For all of the strange hybrid creatures predicted by the late, great social critic Neil Postman – whose book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” looked at the way political discourse was being debased – let’s add another: Donald Trump. Postman, who died in 2003, sketched out a world in which our entire conversation – about politics, education, and other fields – would become cheapened the way entertainment had been. Television, the decline of print, technology worship, and other bad ideas were pushing us toward a world in which seriousness would disappear, distractions would lead us down blind alleys, and we’d be debating meaningless subjects without quite knowing how trivial we’d gotten.
Well, that sounds pretty heavy, but it’s also a decent picture of where we are now, in the age of Fox News, and Trump demonstrates it quite clearly. A smart article published today by journalist Matt Bai (author of the excellent book "All the Truth is Out") works through this idea a bit. His larger point is that Trump means very little politically – he’s an entertainer with little threat to really taking the GOP nomination. From his Yahoo News piece:
It’s July. Trump’s plurality in these polls basically comes down to a tiny subset of professed Republicans who will actually talk to a telemarketer, who can’t keep any of these other droning candidates straight, and who find politics in general to be a soul-sucking enterprise.
Trump draws crowds because he is a genuine celebrity and a world-class entertainer. Politics is tedium and sameness, like network dramas in the age before cable. Trump is reality TV, live and unscripted.
And, Bai argues, the media is all over him because it brings readership and hits, as “we are operating in a precarious and insecure moment where nothing matters more than the almighty click, and anything with Trump’s name on it gets a ton of them.” Our following of the Trump trainwreck – which helps spread his name far and wide -- shows how the discourse has already been corrupted. Again, this sounds harsh, but I’m not going to quarrel with it.
But Postman (whom I worship as completely as Bai does) was wrong about “Sesame Street,” which he disapproved of, and would have not known what to do with someone like Jon Stewart, who’s a political entertainer (or an entertaining political figure) who’s actually improved the conversation and put important topics on the national agenda.
In the same way, Postman-style analysis doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about someone like Trump. So here’s where I respectfully disagree with Bai when he argues that we need to give the short-fingered vulgarian less coverage rather than more. (To be fair, Bai is clearly torn up over the matter, writing that "when your entire industry is happily allowing itself to be used, I guess you have to acknowledge the orange-haired elephant in the room.")
Yes, Trump is vile; yes, he’s manipulating the press and media. Yes, he’s a kind of American version of Berlusconi – a media-wired demagogue with fascist leanings -- as Bai argues. We shouldn’t ignore him, but rather face up to what he tells us about where we are now.
Trump is not an anomaly or simply a cartoonish distraction. In the same way that what we call a gaffe often reveals what a politician is really thinking but wouldn't otherwise say, so Trump functions as a glimpse into the raging id of America’s paranoid right. (He may do this even better than Sarah Palin.)
I don’t mean that he’s a mainstream conservative or typical Republican, but that he’s exactly what the Rush/Fox News/loony wing of the party – the people William F. Buckley and Dwight Eisenhower tried to keep their distance from – deserve. In an age of coded language and dog-whistle politics, he makes explicit what they try to obscure, especially on issues around race and immigration.
And we can’t let the GOP establishment off the hook for this. As Timothy Egan recently wrote:
Trump is a byproduct of all the toxic elements Republicans have thrown into their brew over the last decade or so — from birtherism to race-based hatred of immigrants, from nihilists who shut down government to elected officials who shout “You lie!” at their commander in chief.
It was fine when all this crossing-of-the-line was directed at President Obama or other Democrats. But now that the ugliness is intramural, Trump has forced party leaders to decry something they have not only tolerated, but encouraged.
As Bai writes, Postman was a prescient guy who saw a lot of strange things coming. But Trump’s enormous poll numbers, continued “relevance,” and ability to channel American meanness would have baffled even the great media sage. Part of me wants to stop talking and writing about this nasty character. But we ignore a cancer like Donald Trump at our peril. As unpleasant as he may be, let’s not take our eyes off of him.