Stream-of-Consciousness Rants of an Attention-Craving Narcissist
The founders of America established the young republic on the Enlightenment principles of reason, liberty, progress, and religious tolerance. And to guard against the possibility, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, of “a man unprincipled in private life” and “bold in his temper” one day arising who might “mount the hobby horse of popularity” and “flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day” in order to embarrass the government and “throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’”
[Ed.: So, we can't say no one saw this coming. Leave it to the founders.]
Trump instinctively grasped that the new internet-driven landscape and voters' ignorance about issues made it easier than ever to play to voters' fears and resentments by promoting sticky, viral narratives that served up alternate realities.
Depicting America as a country reeling from crime (when, in fact, the crime rate was experiencing historic lows less than half what it was at its peak in 1991). A country beset by waves of violent immigrants (when, in fact, studies show that immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes than U.S.-born citizens). Immigrants who are a burden to the country and who should be vetted more carefully (when, in fact, thirty-one of seventy-eight American Nobel Prizes since 2000 were won by immigrants, and immigrants and their kids have helped found an estimated 60 percent of the top U.S. tech companies, worth nearly four trillion dollars).
The algorithms of social networks which give people news that's popular and trending, rather than accurate or important are helping to promote conspiracy theories. “We are long past merely partisan filter bubbles and well into the realm of siloed communities that experience their own reality and operate with their own facts.”
Victor Klemperer, a German-Jewish linguist who survived World War II in Dresden, devoted an entire chapter of his book The Language of the Third Reich
to the Nazis' obsession with numbers and superlatives; everthing had to be the best or the most. If a German from the Third Reich went on an elephant hunt, he would have to boast that he'd “finished off the biggest elephants in the world, in unimaginable numbers, with the best weapon on earth.” Many of the Nazis' own numbers (regarding enemy soldiers killed, prisoners taken, audience numbers for a radio broadcast of a rally) were so exaggerated that they took on a “fairy-tale quality.”
The Trump administration, in fact, debuted with the White House press secretary insisting that Trump's inaugural crowds were the “largest audience” ever an assertion that defied photographic evidence.
These sorts of lies, the journalist Masha Gessen has pointed out, are told for the same reason that Vladimir Putin lies: “to assert power over truth itself.”
At the same time, Trump continued his personal assault on the English language. Trump's incoherence (his twisted syntax, his reversals, his insincerity, his bad faith, and his inflammatory bombast) is both emblematic of the chaos he creates and thrives on as well as an essential instrument in his liar's tool kit. His interviews, off-teleprompter speeches, and tweets are a startling jumble of insults, exclamations, boasts, digressions, non sequiturs, qualifications, exhortations, and innuendos a bully's efforts to intimidate, gaslight, polarize, and scapegoat.
Trump's tweets have been deemed official pronouncements of the president of the United States. Whether they are distractions meant to divert attention from the Russia investigations, the stream-of-consciousness rants of an attention-craving narcissist, or part of a more deliberate strategy to acclimate people to the aberrant, the tweets have immediate consequences around the planet, escalating nuclear tensions with North Korea, alienating whole countries and continents, and sending tremors through the post-World War II order.
As the role that social media had played in spreading fake news and enabling Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election became increasingly clear, some Silicon Valley insiders experienced a kind of existential crisis.
The problems were inherent, some argued, in the algorithms used by platforms like Facebook to maximize user engagement. The more time members spend on a platform, the more ads a company sells and the more profits it makes, and the way to maximize engagement is by “sucking up and analyzing your data, using it to predict what will cause you to react most strongly, and then giving you more that.” Conspiracy theories easily go viral on social media. And so do dumbed-down, inflammatory political messages.
Trump's hate-fueled message was almost tailor-made for social media algorithms. Steve Bannon said, “We got elected on Drain the Swamp, Lock Her Up, Build a Wall. This was pure anger. Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls.”
The Russians' long-term goal to erode voters' faith in democracy and the electoral system dovetailed with their short-term goal of tipping the outcome toward Trump. Russian operatives published some eighty thousand posts on Facebook between June 2015 and August 2017 that might have been seen by 126 million Americans; that's more than half the number of people registered to vote in the country.
Lenin specialized in promises he would never keep. “He lied unashamedly. He identified a scapegoat he could later label ‘enemies of the people.” He justified himself on the basis that winning meant everything.
Hitler devoted whole chapters of Mein Kampf to propaganda: appeal to people's emotions, not their intellects; use “stereotyped formulas,” repeated over and over again; continuously assail opponents and label them with distinctive phrases or slogans that will elicit visceral reactions from the audience. Described by biographers as a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization, Hitler possessed an instinctive sense of how to capture public attention from the start.
Trump, of course, is a troll both by temperament and by habit. His tweets and offhand taunts are the very essence of trolling the lies, the scorn, the invective, the trash talk, and the rabid non sequiturs of an angry, aggrieved, isolated, and deeply self-absorbed adolescent who lives in a self-constructed bubble and gets the attention he craves from bashing his enemies and leaving clouds of outrage and dismay in his path.
A celebrity David Foster Wallace held up as a symbol of the poisonousness of 1990s postmodernist irony can now be seen, in retrospect, as harbinger of Trump: Rush Limbaugh, whom he described as embodying “a hatred that winks and nudges you and pretends it's just kidding.” The trickle-down legacy of postmodernism, Wallace argued, was “sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct.”
[Ed.: Wallace called it even more presciently, in Infinite Jest, with the (in-the-past) Limbaugh administration.]
Trump's lies, his efforts to redefine reality, his violation of norms and rules and traditions, his mainstreaming of hate speech, his attacks on the press, the judiciary, the electoral system all are reasons that the democracy watchdog group Freedom House warned that year one of the Trump administration had brought “further, faster erosion of America's own democratic standards than at any other time in memory.” Once he has left office, the damage he has done to American institutions and the country's foreign policy will take years to repair.
George Washington's Farewell Address of 1796 was eerily clairvoyant about the dangers America now faces. Washington warned about the rise of “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men” who might try to “usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.“
He warned about the “insidious wiles of foreign influence” and the dangers of “ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens” who might devote themselves to a favorite foreign nation in order “to betray or sacrifice the interests” of America.
Without commonly agreed-upon facts, there can be no rational debate. Without truth, democracy is hobbled. The founders recognized this, and those seeking democracy's survival must recognize it today.