I will preface this post by apologising for its elitist, condescending tone. I understand how unhelpful it is to metaphorically look-down at Trump supporters, and that part of the reason they are Trump supporters is because people like me looked-down on them for so long that they are now revolting against elitist snobbery. But I don’t see any way to discuss this issue in a way which doesn’t fit the elitist narrative. And besides, I know most of my audience probably fit this elitist mould just as much as I do. It’s important we know why the parallel anti-expert-post-truth world Trump created is so attractive to his supporters if we’re going to defend against it in Australia, so although I’m sorry for the condensation, I don’t apologise for the discussion.
Today I want to look at the post-truth social and news media echo-chamber which managed to put Trump on its shoulders, carry him to a pedestal, and place him unquestioning atop of it. Now that this raging machine have put their man in their White House, they have not stopped their effort to defend their King. They have not put down their keyboard, content at their victory, assured that they have been vindicated in their opinions and are now happy to go on their merry way helping Trump to apparently ‘make America Great again’. No. They’re still busy either crowing about their victory on social media (the popular line seems to be them mocking liberal tears), or attacking their King’s opponents. As a movement, they’re still working hard to ensure that everything Trump says and does is protected against fair scrutiny by the giant wall of anger and resentment Trump very cleverly built around himself and whenever anyone dares to criticise of even question Trump, his keyboard supporters pile on as a unified army.
This post-truth world might just be the scariest part of Trump’s ascendancy. That is why I think it’s important to take a closer look at how it came to be.
Every individual tweet which includes news about the US election has responses that perfectly represent the two polarised camps that have formed in the post-truth world. Those who argue with facts, and those who argue with stubborn opinions that are cemented in stone. It is not fair to characterise these camps by saying the stubborn camp sided wholly with Trump, and the facts camp with Clinton, because that is a simplistic analysis which isn’t fair or helpful. Either way, it only takes a cursory scroll through the two types of tweets to see exactly how dangerous the post-truth community has become. The reason for this is because they’ve learned to be cynical and untrusting of what they term to be ‘elites’, to the point where they latch onto a conspiracy and without any critical analysis of whether their opinion reflects reality, they whip up a fire-storm of hatred against the elite which is completely impervious to reason or attempts to contradict it. Here is an example.
Jill Stein, leader of the US Greens, who is currently heading a campaign to raise funds for recounts in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan tweeted this comment, complaining about the cost and bureaucratic headache of organising the recount (a statement which is, ironically, very anti-establishment).
Now look at some of the responses to this tweet, and note how many shares they have received in appreciation. Quickly, a conspiracy theory has flared up accusing Stein, and in turn, Sanders, of raising funds for the recount which they are then going to apparently keep for themselves by committing fraud and therefore deserving to, just like Hillary, be ‘locked up’.
I know there have always been, and probably always will be, conspiracy theorists on the internet. But Trump supporters have turned conspiracy theories from a fringe game to a mainstream electoral movement.
I have no doubt that many of these people have every justification for distrusting the establishment government and what they see as a ruling-elite. They feel they let them down. They have seen their jobs disappear, their towns lose all sense of community, they’ve been sent to unnecessary wars and America hasn’t lived up to their expectation of being the land of opportunity. But, and this is where I’m going to receive howls of ‘you’re an elitist and part of the problem’, there is also a problem here with these people’s ability to reason and to critically judge information. This problem occurs when they bypass a healthy cynicism – a necessary second-look at establishment practices – and instead jump straight to angry, stubborn cynicism, mistrust and hatred for only those they disagree with to come up with, frankly, quite nutty campaigns that are illogical and self-defeating.
I say illogical because it’s just ridiculous that these people believe that Stein and Sanders are going to raise funds for a recount and then give up on the recount so they can scamper off with the profits. That’s just not going to happen. Even if you believed Stein and Sanders to be so corrupt that they would want to steal this money, there is no logical process by which the money can be transferred from the recount fund into Stein and Sander’s bank accounts. To believe it could happen is beyond cynical and is instead dangerously gullible. What this gullibility also reveals is that the mistrust and disrespect shown to experts of any kind, who are thrown in the elitist bin along with anyone else they deem to have wronged them, has extended to a mistrust and disrespect for facts. Experts provide facts, experts are wrong, therefore facts are wrong. And any person with a keyboard has an opinion worth believing, as long, of course, as you agree with that opinion. See why I’m scared?
I say self-defeating because, actually, there is no harm done to Trump supporters through the vote recount campaign – it’s not their money, it’s come from donations from people who support the recount. And you would think all Americans prefer to be sure that their election system is not rigged, as Trump complained it was for weeks on end. The rigged part, apparently, they only agree with if Trump says it, not one of their opponents. In actual fact, there are many elements of the American political system which do, justifiably, make it feel like the elites, the rich, have rigged the process in their favour; but the irony of all of this is that Trump is one of those elites who had serious power in the electoral process through his donations to both sides of politics, and regularly used this power to benefit his business interests, to give himself more power, to the point where he had enough power to run for President by saying the whole system is rigged. We need a stronger word for ironic.
Although you might think I’ve finished with my elitist put-down, unfortunately, I haven’t. The post-truth world didn’t happen by accident. I’ve read thousands of words during and since the election which try to explain the demographic and value-driven voting behaviour of Trump versus Clinton voters, and there is one that stood out to me. Perhaps it stood out because it was a fact which fitted my preconceived opinions – which are the best types of facts don’t you think? This one was a pretty credible fact though, if we’re having a debate about which fact is better, which we’re not because we are trying to deal with a post-truth world where facts are apparently the enemy. Anyway, back to my arsenal of facts. This one is from credible-big-data-pollster Nate Silver, who found that education levels were a bigger predictor of voting behaviour than income. Silver suggests that the catch-all term ‘elites’ may actually just be a proxy for people with a post-high-school education. He says the Trump voters were much more likely to only have a high-school education, whereas Clinton voters were much more likely to have a post-high-school education. Again, this might just sound like I’m putting Trump voters in the ‘too stupid to vote’ category, but I’m not doing that. I’m trying to help. Honestly.
What do we learn at university or in vocational education? Apart from learning a specialised set of skills to set us up for a profession that requires particular expertise which is particularly useful in a post-globalisation world where manual jobs are disappearing. Apart from learning to respect our peers and teachers for their contributions in specialised fields, to respect their expertise, their experience, and their imparting of useful facts. Apart from all that, we learn how to think. We learn how to reason. We learn how to critically assess information and to draw rational conclusions. Every assignment, every class, every discussion at post-high-school level builds these competencies. These competencies are, sorry to sound elitist again, a massive asset in life. To be able to see real events happening in front of you, and to question them, to think about them, to recall past events and compare them, to make reasoned and eloquent arguments about what you think, and to do this in a civil and productive way, is important, not just to individuals but also to the success of whole societies.
The post-truth world, if it has any of this type of thinking, doesn’t have nearly enough. Where a debate between people who hold different, informed positions is healthy, rejection of facts from experts because expertise and experience are deemed to be automatically untrustworthy is not. Where cynicism is healthy, stubborn-unthinking-partisan-cynicism is not. So, as much as I know this sounds like a pie-in-the-sky when we need a much quicker and easier fix for the post-truth world, really, the answer is more accessible and better education for all.
Those who feel left behind by the establishment, who hate that they’ve been left behind, aren’t going to be convinced by your reasoned arguments that they’re voting against their best interests when they are unable to assess the information in front of them and draw logical conclusions. When they’ve wedded themselves to Trump and they believe everything he does is wonderful and everything his opponents do is corrupt and immoral, they’re not going to be convinced to listen to your point of view, to your rational analysis of why they are mistaken. Your dot points of facts is going to bounce right off them. This is not about Trump supporters being dumb. This is about them being uneducated. You want to make sure Trump doesn’t get elected again? Then educate the masses. Not just the privileged people who can afford it.
That’s right. On the day Paul Keating told the ABC they are letting Australians down, and on the day climate scientists warned uncontrolled climate change has pushed the Antarctic to a world-altering tipping point, Australian news organisations, who often complain that they no longer have the resources they need to go out and find stories, found enough resources to follow Pauline Hanson and her fellow One Nation climate deniers on a fun little day-trip to far north Queensland, to capture her swimming in a healthy part of the reef and to beam her climate change denying message to a national audience. I know ABC weren’t the only ones there, but I’m focusing on them because they should know better. I’m focusing on them because they covered this non-story not just on the evening news, but also gave it a full ten minutes on apparently-current affairs show 7:30.
Why on earth would any so-called-credible news organisation do such a thing? The answer to that is simple. Pauline Hanson is colourful and therefore newsworthy. When she says ‘I’ve got something to say’, the Australian media don’t expect her to earn the right to say it, on a national television screen. Instead, they follow along like lost puppies, giving her all the free publicity she could ever ask for, falling for her simple yet effective media strategy hook-line-wetsuit-wearing-and-sinker.
This simple strategy goes like this: the more ridiculous the comment, the more publicity it gets. We could call it the Hanson media strategy. Or the James Ashby, Hanson’s chief strategist’s media strategy. But that would be a bit inward looking. A bit, you might even call it, xenophobic. Because really, this strategy is not unique to Hanson. It’s not even unique to any of the One Nation nut-jobs (yes, I will call a spade a spade), or Cory Bernardi, or George Christensen, Eric Abetz, Peter Dutton or any other brought-to-you-by-the IPA or the HR Nicholls Society, or the Australian Christian Lobby or any other shady-funded-by-who-exactly-we’re-never-told shock-jock political-operatives. No, this strategy is global and it worked so well for the Trump-circus and the Farage-circus, it’s more than likely going to be adopted by political communicators the world over. Why not, when the media is so happy to oblige, and it works so well?
What was the point of Hanson’s reef visit? Journalists surely don’t think it’s newsworthy that she’s a climate change denier. We all know One-Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts was involved in the running of the Australian Galileo Movement who have been at the forefront of fighting against climate action in Australia for as long as there has been such a movement. It’s not newsworthy that there are still politicians out there who deny science, who deny experts, who deny that the world needs to do something about climate change before it’s too late. None of that is news. The angle Hanson was going for was that she was defending the Queensland tourism industry from falling tourist numbers, which are caused by, she claims, the false publicity that the Great Barrier Reef is being damaged from climate change, when really, she claims, the reef is fine. There is no logic here. There is no rational way in which a journalist can accept this clearly ridiculous argument with a straight face. And the key point is, there is no way this attitude, this media stunt is deserving of an audience. There are not two-sides-to-the-climate-change-argument because it’s not an argument. If I called a press conference to claim the sky is red, would I get 10 minutes on 730? No? By putting Hanson’s climate denial on our TV screens, and by not even trying to frame it as ridiculous, as un-thinking, as populism-against-experts-against-people-who-are-trying-to-save-the-reef, against the so-called-elite, a term now given to anyone who has the ability to think critically, the media is letting their audience down.
There is a phrase in public relations speak called ‘earned media’. Earned media is the opposite of paid media, the idea being that PR people lobby journalists to cover their stories by positioning those stories as newsworthy and as credible and as important to the audience, so that the space in the news section is earned, rather than paying for the message in the advertising section. My question to the ABC is this: what did Pauline Hanson do to earn all the free publicity she got on the ABC news and 730 last night?
I often hear the argument that Pauline Hanson received enough votes to get herself elected to parliament and that’s all she had to do to earn a right to a media pack following her around. But do all elected members of parliament get as much attention as Hanson? Do they all automatically have the right to say whatever they want, without fact-checking, without question, without having to come up with something that’s newsworthy, important, factual, credible and correct? Do they have to earn the right to be on the news, or can they say whatever they like and it will just be repeated, maybe fact-checked at a later stage on a different medium, but too late then because everyone has already seen the climate change denial and this is the only message they remember?
The media is letting us down alright, and it’s helping the likes of Hanson win more votes, scrutiny free. Until news producers are willing to turn down Hanson’s invite to the reef, until they are willing to follow her on her merry-little-publicity-seeking jaunts only under the condition that a climate scientists accompanies them to refute her anti-fact-statements right there on the spot, as part of the same news story, to show that she’s really got zero clue about science, and to put her off trying anything like that again, then they’re letting us down. Until we stand up and say enough is enough, there’s no reason they’ll stop playing this game. ABC complaints can be lodged here.
There are two types of progressives. Until these progressives unite and find a common voice, a common message, a common set of policies to unite behind, instead of bickering amongst ourselves, there will be more Trump-like wins coming to an electorate near you. Before you stop reading and start commenting that I’m generalising, and that you don’t fit one of the two sides discretely, save yourself the hassle because I’ve heard it all before. I’m not talking about you in particular. I’m talking about all of us. That’s what generalising is, and sometimes, in politics, you have to generalise in order to see clearly.
The two types who are currently worlds apart can concisely be described as those benefiting from globalisation and those who aren’t. Let’s call them the global progressives versus anti-global progressives. In some places, like the US, the divide can be simplified into country versus city folk. Labour UK MP, Bridget Phillipson, in this excellent piece outlining Labour’s divided electoral base, refers to the two groups as Hull versus Hampstead. For an Australian perspective, Kosmos Samaras, who I urge you to follow, calls this divide the old economy suburbs versus the new economy cities. Greg Jericho writes regularly on the topic, with lots of worrying stats to show how wide the divide really is. What all this analysis has in common is a diagnoses that there are winners from globalisation and losers, and resulting wealth and income inequality, and that progressive political parties have to find a way to persuade both groups that progressive policies are good for all of them in order to implement policies which are good for all of them. Sounds simple when you put it like that, doesn’t it!
Luckily, I have a solution. I’ve been talking about an inclusive growth narrative for a long time, with examples, and eventually started hearing Shorten using it (great minds think alike). Just last week, Shorten gave a great speech about the Harvester case which was dripping with the inclusive growth narrative. In a nutshell, this narrative argues that any government policy of social and economic investment, whether it be infrastructure spending, improving education, funding healthcare, securing a social safety-net, creating opportunities for employment (you know, like Labor’s entire policy platform), is a good idea because it distributes the spoils of globalisation more fairly, reduces inequality and is therefore good for everyone, including the winners and losers from globalisation. Any policy that helps someone, anyone, secure a job is good for the economy. Any policy that provides opportunity for someone to earn a living and spend in the economy, is good for the economy. Every single person who contributes to their society and economy, whether in a paid job, or an unpaid one, is good for all of us. Wealth does not trickle down, it spreads outwards from the middle. Wealth inequality is bad for all of us, it makes us poorer and resentful and leaves people behind in poverty. No economy can survive this unsustainable situation forever. The economy needs everyone spending, everyone thriving, in order for everyone to thrive. Anything a government does to improve wealth equality IS A GOOD THING. In a nutshell.
So what’s stopping us getting this message out there, loud and clear, and all jumping in behind it, getting our hands on the rope, and pulling away from the neoliberal, trickle-down, free-marketeer elite-establishment who currently run the country for their big-business mates?
Bickering between the two types of progressives is the reason we aren’t a united electoral unbeatable force. Don’t believe me?
I don’t write or tweet to make friends, luckily, so I don’t care how many readers I piss off by saying that those whose main involvement in political discussions is yelling about Labor’s refugee policies, who are pro-globalisation and interested only in identity politics and will loudly say they will never vote for Labor again, and will never listen to Labor again because of the evil Labor asylum seeker policies, are a big part of the problem. Again, I’ll get yelled at and don’t care, when I say, as I’ve said before, that if asylum seeker policy is at the top of your to-do list when it comes to political activism, up there with environmental policy, same sex marriage and banning grey-hound racing, you are very likely sitting smack-bang in the middle of a privileged world where you enjoy the fruits of globalisation, enjoying higher wages, more opportunity, interesting work, international travel, technological advancement and the moral-superiority feeling of signing an anti-Labor-asylum-seeker-policy petition while you sip lattes at your local hipster cafe. More than likely, you’re also not a union member.
I’m not saying, for a moment, that you aren’t 100% entitled to feel very passionate about the policies that interest you most, and of course you are entitled to voice your opinion on these policies as much as you like. Good on you for caring so much. But, that doesn’t mean you’re helping. And it doesn’t mean your inability to even listen to other perspectives, to understand that progressive politics in Australia is about more than just the policies you’re passionate about, and that when there are discussions going on about these other policies, such as when Labor is talking about education funding, healthcare, industrial relations and welfare, that your dedication to interrupting and diverting these discussions with rants about asylum seeker policy (don’t pretend you don’t do this – I’ve seen you commenting on Shorten’s Facebook page – it’s called trolling), isn’t part of the problem.
Maybe it would be useful for the pro-globalisation privileged progressives to think of political motivation like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When you’re down the bottom of the hierarchy, struggling to get a full-time job, struggling to pay the bills, seeing your child go to an under-funded public high school in the suburbs and hoping for a better life for them, you don’t have much motivation to think about the conditions for asylum seekers on Nauru. You are, on the other hand, more interested in the latest union-negotiated minimum wage rise, or the infrastructure funding which might turn your casual labourer job into a full-time position. But when you’re at the top of the pyramid, worried about esteem and morality and self-actualisation, all dressed up in identity politics, it’s hard to understand that your well-meaning progressive rants and your hatred of the Labor Party and anyone who defends them is not helping progressives to actually get elected, make a difference and implement policies that will benefit you, and those much lower on the hierarchy who, day by day, are tempted to vote for parties who aren’t only interested in the issues they have no interest in, or time to even worry about. It comes down to compromise really, and from where I’m sitting, many pro-global progressives need a huge does of compromise.
But compromise, of course, goes both ways. There is a way that anti-global would-be progressives also aren’t helping. And that’s through scapegoating. It is human nature, when things are going badly, to find someone to blame. Losing out from globalisation is a hugely disappointing life experience for people who I empathize deeply with. When you work hard, you can’t seem to get ahead, your industry job has disappeared to a computer or China, you haven’t had a wage rise in 20 years, your job is insecure and you feel powerless to do anything about it, you want to provide for your family but constantly feel anxious about your ability to do so – it’s exhaustingly frustrating. The resentment is justified. But what is not justified is the scapegoating and discriminatory blame of the outcomes of wealth inequality on minority groups, immigrants, people with different religious beliefs, and anyone who represents the ‘other’. In fact, immigration, including asylum seekers, is excellent for the economy and creates jobs. When I say everyone benefits from the creation of one job, I mean every single person. If there are employers out there, and when I say if, I mean, when there are employers out there taking advantage of new arrivals in the labour market, knowing they can get away with paying the vulnerable and desperate less than a citizen who knows their industrial rights, then that’s the employer being the bad guy. So blame them. Do not, and I mean, definitely do not think Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi and Donald Trump’s racist xenophobic whites-only policies are going to save you. You’re being preyed on by opportunist cons. And by the way, is globalisation really the problem, or is it just neoliberal globalisation? There is a difference.
Ok, so now that everyone has had a serve from me, it’s time we all got along. We all need to work together to make our country a better place for all of us. So next time your knee-jerk reaction to a political discussion comes flying out of your mouth, hold your tongue for a moment, and remember that you might hate what I’m saying, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a point. Together, we can do this.
As promised, I’m now looking ahead, not back, and hoping to be part of the worldwide left’s refusal to go down without a fight in the face of a Trump-Republican White-House-wash. My first point of order in the war ahead is to encourage the left to do what any winning team has to do in order to win; be passionate.
It’s not just me who is talking about the importance of emotion in politics. Scott Goodstein, a Democrat who worked for Bernie, says Trump’s message was revolting, but his authentic use of social media was a winning campaign strategy because ‘the true power of social media for politicians is unleashed only if they use it to make emotional connections’. Jonathan Freedland makes the point that the centre-left in the UK and the US (and Australia!), too often ‘play nice, sticking to the Queensberry rules – while the right takes the gloves off’.
I agree with Goodstein that the left have to be more authentic. And with Freedland that the left have to take our gloves off. This doesn’t mean we have to be lying, cheating bastards like the right, as we, by our nature, have morals and values which would make it impossible for us to win this way whilst still being authentic versions of ourselves, which by the way, is a key part of glove removal. What we need is to get our emotional, refuse-to-back-down, do-whatever-it-takes, scream-from-the-top-of-our-lungs, never-say-die, passionate mojo back. Frankly, we all know the left cares, a lot, but too often, we’re too polite to show it. This must end.
Here’s a personal anecdote which might help to convince you. I have always been a loud mouth, always told to tone it down, always getting myself into heated exchanges, partaking in twitter wars with anyone and everyone I disagree with. I’m the same when watching football; a friend described me as never taking a backward step. That’s just how I am. I bring this personality to my blogging. It has always bemused me that the posts I write in anger, bashing the keyboard and getting my political frustrations out in less time than it takes to read it, are the most successful. When I say successful, I’m talking quantitatively. I get the most shares, likes, retweets, hits, comments and occasional trending posts, on the posts that I write with the most passion. Often they’re open letters, usually they’re directed at someone who has done something to make me angry. It doesn’t surprise me that people are more likely to share posts they react passionately to. When they are angry, and I’ve described why they’re angry, they share the post to show how angry they are and on and on it goes around and around the angry, outrage-viral-machine. On the other hand, my more eloquent, carefully-researched, analytical, policy-detailed posts most often sink without a trace.
For a long time I thought the rants were a bit of fun, and that the serious stuff was far interesting and beneficial to the audience. But what’s the point of the serious policy analysis if five people read it? What’s the point of being pithy, smart and toning myself down, if no one reacts to it? What’s the point of carefully constructing a fact-laden explanation of why the left are ‘right’ and the right are ‘wrong’ if it’s just yet another piece-of-argument on a wall of arguments that never get seen and ends up getting us nowhere?
More recently, I’ve learned to embrace my ranty self. The rough edges, the anger, the obvious passion, the emotion, the reaction, is what politics is all about. Politics touches lives, it changes lives, it hurts people, it helps people, it saves people, it kills people. The left need to learn this and need to bottle it and need to use it as a political weapon. Authentic, raw, reaction. No more toning it down. No more careful statements, written by committee, with the emotional-pull of a limp-leaf-salad. If you’re angry, show it. If you’re upset, show it. If something the right has done makes you want to scream, then scream. You can do all these things without denigrating others, without calling people names, without swearing (I have trouble with this one), and without losing your dignity. When you show people why you’re angry, they might find, low and behold, they’re angry too. They might take more notice of you than if you’re just politely inserting a list of factual-dot-points into a slush-pile of facts that don’t fit their pre-conceived opinions.
When watching Clinton debate Trump, when he was being a total arsehole the entire time, Clinton stood passively watching, with a strained smile on her face. The biggest reaction we almost saw was a raised eye-brow every now and then. But imagine if every time Trump said something outrageous, every ridiculous statement he made, she reacted. Imagine if she slapped her forehead when he lied, or she put her hands on her hips and glared at him, or she actually laughed in shock and interrupted him as many times as he interrupted her. (Sure, as a woman, she would have been criticised for doing this, just as she is criticised for not doing this, but either way it would have been great to see her reacting, human to human, to show us she cares!).
The left are too careful, too polished, too reliant on facts, too sure they’re right and often, too scared to get into a screaming argument. The left feel morally superior when they take Michelle Obama’s position that ‘we go high when they go low’. There is no reason you can’t go high and scream it from the mountain tops. You care about something happening in politics? Don’t be afraid to show it.
(Yes, this post will too probably sink without a trace, but tune back in soon for a rant, as there’s sure to be a Trump-directed one soon).
After spending the week trying to understand Trump’s victory, I’m almost ready to accept the things I cannot change, to show the courage to change the things I can and find the wisdom to know the difference. Oh, and to stop wanting to strangle Bernie supporters who didn’t vote for Clinton and are now marching in the streets against Trump. Come on people. My moving past Trumageddon and finding things I can change is going to be directed at making sure the same shit-storm, the same extreme-right-wing-agenda-by-stealth doesn’t happen to us in Australia too. But first, I have one last looking back at the wreckage discussion I want to have with you all. I want to talk about political correctness.
I have a toddler. When she is being naughty, and I’m making an effort to do something about it, rather than to just let her be naughty because it’s easier, I find the motivation to discipline her from the voice in my head urging me not to raise a little-shit child who would, if left undisciplined, turn into a crappy adult. I’m pretty sure all parents, like me, do their best to teach children not to be naughty, not to throw stones at the cats, not to hit their cousin, not to throw their food on the floor, to cry and whinge when they don’t get their own way. As she gets older, I will be pushing the ‘don’t be naughty, do what you’re told’ message even further my making an effort to instil in her a sense of right and wrong. Bringing up a child to be good, to show respect to others, empathy, never cheating or lying, being honest, and basically, following my atheist-version-of-the-closest-thing-to-religious-morality – living life by the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do to you, is considered, worldwide, a fundamental part of being a parent. Some might call this ‘raising children properly’, or ‘being raised right’. But no matter how you refer to the cultural practice of setting fairly base-level standards of behaviour for children, we can all agree on why we do it. Because humans have to live together, we are social beings, and living together means learning how to treat each other for the good of our own lives, and for everyone else’s.
Now, tell me how behaving properly is different from being politically correct? As far as I can tell, political correctness is being polite, not discriminating against people who aren’t like you, giving people a fair chance, standing up for the disadvantaged, listening to others, showing respect and acting like a good person. When we bring up our children to be good, aren’t we bringing them up to be politically correct?
So this is where I get really confused. How did the Trump-circus successfully turn political correctness into a bad thing? How did all these people who were brought up to be good, and presumably work to bring their children up to be good, decide that they had to fight against political correctness, and fight for the right to be nasty, disrespectful, rude little brats?
I lost count of the number of times I heard a Trump supporter congratulating Trump for ‘saying what he thinks’. If a little 5 year old boys taunts a 5 year old girl, telling her she is fat and ugly, I would hope he would be disciplined and told that his behaviour is unacceptable. If a 10 year old girl told her Mexican-born school-mate that her family were rapists and that they were all going to be thrown out of the country, and good riddance, I would like to think the girl’s parents and school teachers would get very angry. And if a 15 year old boy grabbed a girl’s vagina, and then boasted about it to his mates, is this something his parents would be proud of hearing?
My point is, we bring our children up to be politically correct adults, but in this weird and whacky post-Trump society, somehow all the values encompassed by the phrase, the values we’re all brought up to expect, are flipped on their head and the anti-political correctness movement instead values the opposite. They value people who don’t think before they speak, who never apologise, who say revolting and abhorrent things all the time and when called out on it, dig deeper and get more and more aggressive. They value lying constantly, and then lying about the lying. They value ‘saying it like it is’, which apparently means removing any filter between what you think and what you say, no matter how vile your thoughts are.
Do Trump supporters hope to bring their children up to be like Trump? Has humanity changed the rules on what it means to be an acceptable member of society? And has Trump’s win given permission for grown-up adults to throw away the values they were brought up with – to instead celebrate bad behaviour through electing it as President? If this is what has happened, can I suggest it’s time America took a good long hard look at itself, maybe spent some time out in their bedroom and think about reinstating afternoon naps for those who have forgotten how to behave liked adults? In the meantime, I’m more determined than ever to bring my child up to be politically correct, and she’ll be a much better, and happier, adult because of it.
Since Trump’s victory on Tuesday, I’ve broken up with America, tried to understand why white women voted for him, and showed my displeasure at the media’s role in this clusterfuck. Today I’m trying to get my head around why masses of people voted for Trump against their best interests by trying to understand why such an on-paper inappropriate choice was chosen.
There is definitely an element of class warfare going on – a rejection of the elite city-dwelling establishment, a reaction to wealth inequality. (Trump is not the answer to wealth inequality by the way. But this problem might take many years for Trump’s voters to recognise, if they are ever willing to admit it. I’ll no doubt be writing about this many times in months and years to come as Trump enables his Republican colleagues to roll out neoliberal reforms that further smash the working class, the working poor, what remains of the middle class and the economy with it. I feel sorry for Americans that they’ve made such a bad choice, but I feel sorrier for the Clinton voters who didn’t).
Race and racism also made a large contribution, where white people voted to take back control of their country, or as Lakoff puts it, reassert their dominance in the moral hierarchy. And whether people will ever admit it or not, there is no doubt that gender played a part; that many Trump voters, both male and female, just can’t accept that a woman can be President.
So with all these factors playing a part, and for some voters, all three influencing their vote, you start to get a picture of how Trump benefited from this pincer-movement against Clinton and the Democrats.
Then, of course, there were Trump’s slogans. As we all no doubt noticed, there was little, if any, policy detail in Trump’s campaign. That’s not to say he didn’t say anything. He actually talked and talked and talked and tweeted and tweeted and ranted and raved (I’ll build a wall, it will be uuuugge, I’ll fix everything, great, it will be great, grunt, grunt, waffle, incomprehensible, Muslims get out). There were huge inconsistencies and contradiction in his statements, so there was a bit of something for everyone; he promised both to bomb ISIS, and to end America’s role as an international police force. He promised to cut taxes, but also spend up big on infrastructure projects (apart from the WALL) to create jobs (with what tax revenue?). Within Trump’s jumbled rhetoric, zig zag, a little from here, a little from there, neoliberalism mixed with protectionism, mixed with anti-globalisation, mixed with anti-elitist, mixed with a likely Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, who spent 17 years at the heart of Wall-Street’s Goldman Sachs and represents everything Trump claimed to be promising to clean up, there was a clear narrative thread in Trump’s campaign. The narrative sounded something like this:
‘Everything is shit, everything is broken, you have every reason to hate Washington because everything Washington has done has made everything shit and broken. Vote for me and I’ll wave a magic wand and everything will be immediately fixed. I might not be perfect, but my imperfection is just like your imperfection. I am real, and only someone real can fix all your problems. Vote for me, and, whether you like me or not, your lives will be perfect again’.
It sounds ridiculous when you look at it like this, that people believed he really could fix everything. But I wonder if it’s the lack of detail, the obvious flaws, the selling of all this as politically-incorrect and therefore authentic that made it work. Therefore, did Clinton’s opposite image – the polished, policy-detailed, emphasis on experience, emphasis on Obama’s legacy and all the good the government had done – turn Clinton’s words into white-noise, words that didn’t even get a look in when the big, ugly, colourful (orange particularly), rude, obnoxious celebrity was yelling ‘lock her up!’.
And this brings me to emotion. One of my favourite political scientists, Drew Westen, who writes a lot about how the Democrats can improve the way they communicate to voters, has this to say about the importance of emotion and authenticity in political campaigns:
‘Republican strategists have recognized since the days of Richard Nixon that the road to victory is paved with emotional intentions. Richard Wirthlin, an economics professor who engineered Ronald Reagan’s successful campaigns of 1980 and 1984, realized that all the dispassionate economic assumptions he’d always believed about how people make decisions didn’t apply when people cast their ballots for Reagan. As he discovered, people were drawn to Reagan because they identified with him, liked his emphasis on values over policy, trusted him, and found him authentic in his beliefs. It didn’t matter that they disagreed with most of his policy positions’.
They identified with Trump? Yes, he was nothing like them, living in a New York gold-plated ivory tower, apparently representing everything they aren’t (rich). But they identified with his flaws, and identified with his message. Their lives felt shit. He said he could fix them. Simple. They liked his emphasis on values over policy? Apparently. No policy detail required, asked for, demanded, or even considered. They trusted him? After all the obvious lies, the obvious flip-flopping, the obvious inconsistencies, they still trusted him. Yes. It’s not rational. He told them Clinton couldn’t be trusted because she had caused all their problems. She’s fired! Lock her up! He promised everyone would pay less tax, which is a red-rag-to-the-bull for people who hate government, and don’t have much money. He promised to be the hero and save them. They had to trust him. He was their only hope. They found him authentic in his beliefs? See above. They emotionally needed to find him authentic, because the problems he talked about seemed authentic to their lives. It didn’t matter that they disagreed with most of his policy positions? Yep. It didn’t matter if they didn’t even really understand his policy positions, or how contradictory they were. An emotional reaction. Not a rational one.
It’s time to stop treating voters like rational decision makers when all of us, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Labor, Liberal, Greens, Hansons and people who don’t vote at all, all of us make emotional decisions when voting. We don’t quantify benefits and check off the list of policies against our lives to decide which candidate offers us the greatest utility of outcomes. We are emotional beings. We get a vibe. We feel it. We like it. We stick to it like glue and ignore anything that contradicts it. We make it part of our identity. We chant in unison. We will not be convinced otherwise.
Obama’s emotional message of hope triumphed twice in the last eight years, and now Trump’s message of hate, of resentment, of fear, loathing, and disgruntlement has triumphed. If the Democrats are building themselves from the ground up, they have hopefully learned the importance of emotion.
The election of Trump has exposed a media so incompetent, so unqualified in their important job, so blatantly ill-equipped to report news usefully to the voting public, that surely they must take a slice of the blame-pie in everything that Trump now does to a mostly unsuspecting America, and in turn, the world. Although I could write a thesis about all the media’s errors, to make this digestible, I will boil down the main problems into two buckets: false equivalency and the cookie-cutter narrative.
The false equivalency error came from the media’s automatic process of treating Clinton and Trump as being ‘just the same’. From the nomination onwards, Trump was given automatic credibility. His statements were reported without analysis, his words made into headlines without question or fact-check, his soundbites and tweets given an underserved legitimacy, because he was a big powerful man running for the top job. Trump never had to gain or prove his legitimacy for the role, because he was given it, automatically, by a media institution so used to reporting political contests from this perspective, they knew no other way to do it. He was fit to be President because he said so. No questions asked.
Importantly, this automatic legitimacy gave an equal amount of legitimacy to Trump’s supporters. The media’s expectation of Trump’s behaviour was so low that when his supporters were just as low, the media shrugged and reported it all like it was perfectly acceptable. No matter how vile, how badly behaved, how racist, how unthinking, sexist, hateful, unjust, how lowest-common-denominator they went, Trump supporters’ behaviour was accepted by the media as just an example of the just-as-legitimate-as-Clinton-supporters-other-side-of-the-debate.
These decimated standards and the resulting revolting behaviour don’t just disappear now that the election is over. Trump’s win have etched a stain, an indelible mark onto the American culture forever. The legitimising of hate and division is now permanent. How many times did you see a journalist sitting politely in a Trump supporter’s living room, sipping on a cup of tea, nodding empathetically while they told them how much they looked forward to throwing out the Mexicans? The media legitimise these views through normalising them into soundbites. You normalise these views and they become accepted and legitimate. You take down the standard of respect, the values of acceptance, and these abhorrent views spread like wildfire. How did Hitler come to power? Do journalism students study history?
But it didn’t end there. No, the false equivalency extended further, to the ‘they are just as bad as each other’ narrative. How many times did you hear a news report about the election start with words something like ‘as the two most unpopular candidates battle it out…’? On the morning of the election, Australia’s SBS were one of thousands of news outlets across the world who reported from the false equivalency lens with the headline: ‘US Votes: Americans pick their next president after divisive, bitter campaign’. Hang on, hang on just one second. Divisive and bitter why? This lens implies that Hillary Clinton played just as big a part as Trump in making the campaign divisive and bitter, slotting into the idea that the two candidates were equivalent, just as much to blame, just as unqualified, just as hot-headed, rude, abusive, and offensive and racist as Trump was for every second of every day of the campaign. Clinton held her head high every day, only once calling Trump’s supporters a basket of deplorables. One slip and it’s all her fault?
Where Clinton had 24/7 coverage of her email scandal (which she had numerous times been cleared of as an error, low and behold she is human, if this is the only thing they had on her, she’s almost spotless after 30 years of service), this one scandal was given equivalency to Trump’s daily scandals, plural, which were so numerous that he got away with all of them, so regular that not one was given the full attention it deserved, so frequent that they were all swept under the carpet-of-Trump’s-election-circus-media-show, as if not one of them mattered or not one of them helped to tell the story of Trump’s illegitimacy to be leader of the free world.
Imagine trying to explain to future generations how a man who screwed over his workers and contractors, destroyed livelihoods and lives, bankrupted himself and others numerous times, boasted of sexual assault, was accused of raping his ex-wife, of assaulting a 13 year old girl, of tweeting profanities and abuse at all hours of the day and night – imagine explaining how this behaviour was framed as ‘isn’t he entertaining, doesn’t he have great news value, more please, boys-will-be-boys, there is no standard of behaviour anymore, no one is expected to behave properly ever again’. How did this happen? How did he win by lying and cheating? How did Trump, like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption, crawl through a river of shit and come out clean on the other side? Whereas Clinton dips her toe in mud and is forever framed as dirty and untrustworthy? How did these two distortions of reality happen? The media enabled it through the false equivalency phenomenon, otherwise known as lazy, unthinking journalism.
The Cookie Cutter Narrative
This morning on Radio National, journalist and experienced foreign correspondent, Hamish McDonald, hit the nail on the head in his criticism of the media’s failings in their reporting of Trump. He said Trump’s win shows the mainstream media have to ask themselves ‘serious questions’ and described their election coverage as ‘disgraceful’. McDonald explained that the newsgathering process should involve journalists going out and finding a story, and then writing the story and sending it back to the head office to be edited and published. Everyone rightly assumes this is how news reporting happens. But the way it actually happens is that, in his experience, journalists spend time in the field, then they get a message from head office, telling them what the story is. They then try to make the information they have fit that story.
As regular readers know, I am studying political narratives, so McDonald’s analysis hit me on the forehead. What he describes is a propensity for the media to make the facts fit a pre-defined narrative, rather than letting the narrative evolve from the facts. Any fact that doesn’t fit the story is excluded. The sources used for soundbites, low and behold, fit the story, and those who don’t fit are excluded.
So what was the predefined story during the US election? See above. The false-equivalency, two-horse-race, bad-candidate versus bad-candidate, divisive-campaign-both-their-fault email scandal versus Trump all-encompassing-circus story was all we heard. How often did we hear about Trump’s policy plans and the constant inconsistency on display? Was there any analysis of how much his policies might cost? How often was he called out for lying? When were voters told the impact Trump’s ‘climate change is a Chinese hoax’ position would have on the planet? When was Trump asked for any detail about how he would build a wall and why on earth would Mexico pay for it? When was he called out for the contradictory policy positions he would take within minutes of each other? It’s almost liked the journalists pretended they couldn’t understand what he was saying, or that it was all too hard to fact-check, or that he’s just a joke anyway so who cares what he’ll do, let’s just have a laugh and worry about it later?
When were voters told, in any sort of useful detail, what it would mean for poor Americans to lose Obamacare, which had only just started having a positive impact on the lives of uninsured Americans? Trump has said he wants to roll back globalisation, to reinstate closed-down-industries, to return workers to coal mines, to tear up free trade agreements. When did he ever get asked how on earth he would make any of this pie-in-the-sky roll-back-to-the-1950s actually happen? And how many of Trump’s voters are going to be completely surprised at what he actually does, and totally despairing when they find their situations made much worse by a failed lying snake-oil-salesman who was only in it for his own ego? Face palm.
It is maddening to now see, after the election, that the media are running around like headless-chooks trying to find out what exactly the Trump presidency means for the people of the world. After the election. When it’s too late. When there’s nothing anyone can do about it. The facts that come out of this post-election investigation, analysis and scrutiny of Trump didn’t fit the two-horse-narrative before the election and are all too-little-too-late now.
The media played their part in Trump’s victory by letting Trump play them like a violin. And now we’re all screwed. The moral of Trump’s win is that lying and cheating gets you to the White House. Thanks a bunch.