What Can Cultural Theory Tell Us About Trump’s Populist Public Diplomacy the Digital Age?

Paweł Surowiec (University of Sheffield) and Chris Miles (Bournemouth University)

During the Cold War, the categorisation between ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics, mirrored by ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures, was distinguishable as a trend in public diplomacy. These distinctions became blurred and, in the early 2000s, a new trend emerged whereby ‘high’ politics began borrowing from ‘low’ cultures to increase the mass appeal of public diplomacy as a dominant field for maintaining the liberal world order and global meaning-making about U.S. foreign policy. The steady digitalization of the field of public diplomacy, coupled with populist trends in domestic political realms, has meant that alien cultural codes have entered the realm of international politics and public diplomatic communication. As a consequence, the practice of public diplomacy has been subjected to self-imposed infantilization, de-formalization, and impoverishment, echoing the ways in which citizens across the world react to U.S. soft power.

Concerns about the decline of U.S. soft power had emerged in the run up to the 2016 presidential elections, as the Republican Party nominee for the Presidency put forward a foreign policy orientation embracing political revisionism and undermining the U.S. leadership of the liberal world. Trump’s approach to U.S. foreign policy appeared worrisome to his adversaries, critics and political commentators alike. In many ways his presidential campaign set the tone for the mainstreamisation of populism into diplomacy, and public diplomacy in particular. Apart from the digitalisation of public diplomacy, illustrated by Trump’s personal use of Twitter turning into an arena for global entertainment, there are distinct cultural clashes around the ways he designs his digital messaging, which make him highly contestable as a foreign policy player.

Increasingly, the interplay between Trump’s media spectacles and the hyperrealities of social media are having a profound effect on the form and content of public diplomacy, introducing novel, rupturing, cultural dynamics to international politics. For some time now, formal diplomatic cultures have been becoming de-homogenised. This is inevitable considering the extent to which the field of public diplomacy relies on externalisations – in order to effectively reach their audience and speak to them in a persuasive manner, public diplomats have increasingly borrowed from popular culture, promotional culture, and the culture of connectivity. This process has also symbiotically aided the digitalisation of the field. A by-product of this de-homogenisation, however, is that it enables the full-scale merger of diplomacy with other cultures, the effects of which have consumed world public opinion from the onset of Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump’s communicative style, as manifest in his diplomacy and statecraft performances, exemplifies a new cultural hybridity in the practice of public diplomacy.

Using the notion of hybridity allows us to consider the interplay of media landscapes and communicative practices as well as cultural dynamics in the field of public diplomacy. Here, we focus on the latter. Trump’s effect is associated with channelling populism into the field of public diplomacy. In digitalised media landscapes which expect customisation of messages, Trump employs strategies for broadening public appeal that rest on challenging the world order, while offering limited diplomatic solutions. During his election campaign, Trump’s dominant appeal to the working class was transferred into public diplomacy and, against public diplomacy conventions, he arguably does not differentiate his communication style when addressing diverse interest groups. So, while digital media landscapes have been lauded for their ability to allow the customisation of messages for increasingly micro-segmented audiences, Trump’s public diplomacy is, ironically, founded upon using the same style and content for all segments. And that style and content is the result of acting ‘as if’ everyone he needs to communicate with shares the same popular culture as his ‘base’.

Trump’s modus operandi resembles the creation of a hyperreality aligned with his conduct of public diplomacy. As Baudrillard (2001: 169) put it, hyperreality is “a real without origin or reality”. It is a reality constituted entirely of signs that refer only to themselves; simulacra with no referents. Indeed, in words that foreshadow Trump’s brutalist style, Baudrillard noted that “present day simulators try to make the real, all the real, coincide with their simulation models” (ibid: 170) One of the ways in which this forceful coincidence is pursued by Trump is his very adoption of the discourse and attitude of US popular culture across his entire public diplomacy. His communicative approach feels like the ‘reality’ of TV soaps and reality shows, of online gaming and the troll-infested fora of the Internet. Ironically, for his base and many other audiences, this can make it seem extremely honest. Particularly when contrasted with the communication styles of traditional public diplomacy.

Perhaps the best way of understanding how this works is to approach Trumps’ public diplomacy through the lens of kayfabe, a concept associated with the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) promotion. Originating in the outsider language of carnival workers and hucksters as a signal to shut down insider conversations when outsiders (the ‘marks’ or dupes) might overhear, its appropriation into the wrestling industry stems from a performance strategy which portrays “staged and ‘faked’ events as actual and spontaneous” (McQuarrie, 2006: 242). The tactical inventory of kayfabe spectacle is almost entirely carried over into Trump’s public diplomacy: disregard for codes of conduct, celebration of story-telling, suspension of disbelief, reliance on mediated spectacle, the theatrically antagonistic division of diplomatic relations into ‘faces’ and ‘heels’, romanticised relationships, direct appeals, a reliance on signifiers of brute force with limited persuasive abilities and a grandiose approach to the field of foreign policy, rather than addressing it issue-by-issue. And, most importantly, there is never a ‘breaking of kayfabe’, never a sense that Trump might be willing to suspend the act, pause the graphic narrative, to even temporarily re-join the established, traditional discourse of public diplomacy. The ‘always on’ performance creates a new hyperreality that everyone else is forced to react to, to join, and therefore to co-create. In WWE, the kayfabe extends beyond the physical space of the arena to the media discourse around the event. So, we find Trump’s public diplomacy designed around media events which buttress the hyperreality; his meetings with world leaders become staring matches and handshake contests, his foreign policy briefings are delivered through addresses at mass rallies, and government shutdown negotiations become the equivalent of chair throwing around the wrestling ring.

Trump’s presidency is rich in examples of kayfabe-inspired showmanship in public diplomacy. As Hodges (2017) has pointed out, Trump’s ‘America First’ rallying slogan and xenophobic policy points are mirrored in the demonising of the ‘foreign menace’ in much WWE kayfabe. This is a hyperreality that Trump’s base understands and already is practised in inhabiting – their willingness to suspend their disbelief for one entertainment narrative surely makes them all the more willing to respond to the same simulacra when presented in the arena of public diplomacy? But what makes ‘sense’ for one audience cannot necessarily make sense for another. ‘America First’ does not translate into the international political outcomes that Trump’s administration is seeking, or a coherent strategic narrative that can be used in international relations to bring U.S. allies together to resolve political issues. On the contrary, Trump’s disregard for U.S. allies and diplomatic conduct isolates political leaders and puts them in the position whereby diplomats are having to “work around” him. Perhaps even more alarming is the prospect that other leaders themselves become enveloped within the hyperreality – how much of Trump’s hyperbolic antagonism has rubbed off (perhaps transmitted ‘virally’ through one of those handshakes) on Macron or May, for example?

On the surface level, Trump’s approach to public diplomacy is personalized, in the sense that he appears to have no separate diplomatic persona to adopt when appropriate. Again, this might make him seem ‘honest’ in the hyperreal antagonism of the Untrustworthy International Elite versus the Fightin’ 45th. However, upon closer inspection, Trump’s personalization is conflated with “taking things personally” and being personally offended. The cancellation of his state visit to the UK in January 2018 using “personal reasons” as an excuse, epitomises the sort of theatrical pique that WWE wrestlers use to stoke the flames of rivalry. For the wrestler, and for Trump, everything collapses down to the rivalry of the ring.  Adding to the sense of confused personalization of his public diplomacy is his attempt to directly address and often point fingers at political leaders on Twitter. This is something which does not resonate well with the gravitas that many global leaders traditionally prefer to display in public communication, although recent EU-UK Twitter exchanges over Brexit once more point to the possibly infecting nature of Trump’s hyperreality.  And while Trump’s attempts at ‘selfie-diplomacy’ overseas often appear to backfire it seems that he still dictates the terms of the hyperreality we find ourselves in as even ‘failures’ simply set the scene for further ‘angles’ (as the ever-evolving kayfabe storylines of WWE are called) – in Trump’s public diplomacy, just as in wrestling, allies one day are mortal enemies the next because the continuing dynamic of the hyperreality demands it.

On the other hand, Trump’s kayfabe-styled public diplomacy creates romanticised digital relationships based on vaunted personal bonds with foreign leaders such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, or as if he was in the ring, his claims of being “very strong” with Putin regarding Russia’s election meddling. Keyfabe-styled strength demonstrations define his approach to public diplomacy in multilateral settings, too. A perfect illustration of keyfabe as suspension of disbelief is to be found Trump’s diplomatic performance at the UN General Assembly in September 2018, where his claims regarding the “most accomplishments” of his presidency produced bemused laughter amongst the international delegates but the determined maintenance of kayfabe by Ms Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, with explanation that “They loved how honest he is”. Outside of the hyperreality, though, when one looks for the actual referents that one assumes all the simulacra must eventually point to, we find no real substance – just vague, derivative gestures such as the wall as a security measure, allegations of fake news, and revisionism of trade agreements. These gestures do not add up to a diplomatic strategy – they are signs that point back to themselves.

Trump’s antagonistic, ‘personalising’ communication strategies bypass established public diplomacy codes of conduct. His abandonment of these codes and his adoption of the demotic rhetoric of simulated pop culture across all of his discourse, has an isolating effect on foreign audiences (of both the diplomatic corp and the citizenry). Trump’s approach does not yield a smoothly functioning field of practice, but co-constructs instability and uncertainty through U.S. soft power statecraft. Baudrillard refers to this instability as implosion. This means that Trump’s public diplomacy is collapsing from within. For Baudrillard, this is the culminating moment of hyperreality, whereby public diplomacy accelerates towards its limits, which in the era of Trump is articulated by the incursion of cultural codes alien to the very field of public diplomacy. The intensity of keyfabe-inspired simulations destroys public diplomacy from within. Implosion swallows all the energy as leaders are struggle to make sense of Trump’s discourse on foreign policy, which has an entropic tendency to collapse arising from the field’s own dynamics. Implosion arises from the destruction of meaning and the reality-effect due to the dominance of simulacra. Trump’s digital diplomacy produces the “real”, the “simulacra”, the medium, and the message all at once. In Trump’s foreign policy reality is denied and, as a result, the signs lose their referential value. As a consequence, the field of public diplomacy loses its meaning-making abilities and its purpose is destroyed. It becomes a hyperreal wrestling spectacle constructed from the empty simulacra of rivalries, flexings, tantrums, and hyperbolic stand-offs, all undermining public diplomacy as an area of U.S. soft power statecraft.