Saturday, January 7, 2017

Trump Trends

The victory of Donald Trump shocked and dismayed me, as it did many other Americans and people around the world, which I know from the reactions of my friends in Europe. The prospect of what he may do as President is truly alarming and I find my psyche in a near-constant state of low level anxiety as I numbly await the new president's inauguration. I am, however, feeling greater clarity about how and why such a man could be elected. My thoughts are not comforting, except that there is always some small measure of comfort in being able to make sense of what otherwise seems senseless and incomprehensible.

I realize that there were quite a few social and cultural trends that led to Trump becoming president. First of all, ever since the Reagan years, if not earlier, American society has been filled with two opposite but in a sense, complementary messages about who and what is worthy of respect and who and what is not. Politicians and public servants, indeed, the public sector itself, indeed, the very concept of government, have been consistently denigrated and vilified, even as millionaire businessmen and billionaire entrepreneurs have been held up as the heroes of our world. Look at Trump vs. Clinton through that lens, and it is clear what an enormous tailwind of attitude and perception was boosting Trump's political fortunes, no pun intended, at every stage of the campaign.

Then there is the rise of reality television as a major genre of entertainment in America. I first mistyped this as entertaint-ment, but that may have been a Freudian slip expressing my dim view of this misbegotten genre. Reality TV aided Trump's rise in two ways. First of all, as the star of one of the most popular of all reality TV programs for 14 years, Trump became a familiar face to audiences across America, a major plus for his campaign. As a constant presence on people's TV screens, Trump became a trusted, comforting presence, however rude and unpleasant his TV persona. Secondly, as reality TV depends on the entertainment value of characters who are loud, abusive, argumentative and all-around obnoxious, Trump both got training in portraying the kind of personality that many Americans find interesting and entertaining, and America got training in relating to this kind of personality, so that when a person acting in this manner became a candidate in a political campaign, a considerable segment of the American population was primed and ready to find him fascinating and irresistible. This may have also helped protect Trump from criticism of his many faux pas, crude and mean behavior and outright contradictions, as the reality TV audience "knows" that this kind of behavior is the very secret of success for reality programs, not something to be objected to, but something to be applauded.

There have also been many different ways in which aggressiveness and just plain meanness have been championed in American popular culture and social mores for many years. "Nice guys finish last" is a cliche that expresses a widely shared view of human nature in our competitive society. On the international stage, diplomacy and humanitarian assistance are seen as "weak" and "wasteful." Armies, wars and weapons are praised as inherently virtuous and not only excused, but rewarded for their failures. In today's macho-aggressive America, no one wants to be a "wimp" or a "loser," the latter term being one of Trump's favorite terms of disparagement. Trump's vicious comments and cruel nick-names for "Lying' Ted," "Little Marco," "Low-energy" Jeb Bush, and "Crooked Hillary" are not unlike the snappy one-liners that action heroes utter as they dispatch villains with their karate-kicks and high-tech weapons. Hollywood action films have trained us to enjoy and expect this kind of behavior, this slaying with sarcasm, this trope of psychologically as well as physically beating on the bad guys, and Trump was in this regard acting out a role that Americans know and love. The fact that this has little to do with understanding complex issues, getting along with other people, or crafting intelligent policies to improve life in America mattered not a whit; entertainment value trumps all. Trump had little experience in government affairs, but considerable experience as an engaging television entertainer. Clinton had the opposite background, and the result of the election made clear which kind of experience was more meaningful to many voters.

Trump's admiration for Russia's "strong man" leader Vladimir Putin also fits in with this trend of high regard for cruelty and aggression. Trump has praised Putin as a "real leader," a praise that cannot be divorced from Putin's brutal track record as a leader who bullies, intimidates, arrests and even executes his critics, censors the press, and drops cluster bombs on civilian populations in Syria. In the worldview of Trump, and presumably his followers, this brutality is not condemned but condoned, even lauded as the essence of "leadership." I know another word for this style of leadership: Fascism.

Then there is social media's impact. Trump clearly loves Twitter, and Twitter clearly loves Trump. His inability to formulate complex thoughts in a coherent manner is not a liability in an age in which many people communicate through 140 character thought-belches. As thought-belcher-in-chief, Trump will either train the media and the public to love this style of communication from the office of the president, or he will make such mangled and childish communication so disreputable that he will bring down Twitter with him.

The rise of right-wing media was another factor, as angry, anti-liberal, anti-government, race-baiting talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly established a platform, a mode of discourse, and an angry white male persona that were ideal for Trump's anti-liberal, anti-elite, anti-"politically correct," perpetually pissed-off, and racially charged style of angry populism. The many years in which such right-wing media, especially FOX News, had endlessly trump-eted accusations of corruption and misconduct against Hillary Clinton and before her, Bill Clinton, created a cloud of mistrust around Hillary which made it impossible for her to reach segments of the population whose brains had long steeped in the anti-Hillary paranoia of the "tea party." The shooting incident in the Washington pizza parlor after "fake news" reports of Secretary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta operating a pedophilia ring among the pepperoni and pizza dough shows how effective that kind of paranoid internet propaganda can be in poisoning the minds of the mentally unprotected. The further evolution of far-right media into internet-based distortion fields like Alex Jones' program and Breitbart News also primed the population to follow a candidate who embraced such media, as Trump did.

Taken together, we can see that Trump's political success rests on many different pillars in our sick and troubled society. To resist Trump and what he represents, we must apply ourselves to counteracting and deconstructing the attitudes, perceptions and tastes that made his seemingly implausible rise to power so very plausible that we might even say it was inevitable. I hate to say it, but the preponderance of evidence, the logic of my argument, and the brutal reality of his electoral success all require it: Trump truly is a man of our times. However, to paraphrase Bob Dylan's words from 50+ years ago, the times are always a-changin,' and so there is hope.

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