You know you’re under the jackboot of second-rate leadership when that leader invokes the cartoonish and overheated rhetoric of Armageddon or the Apocalypse. Trump’s threat to hit North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” is ignorant, unhelpful, potentially dangerous, and represents little talent and sophistication with respect to international affairs. He has done nothing more than put himself on the same plane as pathetic terrorists who mistake their rhetorical fury for reality. I suggest the readers of this blog get together with a few friends for drinks and see how many of these puerile hyped-up platitudes they can come up with. Here, I will get you started.
“Allah will unleash the fires of hell to consume the infidel in Allah’s glory.”
“The Jewish trickster conspires to mongrelize White America by pumping black blood of Africa into his veins.”
“The coming race wars will scorch and then cleanse the earth as it awaits the rebirth of the white race.”
You get the picture. Even these exaggerated for humor sayings can’t seem to avoid some common themes: typically, something is “contaminated” and it is “cleansed” by fire. For the racist it’s the nonwhite race that is contaminated and fire will wipe it away until the new dawn of White supremacy awakens. For the Muslim extremist the “fires” consume the enemy rather than cleanse the earth, as the terrorists see the destruction of the world. Jews are not typically associated with fire but they are with blood given the historic blood libels. And the Jew is a “trickster.” He is clever and manipulative and not to be trusted.
Trump, of course, has no more to offer than the standard apocalyptic refrain of “fire and fury.” He has probably seen too many movies. But his discourse is consistent. It’s the rhetoric of nativism and certainly aligned with slogans to “make America great again” or “America first”.
This nativist discourse is relatively standard and on par with the profiles of intergroup conflict. That is, there is (a) a clear ingroup-outgroup distinction where the ingroup is favored and the outgroup as disfavored along with all of the exaggerations and distortions that accompany an ingroup-outgroup distinction;(b) the outgroup is demonized; and (c) the outgroup is rhetorically conquered. There is nothing wrong with trying to rhetorically control the outgroup – that is essentially what campaigns and social movements do but within the confines of normative democratic discourse.
Trump is frighteningly irresponsible. For the President of the United States, not some tin can leader, to engage in this brinkmanship with his shallow knowledge of the target culture, and the fact that fire will be returned with near certainty, can only be explained by the President’s personal macho and certainly not by any coherent policy of international relations.
And the childishness of it all. There is not even what anyone would consider to be even a remotely justifiable reason. This is just name-calling. Of all the sophisticated conflict resolution work and research, the answer in this case is simply to shut up and stand down.
Any peace deal signed by Trump will, by definition, be tainted and suspicious. It will lack credibility and be untrustworthy from the start. Even when he steps forward and espouses generalities about progress the public will be very skeptical. His word is one of the last things most people trust. Trump is a hustler and he will sell you whatever he thinks can turn a profit. Remember Trump vodka, steaks, marriages and my favorite–Trump University. A Trump peace proposal will be to peace proposals what Trump University was to education, a quickly constructed pseudo-product designed for the self-aggrandizement of Trump more than anything else.
Trump has no fire in his belly to solve the problem; it is not something he has struggled with for years and been committed to. Trump’s history is one of bungled deals, exaggerated claims, manipulations, lies and hyperbolic assertions. He is insufficiently knowledgeable about Jewish history and the State of Israel and he has cleansed his trip to Israel of most anything “Jewish”. He will speak at the airport, the Israel Museum, the King David Hotel, and the Prime Minister’s residence (directly across the street from my apartment). He will go to the Western Wall but not without somebody on the staff foolishly claiming it’s not part of Israel. He reduced his time at Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial) to 15 minutes. That’s 2½ minutes per million.
Trump is in no position to make progress on anything related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sure, he has to report some success so expect something like the following during a post-trip interview:
“We really made tremendous progress with the Israelis and Palestinians. It’s really going to be terrific, everybody says so. We are going to work out a deal and it’s going to be great for both sides. We have the best people working on and it is going to be great.”
Trump is all wrong for the nuances necessary to manage the conflict. Trump is better mano-a-mano and much more comfortable speaking bluntly and broadly. This is all one reason he won’t make much progress. There will be confidence building activity such as slowdowns on settlements and expressions of agreement about borders and concessions but that will be about it. But if Trump is serious about making progress here are three suggestions for him. And since Trump is quite concerned about “not being Obama” increased incorporation of these principles will be helpful with that.
- In particular, Abbas must answer to the larger Arab world as well as his own community. He cannot just give away what is considered by many Muslims to be holy land. Thus, Trump should increase the involvement of countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt in order to provide increased legitimization for the process and the Palestinian position in particular.
- Trump should insist on the improvement of infrastructure and internal politics of the Palestinians. The PLA have not sufficiently used their worldwide support to build civil society and services for the population. They need to stop practices such as paying terrorist families.
- And Israel must be required to cease and control settlement development. The settlements are perhaps the major obstacle to progress and nothing will happen if settlement expansion continues.
Even though, as I said above, that any deal with Trump would be immediately suspect he will be moving in the right direction if he focuses on the three suggestions above. Then he will have made a terrific deal and everybody will say so.
It will be interesting to see how Trump does with Abbas and the scheduled discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given Trump’s gargantuan ego I suppose it was to be expected that he would head right for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and claim that he can solve the world’s most formidable intractable conflict. After all, it is just another real estate deal isn’t it? Unless he is more informed that I think he is, Trump’s about to get his head handed to him. Trump is a clear supporter of Israel and that will work against him during the conversations. The Palestinians may calculate that Trump will be effective at getting the Israelis to concede and moderate, but it will take more than Trump’s ideological compatibilities with Israel to get anything more than token changes that Israel is prepared to give up in negotiations anyway.
Remember, Abbas is not such a free agent. He doesn’t really have the authority or leadership power to all-by-himself bargain away the West Bank and Gaza. And Abbas may have an avuncular presence about him that seems benign but he really is a pretty fierce opponent of Israel. He is associated with a certain amount of anti-Semitism and according to most reports continues to glorify terrorist activity including incentivizing terrorists by providing money for their families. Trump will ignore these things at his peril. Actually, he will not be able to ignore the possibility that US funds to the Palestinian Authority will be cut off because of the Taylor Force Act, which is a piece of legislation in process that makes it a crime to fund payments of any type to terrorists and their families.
One of the internal paradoxes of this difficult conflict is that, at this point anyway, it remains the case that any agreement that would be acceptable to the Palestinians would probably be a threat to Israel; that is, the two sides are not at a point yet where they will accept something that is both advantageous to themselves and the other.
Trump keeps confronting dictators and autocrats –Kim Jong-un, Duterte, Abbas, Chinese leadership – because he thinks the magic words of “The Art of the Deal” combined with his particular appeal is all it takes to solve any problem. Trump brings no background, context, and historical framework to these discussions. True enough that he has advisors but they seem to add little to the solutions.
The US is even losing some interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A coalition of states and clear policy about Iranian nuclear weapons is more in line with US foreign policy in the Middle East. Iran is a predatory nation that has a triumphalist mentality and the potential nuclear weapon to do serious damage. This is not to mention Iran’s proxy group (Hezbollah) to whom they would most likely release a nuclear weapon. This gives them deniability.
The Palestinian Authority will be pretty tough negotiators because they have much to lose if they do not get everything they want. The PA has made progress in its criticism and international condemnation of Israel. And even if the PA were a potential partner to genuine negotiations there remains the matter of Hamas. Israel is not going to give up anything, as it should not, without recognition of its existence and the state of Israel.
Even in the face of Hamas’s supposed revised statement, I can’t imagine them recognizing Israel anytime in the near future.
Don’t expect much from Trump. Normally I would give him credit for trying but I’m not sure that this time he might not do more harm than good.
Early in the campaign I thought Trump was displaying some linguistic and behavior patterns that were troublesome. I don’t mean this to be snide as if I were calling him “crazy” just because I didn’t vote for him. I generally thought he exhibited a linguistic word salad that was indicative of certain cognitive disorders. It looks more and more like this might be an accurate assessment. But my concerns are not clinical as much as they are worried about the stability of the government. At one time a citizen could feel confident that there are enough people around the president to handle any problems and make a smooth transition to someone else if necessary. Or, the advisory staff was capable and competent.
But in Trump’s case we have people like Steve Bannon who are enamored and believe in crackpot theories of how the world is going to unfold. Bannon is a self-styled intellectual in the tradition of Trump’s exaggerations, lack of evidence, and the belief that anything he says must bring it into reality.
Bannon is a devotee of a book titled “The Fourth Turning” by William Strauss and Neil Howe. According to a number of newspaper reports he has read it numerous times and keeps a copy handy. Now, Strauss and Howe are interesting fellows in their own right but we will let that be for the moment in order to take a look at their generational theories, alarmist prophecies, and catastrophic outlook that will reorganize the global order according to Bannon. The man who sits next to the President of the United States, the man who President Trump believes to be prescient and forward thinking believes that the history of the world is divided up into predictable cycles that repeat themselves, and United States is just short of entering a cycle that will be catastrophic or revolutionary.
The book reads like an end-of-days warning about an apocalyptic end. I read the book because I wanted to know what Bannon and others saw in this vision. The book turns out to be rather shallow and repetitive, constantly looking for any chance it can find to organize something into four phases, or see some cyclical relationship. There are qualified and respected historians that are called “cyclical theorists” meaning they believe in cycles of history (e.g. Marx, Toynbee). But there are scholars who have the credentials to make such statements and sound arguments in support of repetitive phases of a culture. Strauss and Howe are reaching to make interpretations that are less than justifiable and in some cases don’t even make any sense. I would also add that “cycle” theorists in history such as Karl Marx and Toynbee have little standing in contemporary scholarship.
According to The Fourth Turning history proceeds in cycles of about 80 years and can be divided into four phases. So, in the US the four phases are like the seasons of the year: a spring-like “high” (postwar America), the summer awakening and spirituality (the 1960s), autumnal alienation (the Reagan era), and finally the wintery crisis that is a transformational event that sweeps out the old order. There is more to the theory along with other cycles but I think you get the point. Strauss and Howe are still chasing the dream of finding a complete scientific theory of history when, in fact, modern historians are more micro then they are macro with respect to the artifacts of history and what they mean.
The sense of determinism is one of the most disturbing things about Strauss and Howe. If they would’ve noted some repetitive patterns in history and simply argued for their presence they might have presented us with a relatively interesting volume. But the notion that these cycles are godlike in their surety and ability to predict the future is a little unsettling. There is nothing wrong with the notion that some cycles or patterns exist but they are subject to the influences of multiple natural and historical forces that make them unpredictable.
Bannon may believe some apocalyptic ending is near – and his proximity to power is what makes that dangerous – but my advice to you is below:
Remember, that true believers tend to fall in love uncritically with some seductive idea. Get to know the idea before you are influenced by perfumed thoughts and alluring possibilities.
There is a term in political and communication theory known as “democratic reason.” Generally, democratic reason is the collective intelligence of a group of people. It is the notion that democratic communicative processes – that is, things like inclusion, balance, equality, resources, speaking rights, participation – result in higher quality decisions. Or, we could express it in the everyday phrase “two heads are better than one.”
Netanyahu and Trump both fail to meet some basic communication quality standards. Both face electoral problems and controversies because they refuse to recognize attitude trends in the citizenry that call for inclusive and democratic input. Polls in Israel show that about 60% of the population wants peace and is willing to make some sacrifices. It is the leadership that is stubborn and not serious about real progress. Real progress, without being naïve, can be made if a representative group of people spent their time in serious deliberation with the goal of using the communication process to create new ideas solutions.
This notion that two heads are better than one is actually pretty powerful. Even in simple aggregation such as voting more participants improves the likelihood of decisions being improved or not random. In the well-known “jar of beans” example, we could ask individuals with no previous exposure to the jar about how many beans are in the jar. We then get a group average on the basis of the entire group (the group produces a simple average) and the group average will be better than the average of the individuals. Finally, we can organize a group and give them time to talk to each other, deliberate, and share ideas. In other words we could make the communication system available to them. This third group, which allows for as rich and controlled democratic communication process as possible, will most consistently produce better answers.
The reason for this is the epistemic nature of communication but we will talk about that some other time. For now, I want to make the observation that the full Republican control of the senate and congress along with Trump is a dangerous situation. Key decision-making issues will escape the scrutiny of diverse voices and fail to let each side fully participate in the intelligence of the other side. This is why the Congress is polarized rather than democratized.
Trump already has authoritative tendencies. He has no patience for other people and little history having to answer to anybody. Much of leadership in his business world is based on clear lines of command with few or no constituencies to please other than investors. Moreover, Trump holds to the belief that the best and the brightest are going to beat and know more than the average citizen. Whether or not Trump has actually identified the best and the brightest we will leave for others just to say, but his aristocracy theory that the elite will always know more and therefore make better decisions than the average citizen does not always hold sway.
The reason that elites do not always make better decision is because they lack diversity; they may hold expertise even deep expertise in a particular subject but they lack diverse points of view and variety. In an interesting book by Scott Page (The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Society: Princeton University Press), he demonstrates the power of inclusiveness and diverse voices in decisions.
True enough that collective reason can go awry but that is usually managed by the communication process and the conditions of contact. Communication is only smart when it is allowed to work properly. When communication is restrained or distorted or the victim of a host of other maladies it then becomes a mechanism for collective unreason preventing itself from finding real solutions.
You would think that Trump and Netanyahu were pretty much compatible on most issues. Netanyahu and Israeli leadership did not care much at all for Obama even though much of the Obama style is just what is needed in this conflict. Obama was unfairly characterized as weak when in fact he was a little more considerate, deliberative, and diplomatic. Even though Obama was committed to Israeli security and continued munificent funding, Obama was not afraid to express differences between the U.S. and Israel in addition to turning a more respectful eye to the Arab world.
In fact, Trump is a dream president for Netanyahu. Trump has clear moral positions and a conservative’s sharp distinction between what is right and wrong. A couple of weeks ago before Trump met with the Prime Minister the right wing in Israel demanded that Netanyahu drop the two state solution. This was an aggressive move to strike while the iron was hot; that is, if any US president were going to oppose the two state solution, and support Israeli dominance in the West Bank and Gaza, it would be Trump. Moreover, during the campaign Trump supported moving the U.S embassy to Jerusalem, increased construction of settlements, and did not seem to be supportive of a Palestinian state.
But Trump’s statement after a meeting with Netanyahu shocked some people and disappointed the Israeli right when he said, “he is for anything the two parties are for – one state or two.” Trump got a fair amount of flak for this but he was actually saying he will accept anything the two main parties will accept. I thought Trump was misunderstood and certainly consistent with the demand that the solution be bilateral and the result of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. How could one argue with any solution that was truly acceptable to both sides even if certain third parties disagreed?
But the Israeli right did put the issue of settlements on the table. And because Trump knows very little about the issue and has no historical perspective, he is in a particularly vulnerable position with respect to Israeli conservatives and their efforts to annex the West Bank. Sentiment in Israel these days is increasingly one of “manage the conflict.” Trump doesn’t realize that the right wing in Israel is interested in one state –a state of Israel only. The Knesset already passed the “legalization law” that legalizes existing settler outposts. This law will probably be struck down by the Supreme Court but still represents the thinking of the Knesset.
There is something symmetrical about the fact that my first week in Jerusalem was taken up with the issues of the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. And what could be more appropriate given that Israel was unhappy with Obama who was too slow and diplomatic along with overly careful about relationships with the Arab world, and Trump is about the opposite. Netanyahu has put together and drifted toward one of the most conservative governments in Israel’s history so it stands to reason that Trump should be more to his liking. But what could really happen? What are some of the issues in the new relationship between the U.S. and Israel?
First, there is little doubt that Netanyahu figures his path is going to be easier with respect to settlements. He has tried to walk the line between being supportive of settlements but still managing the international condemnation that comes with it. It was no accident that the announcement of thousands of new homes in the West Bank coincided with Trump’s ascendancy. And Netanyahu has stated rather boldly that he has no intention of giving the Palestinians a state. This is related to a point I’ve been making for some time. Does anyone really think that there’s going to be the creation of a Palestinian state on Netanyahu’s watch? Does anyone really think that Netanyahu is going to be the prime minister who goes down in history as responsible for creating a Palestinian state? Even though Netanyahu is on record as supporting the two state solution, I figure you have to be pretty naïve to think that he actually meant it. Like Trump, Netanyahu will say pretty much anything he needs to say to satisfy the moment. The settlements remain perhaps the most significant obstacles to peace and they continue to be the major point of contention.
The US and Israel must put their heads together and work out a common platform designed to support the issues related to settlements. The fact that Netanyahu allows two minor political parties (Haredi and Bayit Yehudi), who are animated by settlement issues, to command so much attention is evidence of both his fragile coalition and the importance of the issue.
Both Trump and Netanyahu assume the relationship will be “bromantic.” That is, these two political and ideological brothers who share a common vision of the world – along with a common desire to change directions from Obama – will have a “bromance” hopefully followed by a complete union.
But in both love and politics things don’t work out the way you expect. I will just bet, for example, that Netanyahu is not happy about having to deal with Trump’s pesky son-in-law who may be bright and capable but seems woefully unprepared to be in a position to manage the most intractable international conflict in modern history. When I think of distinguished presidential advisers (e.g. Brzezinski, Kissinger) the name Jared Kushner doesn’t come to mind.
This is going to be a learning experience primarily for Trump who, as is quite evident, is a newcomer to politics with little knowledge or experience in international relations or policy. Trump’s rather careless statement, for example, about moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem is a good example of his naïveté. He started to back off from this demand as soon as he learned of its provocative nature and the damaging consequences. There is little doubt that Netanyahu will try to lecture Trump and “educate” him on the issues. This puts Netanyahu in a power position because he is more able to manage the information environment. But in the end I hope Netanyahu is careful because this is a president who will strike back viciously if he feels manipulated, disrespected, or challenged. Hopefully, Netanyahu will use his skills to do more than “bromance” his friend; rather, he will take this opportunity to direct Trump to that portion of reality that represents what is best for both countries.
Well, some patterns are pretty clear: there is an ever-growing collection of small time nationalists who are angry and threatening the quality of democracy around the world. Even though the 20th century is characterized as an era of expanding inclusiveness, and a century that witnessed more democratic change than any other, it all seems to be dissipating as citizens interestingly and strangely become more comfortable with authoritarian leadership.
And it gets worse! Foa and Mounk, writing in the Journal of Democracy in both 2016 and 2017, report that American citizens are not only unhappy with their governments but increasingly critical of liberal democracy. 24% of young Americans polled in 2011 stated that democracy was either a “bad” or a “very bad” way to run a country. This is a sharp increase from previous measures and especially associated with the young. And consistent with these findings, there was an increase in the number of Americans expressing approval for “army rule.”
This is a shocking state of affairs and at first glance it seems impossible. But the data on Americans is consistent with the larger global patterns. Continuing to cite from Foa and Mounk in the Journal of Democracy (volume 28, 2017), 72% of those born before World War II thought that democracy was essential. Only 30% of Millennials said the same thing. And across long-standing democracies in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand the proportion of young people who believe that democracy is essential has drifted away.
And, of course, the rise of people like Trump, Le Pen in France, Chávez in Venezuela, Brexit, Duterte in the Philippines, Orbán in Hungry, and Putin are all consistent with the decline in democracy because they blame an allegedly politically corrupt establishment (note Trump’s inauguration speech and reference to a nefarious Washington elite) but still want to concentrate power in an executive.
A narrow vision of groups and polities is the essence of the populist appeal and fundamentally antidemocratic because populism foregrounds and privileges the perspective of a particular group. Democracy is pluralistically oriented and committed to solving problems through dialogue and discourse.
What Explains All This?
For starters, it is not explained by isolated geographic aberrations. The decline in the respect for democracy is apparent in Europe as well as South America. But what does seem to be a key issue is the strength or durability of democracy. I would underscore the observation that democracies are a continuum. The country and political system is not either democratic or not in a binary sense. Measurements of the extent to which elections are free and fair, and citizens have rights of speech, movement, and assembly etc. result in a democracy rating but less so the strength or commitment to democracy. When democracies are weak they are more easily overcome. Moreover, the rise of citizen skepticism and disenfranchisement promote populist and antisystem parties.
It’s fair to say that Trump is like no candidate in American history. His victory caused so much pain and angst for large portions of the electorate because he fit no model of presidential preparation or decorum. His blatant political disrespect and sexism were like nothing the American public has seen in a presidential aspirant. Trump’s victory could have only taken place in the context of declining faith in democracy as well as a persistent history of delegitimizing the press, political parties, and the system they represent. It’s no accident that someone like Trump was elected during a historical period where the two political parties are so polarized, and so incapable of engaging each other to solve problems, that citizens look for alternatives, presumably “correct” alternatives, that don’t require them to consider the diversity of opinions democracies are so good at managing.
Sung to the theme of M*A*S*H
Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see…
that suicide is painless
it brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.
What madman or anguished society would give the keys to the candy store we call the United States to Donald Trump? No candidate in history has been less prepared and, moreover, does not seem to be bothered by it. His cabinet and advisor appointees make for a ghoulish monster’s ball of Wall Street billionaires who have no experience in government, business executives who think running the government is the same thing as running a business, and ideologues with an agenda that is ironically counter to the mission of the office they are running.
Trump’s election has been regularly compared to populist movements in history and currently around the world. It is in line with populist and nationalistic parliaments in Hungry, Poland, Greece, and the rise of the right in France. And the rhetoric of populism is consistent across cultures. Such rhetoric is often an early indicator of unstable and vulnerable democracies. Truly consolidated democracies are the most resistant and stable forms of government and most likely to be immune to the siren call of nationalism and populism. But less established democratic political cultures, especially those with charismatic strongmen as leaders, are more susceptible to the political discourse that constitutes populism.
That is, the modern populist praises tough and decisive leadership, belittles and distrusts elites and specialists in an effort to alienate the average person from the truly competent, and is critical of institutions. Trump, interestingly, has some new wrinkles for this pattern because although his rhetoric strikes a chord with the struggling and downscale demographics, he has successfully convinced them that he will improve their lives. Curiously, Trump traffics in elitism. And he will soon go about the business of using his own appointees as loyalists who will compromise the media, silence the opposition, and create a threatening discursive environment. He has already begun to undermine trusted institutions such as the CIA (taking the unprecedented position that the CIA is wrong about Russian cyberhacking), the media (a regular flow of criticism and delegitimization that cast even more doubt on quality sources of information), the legislative history of conflict of interest policy (refusal to release tax forms, challenges to his own business interests), and foreign policy traditions (a more volatile and aggressive foreign policy such as breaking the nuclear treaty with Iran, harsh challenges to China, and name-calling).
The United States’ record of promoting liberalism and generally making the right decisions is strong enough. We commit our military when necessary; typically pass legislation that protects the rights of individuals (whether it be guns or abortions); we continue to make progress on due process and equal protection under the law; and we have a decent history of widening the circle of citizen inclusion with respect to rights and opportunities.
But we momentarily lost our minds when we voted for Trump. It was a reckless mistake that requires a “do over.” Clinical research explains that for successful suicide victims there is only a few seconds in which they will actually pull the trigger or jump. The rest of the time they are holding back but there remains some moment – some brief period when the window is open – in which all of their stress, pressures, and cognitive distortions conflate and they actually step off the ledge or pull the trigger.
So we have the United States and Trump. The American citizenry momentarily lost its mind and pulled the trigger. It’s going to be a crazy few years riddled with mistakes resulting from Trump’s lack of preparation, his long and embarrassing record of bad behavior and misogyny, his refusal to listen to security briefings because he can lone wolf-it, his knee-jerk congenital lying (his loss of the popular vote by almost 3 million was from people casting illegal votes; Russia had nothing to do with hacking or influencing the American election), and his naïveté about world leaders.
I fully expect Trump to expand his control and throw the population a bone or two on occasion, all the while converting the presidency into a postmodern spectacle designed to continue Trump brand recognition.
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.