AMERICA WAS RIPE FOR PLUNDER BY A PSYCHOPATH
The Media Circus and Our Complicity With It
The result: a formidable Trump base that should not be underestimated. It is fervent, committed to his rule, and poised for no-holds-barred battle.
In 2016, America was ripe for plunder by a clinical psychopath. That is someone who was not only adept at executing the political arts in a manner beyond truth and shame but embodied those qualities. Shamelessness and dishonesty have always existed in the political class. But those traits were typically kept off stage and moderated by other virtuous tendencies. Now they take center stage and dominate the country’s attention and direction because we have elected a lead performer who is exceptionally skilled since remorselessness and deceit are his hard-wired instincts. There were several factors that facilitated his ascension.
By 2016, the conflation of news and entertainment had created a media landscape that was user-friendly for a candidate skilled in the beyond truth and shame expressive style. This modern iteration was true of the top-down corporate media, exemplified by Fox News and right-wing talk radio, as well as the bottom-up social media world, exemplified by Twitter.
Fox News, talk radio, evangelical TV, and other conservative media companies have become purely political operations, ratings-driven conglomerates absent of any journalistic standards or accountability. They have become colossal profit-making machines that have no compunction in trafficking in heated exaggerations (“Joe Biden wants to defund the police!”), outrageous conspiracy theories (that deep state and global elites have manufactured the pandemic and Trump is the messianic figure who can save us), and fear-mongering (the coming “invasion” of the suburbs and how “minorities” are involved).
The tabloid-style of social media also allows for the delivery of emotionally provocative content that is untethered from reality. Trump’s twitter feed is but one example of a delivery system designed to stoke emotion and blunt reason. His is exceptional only because of its reach.
The profit motive no doubt accounts for much of this transformation of the media environment. But we shouldn’t underestimate our contemporary cultural propensity for 24/7 entertainment. Entertainment has morphed from a dimension in our lives – once sequestered to the evenings and weekends – to a craving. That craving has an insidious effect, which leaves us susceptible to wanting it everywhere all the time. Ergo, our 24/7 news/entertainment cycle.
News and entertainment had been distinct and mostly separate arenas for much of the 20th century. But the (non-hostile) takeover of the delivery of news by entertainment-skewed values is complete in the 21st century.
One towering mind saw this coming.
For my generation and my parents’ generation, two novels framed the debate over the kind of dystopian future we were susceptible to: 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Each writer emphasized the loss of freedom as the essential threat. Each writer judged the risk of this threat to be high. But each writer perceived a different source of the threat.
Orwell warned against the rise of an authoritarian state. His concern echoes the rather pessimistic vision laid out by Hobbes in The Leviathan. Hobbes emphasized our essential nature of being greedy and aggressive, which, if not checked, would lead to a state of “every man against every man.” Although driven to such a state by our nature, aggression conflicts with the deeper drive of self-preservation. His solution was an authoritarian state, the Leviathan, where we (willingly) sacrifice individual freedoms for protection, for our instinct to survive.
In stark contrast, Huxley did not believe our autonomy would be undermined by our aggression and consequent fear of that aggression, but by our desires. He warned of a future in which our desires would be sated, primarily by entertainment, technology, and drugs. For comfort, we would “happily” sacrifice our freedom and capacity to think. For Huxley, the problem was not that our nature would lead us to struggle too much, but not enough.
Neil Postman delineates the contrast between the two dystopias in his influential book Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985):
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. Huxley feared that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance, Orwell feared we would become a captive culture Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists, who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny, “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984 people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us, Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.
Huxley’s trepidation, it turns out, was prescient. Entertainment has become our go-to escape/addiction, delivered via technology-mediated, electronic-pulsing, ever-recurring dopamine hits, delivered by tablets and TVs.
Huxley provided insight into the “why” behind the conflation of news and entertainment – our vulnerability of sacrificing reason to pleasure – but what about the “how”? How is news delivered in a way that generates such boffo ratings and seems instrumental in affixing 40% of the country to Trumplandia? The answer is: in a way that is riveting and exploits the politics of grievance.
Riveting has now become the baseline in the Red Tribe ecosystem. There are deranged tweets, surreal lies, provocative white nationalist rhetoric, and norm-shattering attacks on the free press and our now fragile institutions every day. Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, et al. have a thrilling story to tell: the government bureaucrats, mainstream media bigwigs, and so-called highly-educated experts are malign. They are out to screw you. Also, of course, all those brown skinners and their ilk are given preferential treatment over you. You are the victims. You should feel resentful.
To repeat, riveting and exploits the politics of grievance.
This evocation of grievance resonates in small-town and rural America. Arlie Hockschild, a sociology professor, spent two years in rural Louisiana, conducting intensive interviews with conservative voters to understand the critical beliefs and feelings that drove their voting preferences. Hockschild’s explicit goal for her study (Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right) was to understand what she called the “great paradox” of this group’s political leanings. That is, why would people who have been victimized by corporate pollution and so in need of federal support vote overwhelmingly for candidates of the Republican Party who support environmental de-regulation and cutbacks in social services?
She found that grievance trumped self-interest. After her first set of interviews, Hockschild conjured up a parable that she hoped might capture the specific nature and intensity of the resentment and bitterness she heard over and over.
Her distillation goes like this:
You are in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon where the American Dream awaits. Most of you are white, older, male, Christian, lacking college degrees. Most of you are Tea Partiers. You are trudging up a hill, weary but with resolve. Ahead, at the crest of the hill, lies security, dignity, and success. In the line behind you are people of color, women, immigrants, and refugees. As pensions are reduced, layoffs absorbed, and health costs rise, the line slows and stays. Then, incredibly, you see people cutting in line in front of you. Many of these line-cutters are black – beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Many are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then, you see immigrants: Mexicans, Somalis, Syrian refugees. You start to feel angry, but you are asked to feel sorry for them. You do not have a good heart, you are told, unless you feel compassion for the line-cutters. Then another indignity. You see Barak Hussein Obama and Hilary Rodham Clinton waving the line-cutters forward. What the hell? They are line cutters themselves. How did a fatherless Muslim get Harvard paid for? How much of her soul did she sell for a run at the presidency? They’re taking money out of your pocket to help the line-cutters. The effing government has become their conduit for redistributing money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.
To a person, the subjects in her study felt that her parable was their story (“You read my mind”). This is the story repeatedly told on Fox, with video clips of the caravan on the march to the heartland, or skirmishes in our urban centers. Public enemy number one is the Democrats. They are the ones that look down upon you, the Real Americans, who are patriots that put their country first, as opposed to the Democratic cosmopolitan elites, who don’t.
But it is not enough to just say this story resonates deeply in Red America. It is also a delivery system for falsehoods. The activation of grievance allows the network talk show stars and social media influencers to inject heated exaggerations, scapegoating, black/white characterizations, even blunt appeals to racism, into the news of the day.
Grievance as the Trojan Horse, a brilliant subterfuge in the assault on truth.
To understand the ease in which this can happen, we need to turn to the embryonic field of political psychology. If the political arena has transmogrified into a reality show entertainment arena; and if riveting is the instrumental trait in that arena; then political psychology informs us that the most effective way to achieve that state is to activate emotion, particularly the states of anger and fear that galvanize our attention.
Evolution has left us with brains that prioritize these primal responses. Our brain’s fundamental responsibility is to help us to survive. While it is true, we may not need the flight or fight response as much as our ancestors did, we cannot merely exorcise it. It is hard-wired. It gets triggered easily and rapidly, and when it does, it hijacks our higher cortical functions associated with reason, reflection, and self-control.
The Republican storylines are effective because they are particularly good vessels for mainlining anger and fear, for delivering the goods to the lower brain stem and thereby capturing our attention. The great writer David Foster Wallace was on to this twenty years ago when, in a nonfiction piece he wrote about talk radio called The Host, he noted “It is of course much less difficult to arouse genuine anger, indignation and outrage in people than it is real joy, satisfaction, fellow feeling, etc. The latter are fragile and complex, and what excites them varies a great deal from person to person, whereas anger et al. is more primal, universal, and easy to stimulate.”
The scorecard on riveting? On the Blue ledger, there is reason, debate, science, empirical reality, and policy; on the Red ledger there is lawlessness, vulgarity, cruelty, racism, misogyny, and, hell, even pedophilia. Which hijacks your attention? What are you going to click on? (“Did you see what he just did?! Said Biden wanted to abolish the police! Claimed coronavirus was a Democratic hoax! Signaled his support for QAnon! Undermines the postal system!). If the playing field is attention, and the contestants are the amygdala and our higher cortical functions, home-field advantage goes to our lower brain stem. And studies in this field of political psychology have validated another express train to the amygdala’s fast-twitch neurons: tribalism. Early survival was dependent upon loyalty to the tribe and its leaders. Our brains are designed to bind us to tribes. Once bound, there is a predisposition to validate everything in our group and nothing in rival groups. As a predictor of voter behavior, tribalism has been sorely underestimated; policy, ideology, and reason are sorely overestimated.
What are the consequences of this entertainment takeover?
First, we live in a post-truth world. The concept of truth has been deeply politicized. We are accustomed to lying. The New York Times documented 2,141 demonstrable lies by Trump the past year. And what? Not a murmur from his base. The rest of us? Burnt out on moral outrage.
But it is not just fatigue that underpins this post-truth administration. Lying is a feature, not a bug. Like the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), fake is at the heart of the White House’s infrastructure. Fake is what generates riveting and fun (“Did you hear what he just said!”). The Trump White House is to the Obama White House as professional wrestling is to college wrestling. It’s no longer “It can happen here.” It has happened: The WWEffing of our shared reality.
Second, we live in a post-shame world. If we stipulate that entertainment is the dominant sensibility in our postmodern culture, and if ratings are the marker of effectiveness in that arena, and if riveting is the fail-safe driver of those ratings, and if infotainment is the current delivery system of choice, and if the tropes du jour are salacious, hyperbolic, primal, cruel and norm-shattering, well then…let Wallace spell it out as he did in an interview in 2004: “ The inhibition of shame on the part of both the contestants and on the part of the people who put together the show—at some point, people have figured out that even if viewers are sneering or talking about in what poor taste stuff is, they’re still watching, and that the key is to get people to watch, and that’s what’s remunerative. Once we’ve lost that shame hobble, only time will tell how far we’ll go.”
Indeed. Part of what’s riveting, part of the fascination, is: how far can we sink? Trump talking about “very fine people” and encouraging the injection of disinfectants to cure COVID provides the outlines of an answer: pretty damn far (and still sinking).