Off the Shelf: Just the Beginning

President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs from the White House in Washington, D.C., March 8, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The ability of social media to allow anyone and everyone to “participate” in a political event incentivizes the audience to grant the event’s reality.

Have you ever thought about the fact that people use their smartphones to heckle the president while seated on their toilets, or from airplanes, or while they’re walking back to their desks from the cafeteria in their office? This is what it means to have social media. The president publishes an announcement, a taunt, or a comment about television into Twitter, and literally anyone with an account can comment underneath it, in a weird simulation of talking back at him.

Imagine describing this to people from even 30 years ago. They might conclude that the exposure of the president, and the seeming risk taken by the heckler, would both be so unwelcome that no one would do this. How could a politician who exposes himself that way even achieve office? And yet, we’ve seen it.

The election of Donald Trump has been looked at through almost every lens. Ideological: Wasn’t American bound to have a populist nationalist reaction? Or crudely electoral: Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate, wasn’t she? It’s been looked at as a conspiracy, the product of foreign meddling. Perhaps we should be thinking harder about the way media change our relationship to events, people, and even our government.

I’ve been thinking about this question while reading a 34-year-old book of sociology called No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior, by Josh Meyrowitz. The book was recommended to me by my old boss Joe Weisenthal, now of Bloomberg. It’s a very strange book because it manages to be quaintly out of date in its descriptions of electronic media — the book is about 30 years behind Facebook. But Meyrowitz’s descriptions and speculations about the effect of social media on us are eerily up to the minute.

And so, the book is useful at reminding us of the novelty of electronic media in human experience. How it is a new thing for humans to set out from the home, on their way to celebrate a wedding, but to hear of a far-off disaster on the radio on their way. Events that had been whole and distinct in their character, owing to their location in one fixed place and time, are now “merged” without contexts by the presence of broadcast media.

He writes:

The difference between the reality of behaviors in distinct situations versus the reality of behaviors in merged situations is as great as the difference between the nineteenth century conception that a man might have a virtuous wife and a raunchy mistress and the twentieth century notions of open marriages, “living together,” and serial monogamy.

The Victorian era—the height of print culture—was a time of “secrets.” People were fascinated with the multiple layers and depths of life: secret passageways, skeletons in the closet, masks upon masks upon masks. But the fascination with these layers did not drive the Victorians to destroy secrecy, but rather to enhance it as a natural condition of the social order. To a large degree, skeletons were meant to stay in the closet, sex was to remain behind closed doors (perhaps to be spied upon through keyholes), and scandalous acts were to be hidden from peering eyes. The rare exposures and discoveries were titillating, implicit hints of the vastness of undiscovered reality.

Our own age, in contrast, is fascinated by exposure. Indeed, the act of exposure itself now seems to excite us more than the content of the secrets exposed. The steady stripping away of layers of social behavior has made the “scandal” and the revelation of the “deep dark secret” everyday occurrences. Ironically, what is pulled out of the closets that contain seemingly extraordinary secrets is, ultimately, the “ordinariness” of everyone.

Almost every page of this book is filled with similarly sharp descriptions of the age we are living in. Perhaps most provocatively, he says that the human ability to empathize may in some ways be short-circuited by the leveling quality of electronic media.

In the media-expanded environment of today, we may be like the prisoner in a crowded cell who hoards a bit of food and manages to ignore all but his or her defended corner of territory. We are increasingly aware of others’ problems, yet fearful of their drain on our energies and resources. When the problems of all others become relatively equal in their seeming urgency, it is not surprising that many people turn to take care of “number one.” In this sense, “meism” may, unfortunately, be the logical end result of the expanded consciousness of the world and its problems that first stirred the youth of the 1960s to moral indignation and political protest. 

It’s not hard to see how this may connect to the upsurge in not only identity politics but nationalism. As frantic personal attempts to raise the “me” into an “us,” and therefore as a proper object of social and political concern in a world full of “them.”

Meyrowitz goes through a pretty straightforward account of how different types of American presidents thrived in certain media. George Washington would not have been a great campaigner. Franklin Roosevelt was powerful on the radio but would not have seemed so on television, and so on.

This all made me wonder if the advent of social media had changed political campaigning in presidential systems such that it drastically reduced the normal role of parties, conventions, and other gatekeepers. Not only has Donald Trump moved swiftly from reality television to the Oval Office, so too did Emmanuel Macron jump over all the elaborate institutional gatekeepers of French politics to become president. In Ukraine, a comic actor who played a president on television became president. The Five Star movement in Italy was led by a performer named Beppe Grillo. What all of them had in common was a campaign that looked like an extended performance, a performance that itself seemed to contrast with a certain sclerotic form of politics that existed previously.

The advent of social media changes our relationship to the political image that may produce more of these candidacies in the coming years. Not long ago a certain cynicism prevailed, and political images were thought to be the product of spin doctors and artificial stagecraft, by the most media literate observers. The events were judged by their perceived credibility. Politicians were called upon to be controlled actors, giving scripted performances. They were trying to play the role.

Now, the ability of social media to allow anyone and everyone to “participate” in a political event incentivizes the audience to grant the event’s reality. The participation of the audience in turn grants a prima facie case for legitimacy of the stagecraft. And so, the dominant form of popular political engagement in social media is a kind of passionate form of earnestness. And now we see performers drawn to become politicians. Any kind of novel performance, no matter how bizarre, seems like a proxy for political change itself. “We’ve never seen a presidential contender do this before,” is the kind of proof itself that change is possible.

Those who find themselves alienated from this cooperative performance between politician and his supporters, are attempted to retreat to twee-nihilism: “LOL Nothing Matters.” Their anger and alienation, similarly broadcast through social media, becomes attached to the performance in its own way.

Social media therefore privileges polarization. A television-age candidate might be aimed at the “center,” and aim for bland inoffensive performances. But the age of social media calls for “truth-telling” provocation. The alienation of the opposing camp’s political base can be seen, and soon probably measured. And so it is a sign of success.

If you could quantify through social media the fear, anger, and spittle-flecked, stupefied rage of core partisan Democrats or Republicans, is there any doubt that the candidate who could be shown to have inspired the most of this would get an additional polling bump?

Joe Biden says that Donald Trump is an aberration in American history. But having read Meyrowitz’s book, I wonder if he might be the new normal instead.

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