Gonzo Governance

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Fantasy and reality. The great Japanese baseball player Shohei Ohtani (now with the Los Angeles Angels), who is an outstanding pitcher as well as a powerful hitter, was inspired by a fictional character Goro Shigeno,  a heroic figure in Japanese comics.  In a mediated world, we should not be surprised when the publisher of the comic requested that Ohtani provide an endorsement for the sequel. Ohtani wrote, “Goro’s passion made me love baseball even more.” A real person speaks to a fantasy. Baseball aside, we are living in fantastic times. These are media times.  Donald Trump arose from a fantasy—aka Reality TV—then transmuted real democratic institutions through what I call Gonzo Governance.

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016 and his defeat in 2020 launched destructive acts against democracy and civility. The former President followed a mediated self-aggrandizing script and narrative of destruction and salvation: He damaged the role and institution of a democratically elected president with Media Logic and the politics of fear and promoted himself as the salvation for the country. Gonzo Governance has continued as his claims, threats, destructive policies, and institutional changes in voting, managing elections, and the civic culture were adopted by members of Congress and state and local officials.

His rise from a reality TV star to a disruptive President, and then his refusal to concede defeat in 2020, received extensive mass media and digital media coverage. Donald Trump spread fear and misinformation through thousands of lies and tweets. Media Logic refers to the way in which various media define, organize, and present material, as well as how audiences participate, expect, interpret, and use information. The media environment and new information technologies that are personal, visual, and instantaneous were foundational for audiences to be receptive to Trump’s nationalist slogans, derogatory epithets, memes, and politics of fear.

Gonzo, or breaking the mold of a conventional activity, was popularized by Hunter Thompson’s deviant-drugged-edgy lifestyle and approach to journalism, who inspired a more participatory nature of the “new journalism.” Sociological and communication researchers argue that a key feature of a Gonzo perspective is that individual actors use mass and social media to rail against a fearful disorder that needs drastic correction: Underlying it all is a sub-text of pervasive fear. Gonzo is justified by a perceived crisis and a breakdown in institutional and conventional means of dealing with a problem or issue, whether in journalism, criminal justice sentencing, or social organization. A dramatic resolution is offered that resonates with an audience who shares the sense of disorder. The solution is extraordinary—even deviant, illegal or immoral– breaking boundaries and violating the parameters of social and discursive participation within a community of actors, typically promoting raw emotional meanings and symbols. Gonzo rhetoric requires attention-grabbing bold action that only the savior can provide—in our case, Donald Trump. Donald Trump did to the body politic and democracy what Hunter Thompson did to conventional journalism.

The 2020 Presidential election was the first election in U.S. history without a peaceful transfer of power.   Donald Trump unleashed and directed crude nationalism, petty bigotry, and xenophobia against global efforts to curtail climate change, nuclear proliferation, and human rights.   With vulgar language he seethed disinformation, rejected facts, science, and entrenched values about progress, equality, and disqualified election results. His platform of fear, inuendo, lies, incompetence, and fraud were sustained by a network of digital media propaganda, right-wing radio, and Fox News.

The Trump Administration’s bulldozing of significant democratic institutions, practices, and rituals extends to the amorphous—but very significant—civic culture. Civic Culture in general refers to citizens’ everyday life experiences, expectations, habits, and sentiments about the functioning of government and their place in it. Many political scientists, social theorists, and political communication scholars emphasize that civic culture is the foundation for political sensibility, awareness, and involvement. Donald Trump, in word and deed, negated values, affinity, knowledge, identities, and practices essential for a democratic civic culture, including what he opposed and promoted. These have been damaged in the American body politic. Trump’s Gonzo Governance undermined basic democratic rituals and routines, including voting, conceding election outcomes, and the peaceful transfer of power.

The Trump presidency shifted the public perception of threat from Islamic terrorists to domestic terrorists and expanded the impact of the terrorist narrative on everyday life. The President did not regard white nationalists and the insurrectionists who stormed the U. S. Capitol as terrorists. But his intensive use of digital media cast protesters, federal law enforcement, government officials, and those who voted against him as domestic enemies. The emerging transition from a defeated Gonzo President to putative Gonzo Governance is marked by elected officials refusing to accept 2020 election results and by renewed efforts to restrict voting in future elections and to stigmatize public health measures and vaccines combatting the pandemic. His repetitive tweets and sworn fealty recast Donald Trump into a digital meme, who could still exist as a victorious President supported by millions of followers and members of Congress administering Gonzo Governance. In a prescient awareness of the future impact of Media Logic on journalism and politics, Hunter Thompson quipped, “Yesterday’s weirdness is tomorrow’s reason why.”  Fictional character Goro Shigeno and President Donald Trump would surely agree.

David L. Altheide is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Gonzo Governance: The Media Logic of Donald Trump (2023).