Bret: There’s a side of me that thinks that Trump is a natural culmination for a country that has spent the past 60 years besotted with television, the past 50 with moral relativism, the past 40 with ostentation, the past 30 with the politics of sex, and the past 20 with the politics of fear. He seems to encapsulate all of it.
Gail: Don’t forget the internet. And Fox.
– Gail Collins and Brett Stephens, “The Conversation: One Wave, Two Waves, Red Wave, Blue Wave,” The New York Times, Nov. 6, 2018
Actually, it is difficult to forget the internet, especially because cyberspace has become our default reality. Polls show that the Millennials and Gen Z are not “besotted with television” but rather with their Smartphones.
I will not forget the internet but first let us consider what Mr. Stephens believes has led us to the presidency of Donald Trump.
I realize that the phrase “moral relativism” frightens an ostensibly Christian country. Actually, we do not fear relativism in regard to morality but rather in regard to economics. I mean that we cannot believe the market only rules relative to what Federal rules might be. Response to need cannot be relative to what government decides to do but rather only to the play of the market. Individual success must always be seen as relative to individual choice and competition and not to gifts you are born with or inherit or when and where you are born. We also cannot believe that profit to shareholders should be relative to the power of labor unions to bargain for wages.
You might say that our morality is relative to our economic status, or where we are positioned in the wealth divide.
Those living on their dividends have leisure to sponsor universal and moral absolutes, rather like the way plantation owners had more time for mint juleps than did the field hands. Those living on wages, which rise or not according to the noblesse oblige of capital, are in a good position to see that inequities exist but do not show up on the moral calculation chart.
They are in the position to observe that in spite of always working and working hard, times do not get better, that in fact how good or how bad your life is does not merit a moral review by market rule which never looks beyond your own personal responsibility. Americans like everything personal and private, especially a moral sense, but that is hard to do when the society in which you are embedded has already embedded within you the market’s notion of moral behavior– individual choice, the assumption of individual responsibility, and the glories of not fraternitè but competition.
What conditions and forces that economically and then politically corrupt your life because they are themselves corrupt must never be up for a moral review, especially by the Losers. Instead, the Losers much at every stage of their descent into immiseration conduct a moral review of themselves. Therapy will lead them to a discovery as to why hard work and ambition has led them to a precariat place loaded with dysphoria.
At this post mid-term election moment, Democrats offer health care recuperation as the answer here, a narrow triage when a grand narrative is needed. President Trump, on the other hand, continues to play the role of both Avenger for and Savior to those who have given up blaming themselves, the old Neoliberal and Neoconservative pitch, and are focused on what’s rotten in the state of Denmark, aka the United States. And Donald J. Trump is leading that charge.
“The leading candidates for America’s next presidency use Twitter to energize their supporters and draw citizens who wouldn’t otherwise follow political discourse. Twitter’s simple and personal messages resonate in a way that more traditional means of communication — mail robocalls and yard signs — no longer can.”
Matt Kapko, “Twitter’s impact on 2016 presidential election is unmistakable,” CIO magazine Jan. 9, 2017
I pass over the other causes Mr. Stephens mentions as having led us to Donald J. Trump, namely “ostentation,” and the “politics of sex and fear” because those politics are historically endemic in the American mass psyche and ostentation very explicable in a plutocratic society.
My huckleberry here is the effect the internet has had on Donald Trump ascendance.
A day after the midterm elections, President Trump held a 90 minute press Q&A that I am sure would be studied by more psychotherapists than by historians far into the future. The President is on one hand a nodding, understanding compliant, sane, presidential guy, and on the other hand, a dangerous animal cornered by the press. A couple of hours later, he fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a useful idiot who had worn out his usefulness to the President almost at once by recusing himself from the Russian probe.
A man of impulse and quick retaliation, President Trump would have been seriously slowed down without Twitter. His Consigliere (he has none) would have had time to reason with him. Or his own wandering mind could have taken him someplace else. This is not my flippancy: this President is fully present in the moment but this is not the liberating insight that is now faddish. Whatever is present to others, say, the size of a crowd or election results, is not present to this President. And the moment has no staying power but rather rushed forward and backward till the continuity of time and the possibility of coherence vanishes.
For this sort of mind, Twitter is both an accelerant and a drive shaft.
Consider how effectively the President could or could not have kept his loyal followers in his camp if he did not reach out to them instantly, day and night, on Twitter. True, minus cyberspace, he could spend more time on Fox and Friends, hold more cross county bund rallies, appear regularly on the late night talk shows ( but not Bill Maher), host his own radio show or another reality TV show, give more TV Oval Office Presidential addresses, do fireside chats.
The instantaneity, however, would be gone; the readiness to transmit the knee jerk reactions of someone too grandiose to accept criticism would not be available. The transmission would be delayed or disrupted. And the receivers own reptilian brain receptors would not be fed, perhaps then giving way to rational review.
I do not believe we could have the special self-inflated huckster type that we have in President Trump before the existence of cyberspace. Certainly, he reached an audience who later became his voters with his Reality TV show, The Apprentice but it takes a new and special kind of communication system to hold on to the attention deficient but viscerally responsive receivers. Trump and Twitter found each other and the relationship has been advantageous to both. Trump saved Twitter from bankruptcy and Twitter keeps his followers tightly attached.
Regardless of whether your Liberal or Neoliberal or studying the various kinds of socialism, I believe you have to agree that President Trump’s impact would be slowed down greatly if reality had remained on one platform. More precisely, we would not be entertaining notions of reality platforms and alternative facts and hyperbolic truths or sufficient truthiness if the hyperreal had not become a more profitable platform than reality itself.
Although it’s true that candidate Trump hilariously slayed his rivals in the Republican Primaries on TV, if the commentary and analysis of his performance had been restricted to what those hired to write for magazines and newspapers or speak on TV and radio had to say, there would have been no interactive space open to all in which any level of cogitation could find its peers.
What social media did was eclipse thoughtful critique off-line but more pertinently, it offered a platform to opinionate anonymously for those who had previously expressed their opinions to the bathroom mirror or their beleaguered mates.
In short, Twitter brought to clarity for many how closely candidate Trump was quoting their own opinions, their own low regard for a status quo that was leaving them fearful, angry, and befuddled until Trump arrived.
One of the potentials of social media is to fast-track the Id, which it has done. Thus far, this is the potential we have blocked from our minds easily because we are wrapped up in the marvels of cybertech and look forward to its further extension into our lives.
What we focus on is the potential of social media to augment sociability by increasing occasions of social interaction, albeit in a digital reality. The revival of distant relationships, the therapeutic effect of feeling you are close to a community of friends whose lives you share in joy and sadness, the sense you have of being in the moment, up to date on what’s going on at a level that is personal to you, the sense of belonging and not being excluded, of being heard and responded to — all of this cannot be over-estimated.
All of this has to be weighed against social media’s virulent contamination of an order of civility in our real social institutions, practices and discourse.
That order was not angelically shaped to suit all but depended upon denying mass opinion and feeling conduits of expression. The military makes this an operative philosophy. The military is not democratized is a price paid for the country’s protection. Education also is grounded in the many shutting up and listening while someone speaks. The classroom has always been structured to restrain the equitable voicing of opinions. Democracies need an educated citizenry but education itself is not democratized. That failure to democratize voices and opinions in the classroom is a price paid so that the previously uninformed can learn and by means of that education join in rational dialogue.
What a cyberspace designed to meet your own likes and dislikes has done is vacate the sense of informed and not, knowledgeable and not, as well as a hierarchy of critical ability and understanding and replaced all of that with all voices are equal and deserve equal time and opportunity to be heard. The upshot of that in a very brief period of time has been to overpower “the best that has been thought and said,” to quote Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, as well as ways of thinking established in Western culture since the Greeks.
Overpowering is far different from deconstructing in Derrida’s sense of closely examining an argument to determine how it undermines its own meaning. My work over many years both in teaching and writing did not set out to throw aside and replace what Derrida called “the white Mythology” of Western culture, two examples made in the previous paragraph.
What deconstruction and postmodern thought pursued was a critical examination from within the illusions of absolute and universal reasoning and determinate categories so established.
What the cyberspace universe has done is not to engage from within established discourse, practices and institutions but rather overrun or overwrite them as if they never existed.
For the coming and rising generations, they will indeed never have existed.
This is, as I say, an overpowering, not an engagement, not a continuance of a dialectic or a refutation of a dialectic. What we are facing is a wipe out of our reality and truth making ways by an alternative hyperreality drowning us in voices unreachable within the self-designed reality frames they have chosen for themselves.
In some sense what cyberspace offers, reality cannot, rather like the way a chasing of the dragon offers a favored place. In that preferred place, “The Great Outdoors” of a raw reality that is not interactive or indeed “social” (think of Nature as not social) is left behind. Its removal, however, is not ours to arrange just as reality has no obligation to confirm our choices, regardless of how free we think they are.
The problem we face then is that we cannot leave reality behind; we cannot overpower it, just as it is clear that our progress has not overpowered and dominated Nature. Efforts to overpower reality by hyperreality, the real with simulacra, always take you to a bad place, just as our dominating Nature has led us to a bad place.
Cyberspace is not utopia, except in the literal sense that it is “no place.” However, we have made it a real place by thinking of it as such and so have exposed ourselves to an invasion that is barbaric and feral in the sense that this invasion incinerates thought and ways of thinking outside one’s own visceral responses. And such “thinking” is now bombarding social media and indistinguishable from fact based interpretation.
Democratization is, as de Tocqueville pointed out, not without its perils in the political realm. When extended to our ways of knowing and discovering/revealing truth, it can leave us without a way to expose an autocratic aspirant such as President Trump as well as leaving us with a significant percentage of the populace who remain viscerally attached to him.
Cyberspace and its productions in social media are indeed the Pandora’s Box we have opened. Nothing released goes back into the box.
Parents who struggle to get their children away from their Smartphone texting or their video games or social media are not getting any help with this from an educational system leaning on Google and Microsoft and others. Psychologists are already doing a brisk business with people suffering from Nomophobia, which “is the irrational fear of being without your mobile phone or being unable to use your phone for some reason.”
We are a long way from treating our addiction to cyberspace as an addiction, especially when we are facing an opioid addiction that has fatalities, an addiction we cannot quell. We are a long way from thinking that what so fascinates us is also, like any addiction, harmful to us.
We observe, however, that a collapse in our truth and reality making ways, a collapse if not shaped by our turn to cyberspace at least accelerated by it, has brought us to the dark state of fracture and division in all our discourses, practices and institutions.
Donald J. Trump not only owes his presidency to this collapse but he has bullied on behalf of alternative, i.e. his, constructions of reality and truth. And an American public, that Nancy Pelosi states she is anxious to give what they want, want Trump’s version of everything. And sadly, any inclination to fact check those wants takes them not to the real but to simulacra, takes them to a social media within which they seek truth among their like-minded friends.