The July 2018 meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) civilian leadership provides yet another example of the style of the "leadership meeting" (common now to all sorts of governance institutions) to moments of targeted agitation. The picture above is a great example, one in which the viewer is invited to read all sorts of things--the isolation of Turkey, the strong Franco-German bond, the relationship between U.S. and U.K. the emptiness of the center, and the quite clear boundaries between primary and secondary actors.
But that picture did not capture the 2018 NATO meeting's great agit-prop moment. It's agit prop moment--which one might label "breakfast with Mr. Trump"-- occurred on the side in a carefully scripted moment of virtual theatre.
Yet it might also be understood, if only for its aftermath, as another element in the construction of a powerful cult of personality for the President of the United States. This might appear odd given the "new normal" for reporting about Mr. Trump in the midst of the vicious but as yet mostly non-violent civil war among Western elites more eager to secure their own power (and that of their ideologies) than to govern. It might, indeed, appear even more odd if one considers the premise that reporting around Mr. Trump has degenerated more into mere editorializing around facts than engagement with them. Yet, these very mechanisms constructed for demonization of Mr. Trump may, instead, be the most important instrument for the construction of his cult. I say that surmising that cults of personality can be as easily built around fear and loathing as it can around love and admiration (as managed by those actors who create the media records of the times).
None of this is worth the time it has taken to write it, except perhaps for some lessons we might draw from this (mis)adventure. A brief consideration of those potential lessons follows.
Western elites have a curious way of going about the hypocrisies of their public political, economic, and social rituals. What is curious is not that it occurs--this is an ancient and deeply culturally embedded practice--but what current expression of the practice tells one about the state of politics and power relations within Western aristocracies of power and the rest of us who are meant to be managed in the service of robust democratic orders. Perhaps it is too much television coverage of the grandees of monarchies or of the aristocracies of Church and enterprise as they go about their ceremonial tasks in efforts to create stately optics for the benefit of the masses they so desperately need to manage. Agit-prop flourishes in this environment, if only as a means of wresting control of meaning from those who thought they managed the optics to those who now think they might. That control wresting space lies between the centuries old efforts between the stateliness of the public performance of governance power and the much more recent cultivation of vibrant and sometimes raucous (when it suits some faction of leadership) expression of the masses, the public, the electorate, consumers, etc.
NATO's agit-prop moment came during what will soon be remembered as that notorious breakfast meeting where President Trump suggested among a number of other things that "Germany is a captive of Russia").
What made the moment so marvelously agit-prop was it ironies. The principal irony, of course, is that Mr. Trump's enemies have long accused Mr. Trump himself of being a captive to Russia (e.g., here).
But there might be others--among them the use of the moment as payback for German's ham handed effort to revive 1920's style Weimar agit-prop at the G7 meeting. Those ironies were then exploited and magnified by President Trump's friends and enemies to shift the meaning of the video and captured stills of the event from the question of German vulnerability in light of its economic decisions to one that entirely centered on the leader--Mr. Trump.
That shifting produces an agit-prop moment quite distinct from that now iconic picture circulated by the office of the German Chancellor leader Ms. Merkel during the G7 meeting. Here one is not confronted with a "picture-as-a-thousand-words-one-can-fill-in-to-suit-one-politics" moment. Rather, the effect is much more like that of audience participation in the now popular relaity television shows where the actions and motives of the protagonists are watched carefully and analyzed and, in true democratic fashion, the audience is asked periodically to vote people off the site in order to leave a "winner". The reality TV analogy is commonly made against the Trump administration by those in the business of analyzing its perambulations (e.g., "Trump's Reality TV Supreme Court Rollout, Slick and Substance-Free"). But, of course, they tend to be less likely to understand (though they relish) their role as the insatiable audience for such rtelevsion. And int he process, of course, Mr. Trump's cult of personality (around which this enterprise is fashioned) can only grow.
1. Scripting serves the interests of those in the business of producing scripts. As has become the custom of contemporary Western reportage, the NATO leadership meeting has been re-conceived along the lines of a script from a mediocre American reality television show (or even perhaps of those even more pathetic European ones) where everyone is confined to a small space and forced to interact for the delight of the voyeurs tuning in. That scripting has been made worse by the mad commentary enhanced by constant interviews with sycophants and enemies whose self interest is barely contained behind the pious and well rehearsed blathering that that hears and reads. One hears the enemies of the current leadership (not just Americans) look back with nostalgia on the old days where civility reigned and everyone played nice for the cameras and those reporting the events. The scripting was so well taken for granted that deviations might be viewed as scandalous. And it was so so naughty delicious to pretend to be an "insider" covering the formalities--a nice proper picture or video stream--while intimating or cultivating access to the really cool stuff that was going on behind the scenes. This "breakfast with Mr. Trump" provided an exploitable moment at the meeting place of all of these trends. It was constructed with great care and exploited with equal care by those who hoped to create or manage the narrative that could be woven from it. The script, always trained on the leader, has now become an even more interesting object of exploitation to narrow the gaze from what he says to himself as object.
2. Civility is an artifice that, like vengeance, is best served cold. Civility is an important understanding of rules of interaction that can work to foster interaction without violence and perhaps leading to some sort of agreement. But civility as a slogan and a broad set of ideas masks its power not to control discourse but to shape interactions. The control of the rules of civility--especially at its outer edges--and the rules for tolerating deviations does much to help frame and control the content and direction of that discourse. Is is a central element of governmentality--the ability to control the structures around which substance can be packaged and delivered. That a certain level of civility is desirable is difficult to dispute. Mr. Trump brings the civility of the merchant to the aristocratic table of the bureaucrat and the politician. That provides exquisite material for critiques. And it makes for difficult communication. But in the process the merchant establishes control of the agenda.
3. And on the Civility of the Merchant. There is a difference between a merchant and an industrial bureaucrat. Perhaps that explains the different temperaments of Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson, of blessed memory. Mr. Trump would probably communicate better with the sort of rough trade old line labor bosses than he would the elegantly polished dandies of the Western mandarinate. Mr. Trump certainly does not play by their rules of engagement--and ghe appears to relish that rejection. That is possible, of course, only because of his position. And one might wonder how a merchant will leave the office of the President changed after his departure. But those are questions for another day. The question for the day, though, is precisely the effectiveness of the dissonance in discursive manner. A merchant might hear Mr. Trump's bold assertions about German decisions and its consequences for their relations with Russia as another set of statements designed to gain advantage in bargaining Here the object of bargaining is NATO military spending. To that end, the merchant may choose the most powerful of recalcitrant partners and attack them--humiliation and challenge puts them on the defensive and might aid bargaining. This is especially tempting to the merchant who believes that market conditions have changed and that his partners have no where else to go. Better still--to make this personal can really throw a negotiation adversary off her game. And choosing the biggest player has the benefit of scaring smaller players into more cooperative behavior. The odd thing, of course, is that governments tend to do this as well when they are seeking advantage against coalitions of potential adversaries in the economic sector. But here again, the result refocuses reaction on the leader. It does not inspire love or respect--but fear is as important to the construction of a cult of personality, one that here is made by the attention lavished on the personality by his adversaries.
4. Multiple Readings of pictures do take more than a thousand words. One of my favorite analysis was that of the experts now needed to decode, and thus expand, the elements of the performance captured for social edification and mass management. One needs a guide now, it seems, to better prepare people for the proper receipt of optics.
In the clip shown above, Trump begins by citing German imports of Russian gas as evidence that “Germany is totally controlled by Russia.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg remains stoic as Trump lays out his complaint, but U.S. ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly look uncomfortable. Hutchison appears to avert her gaze from her NATO colleagues sitting across from her, while Kelly looks down, then shifts his body and glances away, lips pursed tightly.The analysis was quite likely dead on correct. But their power might not extend as successfully to context. Let's turn effects on its head. Without assuming that the experts are wrong, one can take the revealed emotions and turn the quite around. U.S. ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly might well have been uncomfortable precisely because they anticipated the effect of a statement that all of them had previously worked hard to script. It was anticipatory reaction to what they knew was coming. They might not have wanted to be there because they thought their time would be better served than as props for a political theatre piece. More interesting still, the substance of the discussion--German vulnerability and in the background European stinginess and free riding in NATO--might have diverted attention from other discussions over which this piece of agit prop might have provided a distraction. And, of course, what appears as fracture among the allies in NATO, might, to Mr. Putin, appear to be the assertion of stronger authority by its leader, Mr. Trump. Score another for the construction of a cult of personality.
Of course, it's impossible to say exactly what was going through the minds of Trump's aides.
In a statement to The Post, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "[Kelly] was displeased because he was expecting a full breakfast and there were only pastries and cheese."
Patrick Stewart, an associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, said Kelly's facial reaction at that moment can be described as a combination of a “chin-raiser” and a “lip-corner dimpler,” both of which are associated with annoyance. “He's expressing with his lower face that he's displeased, maybe irritated,” said Stewart, who is certified in the Facial Action Coding System used by experts to break down human facial movement. “It's not really hardcore anger.”
Mary Civiello, an executive communications coach with 15 years of experience studying body language, agreed. She noted that Kelly rarely looked directly at Trump, suggesting that he is “not completely synced up” with what the president is saying.
Typically, when people are “involved in a persuasive effort together,” those in nonspeaking roles will gaze at the person who is talking, occasionally nod to reinforce what they are saying and then look at those on the opposite side of the table to convey a sense of unity, Civiello said. In contrast, she said, Kelly looks away from the table and at the ceiling but rarely at Trump or at the NATO representatives across from him.
“Kelly looks like he wants to be anywhere but where he is,” Civiello said.
Later at the breakfast meeting, Trump renews his attacks, gesticulating as he says that Germany is “captive to Russia because it’s getting so much of its energy from Russia.” As Trump enunciates the word “captive,” nearly all of the U.S. aides seen in the clip have a noticeable reaction. On his left, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo turns his head away from Trump and looks down at the plate in front of him, while on his right, Hutchison flinches, straightens up abruptly and casts her eyes toward the president. At the far end of the table, Kelly tightens his mouth.
Kelly “is leaning back, his hands are crossed. He’s kind of accepting it at this point,” Stewart said, adding, however, that it was hard to give an accurate reading of the former U.S. Marine general's attitude without having a thoroughly researched, baseline understanding of what his behavior is like. (Rebecca Tan, "When Trump attacked Germany in Brussels, his aides pursed their lips and glanced away," The Washington Post 11 July 2018)
5. Congress amplifies the projection of leadership. Should the American political establishment relish its new role as festival tragedy? The Greek Chorus, a role to which the American Senate appears to embrace now provides an interesting venue where the competing interests of office holders might be mediated ("Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker raised deep concerns that Trump is trying to “tear down” NATO and “punch our friends in the nose.”" here). " And yet it serves to heighten the cultivation of the cult in ways that are better advanced against the advice of the Chorus than with its consent and encouragement.
The U.S. Senate voted 97-2 on Tuesday to reaffirm American support for NATO. The House is expected to cast a similar, nonbinding vote on Wednesday. "I subscribe to the view that we shouldn't be criticizing our president when he's overseas," said House Speaker Paul Ryan. "But let me say a couple of things. NATO is indispensable. It is as important today as it ever has been."("Trump Blasts Allies At NATO Summit")"Here again, the focus is not on the thing but the person.
6. Global Cults of Personality. Though the focus on this occasion is on the foibles of individuals in Western governance orders, this is a global phenomenon, only expressed with local or national characteristics. Cults of personality, and a fixation on the strong leader, appear to be quite fashionable now.And again, the insistence on the focus on the individual--especially by those who ought to know better, has the perverse effect of shifting the gaze from where critiques intend to precisely the object they wish to avoid. Unless, they really have invested in theories of leadership and are merely vexed by its current holder. That changes things entirely.