In history the role of the town crier pervades all cultures and geographies; from Asia to Europe to Africa and North America, the town crier was an invaluable source of information. This was especially important when the vast majority of the populace was illiterate, and before move-able type was invented.
In medieval England the town crier or bellman was elaborately outfitted in black boots, white breeches, a red and gold coat and a tricorne hat. He carried a handbell and yelled “Oyez!, Oyez!, Oyez!” (“Hear Ye!”) and delivered a range of announcements and pronouncements, everything from new births to royal edicts and decrees. These were read out in the town square or whatever official station was appropriate. A great deal of scripting likely went into these grand pronouncements, so that the subjects were both reminded of the power of the monarchy that ruled over them and left in no doubt as to the essence of the pronouncement. Power and grandiosity characterised the performance, yet clarity remained essential. Clarity ensured that order flowed from the monarch's, or the monarch’s representatives’, pronouncements.
President Donald Trump’s tweets, however, are unfiltered, straight from the source. They lack any semblance of officialdom, yet still reaches supporters, opponents, detractors and enemies alike. His reach is not just his base; it is much broader, and perhaps that is precisely what he, in his self-acknowledged “unmatched wisdom”, seeks to achieve. Yet it must be noted that while the ‘digital pronouncement’ is effective in terms of its broad reach, it is delivered through a system (i.e twitter) that is designed for more conversational stream of consciousness-oriented interactions. Hence it can become unwieldy, even contradictory, and in no small part due precisely due to the varied audience his tweets are intended for. It is difficult to strike a coherent officially sanctioned line through an un-managed twitter account. Long sanctified institutions of the state and government are left trailing in his wake.
The digital pronouncement is more about the projection of power and influence – in the circus of political drama that now prevails in the public realm – than it is about making official statements. At the same time it speaks to identity and its empowerment or reinforcement on a regular, almost daily, basis. Leveraging the fact that a particular set of values characterises the personal and group identities of his followers, his digital pronouncements reach deep into his base and its sympathisers. Detractors and enemies are also targeted at the same time, and so are potential deal-partners. No matter where you sit in the system – through a digitally enhanced media and social media (multimedia) that amplifies his messaging while distributing it ever widely at the same time – you cannot escape the digital pronouncement, whether directly or indirectly. It pervades and persists in all the spaces available to it. It can reach you on a desert island, a submarine, pretty much anywhere, anytime … as long as you are connected of course (i.e. to the global media stream and its many interfaces). It has system-wide impact.
With the digital pronouncement, he is able to control and influence – not just the narratives – but also the reality of those whom he is targeting. He’s on to something, and he knows it. In that respect, President Trump is a bloodhound. He can smell fresh blood a mile away and any weakness, any chink in the system that allows him to pursue his typically self-interested agenda is quickly and thoroughly exploited. He’s not whispering in their ears on twitter, he is trumpeting his agenda out. It is an advance attack on his enemies and an affirmation of his supporters’ values and identity at the same time. He is constantly announcing himself as ever present and dominant. In this way he multiples and amplifies himself and his messaging, in no small part with the help of the global media establishment - but also with ours, who transfixed by the spectacle cannot bear to turn our heads away from it. What a tangled web is woven by the digital pronouncement; it is the new 21st Century propaganda conveyance system for the ‘voice of the leader’, so to speak.
What a brave new world this is, where leader can reach followers and detractors alike with equal ease! Where the institutions no longer hold significant sway over the words and actions of an individual leader, one who despite his broad reach is more atomised than ever in his own administration. So alone that the company of millions on a mobile phone constitutes his access to power, his validation and his misery alike. So insecure that the members of his leadership and administration are set up against each other; where they are forced to vie for his affections, competing against each other as though in the court of a monarch. Whoever he anoints the latest holds sway with him, but only temporarily. The attrition rate of those serving at the White House bears testament; it is worse the closer to him they are!
What is lost in this brave new world of democratic monarchy is precisely what was most important in times of old; clarity and order. The ancient world was not a world like ours; there was no surveillance state, so it relied on the exercise of clarity alongside power to ensure order. The world of digital pronouncements is not a world that acquires more order through the grandiose pronouncements of the leader. Institutional power (generally, and not only that of the White House) is dissipated, spent, after being wasted on misdirection and internal contradiction. The centre ceases to hold the institutions of government together; the centre is adrift in a sea of endless noise. The great leader proceeds disjointed from the institutional purposes, directives and infrastructure that is there to support them. And to be sure, Donald Trump is not the only celebrity-populist with quasi-monarchic aspirations in this new era, although he might be the only one who literally sits on a golden toilet.
In the hyper-connected, post-literate, information overloaded world of today we are experiencing increasing levels of disorder, rather than what we might have originally expected the internet revolution to bring i.e. increased mutual understanding, tolerance and space for healthy debate. Perhaps it was inevitable that the virtual realm would mirror real-world prejudices, alterity, exclusions and the myriad fragmentations of human experience, but it was not foreseeable a few decades ago. It is undoubtedly of great concern and consternation that it has hamstrung institutions of government that have kept the post-war consensus of the 20th Century intact. Moreover; that social and political polarisation and antagonism have replaced tolerance and dialogue in the public realm, rendering the polis fragmented and unable to act coherently to exert democratic power when it is needed the most. It cuts a sad and pathetic picture; one that augers no good for the 21st Century.