Charismatic liberal politics and mass media often collide to manufacture culture and public perceptions in a way that contradicts underlying grievances — especially those that affect youth. This collusion is based on the ‘charisma economy,’ where liberal elites use popular images, narratives, and appeals to gain short-term power and profit.
This charisma economy is not sustainable. Ignoring mass grievances and the public’s needs ultimately feeds into disillusionment. This occurs until reactionary politics exploit the charisma economy to gain power in the name of anti-establishment ‘change,’ a ‘change’ ironically marked by identity cleavages that only deepen the oppression of the most vulnerable.
Consider the final days of the Obama presidency. On December 16, 2016, Netflix released Barry, a biopic that follows a young Obama navigating through his competing identities, to the public. On social media, people latched onto the ‘Thanks, Obama’ event this January. Liberal media outlets sensationalized unsubstantiated allegations of Russian hacking during the American election, by which Obama’s actions against Russia, including the expulsion of diplomats, asserted the power of his leadership. Finally, before leaving office, the apparently heroic and benevolent Obama signed numerous executive orders meant to soften the horrific effects of the incoming Trump presidency.
Obama’s memorialization was a concerted move by the politico-media complex to reinforce the narrative of Obama as a ‘cool,’ intelligent, and ‘progressive’ leader. Obama was portrayed as a man whose charisma and racialized background exemplified the fruit of inclusionary American nationalism, compared to the authoritarian Putin and Trump, who would soon rule the world.
Yet, was it not Barack Obama who expanded the draconian surveillance state in the Snowden era, accelerated the criminally imperialist drone strikes program, bailed out the top one per cent in light of a recession they caused, and deported more immigrants than any of his predecessors? The imperialist, neoliberal, authoritarian demon that the liberal media projects onto Trump already exists in the status quo. Where leadership can appeal to hegemonic standards of charisma, objective reality is swept under the rug.
This was true, at least, until a reactionary force developed in the form of the so-called ‘alt-right,’ characterized by an alliance of white nationalism, patriarchy, and anti-globalist capitalism.
While the corporate liberal media supported the Obama-Clinton Democratic establishment throughout this election cycle, the alt-right, pioneered by voices like Donald Trump, Bill O’Reilly, and Dinesh D’Souza, mythologized Obama in recent years as a socialist, anti-colonial, Kenyan-born Muslim with a dubious, anti-American agenda.
The bottom line, then, is that two competing projections of Obama — both myths — became the basis of a charisma economy. On one hand, competing media outlets grabbed audiences by regularly sensationalizing these projections and misinforming the public; on the other, these myths became the fault-line for the Democratic and Republican parties and their competition for legitimacy.
The media failed to critically scrutinize Obama and all of his anti-democratic policies, under which an equally false, racist, alt-right insurgency accumulated. While the charisma economy legitimized the rhetoric of an orange face promising to take back the country for the white majority — the alt-right’s actual policies align with deepening elitist structures. This includes repealing Obama’s healthcare advances.
It is the media’s primary responsibility to critique and challenge power, yet the media became complicit in the events leading to today’s outcomes. From the disproportionate airtime he received to receiving daily mockery instead of serious scrutiny, Trump, too, took advantage of the charisma economy that legitimized, advertised, and consummated his leadership.
Likewise, Canada is in danger of prioritizing charisma over widespread grievances. While Tom Mulcair’s NDP was more committed to meeting the needs of the working class, Trudeau’s youth and charisma made him a brighter alternative to the Harper government in the 2015 election. The media chose to underplay Trudeau’s right-wing, neo-Harper activities, from his support for the racist Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, to his suspicious claims about balancing the economy and the environment. In spite of his charisma, he stands today as a neoliberal candidate who backs anti-democratic free trade deals alongside anti-Indigenous and anti-climate pipelines, and calls precarious employment for youth a “new reality.”
Just like Obama’s own racial background did not stop him from harming racialized peoples domestically and abroad, Trudeau’s youth does not stop him from compromising the future of young Canadians. However, he does take his time to play on his charisma, whether by boasting that he’s a feminist at international conferences, taking selfies, or appealing to the myth of inclusionary Canadian multiculturalism. Perhaps the Conservatives were correct that, in place of substance, he really only “has nice hair, though.”
Meanwhile, non-mainstream, right-wing media outlets like The Rebel Media are not slow to create an alternative image of Trudeau, criticizing him for being anti-oil and soft toward “Muslim terrorists.” It is precisely within this context that Kevin O’Leary — groomed by the CBC for years — makes a fertile Conservative candidate. He claims that Trudeau is a menace who compromises economic growth and competitiveness, and vows to recapture the youth vote and invest in Canadian energy independence. O’Leary’s commitment to an anti-climate, fossil fuel economy is not unique; Trudeau himself just applauded Trump’s re-invigoration of the Keystone XL pipeline project.
Amidst the caricatures and myths that political characters and competing media outlets manufacture, it is the youth who are affected the most. Our so-called precarious employment, concern for the environment, and responsibility to reconcile with Indigenous peoples push us to demand meaningful justice — whether by challenging the ‘progressive’ candidates we elect in Canada or the United States, or by vocalizing our anger through solidarity marches, like those following Trump’s inauguration.
Yet, leadership and media are clearly not responsive or accountable to us. As the greatest stakeholders of the future, we have little control over current political discourse dominated by neoliberals and ultranationalists. Geographer David Harvey, recently hosted by the Department of Geography and Planning on campus, warns that ruling class policies are “foreclosing the future.” Ironically, in Barry, Obama voices that the President is merely an actor, and that it must be “…people [who create] change.”
Liberal, inclusionary nationalism is fundamentally unsustainable when it ignores systemic grievances under smiley-faced, popularity-based leadership. Where widespread appeal fails, particularistic and specialized interests dominate. If we are to transcend this pattern of falsehoods and myths, the mass media needs to critique power and actively inform the public as opposed to being subservient in the name of ‘neutrality.’ Meanwhile, political leadership needs to represent widespread democratic interests.
On the other hand, if today’s elites continue to profit from this volatile charisma economy, the people, especially the youth, are disabused of institutional processes, and are left with one choice: to imagine, struggle, and create a radically alternative world.
Ibnul Chowdhury is a second-year student at Trinity College studying Economics and Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies. His column appears every three weeks.