A founder of "The Independent" explores what a Trump presidency could mean for the arts.
Image by Gage Skidmore.
We don’t know much about Donald Trump’s art policies. We do have a sense of his aesthetic. He likes marble and especially gold—on walls and stairs and toilet seats. There is a portrait of him that hangs in one of his many real estate holdings. It’s not bad enough to be kitsch or primitive enough to be “outsider” but as a painting it’s pretty bad.
National Art and Culture Policies
Trump did not submit any plans for art and culture for public review before the election. But what can we surmise lies ahead for a Trump federal arts initiative? What appointments will he make to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? Who will he name for the Federal Communication Commission? For the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities? What will be his stand on net neutrality? Will he privatize the National Park Service? Will he sell the federal museums on the Mall in DC? These venerable institutions are already under tremendous neo-liberal pressure to “monetize” their holdings. Are they just pussies up for grabbing? We don’t know what the future holds, but one can guess—and it’s terrifying.
Whether or not Trump articulates his cultural policies, he will have an effect. There will be those arts administrators and curators who will be so worried about what Trump might say or do that they will pre-censor to avoid any criticism and/or budget cuts. As Trump is known for his vindictive personality, caution will prevail whenever there are “questionable” works. For the LGBT art community, this is almost as frightening as deportations are to immigrants. There is talk of reviving the Un-American Activities Committee, the Federal Witch Hunt in the 1950s that went after such cultural figures as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye, Charlie Chaplin, Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, and dozens of others. The removal of many of these artists from creative work diminished U.S. culture for decades afterward. Will we be subjected to similar trauma?
The Intellectual Base
Trump celebrates ignorance, making numerous outright anti-intellectual statements. He is hostile to science and has never acknowledged climate change. He has indicated that high schools should provide manual/vocational training rather than intellectual development. How often does he read? U.S. News compiled a list of his recommendations. It begins with The Art of War by Sun Tzu, The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale is second, followed by Emerson’s Essays and the works of Machiavelli. On other occasions Trump has listed as a favorite his own, The Art of the Deal, ghostwritten by Tony Schwartz, based on his interviews with him. Schwartz has recently denounced Trump and ridiculed his ideas and fantasies.
Federal Internet Policies
What will Trump’s position be vis a vis electronic communication? He has said he wants to eliminate net neutrality—regulation that prevents internet service providers from favoring certain programs and/or channels over others. The streaming media companies (Netflix, Vimeo, Epix, etc.) have supported the basic goal of net neutrality. However, that struggle was moved to a different arena when the FCC moved to “clarify” the internet’s role—which is now defined as a public utility. It is that definition that the Trump regime will fight. The Republican platform objects to the FCC’s attempt to “impose upon the internet rules devised in the 1930s for the telephone monopoly.” That is, to define it as a “public utility.” It is that “New Deal” regulatory category that the Republican Congress, the Trump White House and an FCC commission appointed by Trump will reverse. Eliminating any public utility requirements will free up the internet and cable providers to devise myriad ways to increase profits by cherry picking program sources and lucrative neighborhoods.
Key to what may surface as resistance to this reversing of the public utility designation (in addition to the usual non-profit organizational suspects such as Freepress, Public Knowledge, Electric Frontier Foundation, etc.) are the strange bedfellows of streaming media providers, Netflix, Vimeo, and even Google’s YouTube. Trump wrote the book on “deals.” What deals does he have in mind for the internet?
ICANN (the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers), which is the only official regulatory body of the internet, was recently able to take over its own organization, rather than be a tool of the White House. For several years I have served as a delegate to ICANN as a member of NCUC, the Non-Commercial Users Constituency. ICANN, like the internet, is an experiment in “multi-stakeholder” operation—which means that there are groups such as NCUC that participate in its on-going consensus driven governance. Although there are many contradictions (i.e. the commercial and governmental representatives can easily afford to participate in the many international ICANN meetings and the European and U.S. representatives are more numerous and active than participants from developing countries, etc.). Still, ICANN is an important international body which is now thankfully out from under the White House’s jurisdiction. It is a relief that the ICANN groups were able to maneuver away from U.S. government control just in time to escape being a Trump pawn/victim.
Trump has not taken a position on the public airwaves and the public communication infrastructure or “rights of way.” Fifteen years ago, Bush appointee FCC Chair Michael Powell was first questioned about his policies and he declared that he wasn’t visited by the “Angels of the Public Interest.” Media activists were appalled by his glib dismissal of the so-called guiding principles of media regulation and they gathered in halos and wings at the FCC to let Powell know that there was a constituency that cared about airwaves “in the public interest” as proscribed by the Communications Act.
In response to continued media activism, there was some minimal (but authentic) acknowledgement of the public interest mandate in subsequent FCC actions. Perhaps the most successful public benefit has been the proliferation of new low power (and full power in uncontested locations) small independent radio stations.
The Diminishing Power of Television
As the youth of the U.S. turn from the tube to the pod and cell, what is the future of television in this country? Donald Trump apprenticed in commercial broadcasting. He was formed in the “vast wasteland”/swamp of reality television. There is not much he can do to make the mass media arena worse. The proliferation of channels has not brought much in the way of public interest other than total adherence to commercial entertainment spectrum/channel/web exploitation.
For us geezers, Public Broadcasting hobbles along from Antique Roadshow to Roadshow, with an occasional stop at a lavish BBC estate where dowagers and butlers still growl at each other. Sesame Street has been gentrified to subscription HBO and the Muppets now do brandy commercials. There have been brief glimpses of what independent media could provide on POV or Independent Lens but these will surely be pressured to become even more bland and circumspect under a Trump regime. With a compliant House and Senate, he will have free reign to disregard any public interest obligations for art and culture. And I do mean “reign.” This administration doesn’t have to worry about checks and balances. The guy will be able to rule by fiat.