Figure/ground analysis of Trumpism

Donald Trump as the president of the USA will be gone sooner or later. However, the conditions that made Trump’s ascension to the presidency possible will continue to impact politics and culture. These conditions can be generally described as societal susceptibility to fake news and post-truth, along with the rise of populism, polarization and political radicalism. They proved themselves to reach far beyond US politics, as was shown during the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum and multiple elections around the globe.

The striking personality of Donald Trump is so captivating that it distracts the media, the public and pundits from an exploration of what made Trumpism happen. It is easy to mock and condemn Donald Trump; it is much harder to understand why almost 63 million Americans voted for him.

Since an environment is not visible to its inhabitants (the fish is not aware ‘of the water it swims in’ – M. McLuhan, Playboy Interview, 1969) we need an anti-environment in order to recognize substantial characteristics of the environment. McLuhan thought it was the task of artists to expose environments to us through creating anti-environments. Perhaps it is not only artists who possess this power to knock us off track so that we can notice the world we live in. Trumpism, a set of conditions emblemized by Trump, may be seen as an anti-environment that disrupts the invisibility of the new media/cultural/social environment. Trumpism allows us to see post-truth at work.

The paper focuses on the application of McLuhan’s figure/ground analysis for studying the hardware of Trumpism – the media environment that gave Trumpism its material base. Figure/ground analysis calls for focusing on ‘hidden ground’ and not being blinded by ‘obvious figures’. As McLuhan wrote, ‘[t]he figure is what appears and the ground is always subliminal. Changes occur in the ground before they occur in the figure’ (Molinaro, McLuhan and Toye 1987).

According to this approach, focusing on Trump’s personality brings little understanding of the conditions that favours Trumpism. To better understand the phenomenon of Trumpism, the focus of the study must be moved from the salient figure to the invisible ground. Donald Trump is not just an isolated phenomenon; he is the figure that represents a tectonic shift in the media and cultural environment. Trump was not a cause of this shift but rather its effect. From this angle, Trumpism is not a disease; it is an allergic reaction to the changes in the environment. It is an unavoidable cataclysm that signals the advent of a new era.

The shockingly unexpected presidency of Donald Trump plunged the public into a desperate search for a suitable explanation. Since this search was led predominantly by those directly impacted by Trump’s victory, the media and the elites, an explanation was sought to provide a sort of moral and psychological compensation. The intention to find someone or something accountable for such a frustrating electoral outcome inevitably led to singling out the most visible or most irritating factors of Trump’s victory. Among them, Twitter (the role of social media), Russian trolls/hackers (foreign meddling), and Cambridge Analytica (big data manipulation) have become the most popular motifs. Like Trump himself, these motifs turned to the figures that overshadowed the ground.

When a search for an explanation is meant to become a search for those accountable, “prosecutorial bias” is unavoidable. Thus, for a “blameable” explanation (and symbolic execution), an agency behind the causes is required. Environmental forces have no agency and therefore cannot be blamed. On the contrary, Twitter/Facebook, the Russians, and Cambridge Analytica have agency. They meet the requirement of a “blameable” explanation demanded by the media and the elites.

This paper is far from a rejection of the parts played by Twitter/Facebook, the Russians, or Cambridge Analytica. However, preoccupation with these factors carries the risk of a reductionist simplification, or what Vincent Mosco called “essentialism” – the reduction of the acting forces down to one decisive factor (Mosco 2009: 11). Figure/ground analysis helps bring the environment, not the figure (of Trump) or the figures (of Twitter, the Russians, Cambridge Analytica), front and center.

Read the full paper in Explorations in Media Ecology

The excerpt from: Miroshnichenko, Andrey. The hardware and software of Trumpism: A figure/ground analysis. Explorations in Media Ecology, Volume 19, Number 1, 1 March 2020, pp. 55-84(30). Intellect. DOI:

© Miroshnichenko, 2020. The full, peer-reviewed and edited version of this article is published in Explorations in Media Ecology, Volume 19, Number 1, 1 March 2020, pp. 55-84(30). Intellect. DOI:

Categories: Media ecology, Trumpism and Fake news

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