The Long Road to the Trump Presidency and Where We Go From Here
Imagine sitting down in your living room to watch the first televised presidential debate. Depending on which side you were on — Richard Nixon for the Old Guard conservatives, John Kennedy for the Young Progressive liberals — it was either going to be a complete ass-kicking by a long-time political beast or a breath of fresh air by the youngest candidate in recent history.
If you were in that new audience of television viewers, what you saw was the very beginnings of media chipping away at the intellectual strength of our democracy. You witnessed the first time when good looks and charisma on a mass-cult scale beat facts and acumen to nothing more than likability.
Read the transcript. Divorce yourself from the televised spectacle and Nixon’s flop sweat. He presented better arguments, better answers and demonstrated a genuine knowledge of how things worked. Kennedy reads like he was exactly who he was — a neophyte from a family legacy.
Yet almost completely due to the new media that emphasized looks and poise over knowledge and experience, the nation watched and crowned Kennedy the winner of both the debate and the presidency.
Television had changed everything.
The Vietnam conflict was the first war broadcast into the homes of Americans. Not just the propaganda newsreels of WWII or Korea but the actual images of children being napalmed and American soldiers having their legs blown off. The effect was tremendous in that kids seeing the destructive force of warmongering anti-Communist paranoia caused them to mobilize and protest on a mass scale during the conflict.
It is worth noting that while television indelibly damaged our democracy’s leadership races, it changed the way the population viewed American exceptionalism and her imperialist tendencies. The new media (at the time) was both destructive and constructive in separate turns.
Film has had the same such affect upon the masses. Films made during the Blacklist times of Senator Joseph McCarthy appealed to both those still in thrall to the propaganda of WWII as well as offering more subversive messages about the dark power of censorship and government overreach. On one hand we had John Wayne in The Green Berets and Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate; on the other we had Elia Karan’s On the Waterfront and Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth.
In the '70s, film took an even more activist approach with movies that continued to destroy the myths of war via the Vietnam Conflict by focusing on the horrors of it (Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter) as well as the difficulties of being a veteran of that war with little or no support (Coming Home). Tackling the environmental concerns of the day were Silkwood and The China Syndrome; police corruption (Serpico); protest culture (Zabriskie Point, The Conformist); and a general distrust of authority (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Clockwork Orange.)
At roughly the same time, videotape technology began making it’s way into homes, and the process of separating movies from community events to individual preferences as well as the free exchange of copied tapes opened new doors for pop culture.
In 1980 came the continuation of that ill-fated first televised debate with the new 24-hour Cable News Network effectively forcing journalists to find news in the most mundane and banal events as well as begin spinning news to keep advertisers happy. It is not without irony to note that this lead-up to an infotainment style of reporting was ushered in in the same year the country elected a B-movie actor turned California governor to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The '80s saw a growing list of films about gay rights, nuclear war and civil rights while at the same time promoting anti-gay and misogynist humor. Cable news became a parody of itself and the FOX network was founded in 1986 (although it’s pernicious news arm didn’t launch for another decade.) In 1990, the ARPENET was decommissioned and the internet as we know it was dropped upon a public completely unprepared for it.
VHS was abandoned for CDs. Home computers became commonplace. Personal devices designed to individualize musical tastes and further distance one person from another, creating tinier and tinier bubbles of consumption were all the rage.
Meanwhile, electoral politics became more and more influenced by the work of ad-men and saw candidate Bill Clinton playing saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show. The monster that is the Celebrity Politician really started flexing his popularity in the late '80s and '90s and, Holy Shit, was he itching for the unfettered, unregulated, Wild West show that was the World Wide Web.
Imagine sitting down in front of a computer screen, logging onto the internet with a modem that squawked like a digital hog being slaughtered, and hearing that chipper “You’ve Got Mail!” You check your mail — a couple of ads for CD-ROMS, a message from a co-worker as geeked out as you are about the instant communication of this 2400 baud device, another ad about NewtonMail and an invite to a ListServ.
You click that link and in an impressive three minutes of download time, you’re on.
On the ListServ (a prehistoric version of Faceborg and Twitter) you find a thread espousing the new GOP-driven “Contract with America.” Users with fake names espousing the “Taking Back Our Streets Act” and the “Personal Responsibility Act” and conspiracy theories about President Bill Clinton and his “manly” first lady.
“Who pays attention to this shit?” you ask yourself after perusing the thread for three hours. The irony is lost on you.
As the internet became more evolved and connection rates got faster, as the devices became smaller and more powerful, as the platforms became more pervasive and asked less and less personal accountability for what was written, the spiraling cascade, like the Skynet of James Cameron, grew to an unstoppable informational force. It was ready for abuse. It was ready to change us indelibly.
A couple of things to chew on:
Faceborg is 14 years old. It debuted in 2004.
Twitter is 12 years old.
The iPhone is 11 years old.
So, here we are. A sub-par reality TV star as our president. So easy to hate. So easy to blame everyone else.
When celebrity and fame become the coin of the realm, is it really any big surprise?
This isn’t a polemic about the dangers of technology. Technology is not dangerous, it is a tool. Atomic energy is not dangerous. What we do with it is. Guns are not dangerous. The assholes who use them to mow down innocent civilians are. It isn’t television’s fault we so wholeheartedly were convinced that the good-looking young TV-friendly candidate beat the paranoid, anti-Communist politician who looked like shit on the box.
Media is not dangerous but our awe-inspiring, numb-fucked gullibility is a giant shark-infested moat surrounding us at every turn. And these sharks have lasers and extra teeth and, like a NASCAR jacket, are covered with corporate logos.
The flipside is that without the internet, without this unbelievable communicating power, there would be no #BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo. There would be millions still left in the dark as the oligarchy marched through the village with impunity. Due, in part to the internet, there is now more equity in Hollywood, on television, on cable. More black and brown faces telling stories we need to hear. More democracy at work in who gets to make movies.
What do we do? How do we avoid allowing our worse natures use the technology at our disposal in ways that threaten to destroy the fabric of our democracy?
1. Give the news two days before you jump in.
The internet has created a race for first when it comes to reporting. School shooting? Wait two days before you ingest the noise. Trump fires another corrupt shitstain on Twitter? Wait before you read. Do not cede control of the information to those less interested in accuracy and more interested in winning the scoop.
2. Refuse to resort to the tactics of those whom you despise.
Fight fire with fire was a saying coined by a fucking arsonist. Go with the much better adage “Tweet others as you would be tweeted.” Sure, it’s fun to participate in the online pile-up, the masscult public shaming, but it truly makes you exactly like the squalid bullies you endured in high school. Exactly the same but with all of your teeth and without the brutal alcoholic step-father.
3. Learn to fast.
There is a genuine benefit from taking a break from those things that consume us. Fasting doesn’t have to be 40 days and 40 nights — you aren't the Savior, dimwit. Take a day and turn your phone off and leave it in a drawer next to your weed and gummy bears. Read an actual book. Talk to other human beings face-to-face, especially those whom you may think disagree with you on something.
Use social media. Don’t let it use you.
4. Read three articles on anything from three completely different sources before you form an opinion.
“The opinion of the intelligent outweighs the certainty of the ignorant.”
If my guess is correct (and fer crissakes, I hope not) Trump will be our president until 2024. While not all of us made it through the lost decade of George W. Bush, plenty did. The prospect of eight years of the orange tweetdick is horrifying but there are far worse than him waiting in the wings, hoping we don’t wise up to the fact that celebrity, money and fame are not congruent with the ability to soberly lead a nation (or even the local school council, for that matter).
We don’t need more information these days. We need to understand how to use it.