By Tall Angry Scotsman
The current President of the United States of America was elected despite having no prior public service, politically or in the military. He won the Electoral College despite having a record that included saying President Barak Obama was born in another country, Senator John McCain was not a war hero because he was captured, and that Mexico is sending immigrants to the U.S. that are drug dealers and rapists.
The institutions of our society, both physical and cultural, failed to prevent and unqualified person with unprecedented false and defamatory rhetoric, from becoming our leader. How did this happen? It all unfolded more casually than you might think. Our standards of acceptability did not suddenly implode in the run up to the 2016 Presidential election. To the contrary, their demise began when formerly solid boundary lines began to blur and undermine the foundations of rational thought.
Reality television is the most obvious and perhaps earliest example of a mass shift in perception. On a surface level, actors playing beloved characters and feted as celebrities were replaced by amateurs without written dialogue. And with a pool to choose from that included every person willing to go on camera, producers selected the most outlandish specimens they could find, playing to the audience’s base desires. Fame and notoriety that typically followed talent or beauty morphed into an "achievement" of its own no matter how it was obtained. Notorious and infamous people abound in history, but the age of digital speed provided equal opportunity and on demand encouragement. “Leaked” sex tapes and public scandals changed disgrace into a marketing opportunity.
The Internet democratized access to information, but did not come with built in filters for critically sorting that information. Previously, a book, newspaper, or magazine had the input of vetted journalists with a staff of editors that instilled a sense of gravitas into what appeared on the page. We did not believe everything we read, but the challenge to known “facts” needed to be a serious and well-reasoned one in order to be considered seriously. Websites do not require that type of infrastructure, so almost anyone can appear legitimate. Social media platforms as super highways allowed inaccurate and/or biased disinformation to spread like a plague.
Television news became "fake news" long before that idiom was used as a weapon. DVR's and streaming services made news coverage a commodity because of its time sensitive nature. Advertising dollars followed and in their wake came a thirst for more. The unbalanced accuracy and focus on relevant issues was quickly replaced by whatever attracted eyeballs to the screens. As it turns out, people with deep seated beliefs were easily enticed by stories that reinforced those beliefs instead of challenging them. When combined with the aforementioned social media, an echo chamber media bubble created a barrier to rational thought.
Even interactions among people in communities have broken down. Both online anonymity and the reinforced self-righteousness of the bubble give rise to horrific attitudes and comments. Town forums on Facebook pit neighbors in wars of words that would almost certainly not take place face to face. Jokes made by professional comedians in the confines of a club late at night are now haphazardly fired off by unhinged individuals like a toddler who found his father's gun. Suddenly free speech became a defense of saying what no one wants or needs to hear instead of a protection of things people might otherwise be stopped from saying.
So how did we get Trumped? It’s simple: the dopamine rush from a stream of entertainment and beliefs slowly eroded the hard truths of reality. Supposed adults are figuratively (and sometimes literally) eating dessert for breakfast and dressing down for respectable jobs. We give priority to our emotions instead of our thoughts. Can a new generation shift the paradigm? Will the youth, born into activism and given the technology as a birth right, change course and laugh at our silliness? Can we teach kids how to think when the collective knowledge of human civilization resides on a piece of metal and glass in their pockets? I hope so, or else a future train wreck President may end up being stock footage of an actual train wreck.