Trump is Twitt-ler for our Facebook Dystopia
If traditional American politics is House of Cards, then Trump’s candidacy has been Black Mirror. Because if nothing else, it has demonstrated that we are living in a genuine science fiction dystopia where truth doesn’t matter, and previously established means of separating reality from falsehood no longer apply. To a large degree, this is a function of the screens that we spend our days absorbed in.
In a democracy, there should theoretically be some advantage to instant access to information. In the past, the public was rarely aware of the back-avenue dealings of government in real-time, such that, for instance, if the FBI secretly orchestrated the overthrow of a Latin American government in the ‘70s, the general population of the US wouldn’t know about it for at least 10 years (and likely much longer) until documents are declassified and the issue was no longer politically hot. Now, with the ubiquitous presence of phone cameras, Tweet-storms, and Wikileaks operatives, very few personal or government secrets are genuinely safe, and in theory, thanks to the internet, the political consequences of bad behavior are much more likely to be immediate nowadays than in the past.
But while this effect is born out to some degree (see the Political Career of Anthony Wiener), this year’s election cycle has demonstrated that the reality is more complex, and in fact, much information that would have been politically disastrous in the past has been essentially ignored by the public on countless occasions. For every Trump $%^& grabbing comment that actually does make political hay, there is a Trump Mafia connection that is essentially ignored. The candidacy of a man with the documented public history of Trump is unfathomable, but it is reality.
I’m not the first person to suggest that an unforeseen side effect of the Rise of the Machines, er, internet revolution, has been information overload, where the average citizen is so inundated with so much data that they find it impossible to sort through and decide what to trust. However much Trump’s success can be attributed to underlying veins of American nationalism and bigotry, or disaffection with politics as usual, I think that it’s exactly that situation that has allowed a man like Trump to move beyond the fringes and gain the support of 40-odd percent of the American population.
The Internet as a Post Apocalyptic Information Wasteland
Until recent years, Americans have gotten most of their political information from traditional press: newspapers, magazines, radio and television outlets that were treated as part of an important institution in America. Press was seen as providing a necessary independent voice which, similar to religion, could provide a check against excesses or abuses of government. Press hasn’t always functioned well, but there are a set of rules that legitimate reporters and legitimate outlets are expected to follow so as not to violate the trust of the general population.
In the present situation, the majority of information comes from the amorphous hive mind that is the internet. And the fundamental difference between “the internet” and the traditional press is that it provides essentially a continuous stream of unvetted information. Traditional press has its voice, but it screams into the same chaotic space as outlets masquerading as traditional press, delusional conspiracy theorists, politically motivated operatives, and angry ranting uncles (such as myself).
In short, where traditional press was a governed culture following a specific set of rules and with an accepted function in society, “the internet” is a Mad Max-style anarchistic free for all of information. And just as warlords gather armies and demagogues rise to power in countries without functional governments, individuals and outlets that don’t play by the same moral journalistic rules rise to power and influence on the internet. Confirmation bias and playing to societal fears is as reliable a path to clicks as is good, truthful reporting. The old adage continues to hold some truth, that you shouldn’t believe what you read on the internet, but the internet’s barrage of information has become the world we live in.
Trump arose in that world with a witty stream of tweets about racist conspiracy theories and Robert Pattinson, and has benefited massively from the chaos.
The end of Trust and False Equivalency
We’ve been living in this post-apocalyptic information wasteland for a few years now, with lies and disinformation only increasing in their number and sophistication, and people have responded to it in a variety of ways. A percentage of the population has been able to navigate, recognizing that some online sources follow traditional journalistic rules, and are therefore more reliable than others in providing accurate, relatively unbiased information. A percentage have responded ignorantly, and are easily swayed by lies and confirmation bias. (On the right, these people still genuinely believe that Clinton killed Vince Foster.) And some have essentially given up in frustration, adopting an intellectual nihilism, where nothing is seen as trustworthy, or of “screw it” style burnout where nothing is worth listening to anymore.
Confirmation bias plays a huge role in all political campaigns, and probably a bulk of Trump supporters actually agree with what he says, but I would argue that the most interesting factor in Trump’s continued viability has to do with the large number of people who respond primarily nihilistically — having given up on trusting anything or investing in information. These people have essentially given up on the idea that political reality is knowable, and therefore fall back primarily on tribal impulses and identity politics — impulses that Trump has appealed to directly.
I would argue that this is a primary reason that undecided voters still exist, and that the false equivalency/“She’s as bad or worse as he is” argument relies heavily on this type of intellectual nihilism. Both candidates have been involved in high profile court cases and journalistic investigations through the years. In a world where reliable journalists, video evidence and court documents have consistently confirmed one candidate’s indiscretions while consistently denying the other’s, the only way to view the situations as equivalent is to disbelieve the journalist, the video, and the judge.
And I would also argue that Trump has masterfully exploited this impulse, repeatedly gaslighting an America that already feels a bit crazy when shocking episodes from his past are exposed — even on camera: “These women are all liars”, “These are lies created by the Clinton Campaign”, “…made up by the mainstream media”, “Wrong”, “Never Happened”. And for a percentage of people, this reads as normal — he, like us, doesn’t believe all the crap he hears. Potentially damning information is brushed aside as probably not true, even in circumstances where evidence that would traditionally be viewed as incontrovertible proves that it is.
America has been groomed for decades for this particular type of anti-reality sentiment. Religious and corporate leaders arguing against the validity of scientific data where it is inconvenient to their cause, anti-intellectualism, and the continuous drumbeat against the “mainstream media” and “government” have contributed to a culture where institutions, as a norm, are treated with suspicion by conservatives and liberals alike. Some cynicism is clearly appropriate, but the fact that we are in a place now where an unlikable demagogue who was videotaped on a bro-date with a mafioso at Wrestlemania could convince close to half of the population that he is more trustworthy than, for instance, the FBI, the Pope, the New York Times, and a former Secretary of State and First Lady, despite all obtainable evidence to the contrary, speaks to a deep cultural crisis.
While Obama showed in 2008 that the internet could be used as the primary tool to win an election, Trump in 2016 has demonstrated that the internet has undermined public trust in media to such a degree that the functionality of our democracy has been brought into question and America is vulnerable to demagoguery. Trump isn’t Hitler, but he might be Twitt-ler in a country destabilized, not by war, but by the availability of information.