It is quite interesting how just a few short months ago we were burying the Republican Party. They were in a state of disarray with a crowd of presidential contenders each of which seem to be more flawed than the next. And Trump was the worst of the bunch. As his momentum grew there were more and more articles and analyses decrying the state of the Republican Party explaining how Trump was going to destroy it. The reliable sensible old guard (Romney, McCain, Bush) were not only abandoning candidates but actively working against them. Romney’s pointed and vitriolic attacks on Trump were shocking coming from the cool businessmen Republican. So what happened? How did one of the worst candidates who is the least prepared and lacks the basic manners for the job get elected?
It turns out that the Republicans can’t take credit for getting Trump elected, but the Democrats can take some blame. And it wasn’t Hillary’s fault either. Her campaign made mistakes but it was not the technical and strategic components of the campaign that made the difference; it was the smug identity politics of the left; it was that sense that if you disagree with me (a good liberal) you must be some simplistic uneducated fool who is racist and sexist. And I am equally guilty.
Liberalism is a political ideology fundamentally concerned with inclusion, rights, and individual freedom. In recent years it has become associated with sharp group identities demanding recognition and a tension between “celebrating differences” and seeking the commonalities that bind us together as a nation. Our history of privatizing ethnicity and religion, and using the overarching American national ideals (democracy, individual rights, etc.) as common factors has served us well. It has meant over the years that our personal identities are not wrapped up in religion and ethnicity but in political philosophy designed to treat each other equally. But as those “rights” became increasingly group identification rights such that groups were clamoring for distinction and difference rather than commonality the differences and cleavages amongst us became the focal point. Consequently, as the title of this essay indicates, public argument and deliberation to solve problems receded into the background as individuals foregrounded their personal identities and private pain.
Liberal activism in the service of identity politics – to the exclusion of other issues – has been making progress along with a smoldering grassroots reaction and intensifying disdain for the other side. Finally, we ran into Trump who was equally as skilled at a self-righteous and aggressive style of discourse and thereby became the voice of the disenchanted. It’s important to underscore that the liberal group agenda is responsible for improving group political rights and battling the racism and discrimination it is so recognized for. The “group rights” agenda is responsible for reshaping civic life and addressing inequities burdening minorities as well as other segments of society. But the evolution of those rights into an arrogant identity politics rather than a unifying political agenda has left us with the contentious group distinctions we are experiencing and its accompanying polarization.
The recent presidential campaign was a despicable display of politics that was almost free of discussion of issues, uncivil, tacky, shallow, and polarizing. It failed its responsibility to our foremost political requirement, which is to use democratic means to shape a society into a fair and governable unit. This of course includes respect for individual group identities but in the future might require more emphasis on those things we need to do together rather than separately.
There is a correlation between the American media landscape and the change in public discourse, especially presidential discourse. Trump represents a different type of person to occupy the office and that is especially true of his language, digital media use, and discursive practices. As more than a few people have noted, we are in a historical period were authority is disrespected and challenged on all sides. Facts just don’t seem to matter. And when we become disconnected from facts it is possible to believe anything. So science is rejected and challenged on the basis of arguments and reasons outside the boundaries of science. Global warming, climate change, the value of vaccinations, etc. are all subjected to a set of criteria and justifications incompatible with proper scientific standards of reasoning.
Trump is a frightening extreme when it comes to ignoring facts and simply making it up or saying whatever he pleases. And the situation is even more egregious when you combine his temperament with a personality disorder. That is, he is so incapable of accepting criticism or recognizing defeat that he digs in his heels and lashes back even more aggressively. The truth be damned. When you combine this disposition with the fact that he actually knows very little and is unschooled in diplomatic, political, and intellectual conversations you have a problem. The mix can be combustible. Remember he said most of his knowledge is based on the Sunday news shows so his political knowledge is about equivalent to whatever information comes in a headline service.
The Media and the Formation of Trump’s Consciousness
What kind of mediascape does Trump live in? His vocabulary, short assertions, egocentrism, and incomplete grasp of the issues have been fashioned as a result of his emergence from a network of communication patterns and exposure to issues situated within the particular media environment. In a word, Trump talks like and processes information like those in his dominant mediascape. Let me be more precise.
Rodney Benson in a paper for Goldsmiths describes “The New American Media Landscape.” Benson essentially posits three segments of the US journalism field. The first is a vast infotainment field that is populated by well-maintained websites such as Yahoo and the Huffington Post. Local commercial television and the innovative websites Vice and Vox are included in this category. These sites produce news in an appealing fashion intended to attract audiences; they do some interesting things but are designed more to attract attention then quality information. A second segment of the mediascape is the partisan media represented by Fox (conservative) and MSNBC (liberal). The political blogosphere is also pertinent here. This is the terrain of biases and shouting matches where slavishly clinging to a political perspective, even if it’s an indefensible perspective, in order to bring down the other side is the primary motivation. And the third territory is the mainstream quality media such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Specialty magazines and academic papers are also part of the quality media landscape.
Trump is always critical of the mainstream quality media because they are issue and data based in an effort to treat issues according to their quality and allowing good solutions to emerge rather than insisting on a political perspective that is forced on everyone else. The mainstream quality media is more critical and analytical and seeks to attract an audience on that basis. Trump’s discourse and primary influences clearly match the second level partisan terrain of the media characterized by distortions and misinformation. His name calling and bombastic style are contrary to what a functioning democracy requires which is a public narrative that recognizes differences.
The image of Trump as a populist nationalist (I will reserve judgment on using the word fascist for now) is increasingly defensible as he continues to appeal to an angry population by stoking the fires of their resentment. His 3 o’clock in the morning tweets make him an active participant in the partisan landscape. Apparently, a couple of nights ago Trump was watching a program on flag burning as symbolic speech. Consistent with his unreflective style he tweeted his immediate emotions which were to assert that burning the American flag should result in either jail time or loss of citizenship. He used new social media (Twitter) to blurt out an unconstitutional and indefensible gut reaction exerting a sense of power. His behavior from the partisan landscape was responded to by the quality media with a lecture for Mr. Trump on the Constitution and the extent to which it protects symbolic speech, of which the Supreme Court has established. This is one thing – maybe even to be expected – from a private citizen but a little scary and disappointing from the President of the United States. I suspect we will see more media territorial framework tensions as Trump’s partisan media style clashes with other segments of the media landscape.
This video makes some very strong points and is worth watching. I suggest you click on it now and watch. The video is sponsored by “Media Matters” which is a liberal organization but one that has the interests of our democracy in mind. It is possible to make the case that systematic and consciously perpetrated bias by Fox News governs their organizational identity and has quantifiable effects on voting patterns and political knowledge. The claims of news bias are so pervasive and so self-contradictory that it’s damaging any remnants of news credibility. Everybody believes the news is biased right up until the point the news says something they agree with. And, moreover, people are absolutely convinced that their perceptions are correct and their understanding of the issues and whatever source they came from is accurate. The public is shockingly naive about the frequency and forms of information processing distortions.
Let’s pay attention for a moment to this issue of news bias and try for some rigor and conclusions that result from data and controlled studies. I’ve grown weary of everyone complaining about the news and biases especially when all the complaints are simply self-serving. It borders on fascinating how few people see their own distortions and biases. Every Trump supporter is convinced the New York Times and the television media – minus Fox News – favored the other side and was critical of Trump while being charitable toward Hillary. And Hillary supporters (although in much smaller numbers) lamented the fascination with Trump that brought him so much free media time.
I would call your attention to a study directly confronting this issue of Fox News and its impact in the news sphere. The authors examine the impact of media bias, the persuasiveness of a particular media, the likelihood of voting, and mobility rates. Moreover, and something most citizens don’t think about, the review of the studies includes conditions of the receivers. In other words, the same news programming does not have the same effect on everyone. So, on the basis of survey research the authors found that 22% of the population believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but 33% of Fox News viewers believed he had weapons of mass destruction. The findings hold even after controlling for party identification.
Additionally, exposure to conservative media has an effect on voter choice including being responsible for switching some Republicans to Democratic voters. The results are slightly conditioned by the psychological state of receivers. Those watching Fox news for the first time were more persuadable than viewers who watched consistently. This particular study focused on Fox News and conservative media but I would presume that the pattern of results apply to liberal media as well even if the effects are stronger or weaker.
My concern here is not to repeat the pernicious effects of Fox News or biased media but to sound the alarm for increasing pressure to both find quality outlets of information, as well as “educate” the public a little more about the nature and exposure to bias and what to do with it. Fox News is responsible for taking partisan positions and making some extreme even outrageous claims; these then get repeated and spread throughout the population thus multiplying the distorted effects.
Turning more toward public media rather than commercial media is one response to this situation. Public media presents more in-depth and critical news about domestic and international affairs and is capable of increasing citizen engagement as well as quality information.
The problem with trying to understand Trump’s relationship to Israel and the Middle East in general is that he knows nothing about either, and has no foreign policy record. His positions are confused and contradictory especially with respect to Iran and Saudi Arabia. He seems to care very little about most places except Iran in which he has threatened to pull out of the US-Iran nuclear agreement. And this is particularly dangerous if Trump surrounds himself with a Secretary of State such as Bolton or Giuliani both of whom are bellicose and more capable of inflaming differences then cooling them. Trump is sufficiently confused such that he is publicly critical of Iran but supportive of Bashar al Assad in Syria. Soon it should occur to him or his advisors that supporting the Syrian governing regime bolsters Iran, not to mention being on the wrong side of the ideological spectrum.
Israel primarily wants two things from the United States – its regular military aid, and the support and recognition that comes with our cultural and democratic affinities. Both of these can be in potential danger depending on which planks of Trump’s tangled platform end up emerging as the strongest. Trump has, on the one hand, signaled a lack of interest in the Middle East and an almost isolationist sensibility. In his businessman’s language, he does not see it as a “good investment.” On the other hand, Trump is committed to defeating ISIS and does not seem to fully realize the central role Israel must play with respect to intelligence and support. Moreover, continuing his confusion, he has taken highly inflammatory and unrealistic positions by expressing support for the settlements and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. At other times he just wants to remain distant from the issues. The Forward has suggested that Trump will probably reduce America’s involvement in the Middle East. This is generally not good news.
His conservatism is not yet fully honed because Trump sometimes appears to be the isolationist who does not want to be the world’s policeman, and at other times he seems to resonate with neoconservatives who want to assert American political and military power. Trump has a lot to learn and it is the type of learning that requires some development and maturation. He cannot see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as just one negotiation trick away from resolution. He is more comfortable with business deals and negotiations which are subject to more rational marketplace considerations. “The art of the deal” is governed by a logic that requires one to maximize benefits and minimize losses and the deal is done when both sides can accept their gains and losses. This is not the governing logic of asymmetrical ethnopolitical conflicts that are intractable; in other words, the issues of sanctity, identity, fractured history, violence, and deep emotions are not part of the rational model of the “art of the deal.”
I suspect Trump’s limited experience in international affairs blinds him to the type of communication necessary to solve problems such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which does not profit much by seeing it only through a prism of rational exchange. I fear that when he becomes fiercely entangled with the knotty issues that characterize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict he will see it through a narrow American prism rather than a broader global and cultural one. And the tools that enabled him to succeed in business will not serve him so well in the arena of international conflict.
The Republican Party is generally more blindly supportive of Israel but for now all we know about Trump is the blind part.
Have you noticed that it’s the left end of the political spectrum that is now defending the status quo. Obama and Hillary supporters are the establishment and described as a continuation of the past and the mainstream of politics. It’s the Trump supporters and those on the right who are the critical outsiders. They are the ones who want to take down the “establishment” and remove the government. It used to be that the left had an oppositional relationship with society, and the right was mainstream conservatism and the defender of national values; it used to be the left that engaged in cultural terrorism, and the right was associated with maintaining American values and traditions. So, what happened?
I will tell you what happened. The left has made serious progress on its goal of creating the “culturally correct” man. This was accomplished methodologically by the process of criticism of society with the goal of transforming the historical power structure of American society. The angry, violent, and revolutionary voices come more from the Trump camp than the Hillary camp. Even Bernie Sanders’ liberal constituencies quietly and obediently returned to their lives rather than organize and revolutionize. What is this methodological process that creates the “culturally correct” man? It is commonly known as political correctness. The angry American (of which angry white males are the most typical) feels oppressed by political correctness such that he or she is now in a more radicalized oppositional relationship with the political process. It’s the right that is intensely and more violently critical of American society.
Political correctness has its roots in Marxist social theory and the goal of revolutionary transformation. Detailed examination of Marxist criticism is beyond our concerns here but suffice it to say that a whole line of destructive criticism – emanating mainly from the Frankfurt School – challenged the fundamental elements of American society such as patriarchy, capitalism, patriotism, morality, family, gender, and religion. The transformations of the economy and the changing nature of work and manufacturing have combined with cultural criticisms to position a significant segment of the right into a revolutionary stance.
Working class white males, exemplified by what has become known as the typical Trump supporter, have suffered the most from pressures to upset the patriarchal order (e.g. intense demands to change gender reference language; acceptance of same-sex marriage), change the Christianity-capitalism authoritarian structure (ordination of women; the misguided belief in the efficacy of their own individualism), and the steady substitution of white males by women, immigrants, and the government.
The pressure on middle-class white males has been relentless. The culture increasingly speaks a new language that has been stripped of its traditional power and substituted by a neutral and more inclusive vocabulary that clearly does serve the goal of diversity but at the expense of the traditional institutions of authority.
Even though more inclusive culturally sensitive language is a laudable goal, it resonates more with the cosmopolitan liberal than the traditional conservative. Multiculturalism is the true enemy of this group on the right and can be seen as breaking up traditional cultural values, taking jobs, and dismantling American society. Interestingly, this group values rugged individualism and small government but still expect government to provide social safety nets. Many of these working-class white males have roots in the Democratic Party and still retain some party identification but most of them fit into the Pew Research Center political identity category termed “hard-pressed skeptics.” They are low income and express negative attitudes toward immigrants and are distrustful of government. The combination of factors has resulted in a communal rather than ascribed identity makes them a politically critical outside group.
Dear blog follower:
During this election, more than any other, trying to get some facts right is difficult. The below is from ProCon.org a nonpartisan educational organization, that helps everyone to make informed decisions regardless of how or for whom you vote. The degradation of the political process, the volume of ignorance floating around, polarization, and the incivility and impertinence of the candidates is of historic proportions. Most of us never imagined Trump as a Republican candidate and we certainly didn’t imagine the debates – which were supposed to be an informed and intelligent portrayal of the candidates – as a showcase for marital and sexual indiscretions paraded in front of the opponent and the world.
So, I offer the below as the clearest and most objective side-by-side comparison of the candidates and their stance on issues. You may have made up your mind already but at least check your thinking against the information presented.
8. Should More Gun Control Laws Be Enacted?
20. And, just for fun, Top 10 Most Surprising Things in the 2016 Presidential Candidates’ Online Stores
But, please, tell me again how “both candidates are the same” and they’re “equally as flawed.” Because if that’s what you really believe, then you’re choosing to ignore reality and believing whatever the hell you want to believe.
Read more here
Note the data in the table below from the Pew Foundation. There have been more than a few stories written about how Trump is a monster created by the Republican Party. Let’s take a closer look at just what the Republican Party has created and why. There are lots of reasons but let’s focus on two. First, the Republicans have simply failed to appeal to Hispanics and minorities even though their after action report from the 2012 election recognized this problem. They did little or nothing about it. 86% of Republicans or those leaning that way are White where only 57% of Democrats are White. Curiously, the Republicans should be able to appeal to Latinos who are family oriented, religious, and patriotic to the extent that they oppose leftist regimes. There are two prominent Republicans in Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio who could be electable if conditions were right. The Democrats have begun to include minorities more into the family tent and these minorities recognize their own progress – Donald Trump’s claims that their schools and inner cities are a mess notwithstanding.
Moreover, the Republicans began to run more on moral and social (guns, God, and gays) issues then on economic ones. The angry less educated white male strand of Republican has countered any genuine Republican attempts to include minorities because of their racism and general rejection of the argument that immigration is good for America rather than bad. The foreign-policy hawks in the Republican Party are an attractive appeal for many Americans, and can resonate with American strength, but this group has essentially been co-opted by Hillary Clinton.
Bill Clinton moved to the party to the center and brought in more professionals leaving working-class whites to find a place in the Republican Party. These working-class whites have been frustrated by the Republicans who promised to look after their interests but haven’t done so very successfully. So this group had one more reason to radicalize and movements such as a Tea Party began to emerge and differences between minorities and whites and Republicans and Democrats began to polarize even further.
The table below strongly illustrates this polarization. The blue dots represent Clinton supporters and the red dots Trump supporters. Look at the differences between the two on a few key issues that are ideological in nature. Statements about how wasteful government is and should be smaller are dramatically associated with Republicans (83% and 87% agree). And statements about how government should help the needy and regulate business (most associated with Democrats) are strongly supported by Democrats over Republicans (72% and 70%). These patterns in the electorate are the reason Donald Trump was so successful in the primaries. Moreover, rather than finding a candidate who genuinely coalesced around cultural and economic issues Trump represents fear and nationalism. How is a political party supposed to get anything done when they express such disdain for government?
Trump’s populist nationalism makes us particularly vulnerable because the public currently has so little confidence in many American institutions such as the courts, the presidency, public schools, and banks. When the golden haired man comes on TV and tells you that nothing is your fault – it’s all the fault of immigrants, elites, and the media – there’s plenty of people who will listen.
In the classical literature on rhetoric there is a concept called “muted eloquence.” The term is attributable to Rousseau and is part of the common distinction between reason and emotion or appeals to rationality versus attempts to arouse interests and stir passions in order to induce conformity. There’s always been this argument between those who champion the unadorned use of reason – as if humans were all mind – and persuasion that induces change through baser and more primitive appeals to passions. We can see this distinction borne out between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump with Hillary more oriented toward (although not completely) defensible reason and Trump who was almost completely consumed by stirring tribal emotions as opposed to reason-based policy analysis.
The distinction is also one made between “persuading” and “convincing.” Again, persuasion is affecting change through typical appeals to emotions, passions, and the like; and convincing is the act of completely reconstituting the psyche and will of the other by giving them new content and reconstituting their consciousness. Classical scholars argue this point because they were deeply divided with respect to the primary avenue of change that citizens were capable of. Some argued that the highest form of reason was convincing which led to the purest and most accurate formation of preferences and opinions. Others challenge the ability of humans to be reasonable in the purest sense and argued that legislators and leaders needed to find a way to “persuade without convincing” because the only way to effect change was through appeals to the passions on an equal level with reason. Most people were deeply flawed, as the argument went, with respect to their ability and receptiveness to “pure” reason. Persuasion could be musical and non-rational even at the risk of potential fanaticism. Charismatic leaders aroused deeper and more immediate passions in listeners, and their oratory was musical in the same way that chanting could be prophetic of charismatic religious figures. They did not use rationality to convince but persuasion to move. Mohammed and Moses are examples of the link between reason and passion and illustrations of how stirring the passions can lead to fanaticism.
I certainly would not call the oratory of Donald Trump musical but it does function the same way in that it is processed holistically and produces a gut pre-rational passion. “Muted eloquence” is when a visual sign has a sense of immediacy and impact. It is when some physical object or image communicates with a powerful effect. So, for example, The King cuts down the tallest flowers in the garden as a message to kill his enemies. In the movie “the Godfather” when a smelly fish wrapped in newsprint arrives at the door the character Tessio explains “it means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” The message that Luca Brasi is dead and his body dumped in the ocean is semantically ratified by the dead fish. It is a mute wisdom that speaks clearer and more powerfully than a long discourse. These visual signs are a form of persuasion that differs from the ideal of reasoned discourse.
We pivot to Donald Trump surrounded by three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. They were then seated in the audience for the debate. The presence of these women was supposed to attenuate Trump’s behavior and signify sexual malpractice in Hillary’s case in addition to Trump. And even though these women are accusing Bill Clinton not Hillary just the image of sexual impropriety is supposed to be a form of muted eloquence designed to associate blame and shame with Hillary, and as a piece of evidence that Trump is no different than anyone else. Even though Trump is the sexist perpetrator here he sought to bathe himself in the victimhood of other woman.
The alleged rapist of one of the women, Kathy Shelton, was defended by Hillary and acquitted. Hillary was little more than the court-appointed attorney and she was fulfilling his constitutional right to legal counsel. But such argument seeks conviction rather than persuasion. Her innocence in the Kathy Shelton case is logically and rationally undeniable, but the muted eloquence of Trump’s debate has closed off appeals to conviction.
The brazen and stunning stunt struck at the core of our unhinged national consciousness, a consciousness increasingly reason-free.
Most pundits figured if Trump could tie his shoes then he would have the most to gain from the debate. He really did have a lot to gain by appearing presidential and in control but the issue is of course whether or not he actually maintained any sense of presidential decorum. He didn’t.
Presidential debates are mostly spectacle and this one was no different. Sure, Hillary won especially if you keep score according to a debate coach’s tally sheet of arguments and counter arguments. Presidential debates such as these are not interested in who comes up with a better argument but rather who can make the other look bad.
But the public anticipates debates with a certain amount of enthusiasm. It’s a contest between democracy’s formidable gladiators; there is an underdog challenger doing battle with a superior opponent and we talk about debates with all the war metaphors we can muster. There are “attacks,” and “aggression,” along with “victors and the vanquished.” We would be better off viewing the debates as platforms to make judgments about individuals leading to a decision about which candidate is best. The “winner-loser” frame extends the war metaphor but also causes us to watch it like a horse race constantly attending to who is ahead and who is behind rather than learning something about the issues.
But still, debates contribute to voter knowledge and the acquisition of information. It is true enough that journalism rarely these days considers itself to be a platform for issues and deliberative consideration. So debates have slightly appropriated this role. The debates give us an opportunity for a raw look at the candidates including how they appear on TV, how they handle themselves spontaneously, and general issues of charisma and attraction. This is an important and satisfying counterpoint to political ads which are strategically constructed and designed to be manipulative and the voters know it. It is quite easy to dismiss candidate commercials but less so for debates because of their increased perception of authenticity.
So what did we see the other night and how does it fit in with some of the research on debates?
Even though debates are known to reinforce partisan preferences, the first Clinton-Trump debate transcended that conclusion because Hillary sliced and diced Trump. She set traps (the coming Miss Universe interview), behaved more politely, had very few fact checking problems, appeared composed and in control, unhinged him a few times as was the debate plan, and spent more time on policy.
Dorothy Rabinowitz – of the conservative Wall Street Journal of all places – wrote that Hillary is the only thing that stands between the United States and the “reign of the most unstable, proudly uninformed, psychologically unfit president ever to enter the White House.” Since in one study almost 30% of the viewing audience considers the presidential debates more helpful than talk shows or advertising spots, this means that a lot of people witnessed the Hillary performance in the debate. And given that the viewership was the biggest in history (over 80 million viewers) she was in a position to reintroduce herself to many people.
Presidential debates also produce multiplier effects. This means that post debate citizen communication about political issues is stimulated. The debate induces communication. And this post debate communication is one way that partisan preferences are mediated. In other words, debates because of information processing and selection biases are strongly implicated in reinforcing existing partisan biases. But these effects are mediated by post debate conversation. As citizens engage others, especially if this engagement represents some sense of substantive exchange, then partisan positions are challenged. From my own experience anyway, the Clinton-Trump post debate interactions were robust. This of course has something to do with Trump’s media presence and inimitable personality along with the uniquely personal and conflict oriented nature of the campaign. Nevertheless, it prompted post debate conversation relative to the issues people are thinking about.
One might continue to think, in naïve rationality, that Trump will make the necessary adjustments but it’s getting late and first debates are the most watched as the audience trails off for the next two. But we will tune in waiting for some sort of catastrophe that we can talk about after the debate.