Trump just continued the direction of the country
Donald Trump, even with all his faults, is a symptom of a much larger pattern brought on by increased privatization of the public sphere, especially in the realms of education and media, which go back over half a century, particularly the past 40 years.
With the continued degradation of these key pillars of our society, our civic and information literacy has suffered greatly at a time when the world has become more complex, and our country more unequal.
As a consequence, we have become more partisan, more divided, and more estranged from one another as a society. We argued this in our book, “United States of Distraction,” and unfortunately, our thesis continues to ring true.
Most legacy media outlets sought to persuade voters to choose Joe Biden for president because “democracy is on the ballot” and once Trump was out of office, things would return to normal, we could all go back to “brunch.”
However, this analysis overlooks the crucial realities of how we got here and, as Lao Tzu might suggest, where we have been and are heading.
The “return to normal” rhetoric distracts from the reality of American democracy: it is in such an emaciated state that a more adept and sophisticated version of Trump could easily come to power. It was our infatuation with what passes for “normal” that brought about this historical moment.
The Democracy Index rates the U.S. as a “flawed democracy,” which means that the elections are free and fair, basic civil liberties are respected, but there are underlying issues (e.g. the erosion of the free press and suppression of opposition political parties and viewpoints). Prior to Trump, scholars noted that the U.S. was an oligarchy, not a democratic republic.
However, rudimentary corporate news media narratives concerning the so-called “coup” at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 leave out crucial realities that can easily lead audiences to glean that Donald Trump and his followers single handedly undermined the American democratic experiment.
To be clear, Trump as a person and as a symbol has been responsible for the proliferation of dangerous and disgusting attitudes and behaviors in the U.S. However, we have been heading here for decades. To alter where we are heading, we need to confront certain realties that media narratives distract attention from on a ritual basis.
The first reality is that we have to focus our energies on helping citizens discern fact from fiction. Trump’s behavior is unequivocally reckless, but his rhetoric would have been unsuccessful sans a significant population whose material decline, after 50 years of neoliberal policies, became susceptible to the fake news that permeates the internet.
Indeed, their behavior illuminates a rarely discussed aspect of so-called fake news: it is particularly dangerous when it leads people to believe they must take aggressive actions they deem are morally justified. For example, the people at the Capitol would be heroes if there was actually well-sourced, demonstrable factual evidence that the 2020 election was stolen.
The second reality is that those who chide Trump are often responsible for Trump. They have already extracted everything they needed from his presidency. Take prominent Republicans like Mike Pence, Lindsay Graham, and Mitch McConnell. They excused or ignored Trump’s racism, classism, and sexism to get tax cuts and judicial appointments. Similarly, big-tech companies reaped massive profits by creating a platform for Trump to build his electoral brand where his opponents could virtue signal against him.
Only after Trump lost the election and threatened their business model with the repeal of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act did they oppose him.
Closely related, the corporate media, even the supposed “resistance” outlets like MSNBC, who owe their increased audience size and massive profits to Trump, have recently admitted that their existence depends upon lazy and reckless coverage of Trump.
The third reality we must all face is that Trump is a key symptom, not the cause, of declining democratic culture in the U.S. Trump would not be able to undermine the pillars of democracy if they had not already been in shambles.
This is crucial to understand because a return to the “normal” politicians will do little if anything to slow the corrosion of democracy. The reality is that Trump’s fake news epithet was effective because the news media had traded journalism for profiteering, partisanship, and political grandstanding decades ago.
The fourth reality is that we cannot censor our way back to a strong democracy. Censorship, a practice long associated with authoritarian regimes, is now embraced by those that oppose Trump. Censorship is dangerous because studies show that it not only fails to stop the targeted information, it popularizes the content in what is known as the Streisand Effect, and punishes bystanders who experience a chilling effect.
We find it difficult to celebrate censorship by algorithms and technocrats, especially given the impacts go far beyond right wing fringes as suppression of expression comes with major civic consequences.
Rather than censor, we need to cultivate a populace who are invested in the society, have faith in a more transparently accountable system, and are equipped with the critical thinking skills to effectively evaluate and analyze content.
History has been very clear that this will not come about by mocking, labeling, and censoring individuals or content.
Donald Trump has helped peel back the gilded veneer of democracy in America.