I have read quite a few opinion and analysis pieces about the presidential race in the U.S.A, which chronologically could be grouped into three phases: Phase 1 “Why Trump can’t win”; Phase 2 “Why Trump is winning”; and Phase 3 “Why Trump won’t win”.
I find these pieces fascinating. Not because of their patent inaccuracy, although that’s interesting, and not because of the phenomenon they claim to analyse, although that’s frightening, but because of what they failed and continue to fail to say: “The emperor has no clothes”.
I have to say I expect this meta-analysis won’t escape the event horizon of what must surely now constitute a black hole mass of opinion pieces, but I wanted to consider why this simple observation somehow seems to have evaded the pundits, particularly those in the mainstream media: Why has it taken them so long simply to say “The emperor has no clothes”?
The large majority of opinion pieces all spend a lot of time examining the American psyche and the prevailing angst, and correctly identifying a weariness with “professional” politicians and the posturing circus that precedes the cynical abuse of power once elected. However everyone seems to place the blame for the Trump phenomenon at the feet of the American people.
Now technically, this must be true. They are the ones casting their votes (although, thanks to the U.S. presidential system we’re actually talking about very small subsets of the total population, but let’s ignore that). But is the American populace really to blame for the rise and rise of Donald Trump? More particularly, is this a specifically American phenomenon, or a specifically contemporary one?
It seems to me that one of two things must be true: either the U.S. has always been capable of such a grotesque travesty of rational behaviour, or something remarkable has happened since (for argument’s sake) the post-war lucky country where opportunities were limitless and life was good (unless you were unfortunately not white). Which is it? Is what we see happening in the U.S. equally probable at any time, and possibly in any country, or is this a very special never-to-be-repeated event with a unique cause?
I don’t think it takes much navel gazing (or googling of recent history) to show that the rise of demagoguery, xenophobia, extremism and blind faith in two-dimensional caricatures is depressingly widespread and frequent. Many different countries have marched down this path over the last hundred, fifty, or even one or two years, led in each case by their own Goebbels, or Farage, or Trump. While it’s certainly true that economic and geopolitical circumstances might assist this process, I think it’s a depressing conclusion that it can happen to any country, at many times.
It also seems to me that in each and every one of these cases, what’s obvious – if only after the fact – is that the mainstream media has been complicit in the process, by omission or by commission.
This is not a conspiracy theory, and it’s perhaps not surprising to many, but I have to ask: would Farage and Brexit or Trump have managed to gain anything like their eventual popularity if influential voices in the media had simply said at the beginning, rather than at the end: This is bullshit, there is no truth in what these people are saying, they are lying, deceitful manipulative scum, and here are the facts to prove it, here is their history, let’s now ignore them.
Why is it that so many TV stations and so many newspapers and radio stations and websites have treated Trump as though he is a rational human being, and not the narcissistic, racist, self-serving misogynist he so clearly is? Of Trump, more than anyone else, this has been obvious right from the start because he has never taken any trouble to hide his real nature. Rather, he has opened his raincoat and waved it in our faces, crying “Look at this, aren’t I tremendous”.
Perhaps this is painfully obvious to everyone and hardly worthy of comment, but the shaping of public opinion is not done by the public, it’s done by the Fourth Estate. What makes them money is not the good governance of the country, or the encouragement of civilized and factual debate, it’s controversy and spectacle and disaster and uncertainty. So long as the country doesn’t dissolve into total chaos and stop supplying power and internet the mainstream media couldn’t care less. Why should they nip in the bud a perfectly good six or twelve month real-life soap opera when they know that they’ll sell many more ads by fanning the flames than by dousing them?
When times are good we all like to congratulate ourselves on living in a rational and enlightened country that couldn’t possibly elect a Trump, or agree to a Brexit. Or run offshore prison camps that cause irreparable damage to innocent children, or blithely ignore a prison system which holds a ridiculous proportion of indigenous Australians, or turn away from an epidemic of domestic violence that reveals an ingrained callous disregard for half the population. Not us. We wouldn’t listen to politicians, who with spittle flying from their mouths, cry out for certain ethnic or religious groups to be listed, or banned, or deported. Not us.
Let’s face it, the makings are in all countries, but so are the commentators crying out “Look, the emperor’s got no clothes”.
The real problem is that the parade gets Page 1. The commentators get the Sunday supplement, one for each side, for “balance”, and the editorials are silent.
[Edit 10/10 – I just finished watching the second debate, and I was gobsmacked at an exchange by commentators afterwards. The second commentator said (paraphrased) “Well, I thought Donald actually won that debate”, and the first commentator said “If the fact checkers agree that a lot of what he said wasn’t true, how can you say he won?”, to which the second commentator replied “Oh, everyone agrees that this campaign hasn’t been about facts, or about policy, it has just been about personalities”. My reaction to that is – and how was this reality TV circus ever allowed to start, let alone continue? How can the most important job in the most powerful nation in the world be decided by a “debate” that is both fact and policy free, and members of the fourth estate just nod their heads and say “that was a great insult, wasn’t it”?]