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Garbage in, Garbage out

That old computer programmer’s ode sums up how America now chooses its leaders.

David Beers 8 Nov

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

How did Donald Trump win and what does that say about the future of America? No need to revisit all the reasons Trump is manifestly unfit to be president (though here’s a handy refresher.) The question is how so monumental a troll was able to hijack, smash and bypass the filters supposedly in place to protect the nation from some reckless buffoon conning his way to power.

Another way to ask this question is to start by acknowledging that yes, certainly, of course, a wide swath of Americans felt deep unease and were searching for a change agent, and Hillary Clinton failed to connect. But how in hell did Donald Trump manage to successfully present himself as the solution?

The obsolescence of facts

When Obama managed to pull out the last election, the late, great New York Times media critic David Carr noted that “as the campaign draws to a close, it’s clear that it was the truth that ended up a smoldering wreck.” How prophetic that sounds today. If Trump’s campaign was not to be powered by facts, then what would take their place? Spectacle, posturing, emotion, appeals to base instincts and pack behaviour. It all sounds so pre-industrial, and yet the delivery system is as fresh, gleaming and digital as Facebook.

Indeed, two days before Trump’s victory, the website Vox put it this way in a headline: “Facebook is harming our democracy and Mark Zuckerberg needs to do something about it.” The piece asserts that “Facebook makes billions of editorial decisions every day. And often they are bad editorial decisions — steering people to sensational, one-sided, or just plain inaccurate stories. The fact that these decisions are being made by algorithms rather than human editors doesn’t make Facebook any less responsible for the harmful effect on its users and the broader society.”

Facebook’s labyrinth of echo chambers even has attracted, as Buzzfeed exposed, a cottage industry in Macedonia where teens make money manufacturing fake stories to feed Trump supporters.

Facebook, always eager to say that it is a tech firm rather than a media company so as to insulate itself from any responsibility for the sludge in its pipes, got back to Vox, saying “it’s important that we keep improving our ability to detect misinformation.” Yes, please do.

So Trump benefited mightily from the feast of paranoia that Facebook and other web platforms provide to their kool-aid drinking denizens largely out of view. But even in the bright light of day, in our supposed digital town squares, Trump bent the mediums to his own demented ends. A creature of reality TV, he received billions of dollars in free media as CNN, Fox and other networks. He goosed them with tweets and fed them hours of rallies spellbinding for their oafish hatefulness.

The myth of party ‘leadership’

Bruce Bartlett, who advised Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, last night succinctly identified where we’ve arrived, tweeting: “The lesson of this election is that when the media normalize racism, sexism, fascism, lying & stupidity, it has political consequences.” Later, he tweeted: “I am not just upset by tonight’s results. I am upset that everything I know about politics & public policy is worthless. Idiocracy rules.”

Yes, but once it became clear Trump was pulling from his own hacked cultural energy sources, he benefited from the caving of craven, hyper-partisans now running the GOP Bartlett once helped steer. It really was different this time. The Republican leadership was willing to burn down the party in order to save the party.

As a different Vox article laid out last week, Trump rolled the dice on being viscerally insulting of other Republicans in order to command media buzz and stand out from the many other candidates he ran against in the primaries. It was a gamble because he might have expected payback. That’s what happened to George McGovern in 1972. He won the Democratic primaries, tapping an energized, disaffected wing of the party by opposing the Vietnam War and espousing soft socialism. But the Dem power structure pulled their support during the presidential race and Richard Nixon trounced him. Nothing like that happened this time. Instead, because today’s U.S. political parties are gripped by blind partisanship and win at any cost scruples rather than clear and firm principles, Trump saw no GOP mutiny for his heresies.

Adding up all the harm that will now come to Americans, and the planet, under President Trump is like trying to count bricks falling from an edifice in the midst of an earthquake. There will be plenty of time to make those grim assessments. What boggles the mind is a different kind of rubble coming clearly into view after months and months of smoke. The world’s most powerful democracy has just dismantled the very foundations of how it makes its biggest democratic decision.  [Tyee]

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