The Roots of Trumpian Agitprop

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Donald Trump attending a MAGA rally, El Paso, Texas, February 11, 2019

No sooner had Attorney General William Barr scraped 101 words out of the Mueller Report and inserted them into his letter of exculpation than Steve Bannon predicted that President Trump was now “going to go full animal” against his enemies. Trump would “come off the chains,” he told Yahoo News in Rome, where he was furthering his alliance with Italy’s government and launching a Europe-wide training center for rightists in a rented monastery.

Some days later, on YouTube, a Trump fan posted a two-minute video that the president fancied so much he proceeded to tweet it out on April 9. Described as “President Trump 2020 trailer. A sneak peek of the upcoming 2020 election,” the video begins in full moan and rumble. Its menace has, as they say, “high production value.” Washington’s white marble monuments gleam. But all has not gone well in the city of Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, the Capitol and the White House. The first human face to appear belongs to Barack Obama. “FIRST THEY IGNORE YOU,” appears on the screen.


Cut to the face of Hillary Clinton. Cut to a lot of hundred-dollar bills. Cut to Bill Clinton. Cut to Trump striding authoritatively through a factory. Crowds. Air Force One on the tarmac. Flags. Fans. Brett Kavanaugh. Lindsey Graham. And so on. At the end, against a dramatic sky, Trump fills the screen and raises his fist. Crowds cheer.


Life is a rally.

But not so fast. As some YouTube commenters noticed, the nonstop soundtrack had been cribbed from Warner Brothers’ 2012 Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises. The company promptly declared that it was “working through the appropriate legal channels to have [the video] removed,” whereupon Trump’s handlers deleted his tweet. (The video has also been taken down from YouTube.) Trump’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale accused Warner Brothers’ owner, AT&T, of “positioning themselves as a weapon of the left” by virtue of the company’s insistence on property rights. An unnamed Trump 2020 “campaign aide” told CNN: “The video was made by a supporter. We like to share content from diehard supporters, and this is just another example of how hard Trump supporters fight for the president.”

How hard? Riefenstahl hard. “Trump 2020” suggests the mood of Trump’s base: the 36–43 percent who, according to opinion polling, approve of their fearless leader come hell, high water, or Robert Mueller. Despite the bright colors instead of black and white, “Trump 2020” is less “Morning in America” and more Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary paean to the Nazis’ 1934 Nuremberg rally. What it lacks in Riefenstahl’s legato rhythm, her lyrical talents, mobile camera virtuosity, and unity-of-action day-long time frame, not to mention the Wagnerian soundtrack, it gains in compression.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Leni Riefenstahl directing a scene during the making of Triumph of the Will, Nuremberg, Germany, September 14, 1934

If there were a Nobel Prize for propaganda, Riefenstahl would have won it several times over. The year Triumph of the Will hit German screens, Walter Benjamin saw clearly what it meant:

Mass reproduction is aided especially by the reproduction of masses. In big parades and monster rallies, in sports events, and in war, all of which nowadays are captured by camera and sound recording, the masses are brought face to face with themselves.

Writing about Riefenstahl in the Review some forty years later (“Fascinating Fascism”), Susan Sontag called Triumph of the Will “the most successfully, most purely propagandistic film ever made, whose very conception negates the possibility of the film maker’s having an aesthetic or visual conception independent of propaganda.” Faces in the crowd appeared stripped of individual characteristics, illustrating the idea of the individual rather than actual individuality. The aesthetic was Make Germany Great Again, aiming to achieve paralysis of the mind, a rehearsal for Götterdämmerungs to come. Following Benjamin, Sontag rightly identified the Riefenstahl aesthetic’s “characteristic pageantry,” expressed as:

… the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication of things and grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, “virile” posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender; it exalts mindlessness: it glamorizes death.

“Trump 2020,” too, celebrates mighty forces overpowering fate; crowds hailing the almighty leader; surrender and mindless momentum; a Super Bowl style of awesomeness, though brisker and less orgiastic than Riefenstahl’s rapturous celebration of what she saw as the Nazis’ epochal grandeur. Trump’s enemies are not as feral as those of 1934 Germany’s “Aryans”; they’re personified in clips of celebrated limousine-liberal types, representatives of the “THEY” who “LAUGH AT YOU”: Rosie O’Donnell, Bryan Cranston, and Amy Schumer. (Somehow, George Soros doesn’t make the cut.)


There are other differences. Propaganda was more stately and slow-moving eighty-some years ago. Riefenstahl’s montage moved more liquidly, less staccato. She did not have to contend with today’s attention deficit-disordered culture. With Hitler’s endorsement (“Produced by Order of the Führer”), she went romantic, sweeping, and soaring, opening with an above-the-clouds panorama as Hitler descended to Nuremberg; followed by crowds, crowds, and vaster, more delirious crowds, with hordes of enraptured faces. Riefenstahl had the advantage of an event orchestrated for her camera; the anonymous auteur of “Trump 2020” has only stock footage for spectacle. It is all aura. But for a short-form workshop product, it is a good indication of what we can expect from more official channels.

Whoever manufactured and distributed this video knew what they were doing. “Trump 2020” is the Triumphant Will jump-cut at microchip processor speed. It aims to overwhelm in the fidgety style of the twenty-first century. It proclaims adoration, it rewards the faithful. If you like the idea of an America of more rallies, more flags, more fists, you’ll love this commercial.

Before YouTube stopped taking comments, diehard Trump supporters had duly stepped up to applaud. Mystikal 36 went full apocalypse in this comment: 

The Battle between the Dark Forces Vs. The Light Forces. Alliance we are with you in your stand against evil. Opponents are writing this is a weird video nothing weird about it. Wake up it’s reality… The spark has been lit the call is out to all Patriots this is our world stand together not divided… The spark that will light the flame to eternity… Trump the enabler removed the shackles that has forced their hand… WINING [sic]…

Larry Feebak had a few doubts:

think this is good for us people that already support Trump, but honestly I think it would just be a turn off for getting votes from people who are on the fence and those are the people we need to vote for Trump.

But Dustman50 Rocks went full exclamation point:

I have never ever been into politics until our last election. Thank the good Lord above, that we got what we needed!!! Trump for life here!!! Love how he does shit, and he does not care what others think!!! No special interest from other countries, and uses his own money to get elected, and do great things for our broken country!!! AMEN!!!

Of course, Trump is not Hitler. MAGA rallies are not Nuremberg rallies. There is bombast but Trump’s threats, even his shouts of “treason,” are rhetorical—incitements that can be disowned should less inhibited enthusiasts take up arms against enemies of the people. Trump cannot padlock Warner Brothers, though next time his epigones can order up pompous but uncopyrighted soundtracks composed by anonymous wannabe Hollywood musicians, or even by algorithm.

Other such spectacles are surely in the pipeline. PACs will no doubt pony up to provide higher production values. “Independent expenditures” will flourish. And who knows what the presidential TV channel Fox News has planned, all but produced at the pleasure, if not the order, of the Führer? Reality-show America has metastasized, spawning a Trumpian circus of spectacular lies and mini-Lenis.

“Gave me goose bumps,” wrote a YouTube commenter named Doxie Mom. Me, too, though for other reasons.

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