The most powerful posture for a modern media figure is to play the martyr. Just after noon today, PewDiePie, the biggest star on YouTube, released a video in which he half-heartedly apologized for his use of Nazi imagery and anti-Semitic language, blamed the media for unfairly targeting him, and teared up as he thanked his fans for their support. Less than an hour later Donald Trump kicked off a press conference with a long monologue railing against the media for criticizing him, blaming them for the dysfunctional state of government, and bragging about the size of his fan base.
The parallels between the two events were striking. Both featured a powerful man painting himself as the victim of a cruel and dishonest media. The media is unpopular, and demonizing them can rally supporters, but playing the victim can be an equally effective tactic. In a telling essay on how Hugo Chavez rode a wave of populism to control of Venezuela, the economist Andrés Miguel Rondón laid out the rules of the game. “What makes you the enemy? It’s very simple to a populist: If you’re not a victim, you’re a culprit.”
In his apology video, the YouTube star agreed that his use of Nazi imagery and phrases like “Death to Jews” was probably offensive to some people, but others didn’t get the joke, and that the media, which was taking him out of context, was the real villain. The Wall Street Journal story which prompted Disney and YouTube to cut ties with him wasn’t news, rather, it was “an attack towards me, an attack by the media to try and discredit me, to decrease my influence, and my economic worth,” PewDiePie declared. “Personally I think they [the media] are the ones normalizing hatred.”
Trump, for his part, said, “The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people. Tremendous disservice. We have to talk to find out what’s going on, because the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.”
PewDiePie, like Trump, built his fan base around a cohort of white men, his “bro army.” He made casual rape jokes, for which he later posted a half-hearted apology very similar to today’s video about Nazism. The shared love of video games wasn’t deeply political at first. But many people in this group became politically charged in the Gamergate era. In hindsight that movement was a precursor to our current culture war, pitting online hordes against two simple enemies: journalists and political correctness.
Even as they demonize the media, PewDiePie and Trump belittle it, describing it as a waning power in the face of their own distribution channels. PewDiePie kicked off his apology video by pointing out that he had made millions on YouTube, yet the mainstream media failed to give him any respect. Trump, in his press conference, constantly referenced the strength of his own television ratings, and mocked the popularity of various news outlets.
Attacking the media is a rhetorical tactic that encourages fans of both PewDiePie and Trump, but it’s also a real battle over the control of information. Trump and PewDiePie both make the point that they don’t need the mainstream press anymore. The internet has liberated them to be media entities unto themselves. They are frustrated that they need to argue about the truth with people who question their point of view, or conform to cultural norms policed by journalists. Trump said onstage today that his electoral victory was the largest since Ronald Reagan. It seems strange that he would repeat this lie, since its so easily disproved, and because he doesn’t need to lie, since he won. But the purpose here is to show that he can insist that something is true because he says it, and to undercut anyone who questions him.
There is obviously a huge difference between the influence of a YouTube celebrity and the president of the United States. Only one has control over a nuclear arsenal. And PewDiePie is right when he says that his Nazi imagery and anti-Semitic content are tasteless jokes, not incitements to genocide. But there are big consequences to his actions these days. By playing coy with hate speech, PewDiePie is emboldening actual Nazis, who are celebrating. And by painting the press as liars, he is reinforcing the message of President Trump and his supporters.
The irony of Trump and PewDiePie playing the victim is that these are two people at the very height of power for their respective fields. “Old school media does not like internet personalities, because they are scared of us” PewDiePie said. “We have so much influence, and such a large voice.” He’s right about that. These men do have power, and their fans stand behind them, giving them even more.