The Message Is Clear: Symbolic Consumer Violence and the Right Wing
Culture war capitalism relies on performative principles and the marketing of violence
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“Grandpa’s feeling a little frisky today,” says a vamping Kid Rock in a video posted to his Twitter account. “Let me, uh, say something to all of you and be as clear and concise as possible.”
Preparing his assault rifle, he trains it on a display of Bud Light cans and boxes and then proceeds to shoot. The results are kind of embarrassing. There’s some damage, but for someone performing this violence that’s supposed to show millions of people his lethality it’s just barely amateur-level marksmanship.
“Fuck Bud Light and fuck Anheuser-Busch,” he says, flipping the bird.
For those who pay attention to online spaces, you probably know this is in response to Anheuser-Busch’s gifting transgender celebrity Dylan Mulvaney a custom can with her picture on the side. Kid Rock didn’t even feel the need to explain the situation or the motivation for his violence. Anyone following him and anyone ingratiated with Right Wing spaces knew exactly what was being said and what its purpose was.
It’s important, before jumping into the “controversy” to point out that Kid Rock is a washed-up artist who very rarely makes mainstream headlines and even more rarely influences mass culture. There was a time, of course, in the 1990’s where Rock was almost inescapable, whether it was growling through “Bawaitdaba,” carrying on a touring circus masquerading as a “musical act,” or even dueting with Sherly Crow in one of the worst singles of any era. But he has been so marginalized now that his entire public persona is completely dependent on the MAGA Movement for support.
You might remember in the past other figures like this. For awhile, if you kept tabs on Fox News, you’d sometimes see someone like Jon Voight or Hank Williams, Jr. pop up on a random show at like 4 in the afternoon and think, “Oh, wow, I haven’t thought of them in forever.” Ted Nugent might make an appearance and say some incredibly repugnant things. One of the hosts would chuckle as they were obviously uncomfortable.
Now there is an entire ecosystem of Right Wing “celebrities” who perform these same acts. Kid Rock is one of the most prevalent ones. There’s also Rob Schneider, famous for being Adam Sandler’s off-putting little buddy, and fellow former SNL alums Jim Breuer and Victoria Jackson. There’s Tyrus, the former WWE wrestler who has become a constant fixture on the channel. And joining them is a whole coterie of strange pseudo-celebs who realized, at some point, the only way to remain relevant, was to embrace the marginalized celebrity of the Right.
To enter this lane is fairly simple: espouse politically incorrect ideas and repeat network and party-approved mantras. Tell everyone that COVID isn’t real while all of their grandparents die. Tell them masks don’t help anyone and only make you look weak and stupid. Make the tried-and-true “my gender is attack helicopter” joke while assuring mema and grandpop watching at home that their grandkids and all their friends have gone wacky.
There’s money in this. A parallel economy has developed, which is how capitalism always works. Ideology is great for marketing as it produces the need for subsections of the market to express themselves through consumer choices. One of the greatest boons for consumerism took place, for example, in the supposedly anti-consumerist period of the 1960’s and 1970’s, during which the ubiquitous grey flannel suit that every man bought gave way to a plethora of outfits and choices, expanding markets and creating new marketing opportunities predicated on self-expression. What happened, though, was that a lot of the meaning was sapped from the identities being expressed.
Kid Rock, like a lot of Right Wing “celebrities,” saw a perfect opportunity to capitalize off the consumer outrage stemming from the Mulvaney gambit by Anheuser-Busch. He posted the video and probably saw a spike of interactions in his social media and probably a modest bump in sales of music and merchandise. In doing so, he grew his brand in the exact same way Donald Trump grew his during the Obama Presidency by being the pseudo-celebrity who went on Fox News and was happy to promote the toxic conspiracy theory we now call Birtherism.
In doing so, he grew his brand in the exact same way Donald Trump grew hid during the Obama Presidency by being the pseudo-celebrity who went on Fox News and was happy to promote the toxic conspiracy theory we now call Birtherism
What’s more strange is that this was a beneficial transaction for both Rock and Bud Light. In attempting to grow their outreach and appeal, Anheuser-Busch was aggressively pursuing this fight in the same Mars/M&Ms understood that playing Right Wing culture war outrage was a perfect way of drumming up free attention and clout. Rock gained an advantage by playing to his audience’s outrage. Anheuser-Busch gave liberals/LGBTQ+ populations a reason to buy their products out of solidarity and to poke conservatives in the eye. Both sides of the parallel economy benefited and the beat goes on.
The problem though is what is being transmitted by these marketing appeals and incentive loops. Because other than elevating profiles in the parallel economies, what is happening is a message that is growing louder and louder with every iteration.
Back when I was first covering the MAGA Movement and Trumpism in 2016 and 2017, publications and outlets would often have me on so they could talk to someone who knew the people getting caught up in the mess. These were the years where J.D. Vance, once of the most dangerous members of the United States Senate in modern history, was still being peddled around as a “poor white” soothsayer, his disgusting Hillbilly Elegy being praised by liberal and conservative media members alike because it gave both of them the answers they had been looking for: the people struggling in middle-America deserved their suffering.
When I’d get my turn I’d tell whoever was asking that it wasn’t always so simple. It wasn’t just a matter of a lump group of people being “bad” and it wasn’t just “economic anxiety.” Both things were true and both things were untrue simultaneously. This is, after all, complicated stuff, and anyone selling you a silver bullet explanation on anything going on in this weird, wild world we live in now is either lying to you or way in over their head.
What I told them was that Donald Trump had not created this. He was capitalizing on an opening in American politics that was ready for someone to capitalize on. Both parties had lost the trust of millions of Americans and deservedly so. The push for neoliberal globalism changed the entire socioeconomic status of the country in favor of the wealthiest few while tossing everyone else into intentional precarity and technocratic suffering. Whether it was on the Left or the Right, they were primed to listen to anybody as long as they admitted the whole thing was corrupt and gave them an alternative.
Trump lacked the polish and personal fear of his rivals. Ted Cruz could have done it. Marco Rubio could have done. Hell, Rick Perry could have done it. All it would have taken was for one of the nominees or key figures to go off-script, call the whole thing phony, engage in some “tough real talk,” and buck the system until the system buckled for them. But Trump came into 2016 more than willing to be as racist and misogynistic and offensive as possible. Everyone else continued to play the game as it has been played for decades.
The secret sauce in Trumpism is this: a message that supporters are not the problem. Trump supporters have lived their entire lives in a world that is worsening and growing more complicated. With that complication, and particularly with the move from manufacturing to the information economy, which is now reversing for what it’s worth, the old, gruff expectations of men and with mass culture have changed. The casual racism and misogyny of the past was quickly exposed to sunlight and the consequences were quick and severe. The prejudices they held, whether it was against Black people, immigrants, women, foreigners, gay people, were soon identified as unacceptable and, even worse, economically and socially disqualifying.
When people talk about political correctness, this is what they mean. But they’re wrong. What had happened and what was happening was that social mores were shifting. It wasn’t that corporations or “woke conspiracies” were mutating society. Society was beginning to express that more was expected out of the individual in terms of tolerance. MAGA is equal parts an authoritarian movement and grift, but it is also a full-throated, violent promise to demand less.
What had happened and what was happening was that social mores were shifting. It wasn’t that corporations or “woke conspiracies” were mutating society. Society was beginning to express that more was expected out of the individual in terms of tolerance. MAGA is equal parts an authoritarian movement and grift, but it is also a full-throated, violent promise to demand less.
Trump’s rallies and speeches sent a message to millions of Americans that they did not have to hide their prejudices anymore. They weren’t something to say under their breath behind closed doors. They were actually a political identity. Something on which to base their entire selves and personas on. They could fly their Confederate flags, spout epithets, wish out-loud for active discrimination, discuss openly the dismantling of democracy in order to preference themselves and the white race.
In other words, an alternative product in an alternative economy.
Since then, those of us who study Trump and this authoritarian movement have been dismayed by how quickly it has deteriorated. Any movement or marketing or mass media phenomenon that relies on increasingly more extreme appeals yields these types of results. To talk “tough” about roughing up protesters is to ensure that protesters will be assaulted. To fetishize assault rifles as a matter of identity and metaphor is to ensure they will not only be bought but used. To tell people they are at war with an invisible enemy is to inspire them to fight that invisible war, whether it is with those weapons or with bombs sent to their houses or places of work.
Simply put, the marketing fantasy becomes lived reality.
What is happening now is an increasing radicalization premised on economic incentives. The Bud Light situation is a perfect example in which both sides of the “political equation” - a reminder that some of this is politics and much of it is not - profit from the situation while transgender people are put in incredible danger. When Kid Rock shoots all those cans, it’s a display of what the Right would love to do to transgender people. When someone tees off on a Bud Light tallboy with a baseball bat, it isn’t hard to imagine what millions of people are wishing they could do to the people and groups they abhor.
In this, it is being communicated that things these people don’t like, people they don’t like, don’t need to be respected or tolerated. They can be destroyed. Intimidated into nonexistence. All it takes is an acceptance that the receiver of the message isn’t the problem. That the problem is outside of them and it is evil and dangerous. Violence is a completely defensible, even laudatory, thing.
All of it is sad. There is a line of demarcation between the people who are using this for profit and the people who are ideologically dedicated to actually carrying out fascistic violence and revolution. And that line is sometimes clear and sometimes it blinks and bleeps out of view. It doesn’t change the fact that all of this is dangerous. It doesn’t change the fact that this puts so many innocent people at risk or that, as part of the gambit by the wealthy donors who bankroll all of this, it is serving to help dismantle representative government and liberal democracy as we know it.
Trump and the GOP and the myriad corporations, products, influencers, pseudo-celebrities, and entire ecosystem of Right Wing intolerance sells a very simple and identifiable product: an existence for white people in which white supremacy is necessary and violence is a legitimate means of protecting it. Buying this beer or that beer is framed as a means of scoring points in that battle. Brandishing assault rifles or shooting “Antifa” members in the street are just other products, only less definable or recognizable.
It is simultaneously real and a gift.
God help us all.
I will never forget my mom posting on Facebook that "if people don't stop trampling on our rights, they're going to force us into having a civil war." And she said this as a Trump supporter, intending it un-ironically.
I had two main questions.
1. Which rights did she perceive were being trampled?
2. How much civil warring she intended to do personally from her armchair while collecting her disability checks?
Of course the answer to #1 was some vague rambling about how she's not allowed to freely be a Christian in this country anymore. (Insert my exasperated eye roll in response here).
And then of course she took issue with my "meanness." I pointed out her entire identity as an aggrieved and "supposedly oppressed" Christian was fundamentally about losing the prospect of being free to bludgeon other people into submission and conformity to her own beliefs, and the core interest in that activity is inherently MEAN. That perhaps she shouldn't be so excited to dish it out, if she can't also take it.
They're definitely selling violence, and it's so god damned infuriating that so many Americans are so gullible.
I read yesterday that Anheuser Busch has donated big bucks to Republican causes. So the adoration of this sociopathic corporate entity is very much displaced.