Andrew Bacevich: Pseudo-Events as a New Normal

Yves here. Although, as Bacvich points out, pseudo-events, or the effort to create fake realities, are hardly new. But their frequency may be. I wonder if that is the result of the phenomenon Tom Frank skewered so adeptly in Listen, Liberal, that of members of the top 10% too often needing to believe that they and much of what goes on around them is special.

By Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. Originally published at TomDispatch

The impeachment of the president of the United States! Surely such a mega-historic event would reverberate for weeks or months, leaving in its wake no end of consequences, large and small. Wouldn’t it? Shouldn’t it?

Truth to tell, the word historic does get tossed around rather loosely these days. Just about anything that happens at the White House, for example, is deemed historic. Watch the cable news networks and you’ll hear the term employed regularly to describe everything from Oval Office addresses to Rose Garden pronouncements to press conferences in which foreign dignitaries listen passively while their presidential host pontificates about subjects that have nothing to do with them and everything to do with him.

Of course, almost all of these are carefully scripted performances that are devoid of authenticity. In short, they’re fraudulent. The politicians who participate in such performances know that it’s all a sham. So, too, do the reporters and commentators paid to “interpret” the news. So, too, does any semi-attentive, semi-informed citizen.

Yet on it goes, day in, day out, as politicians, journalists, and ordinary folk collaborate in manufacturing, propagating, and consuming a vast panoply of staged incidents, which together comprise what Americans choose to treat as the very stuff of contemporary history. “Pseudo-events” was the term that historian Daniel Boorstin coined to describe them in his classic 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. The accumulation of such incidents creates a make-believe world. As Boorstin put it, they give rise to a “thicket of unreality that stands between us and the facts of life.”

As substitutes for reality, pseudo-events, he claimed, breed “extravagant expectations” that can never be met, with disappointment, confusion, and anger among the inevitable results. Writing decades before the advent of CNN, Fox News, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, Boorstin observed that “we are deceived and obstructed by the very machines we make to enlarge our vision.” So it was back then during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, a master of pseudo-events in the still relatively early days of television. And so our world remains today during the presidency of Donald Trump who achieved high office by unmasking the extravagant post-Cold War/sole superpower/indispensable nation/end of history expectations of the political class, only to weave his own in their place.

As Trump so skillfully demonstrates, even as they deceive, pseudo-events also seduce, inducing what Boorstin referred to as a form of “national self-hypnosis.” With enough wishful thinking, reality becomes entirely optional. So the thousands of Trump loyalists attending MAGA rallies implicitly attest as they count on their hero to make their dreams come true and their nightmares go away.

Yet when it comes to extravagant expectations, few pseudo-events can match the recently completed presidential impeachment and trial. Even before his inauguration, the multitudes who despise Donald Trump longed to see him thrown out of office. To ensure the survival of the Republic, Trump’s removal needed to happen. And when the impeachment process did finally begin to unfold, feverish reporters and commentators could find little else to talk about. With the integrity of the Constitution itself said to be at stake, the enduringly historic significance of each day’s developments appeared self-evident. Or so we were told anyway.

Yet while all parties involved dutifully recited their prescribed lines — no one with greater relish than Donald Trump himself — the final outcome was never in doubt. The Republican Senate was no more likely to convict the president than he was to play golf without cheating. So no sooner did the Senate let Trump off the hook than the fever broke. In an instant, the farcical nature of the entire process became blindingly apparent. Rarely has the gap between hype and actual historical substance been so vast.

The effort to oust the president from office had unleashed a tidal wave of angst, anxiety, anger, and hope. Yet a mere handful of weeks after its conclusion, the impeachment of Donald Trump retains about as much salience as the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, which concluded in 1868.

What does the instantaneous deflation of this ostensibly historic event signify? Among other things, it shows that we still live in the world of pseudo-events that Boorstin described nearly 60 years ago. The American susceptibility to contrived and scripted versions of reality persists, revealing an emptiness at the core of our national politics. Arguably, in our age of social media, that emptiness is greater still. To look past the pseudo-events staged to capture our attention is to confront a void.

Pseudo-events Gone Wrong

Yet in this dismal situation, flickering bits of truth occasionally do appear in moments when pseudo-events inadvertently expose realities they are meant to conceal. Boorstin posited that “pseudo-events produce more pseudo-events.” While that might be broadly correct, let me offer a caveat: given the right conditions, pseudo-events can also be self-subverting, their cumulative absurdity undermining their cumulative authority. Every now and then, in other words, we get the sneaking suspicion that much of what in Washington gets advertised as historic just might be a load of bullshit.

As it happens, the season of Trump’s impeachment offered three encouraging instances of a prominent pseudo-event being exposed as delightfully bogus: the Iowa Caucus, the State of the Union Address, and the National Prayer Breakfast.

According to custom, every four years the Iowa Caucus initiates what is said to be a fair, methodical, and democratic process of selecting the presidential nominees of the two principal political parties. According to custom and in accordance with a constitutional requirement, the State of the Union Address offers presidents an annual opportunity to appear before Congress and the American people to assess the nation’s condition and describe administration plans for the year ahead. Pursuant to a tradition dating from the early years of the Cold War, the National Prayer Breakfast, held annually in Washington, invites members of the political establishment to bear witness to the assertion that we remain a people “under God,” united in all our wondrous diversity by a shared faith in the Almighty.

This year all three went haywire, each in a different way, but together hinting at the vulnerability of other pseudo-events assumed to be fixed and permanent. By offering a peek at previously hidden truths, the trio of usually forgettable events just might merit celebration.

First, on February 3rd, came the long-awaited Iowa Caucus. Commentators grasping for something to write about in advance of caucus night entertained themselves by lamenting the fact that the Hawkeye State is too darn white, implying, in effect, that Iowans aren’t sufficiently American. As it happened, the problem turned out to be not a lack of diversity, but a staggering lack of competence, as the state’s Democratic Party thoroughly botched the one and only event that allows Iowa to claim a modicum of national political significance. To tally caucus results, it employed an ill-tested and deficient smartphone app created by party insiders who were clearly out of their depth.

The result was an epic cockup, a pseudo-event exposed as political burlesque. The people of Iowa had spoken — the people defined in this instance as registered Democrats who bothered to show up — but no one quite knew what they had said. By the time the counting and recounting were over, the results no longer mattered. Iowa was supposed to set in motion an orderly sorting-out process for the party and its candidates. Instead, it sowed confusion and then more confusion. Yet in doing so, the foul-up in Iowa suggested that maybe, just maybe, the entire process of selecting presidential candidates is in need of a complete overhaul, with the present quadrennial circus replaced by an approach that might yield an outcome more expeditiously, while wasting less money and, yes, also taking diversity into account.

Next, on February 4th, came the State of the Union Address. Resplendent with ritual and ceremony, this event certainly deserves an honored place in the pseudo-event Hall of Fame. This year’s performance was no exception. President Trump bragged shamelessly about his administration’s many accomplishments, planted compliant live mannequins in the gallery of the House of Representatives to curry favor with various constituencies — hatemongering radio host Rush Limbaugh received the Medal of Freedom from the First Lady! — even as he otherwise kept pretty much to the model employed by every president since Ronald Reagan. It was, in other words, a pseudo-event par excellence.

The sole revelatory moment came just after Trump finished speaking. In an endearing and entirely salutary gesture, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, standing behind the president, promptly rendered her verdict on the entire occasion. Like a thoroughly miffed schoolteacher rejecting unsatisfactory homework from a delinquent pupil, she tore the text of Trump’s remarks in two. In effect, Pelosi thereby announced that the entire evening had consisted of pure, unadulterated nonsense, as indeed it had and as has every other State of the Union Address in recent memory.

Blessings upon Speaker Pelosi. Next year, we must hope that she will skip the occasion entirely as not worthy of her time. Other members of Congress, preferably from both parties, may then follow her example, finding better things to do. Within a few years, presidents could find themselves speaking in an empty chamber. The networks will then lose interest. At that juncture, the practice that prevailed from the early days of the Republic until the administration of Woodrow Wilson might be restored: every year or so, presidents can simply send a letter to Congress ruminating about the state of the nation, with members choosing to attend to or ignore it as it pleases them. And the nation’s calendar will therefore be purged altogether of one prominent pseudo-event.

The National Prayer Breakfast, which occurred on February 6th, completes our trifecta of recent pseudo-events gone unexpectedly awry. Here the credit belongs entirely to President Trump who used his time at the dais during this nominally religious event as an opportunity to whine about the “terrible ordeal” he had just endured at the hands of “some very dishonest and corrupt people.” Alluding specifically to Pelosi (and perhaps with Mitt Romney also in mind), Trump denounced his critics as hypocrites. “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” he said. “Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that that’s not so.”

Jesus might have forgiven his tormentors, but Donald Trump, a self-described Christian, is not given to following the Lord’s example. So instead of an occasion for faux displays of brotherly ecumenism, this year’s National Prayer Breakfast became one more exhibition of petty partisanship — relieving the rest of us (and the media) of any further need to pretend that it ever possessed anything approximating a serious religious motivation.

So if only in an ironic sense, the first week of February 2020 did end up qualifying as a genuinely historic occasion. Granted, those who claim the authority to instruct the rest of us on what deserves that encomium missed its true significance. They had wasted no time in moving on to the next pseudo-event, this one in New Hampshire. Yet over the course of a handful of days, Americans had been granted a glimpse of the reality that pseudo-events are designed to camouflage.

A few more such glimpses and something like “the facts of life” to which Boorstin alluded so long ago might become impossible to hide any longer. Imagine: No more bullshit. In these dark and discouraging times, aren’t we at least entitled to such a hope?

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30 comments

    1. David

      You just beat me to it. This is what Debord and the Situationists basically said in the 1960s. It’s worth adding, perhaps, that the examples in the article demonstrate the decline and emptying-out of traditional shared rituals which actually mean something to people, by purely media-created Spectacles whose only purpose is to conceal reality.

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      1. bmeisen

        Hard for me to imagine that the State of the Union Speech was ever a shared national ritual. As I understand it, it appeared relatively late – early 20th C. Back at the start, was the Speech an inclusive celebration of the country that transcended party lines? Probably not. My guess is that the Speech has always been a self-congratulatory marketing moment, if not for the President personally then for the Establishment, i.e. an empty event whose purpose is ultimately to keep its immediate audience quiet. Even if I am wrong, its format as political discourse is dysfunctional.

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      1. korual

        Just Debord. There are too many suggestions of an actual underlying reality behind the spectacle in the article. Baudrillard said that the hyperreal simulacrum disguised the absence of reality altogether, or that the hyperreal was more real than reality. For example, there is no sexuality in pornography: Russiagate is political porn and there is nothing political in there to be found, or uncovered at all. Even though he was quoted by The Matrix film, Baudrillard didn’t like it because in The Matrix there is an underlying reality. He called that naive Platonism.

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    2. Acacia

      Debord was already there and included a critique of Boorstin in La société du spectacle. Recall that Debord’s book was published five years (1967) after The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America.

      Debord’s criticisms are in theses §198-200 of La société du spectacle. An excerpt:

      A sociology that believes it possible to isolate an industrial rationality, functioning on its own, from social life as a whole, is liable likewise to view the technology of reproduction and communication as independent of overall industrial development. Thus Boorstin accounts for the situation he portrays in terms of an unfortunate and quasi-serendipitous coming together of too vast a technology of image-diffusion on the one hand, and, on the other, too great an appetite for sensationalism on the part of today’s public. The spectacle, in this view, would have to be attributed to man’s “spectatorial” inclinations. Boorstin cannot see that the proliferation of prefabricated “pseudo-events” — which he deplores — flows from the simple fact that, in face of the massive realities of present-day social existence, individuals do not actually experience events. Because history itself is the specter haunting modern society, pseudo-history has to be fabricated at every level of the consumption of life; otherwise, the equilibrium of the frozen time that presently holds sway could not be preserved.

      I don’t think Debord would have been “gratified” to read Bacvich. If he could have been bothered to look at it, more likely he would have noted that Bacvich failed to grasp the shortcomings of Boorstin’s already very dated analysis.

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  1. Brooklin Bridge

    Pelosi’s tearing up her copy of the speech was as fake an event as I’ve ever seen. Not only that, she apparently had to practice at tearing it up. Talk about scripted fake events.

    And the prayer meeting? Trump is vengeful. Who knew? Well, fair enough, but hardly an interesting event that was a non event (though that in itself might be of interest).

    But Bacevich makes a good case for the non event aspect of the impeachment. Too bad he didn’t focus on Russiagate. That is the king pin of fake events and the way it was handled and the reaction to it still resonate as the recent charges by our comic but not really funny secret service makes clear that everyone the DNC and the more general establishment doesn’t presently like is having a secret and torrid love affair with Vladimir Putin who’s bed must be groaning under the weight. Now this is the stuff of pure burlesque, reaching the point of absurdity where it’s like overly ripe cheese (gonna gag on it), and yet many people I know remain positively riveted. That is noteworthy.

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    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Yet somehow I don’t think Pelosi needed any rehearsal to give a standing ovation to Juan Guaido’, the little sh#*heel fascist from Venezuela…

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      1. Susan the other

        That was revealing, and Guaido himself trying to project gravitas – much like Danny Quail – it was just emphasis for the fact that the president doesn’t matter to big political operatives.

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    2. Arizona Slim

      As for the prayer meeting, permit me to share this heretical thought:

      I’m looking forward to our first openly atheist president.

      Reply
  2. Carolinian

    Blessings upon Speaker Pelosi.

    No thanks. Given her role in impeachment Bacevich lacks consistency if nothing else.

    Indeed Pelosi’s gesture was as “pseudo” as most of what transpires in Washington and that’s not new at all. That powerful people are vainglorious is pretty much a priori. Perhaps what’s changed is the advent of television to transform politician boasting and preening into a kind of reality show where Trump fits right in. Hence the rise of “narrative”–that thing Caitlin Johnstone is always talking about–to replace the news. Unfortunately these plotlines make about as much sense as those in most movies these days.

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    1. John Wright

      One can remember the news photos of the Trump speech pages on Pelosi’s table with the sheets already partially torn, at the ready for her theatrical rending.

      With Pelosi’s incident, Bacevich may illustrate that someone, even with their “pseudo-event” detector on high-alert, can get caught up in a fresh pseudo-event.

      Perhaps this was because the pseudo-event appealed to Bacevich.

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  3. John Mc

    Mission Accomplished too… Would be interesting to see the various fake events by year and presidency —- one might expect to see more of them leading to war?

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  4. The Rev Kev

    And what happens when all the media and the politicians mess with people minds for three years, telling them one lie after another, but still signing off any money that Trump wants to give billionaires or the Pentagon? Maybe a lot of people who read stuff like at Kos still believe all this garbage and still tune into Rachel Maddow.

    But I am suspecting that the average American has now tuned out of this constant bs and are making up their own minds hence the big turnouts for Sanders. The politicians and the media – especially the media – have so discredited themselves over the past three years that they are being totally ignored now which is causing them to have a melt down. Think Chris Matthews. And remember that Karl Rove quote?

    ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.’

    Looks like he was wrong after all. Reality wins over pseudo-reality.

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    1. carl

      This is Taibbi’s idea. He says that the media (pre-2016) could make or break a candidate. They lost their power four years ago, but still believe that they are the arbiters. Voters have and are proving them wrong.

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  5. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

    Ruby Ridge-Waco, 9/11, Epstein didn’t kill himself…the Potemkin Village we’re all kept in, enforced with social media banning and dogpile shaming (or beatings by anti-fa and ‘patriot boyz’). I have always appreciated Bacevich’s sober takes. I’m glad he tempers his anti-Trump slant with the proviso that Trump is nothing new in American politics. Lately hacking away at Trump takes the place of ‘analysis’ by bourgeois-oriented scribblers who are well pleased with everything about the President but his abrasive style and lack of politesse.

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  6. Off The Street

    Pseudo-event existence does not encourage one’s sense of human nature. To ask why people are gullible or otherwise swayed, cowed or manipulated into credulity or sullen non-resistance is to open up way too many issues, starting with questions about one’s sense.

    There is hope, however, in the younger generation members who are often more likely to be more forthright and to call out the Emperor’s New Clothes aspects of modern life.

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  7. urblintz

    The National Prayer Breakfast itself is a fake event. Sponsored by the crypto-fascist organization “The Family” of which Hillary Clinton is a proud member. Here’s an expose by the splendid Barbara Ehrenreich: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/hillarys-nasty-pastorate_b_92361

    The recent documentary about this group gets some of its history right (episodes 1 and 2 are good) but then devolves into TDS and RussiaRussiaRussia! I suggest skipping the movie and reading Sharlet’s book instead.

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  8. Dave in Austin

    I’d like to differentiate between fake news and pseudo events

    Fake news is largely an artifact of anonymity and the justifiable belief in the public that official sources are lying and and can’t bee believed and that the press covers for them.

    Pseudo events are artifacts both the fixed length news broadcast and the public’s love of formal theater with good guys and bad guys clearly delineated . “Let’s hold a trial; follow the forms; make the bastard drink the hemlock for what he’s clearly done… after all we held a trial and he was found guilty. And, most entertainingly, pseudo events can get out of hand… remember the look on poor Sadat’s face when some off the wind-up toy soldiers passing in review broke ranks, charged the podium and did him in with their “unloaded” AK 47s.

    The fixed length broadcast requires grist for the mill. Pearl Harbor filled page one. But if nothing is going on page one will settle for the British royal family or a helicopter crash with a famous basketball player on board. Charges and counter charges are always entertaining as are interesting pictures. Boring the audience is the only sin so no details about budgets, programs and results are allowed. And no unauthorized comments about the field of sacred cows- race, crime statistics, Israel, corruption among our allies, the latest emergency requiring American troops, etc

    Now the population of every major country has reached the nod-your-head, keep-your-mouth-shut and believe-nothing-unless-your-wife’s-brother-was-accidentally-there-to-see-what-really -happened. Crime stats are doctored but 15 minutes over coffee with a cop will answer all your questions. But what if you don’t know a cop- or an epidemiologist? In my experience the public- the munchkins- are perfectly capable of filtering contradictory information and reaching reasonable conclusions without screaming at each other; ask anybody who has been on a jury how seriously random Americans (and I assume Chinese, Russians and Ukrainians) take their responsibilities to weigh and judge. But if it is just “drunks in the bar room”- meaning talk with little information and no ability to alter events- the talk and “answers” will be wild- and useless.

    So we get “news” designed not to inform but to “move the masses to instant action”- the distance between a Rhichstag fire and crystalnacht, the Soviet propaganda machine in 1930, and America’s George Creels and Walter Lippmanns who “molded public opinion” is frighteningly small. Note that the propaganda can retrospectively be divided between “bad” (meaning we don’t like the results) and “good” (thank God Roosevelt got us into WW II before it was too late).

    Pseudo events are still real events and can balloon and get out of hand- with a few more documents or a set of White House tapes a la Nixon Trump would have been gone and the Democrats would be getting ready to lose to Pence in November.

    Fake news is NOT real; it is pure invention designed to rile-up the drunks arguing in the barroom. And the internet is the perfect way to do what revolutionaries always do- post anonymous posters in the middle of the night filled with lies and calls for action.

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  9. John

    The State of the Union Address has slid downhill steadily but especially since Reagan introduced the
    ‘meat puppets’ in the gallery feature. I stopped watching the dog and pony show long enough ago that I have forgotten just when.
    National Prayer Breakfast manages to slip by without my notice each year, but I am reminded each time I hear the Pledge of Allegiance that Congress slipped in ‘under God’ in 1954. I am a school teacher so the pledge has been a part of life. I grew up with ‘one nation indivisible’ and I am sticking to it.
    I still cannot figure out what outcome the Democrats imagined for the impeachment. Much as they might have liked to the Republicans never tried to impeach Obama nor the Democrats George W. Since impeachment is an inherently political act, the majority could dredge up articles any time they are in an angry and peckish mood. Ah, the simple days when impeachment was confined to IMPEACH EARL WARREN on billboards in the states of the one-time CSA. Perhaps in others of a similar persuasion, but I did not see them.
    What fun. Considering the public foolishness that can wisely be ignored. Most years we have that cosmically important event, the Super Bowl, as a welcome diversion in early February.

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    1. montanamaven

      People I know who have “anger” issues which may come from depression use “politics” to be able to vent and show that anger on Facebook and blogs. They direct it at Trump instead of at their spouse or the bank teller. The PTB use these pseudo-events to keep their “unpaid propagandists” on Facebook revved up. When asked I can only say, “I don’t think it’s healthy to stay angry about Trump. Takes away your power and saps your health.” But, they prefer to be angry. Sigh.

      Reply
  10. Susan the other

    But even the Quincy Institute is entwined in the rationalized world of fiction that Carl Rove seems to love. QI is a think tank of strange bedfellows whose one common objective is to end war. That is an excellent goal – but it requires the founders (Soros and Koch) to be the ultimate hypocrites. Both founding squillionaires are dependent on a “free market” and oil. So we could include the QI the trifecta of recent events: It’s a … quadriga! And Bacevich is doing a good job. He is managing, through all the other bullshit, to keep his eye on the prize. I can only deduce that because he never mentions – not once – the mess in the middle east. He never suggests an antidote. He just entertains us with his truthful disgust because he knows we all share it. I guess when you get right down to it disgust has “true significance”.

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  11. Tomonthebeach

    I think Andy’s message for us was clear, and most of us already get it.

    For the present, truth always is packaged in lies, entertainment, cries of Wolf!, fear and loathing, outrageous stunts. Thus, one must pierce the bullshit to see what is actually going on (if anything). Moreover, it really is not so difficult to see the truth, because the actors are emotionally and morally-challenged, which makes it easy for any discerning Toto to tear away their curtain.

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  12. Scott1

    I think it is the WWII veteran Sledge who wrote that it was his judgement that it wasn’t so much the intensity of combat a soldier was in, but how long the soldier was in combat. The Marines on Guadalcanal were under continuous bombardment for 4 months along with periods of intense combat. They reached mental states I can only compare to an acid trip freak out.
    Now since the installation of Trump into the White House it has been outrage after outrage. The individual anecdotes such as the immediate increases of the drugs I need to survive, to news of one sadistic day on the borders as more sadism & fear inspiring Humvee invasions of the urban commons have been mentally challenging when nothing done serves to end the pressure on individuals en masse for over three years.
    Mass hysteria is discussed as the reason behind Trump’s core of supporters.
    It is not like real war where one could join the armed forces and go and simply kill enemies.
    So a mass of people become on edge.
    Depressed if not somewhat psychotic.
    It is theorized that Romans became stoic about it all in the face of their national collapse, which as it turned out was also a general collapse not just of Rome as a nation but as the civilization of the world as it was known. Stoicism is thought to have been counter productive since alternative acts of anger were stuffed and things just fell apart further.
    I say of this: Depression is a pathology where as anger isn’t.
    Thanks

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    1. tegnost

      Sadly I must point out that trump wasn’t “installed”, he won the election by the rules governing said election. How this can be the reason for an immediate increase of drugs is not clear in your comment. It seems that you are saying being a US citizen under trump is the same as being a marine on guadalcanal? I’d say being a us citizen is probably not that bad. As for hysteria and pathology, well let me introduce you to Trump Derangement Syndrome. Were we able to go back to Nov. 7 2016, you would find a world very similar, identical, or very possibly worse than the one we’re in now, except that now bernie is much more popular so maybe you can find some solace in that.

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  13. CenterOfGravity

    Another pertinent reference to pseudo-events and fake realities comes from the National Security Council’s 2017 intelligence estimate, The Paradox of Progress, as follows:

    Global growth will slow, just as increasingly complex global challenges impend. An ever-widening range of states, organizations, and empowered individuals will shape geopolitics. For better and worse, the
    emerging global landscape is drawing to a close an era of American dominance following the Cold War. So, too, perhaps is the rules-based international order that emerged after World War II. It will be much harder to cooperate internationally and govern in ways publics expect. Veto players will threaten to block collaboration at every turn, while information “echo chambers” will reinforce countless competing realities, undermining shared understandings of world events.

    Reply

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