The coming of the internet, and the global spread of social media, has triggered a period of intensifying cultural chaos. The global consequences are profound.
Short term, the digital communications revolution has allowed a cheap con man like Donald Trump to connect directly with hundreds of millions of Americans and take over the once-respectable Republican Party.
The power of democracy combined with the digitalisation of political communication has pushed the ideological front line away from the stable centre and towards the rightward fringe – the alt-right, as we are calling it these days, but which Herr Hitler himself would have recognised as an American variant on national socialism – a populist politics founded on hatred of the “Other” (Muslims, a hint of anti-Semitism, a large dollop of anti-Mexican prejudice, a routine contempt for women who challenge him on anything).
Philip Roth wrote a novel about the rise of totalitarianism in America, and the entire world is witnessing just that phenomenon coming to grisly fruition.
Will he win on November 8? The polls say no, but they are too close for complacency. And even if he loses, there remains a fundamental, era-defining question – how did we get here?
How did it come to pass that at least 40% of the American electorate would willingly put someone like Donald Trump in the White House (and similar proportions of the population exist in other countries, let’s be clear – in Australia, nearly 50% of those surveyed in a recent poll supported a ban on Muslim immigration)?
Number one in my list of causal factors.
In a world where celebrity culture is ubiquitous, and politics is just as much about image as integrity or ability, Trump is a supreme entertainer. He has been on the telly for decades. He has written “how-to-get-rich-quick” books. He is as famous as Johnny Depp and Kim Kardashian.
Trump could not have achieved the level of support he now enjoys without the media. Reality TV made him a primetime TV celebrity. Social media allowed him to communicate with and stir up his supporters directly, bypassing traditional media and their gatekeepers.
Trump secured intense news coverage, first of his shockingly extreme statements – build a wall to protect America from Mexican rapists, for example – combined with his novelty value as a celebrity capitalist who says “You’re Fired” a lot.
For a long time, this coverage did not frame him as a credible candidate, but rather as a novelty outlier. There was always something of the absurd, even amusing, about Trump and his megalomania, and that’s how his campaign was covered at the start.
But as his popularity rose, the apparent effectiveness of his pitch became the news story. Then the cycle of provocation, public adulation (by that initially small group who went to his rallies), media coverage and dissemination of those images, more calculated provocation from Trump, and so on in a vicious cycle of intensifying newsworthiness until he had overtaken all other GOP contenders, incompetent and uninspiring as they were.
At this point the application of conventional news values made Trump omnipresent. The journalistic principle of objectivity granted him constant visibility and assumed credibility in proportion as he took the primary lead.
It is unfair to blame the media entirely for this evolution of the Trump narrative arc, or even for the “false balance” allegedly applied to the story by organisations like the New York Times.
If he was the GOP frontrunner, and then the official nominee, under the accepted rules of objectivity in political journalism, how could they not give him his fair share of coverage? How could they reasonably have adopted a bias towards him, if their objective was to inform, objectively, the American people about each candidate and their policies?
It’s for the commentariat, and the media of analysis, debate and commentary to engage him if they wish, and many have done so. Others have supported him, or sought to normalise him, such as Sean Hannity and Roger Ailes of Fox News.
Greg Sheridan in The Australian declared the first debate “a draw”, with the friendly sounding “everyman” Trump just ahead.
On Murdoch’s other key Australian outlet, Sky News, commentators such as Janine Perrett, Andrew Bolt and Ross Cameron have been straining all along to find good things to say about Trump. Liberal Party politician Cory Bernardi on Bolt’s show last week, after acknowledging Trump’s racism and other “minor” flaws, declared that he was still for Trump.
But let’s not put all the blame on journalists and let ordinary people off the hook.
Trump is a “red in tooth and claw” capitalist of the very worst kind, who used his reality TV performance skills to win the support of those goggleboxed masses who will pay the most for a Trump presidency, should it ever happen. They saw him on The Apprentice, and mistook that for real life.
It is their sons and daughters who will die as cannon fodder in the wars Trump will start, or fail to prevent from starting.
It is they whose neighbourhoods will be consumed by ethnic and religious sectarian conflict between neighbours, and by electronic surveillance and unconstrained policing.
From day one of Trump’s presidency, America will become a free fire zone in which if you are black, or “ethnic”, or Hispanic, or Muslim, you will be fair game for WASPs on the rampage.
How do you tell an “illegal migrant” from a migrant? How do you stop a racist shooter from taking the law into his own hands, when Trump advocates that “from day one”, “illegals” will be rounded up and on their way out?
It is those Trump-supporting folks without degrees who work in less-regulated, less-secure jobs, who are most vulnerable to sacrifice on the Trumpian altar of profits and wealth for the very rich few.
It is they who work at Walmart, or indeed Trump Tower, who will see their welfare state, such as it is, further decline and wither away under the new president’s low-to-no tax regime (zero for Trump, as he proudly conceded in the first debate, because he was “smart”).
It is they who will have to hide indoors as riots break out in the streets, and as pogroms of supposed “illegals” sweep up legal citizens of the other, non-white variety.
As for the ultimate nightmare of nuclear annihilation, which we thought we had left behind with Ronald Reagan and his Cold War warriors: well, just think of how Trump, as opposed even to the flaky Reagan, would behave in a complex, fast-moving conflict scenario with, say, Russia, China, or North Korea.
All of the above, and more, can be regarded as highly likely outcomes of a Trump presidency, given his public statements.
The Clinton alternative, if not regarded in many quarters as inspirational, will deliver foreign policy strength with stability built on experience.
She declares that she will work to defend and improve public services such as health and welfare. She will continue the great leap forward in the building of America’s ethnic-political culture represented by Obama, the first black POTUS.
She will be the first woman president, and for that reason alone historic. Just by being there, she will advance the cause of feminism and women’s rights.
Whatever you think of her, it cannot be denied that Hillary has given her life to public service. She bore with huge dignity her husband’s cheating and his emotional betrayals, and enabled his survival as one of America’s most-loved presidents.
Trump can threaten her with all kinds of mean, but all she has to do is tell the truth, and then pivot back to his hugely dysfunctional private life.
All of this, and also the fact that she is a woman, means that in any rational contest she should be favoured by the majority over any man. She is, as Obama said, the most-qualified person ever to run for POTUS.
And yet, to be leading a man like Trump by only 3.1%, by Nate Silver’s count? After all he has said to and about women during this campaign?
For there even to be a serious possibility of a Trump victory in November, after all the racism and the woman-hating and the crazy ban on Muslims and the wall and the Putin stuff and the insults to parents of dead war heroes and … after all that, we’re talking about 3.1%?
How did we get here, again?
Number two of possible causes.
Hillary’s unlikeability. Sure, she’s guilty of a bit of this and a bit of that in her long career; of bending some of the rules of her deeply patriarchal political culture.
But Trump is an unrepentant, tax-avoiding, racist crook, a con-man and bully, a model of celebrity culture excess. Next to that record, who honestly cares about some missing emails, or a few speeches to Wall Street?
No, it’s not hate for Hillary that drives Trump’s working- or even middle-class supporters. They hardly know her.
They DO know what Trump represents, but they still want it. Their “country back” – that is: a big, beautiful wall that keeps Mexican rapists out; a purge of suspected Islamists and illegal migrants, no matter that hundreds of thousands of innocent people will be sucked into that particular pogrom.
They want government “off their backs”, unaware that if the vote goes their way in November, the liberal, social democratic, slightly dull and perhaps even mediocre managers they have enjoyed for decades will be replaced by the quasi-fascistic jackboot of Trump stomping their Krispy Kreme-smeared faces forever, in true 1984-style.
It has been the media which have shifted the boundaries and stretched the fields of discursive and ideological credibility to the point where a figure like Trump can be taken seriously as a major candidate, and there will have to be a reckoning on that after all this is over.
But it is an alarmingly large portion of the American people who have made him credible – 13.3 million primary voters, the most ever for a GOP candidate for nomination. And if he becomes POTUS it will be the people who put him there – about 130 million will be needed.
Trump might win because these millions are angry about something and have decided to flex their muscles while they still can. When – if – he loses, what will they do next? Win or lose, Donald or Hillary, November 8 is only the end of the beginning.
Brian McNair is the author of Communication and Political Crisis (Peter Lang, 2016).