I’ve spent zero on advertising. – D. Trump
Much of my writing circles around my basic assertion that this is one of those times in American history when great holes appear in the façades of our myths. And when they do, the oligarchs and patriarchs who most profit from their continuation go to extreme lengths to shore up those holes and re-invigorate our sense of innocence. It’s increasingly obvious that the old story no longer fits, but that we have yet to imagine the new story.
But what does it mean in practical terms to say this? To me, it means that as culture begins to collapse, its institutions – all of them – collapse as well. And this means that institutions that evolved over very long periods of time to bring out the best in people – their higher selves, so to speak – now function to bring out the worst in us. The police are an obvious example, and so are the media.
I haven’t added this obvious “M” word to my ongoing blog title because the media surround the madness, machines and migrations that I’ve been writing about. We hear about the pervasive madness of daily life and form our opinions about it through the media. Postmodern people can barely claim to exist without the media, which, like myth itself, are so omnipresent that we hardly notice them. In the old analogy, the fish never notices the sea because it is all the fish knows.
It’s a common cliché to blame “the media” for so many of our problems. But we need to go deeper, especially in helping to understand Trump. For 150 years in modern literate (and now electronic) culture the media have usurped the ancient function of priests, poets and story tellers, who for 99% of human history had told us the stories of who we are. This is an immensely complicated issue. But for now, we’ll have to note only the most critical aspects, beginning with how the media gave Trump an absurdly unfair advantage.
George Lakoff reminds us that most Democratic politicians come up through law school and the reasoning skills it trains them in, while many of the most influential Republicans attend business schools and are trained above all in marketing, with its intense interest in brain functioning. In my terms, the Republicans have known very well the terminology of American myth. The Democrats have appealed to the head, while the Republicans have spoken to the gut. This has never been more obvious than in 2016.
So we’re talking, by the way, about the Trump brand. In this media-determined world, it matters not a bit who Trump the human being is, what he thinks about, what he believes or even if he has any strong beliefs. By the way, it’s important to understand that we can say this about almost any politician including Barack Obama, who will fade away soon, leaving as his legacy a Democratic Party that has lost over 900 state legislative seats during his administration.
We are talking about brands, and it is the media that communicates them; it is the image of Trump that he and his people have expertly created out of mud, like a golem, which the media has obediently fed to us.
1 – They began normalizing his bigotry and misogyny well before the election, giving him some $3 billion in essentially free advertising. They allowed him to utter (and then repeated) whatever lies he wanted and rarely took the time to correct or fact-check him. Why? Cui bono: the Trump show drove ad revenue to levels the industry hadn’t seen in years. And they hardly needed to do this, as he showed his master’s manipulation of them early on. Later, when (too late) they turned on him, their attacks drove the same revenue streams.
2 – And this was “legitimate” journalism. Beyond that, fake news and heavily-subsidized right wing extremists like Alex Jones, Matt Drudge and Breitbart pumped the internet with fear-mongering and white supremacist propaganda. CNN hired Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and others as talking heads. Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live, Dr. Oz and – yes – Stephen Colbert all gave Trump guest spots that helped in the normalizing process.
3 – All media, at least until October, fed the loony notion of equivalency between the two major candidates, that Clinton’s email transgressions were on the same level of danger as Trump’s deranged threats. The result: two terribly unpopular candidates, but one with a stranglehold on the election process itself.
4 – And of course, to the extent that they gave Trump free publicity, they marginalized and even demonized the only truly popular candidate, Bernie Sanders.
This analysis goes a long way toward answering my initial question way back in Part One of this series:
Forget about: How could he win? or How could she lose? – because she didn’t…The real question should be: Why didn’t she beat this immensely unpopular buffoon by thirty points? Why was the election so close?
And my ensuing discussion of “stripping and flipping” explains how we went from an unnaturally close election to an apparent conservative sweep. We are now subject to a 24/7 reality show out of Washington, flavored by Hollywood. But we’ll have to address this notion of “fake news,” because the phrase itself implies that the “news” is objective, balanced and unbiased.
Socially, we receive our mythic instructions – our sense of who we are in the universe – in two major forms, public education and the media. For a detailed critique of public education and its intentions, read the works of John Taylor Gatto or my summary of his ideas in Chapter Five of my book, which include this:
Public schooling teaches children that they can exchange obedience for favors and advantages. It was never intended to create citizens, but servile laborers and consumers. It leaves children vulnerable to marketing, which ensures that they will grow older but never grow up. And it reverses the age-old tradition of identifying a child’s unique gifts. The latest insult, standardized testing, continues to convert hope into docility and narcissism. An unexpected bi-product has been an epidemic of illiteracy.
To Noam Chomsky, public education is a system of imposed ignorance in which the most highly educated people are the most highly indoctrinated. In political terms, “A good education instills in you the intuitive comprehension – it becomes unconscious and reflexive – that you just don’t think certain things…that are threatening to power interests.” This includes, perhaps more than any discipline, historiography, the teaching of history (another function formerly held by the storytellers and poets). I write in Chapter Seven:
The “Dunning School” of racist historians dominated the writing of post-Civil War history well into the 1950s. William Dunning, founder of the American Historical Association, taught Columbia students that blacks were incapable of self-government. Yale’s Ulrich Phillips defended slaveholders and claimed they did much to civilize the slaves. Henry Commager and (Harvard’s) Samuel Morison’s The Growth of the American Republic, read by generations of college freshmen, perpetuated the myth of the plantation and claimed that slaves “suffered less than any other class in the South…The majority…were apparently happy.” Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans: The Colonial Experience doesn’t mention slavery at all. Similarly, Arthur Schlesinger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Jackson never mentions the Trail of Tears.
The media, to Chomsky, functions “to keep people from understanding the world.” Its purpose is “to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state.” Media decision makers begin with the people at the top who deliberately decide what “news” and “opinions” to produce and whom to market their product to, but they end with the great majority of editors and journalists whose educations have already prepared them for their work. They do not need to be told what the limits of acceptable discourse are. Chomsky writes:
…the elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents that results from the operation of these ﬁlters occurs so naturally that media news people, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose and interpret the news ‘objectively’ and on the basis of professional news values.
If there is anything to be learned from the Trump ascendency, it is how our desperate need to remain innocent has made it easier for our cultural gatekeepers to censor the news so as to divert us from important issues toward trivia, keep us uninformed, marginalize legitimate alternatives and encourage millions of us to abandon the voting process itself. The news has never been the news, but for the last forty years it has generally functioned as little more than state (that is, corporate) –funded propaganda.
It’s been a common progressive complaint to blame the corporate media for so long that Trump had no difficulty flipping the notion to criticism of the liberal media and then shortening it to “the media.” But it’s important to remember that in any large, capitalist nation the function of the media is twofold: to make money and to assist the central government in the ongoing chore of keeping people asleep and docile.
In the interest of brevity, I’m offering a series of links from sources I trust, and I hope they encourage you to look a bit deeper.
Clearly, the main stream media (MSM) have faithfully pursued their agendas, and those intentions are cynical at best. But we have to address a slightly different question: what about honest, progressive critics of the system? How much of its assumptions do we take for granted? Again, this is a huge, complicated issue having to do with how many of us, with the best of intentions, set ourselves up as gatekeepers so as to channel even righteous rebellion into familiar – and manageable – channels. In a future blog, I’ll address this question in more detail (hint: think false equivalences). For now I’ll use only the most current example, how we try to explain the Trump phenomenon.
Alternet, a reliably progressive news source from which I glean much useful information, posted this excellent article on December 1st: 13 Top Theories for How Trump Won and Why Clinton Lost: What’s Your Theory? I say “excellent” because they offer a comprehensive list ranging from racism, misogyny and working class anger to Clinton’s support of trade deals to James Comey and fake news. But they barely mention the corrupt nature at the core of the whole thing that to me actually made the difference, vote flipping. They still cleave to conventional thinking that anyone versed in political science can understand. But we are not in conventional times.
I think they do this because liberals more than other Americans respond to the internal pressure to believe that the system itself – democracy in America – can still be reformed, that essentially, things as they are, bad as they are, are still the way they’re meant to be. In other words, we are in the realm of myth – not easily identifiable archetypes or heroic images (I’ll go there too in another post), but the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and our profound need to believe in those stories.
Fake quotes will ruin the Internet. —Benjamin Franklin
Next: going deeper, into the recount. Read Part Eight here.