I write this on Oct. 24, 15 days before the presidential election. Thus are the deadlines for monthly publications, unlike the old days when The Reader was a weekly and my deadline was literally two days prior to the paper hitting the racks.
This issue will hit the streets Nov. 3, but I’m assuming you won’t read it until after the big show Nov. 8, after it’s all over. So I’m going to make some assumptions here, some predictions about this year’s presidential election, though I don’t think they’re very presumptuous. As of this morning, Hillary Clinton was between 4 and 12 points ahead of Donald Trump, depending on which poll you looked at, with the trend lines ever widening between the two.
But that could change at any moment, which is why I keep pushing back on my deadline with the editor. Every day some new bombshell is uttered by Trump, a new accusation or threat or devastating warning that cannot go ignored by the press or the Clinton campaign. Every day a new Wikileak drips from Russia to the Internet, or someone else steps forward with a sordid story about what Trump did to her (or him).
Just last night for example, Trump casually attacked the First Amendment, asking why we can’t have a “free” press like they have in England, where there is a presumption of guilt of the accused in slander cases. Why indeed.
There are those who will point to the infamous Billy Bush Access Hollywood “pussy grabbing” video as the arrow that struck down the Trump campaign. Others will point to his “rigged system” comments and unwillingness to accept the outcome of the vote. The easy answer involves a combination of all of those, plus racism, sexism and xenophobia combined with Trump’s inability to recognize truth from fiction.
But a better question than why he failed is how Trump ever got as close as he did to the most powerful political office on the planet. Here’s my simplistic answer:
Social media has made it possible to spread facts and falsehoods as quickly as someone can punch letters into an iPhone. It has empowered dumb people to spread their dumbness.
In the days prior to the widespread distribution of technology and/or the internet. stupid people and their stupid ideas were isolated to wherever those stupid people hung out — mostly in bars or living rooms. I can never understand why TV news producers, in an effort to put a dipstick into the minds of the “common man,” send film crews to the local pubs “to gauge what the everyday working man is thinking.” The results are always predictably asinine, misinformed or just plain belligerent. But what did they expect? They’re talking to a roomful of drunks.
Still, those remotes from Finnegan’s Bar, while amusing, were both inconsequential and harmless.
Then along comes the Internet. Obama harnessed the power of social media in his first-term campaign. We saw Facebook and Twitter impact not only fundraising, but the ability to get the core message to the masses. Social media was a conduit that bypassed traditional news outlets, and it worked. History may record that social media was a primary driver behind Obama’s victory. Just as it will be blamed for the rise of Donald Trump.
It is now impossible to go onto Facebook and not get deluged with posts that are flat out lies generated by one of the hundreds of so-called “news” websites whose information has been made up by tin-foil-hat-wearing trolls whose backward opinions used to be isolated to late-night AM radio call-in shows. Now their shit-thought is everywhere.
With this in mind, Trump quickly recognized he could say and post anything regardless of the facts, and that those eager trolls would gladly amplify it among their network of shit-brains like a virus. And if something spreads far enough, it’s sure to infect not-so-stupid, gullible people desperate for any kind of change in their miserable lives.
And then there’s that line credited to both Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Goebbles that “a lie told often enough becomes the truth.” No other quote better sums up Campaign 2016.
Here’s another one, from one of my favorite authors and literary mentors, Harlan Ellison:
“We are not entitled to our opinions; we are entitled to our informed opinions. Without research, without background, without understanding, it’s nothing. It’s just bibble-babble. It’s like a fart in a wind tunnel.”
When Ellison first uttered that wisdom, there was no internet. Journalists were still held in high esteem as people trying to get at the truth. And while there existed a handful of bullshit conspiracy publications, they were hard to find and no one took them seriously compared to, say The New York Times or The Washington Post or even your hometown newspaper. It was an era when people still went to the library to do research. Libraries. Remember those?
Today, having an “informed opinion” means spending 20 minutes reading made-up nonsense on Facebook or some imbecile’s “blog.” To help weaponize disinformation, Trump spent most of his campaign trying to discredit the traditional, above-ground press, blacklisting reporters who asked him embarrassingly pointed questions, and, as Politico put it “using the media as a punching bag while still largely enjoying saturation campaign coverage from television networks.”
And while all that was going on, along came the hack of Democratic leaders’ private email servers, and Wikileaks. It might be legal for journalists to use stolen, private documents in their reporting, but is it ethical? Isn’t it kind of like publishing statements that are given “off the record” or blowing the cover of an anonymous source? I guess none of that matters in an era when the press is struggling to keep the lights on. And when more people are getting their information from Twitter and Facebook than traditional news channels.
After the smoke clears, Trump followers — a sizable chunk of our population — will never trust the mainstream press again, leaving them only un-fact-checked, unfiltered social media for their information … along with Trump TV.
Funny how despite all of that disinformation we still managed to elect the first woman president.
Unless, of course, the assumption made at the top of this column was wrong, and we are now living in the Trump Era. In which case, we’ve got bigger problems to deal with…
Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org