicans — that the traditional news business is inherently biased against conservative ideas. But an older theory, at present somewhat disregarded, would seem to clarify the ascendency of right-wing ideas at a deeper psychological level.

The Frankfurt School of critical sociological theory, like psychoanalysis, is not in fashion in most contemporary intellectual circles, nor is it widely embraced (or even heard of) by what passes for the left. During its vogue 50 years ago, the group of influential Marxist intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany were misunderstood even by its New Left admirers. Some of its leading exponents, like Herbert Marcuse, had reservations about the goals and methods of the New Left. The communist world loathed critical theory because it was a heretical revision to Marxist-Leninism.

But the Frankfurt School has been permanently on the radar screen of the right, particularly the far right’s reactionary cultural pessimists. The Frankfurt School, which they often dub the progenitor of “cultural Marxism,” is the chief demon haunting their nightmares.

Back when I worked as a congressional staff member on Capitol Hill, a fellow staffer of mine, who later worked in the conservative think-tank racket and went on to unmask himself as a more or less avowed Nazi, was at pains to convince me that if I understood one thing, it’s that the Frankfurtians control everything, like mythical Svengalis. In a blatant manifestation of anti-Semitism, the fact that the Frankfurt School’s leading theorists were Jewish added to his bill of indictment.

Wrestling with theoretical concepts is hardly the métier of conservatives, and the Right unsurprisingly misconstrued critical theory to conclude that its proponents were advocating as a social remedy the very ills they had diagnosed as the source of the problem.

Of course, it is difficult to know whether the misconstruction was unintentional or deliberate (in the same way Republicans intentionally misuse “Democrat” as an adjective for its trolling value). And given that right-wing psychology projects like an IMAX cinema, Republicans’ relationship with critical theory is far different from what they assert.

First, let us admit that much of critical theory as advanced by its early proponents is obsolete. Max Horkheimer’s and Theodore Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment is a dreary diatribe against the Enlightenment and soulless “instrumental rationality” as the source of all ills, as if Diderot’s encyclopedia led straight to Auschwitz. Contrary to its claim, Enlightenment values are not “hegemonic,” but have been contested since the beginning by a Counter-Enlightenment led by ferocious anti-intellectuals like Joseph de Maistre as well as virtually every religious fundamentalist who ever thumped a Bible.

Even Marcuse’s famous essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” much lauded by Che Guevara-wannabes in the 1960s, fails to draw a key distinction between societies that are pervaded by conformity and group-think but formally protect free speech, and those, like Syria or North Korea, where exercising free speech is an express route to becoming a corpse.

But the core of critical theory remains pertinent. As far back as the 1930s, the Frankfurt School saw that the rise of broadcast media, the mass press, and the movie business was a “culture industry” forming the foundation for “the totally administered society.” In the words of a cautious admirer of critical theory:

They knew that mass media tends to champion right-wing causes. But they also knew that the culture industry can also produce works of a seemingly progressive slant…. Even then, however, it seems to standardize experience and undermine critical reflection … the culture industry integrates all opposition by its very nature.

Yes, meet the Arnolds, an honest story of working people in Elgin, Illinois, struggling to get by — as played by fabulously wealthy Hollywood stars. George Orwell often complained about the lack of genuine proletarian literature (he was excluding Marxist novels, whose protagonists sounded like human Dictaphones).

Yet we don’t even have genuine middle-class stories: people living in fear of company downsizing, the mean grievances that superficially well-adjusted people nurse (rather than being the good-natured butt of some joke or misunderstanding as per the sitcom formula), the haunting terror of losing health insurance or seeing the doctor shake her head and say it’s the Big C.

The closest thing was Breaking Bad, but even that had to become a roman policier to keep it sufficiently light while adding ironic distance. If the main character had stayed honest, the show would be too damn depressing.

While Marcuse underestimated the value of tolerance, the culture industry at large (and not just the conservative media-entertainment complex) has insidiously undermined its spirit, as Stephen Eric Bronner states in his book Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction:

Insofar as the culture industry presents all positions on any issue in a public forum, they all ultimately appear as having equal value. Tolerance as presented by the culture industry thus renders all truth claims relative — or better, turns their acceptance into a matter of taste. Now it is not just beauty but truth that lies in the eye of the beholder.

The earth: round or flat? The controversy continues after this message! We can see how conservatives barely have to work to get the allegedly liberal media to obey. Working as a staffer on the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in the late 1990s, I used to joke that Matt Drudge was the most powerful man in media: what else explained his being de facto assignment editor for Maureen Dowd and Michael Isikoff during the Clinton years?

We still see the sail-trimming today: how many times must we hear NPR correspondents say that President Trump “seemingly” contradicted himself in explaining his phone calls to the Ukrainian president? His plain words screamed “contradiction” by dictionary definition. And why report Lindsey Graham’s hissy fits as if they convey probative information rather than simply being attention-hogging theatrics?

They still parse Trump’s disjointed rants as if they “indicate” (a favorite media weasel word) some subtle policy shift. Thus the media normalize the abnormal, relativize and level distinctions, and transform public life into absurdist theater.

For tens of millions, the conservative media-entertainment bubble is an immersive experience, a totally administered society within society. Elementary facts — are global temperatures warming, did Trump say what he plainly said on camera, did a massacre occur at Bowling Green, Kentucky — are decided ideologically rather than by evidence.

GOP politicians assimilate this Rupert Murdoch-inspired mindset, and their behavior becomes the images and sound bites that the culture industry (and not just its conservative segment) pumps back into the electorate in a self-reinforcing cycle.

Republican members of Congress hardly bother to legislate anymore; their entire schtick is to hone a disruptive performance art and land themselves a segment on Fox News. Joe Wilson was the groundbreaker in 2009, and now they all do it, transforming even the most crucial congressional hearings into largely worthless exercises. Their goal is turning constitutional government into a mash-up of Jerry Springer and the Stalin show trials.

In the intelligence committee hearing on the Ukraine phone call, ranking Republican Devin Nunes outdid himself for gonzo theater, suggesting that Democrats sought “nude photos” of Trump. It went downhill from there, with Republicans reverting to their rote line of denouncing as a circus a proceeding that they were themselves making into a circus. It was a logical absurdity, but turning everything into a travesty plays into a strong public inclination to throw up its hands and write off politics as a crooked, cynical game — which benefits precisely those players who are most crooked and cynical.

Trump’s role is different. He culminates the transformation of the presidency from chief executive to dream figure, a process that began at the dawn of broadcasting but reached its first breakthrough with Ronald Reagan, the benign grandfather mouthing Clint Eastwood taglines. As conditions worsened (one county in South Dakota has a lower life expectancy than Sudan’s), the darkening mood finally prompted central casting to call in an archetype that would resonate with the bitterness welling up in the American id.

Trump is like a holographic projection of every American failing that astute foreigners have noticed for centuries. Since about 1980, we could observe the culture industry patiently assembling him, piece by piece. The media barons grasped that his fabricated persona embodied the forbidden wish projections of millions of psychologically repressed and resentful individuals.

In 1935, Ernst Bloch, a peripheral figure of the Frankfurt School, wrote about such people as not having adjusted to the shock of modernity, the pace of change, and the gross inequalities that had arisen. But they do not turn to socialism or the search for equality; instead, they fall back on a bogus golden age — the breeding ground of fascism and the impulse to worship an authoritarian father.

Critical theory had warned us about how the very structures integral to liberal democracy, such as tolerance, freedom of speech, and an independent press, could degenerate into toxins destroying the system. Consciously or unconsciously, the Right has twisted that warning into its own blueprint for power.

Tired of reading the same old news from the same old sources?

So are we! That’s why we’re on a mission to shake things up and bring you the stories and perspectives that often go untold in mainstream media. But being a radically, unapologetically independent news site isn’t easy (or cheap), and we rely on reader support to keep the lights on.

If you like what you’re reading, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today. We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for an investment: Invest in a nonprofit news site that’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, not afraid to stand up for what’s right, and not afraid to tell it like it is.