31 years ago, well before the birth of social media and cable news and Celebrity Apprentice, a media theorist named Neil Postman argued that the greatest existential threat to American democracy wasn’t the looming possibility of totalitarianism or state control, as envisioned by George Orwell’s classic book 1984. We weren’t at risk of having the government actively seize our rights out from under us, because that wasn’t even necessary. People would be more than happy to surrender their rights, voluntarily, as long as they were kept entertained, Postman contended in his now-classic and incredibly prescient book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.
In 1985, Postman was concerned about the ways in which the ubiquity of television coarsened and simplified the American public’s understanding of important and complicated policy issues. He worried that television had placed too much of a premium on the soundbyte and celebrity, that our news had become too preoccupied with ratings and stories with entertainment value, and that the American people were no longer receiving informative and thorough reports on the most pressing issues of the day.
This, to Postman, was the greatest threat to our democracy: If the news was primarily concerned with entertaining people and reaffirming their preconceived beliefs, then it’s not really “the news” anymore; it’s just another television show. And when that occurs, a demagogue doesn’t need to seize power in a violent coup; a demagogue can just walk right into office, as long as we’re all entertained by what he does on television. Politicians no longer need to worry about detailing their policy proposals or defending their records, as long as they have a few readymade soundbytes that are guaranteed to keep political pundits arguing in circles for a few weeks.
Neil Postman died in 2003, but I imagine that if he were alive today, he would consider the election of Donald J. Trump to the White House as the apotheosis of his theory.
Instead of electing an imminently qualified former First Lady, former Senator, and former Secretary of State and a woman whose life has been more thoroughly vetted than anyone who has ever sought the presidency, the nation instead chose a thrice-married billionaire reality television star who refused to disclose his tax returns and who is currently being sued for fraud and for civil racketeering and corruption charges.
From the moment he announced his candidacy on June 16, 2015, bizarrely gliding down the escalator of his eponymous tower, America was hooked.
It didn’t matter how absurd he behaved or who he insulted; that was part of the fun, and instead of marginalizing him, it became a justification for the media to focus on him even more. He became must-see TV, not because he said anything substantive or even remotely realistic about domestic or foreign policy. In fact, he made it repeatedly clear that he had very little idea what he was talking about. According to non-partisan fact-checking organizations, more than 70% of what he said on the campaign trail was either mostly false or completely false. He lied far more often than he told the truth.
No, he became must-see TV, because like any good salesman and showman, Donald Trump understood his audience. He spoke in vague platitudes and pitched a slogan- “Make America Great Again”- that could fill in for an answer on any question. He surrounded himself with media professionals. His son-in-law owns The New York Observer, a paper that was more than happy to publish thinly-sourced gossip about his opponent as if it was gospel truth. He counted Sean Hannity, the conservative talk show radio host and FOX News celebrity, as a top adviser, along with Roger Ailes, the Republican political operative who built FOX News into a media empire before being forced to resign amid allegations of sexual harassment. And he hired Steve Bannon, the anti-Semitic editor of the popular conservative news website Breitbart, as his campaign’s chief executive.
In the immediate aftermath of his stunning victory, which shocked even Trump himself and which practically no one had predicted, there was a tendency to believe that Trump’s message of “economic populism” was the critical key to his success. He flipped enough working-class white voters in the Rust Belt because his message resonated with them.
This, I’m afraid, gives far too much credit to what truly motivated those voters, because Trump, despite all of his bluster about renegotiating trade deals and being the only person on the planet that could solve America’s problems, never had a serious plan to help the working class. His message was not about “economic populism;” it was about nativist resentment. It was not about inspiring “the forgotten man and woman,” as he suggested shortly after winning the presidency; it was about stoking their anger: Mexicans are illegally depriving you of a job; the Chinese are ripping us off; Muslims are terrorizing us; African-Americans are disrespecting “law and order” by protesting against police brutality; a global cabal of financiers are secretly conspiring to plunder our wealth (you shouldn’t need a history degree to figure out what that was about).
These Rust Belt voters, who determined the election despite the fact that Hillary Clinton is expected to win nationwide by at least 2 million votes, weren’t parsing through detailed policy papers from both candidates; they weren’t reading the objective economic analysis about the ways in which Clinton’s plans would add 10 million jobs to the workforce while Trump’s would result in a loss of 3 million jobs.
They weren’t paying attention to the scores of national security experts from both parties who warned about Trump’s unfitness or the dozens and dozens of newspaper endorsements that Hillary Clinton received, as opposed to Trump, whose only major endorsement was from a newspaper owned by Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and GOP mega-donor. They weren’t listening to the advice of every single former living United States President, every single previous Republican Presidential nominee, the former head of the CIA, or Colin Powell.
If this sounds patronizing, it’s not intended to be. Presidential campaigns, regardless of whether the candidate is a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green, or an Independent, no longer hinge on substantive policy or robust public discourse about the issues.
If this election teaches us anything, it’s that Americans would rather be entertained than informed.
And because of the proliferation of cable news and the ways in which social media allows all of us to balkanize our news-gathering and shut out any sources that don’t reinforce our preconceived beliefs, we have tacitly and perhaps unwittingly bought into the idea that news can only be informative if we find it to be entertaining. If we all consider ourselves to be informed, then we all imagine ourselves as experts, and we can simply ignore anyone else- even every single living person who has ever held the job of President- who challenges our assumptions.
Like millions of other Americans and the majority of voters in this great country, I am mortified and saddened by the election of Donald Trump. As a disabled person, I am particularly horrified that a man who mocked a disabled reporter and who once allegedly referred to Marlee Matlin, an Academy Award-winning actress who is deaf, as “retarded,” is soon to be the next President. I share the anxieties of my Muslim friends, my immigrant friends, my Hispanic friends, my African-American friends, and my LGBT friends, all who rightfully feel targeted by a leader who spent much of the last two years building his own political brand by tearing down the most marginalized and most vulnerable people in a country that we love for its celebration of diversity.
We have made a colossal mistake. Hillary Clinton was never a perfect candidate, but she was a serious candidate, a qualified candidate, and the right candidate for this moment in American life. We missed that moment.
Others, I am sure, will blame her. They’ll suggest that her hubris was ultimately her downfall. They will argue that she failed to captivate the base of Democratic voters that was inspired by Bernie Sanders. There is merit in those contentions. It is also undeniably true that we held Secretary Clinton to an entirely different standard than anyone else who has ever sought the White House because, unlike anyone before her, she happens to be a woman.
We expected her to apologize for every innocuous mistake; we elevated her decision to install a private server for her e-mail account into a grave matter of national security; we blamed her, personally, for a terrorist attack in Benghazi- not because she could have done anything to prevent it but because, for the first few days, she wasn’t sure what had inspired it; we twisted the incredible work that her family foundation has done to combat disease and poverty and disaster all over the world into some sort of elaborate, ridiculous conspiracy; when an alleged rapist hiding in a foreign embassy published hacked e-mails from her campaign staff, we allowed him to control the narrative and to convince us to assume the worst possible interpretations of quotidian and boring correspondence.
And we weren’t captivated by any of this because it was true. It held the attention of the American public because it was far more entertaining than any of the actual policies proposed by either candidate.
I know there will be theories about what happened last Tuesday in the United States. We will be talking about and studying this election for generations.
But I think there is a rather simple explanation: For a majority of white voters in the Rust Belt, Donald Trump’s ridiculous bombast was more amusing than the substance of his policies, and Hillary Clinton’s phony scandals have always been more amusing than the substance of her policies.
America finally amused itself to death.