Failure of Imagination, Confirmation Bias, and Donald Trump’s Orange Face in my Feed
The prospect of a Donald Trump presidency terrifies me. It terrifies many people for many different reasons. Most of the pontificating and gnashing of teeth, however, is predicated on two separate but associated problems that have deeply informed coverage of the campaign trail to date.
01. Failure of Imagination
The easier of the two for us to own up to is our failure of imagination. It is in part a byproduct of our consumption of reality television (which, we often forget, was what producers and executives came up with to fill the void during a writer’s strike over profit sharing on DVD sales) which has dulled our capacity to speculate on the real-world ramifications of terrible choices.
We can also blame our own deep-seated inability to look historical facts square in the face and admit that the USA has done terrible things to people, and that these things were popular when they were done, and would be popular today if we had not lived through a few of them several times already in living memory. The prospect of mass deportation is more popular than your favorite tv show in part because so few can imagine what mass deportation was like, and even fewer can remember.
Donald Trump is popular. He clenched the Republican nomination, and he will muster a substantial percentage of the electoral vote in November. What is difficult for so many to accept is that Trump is not popular in spite of his many racist, violent, anti-Constitutional, false, and outright fallacious comments. He is popular because of them. His campaign appeals to the worst elements of American identity, and a lot of people want to divorce the United States from the energy into which Trump has tapped: a dehumanizing fear of the other. This is a major failure, and one that is only possible because millions of people imagine we’re “past” the worse traits of our history. We are not, and we will never be, for we are humans and we must constantly live with our terrible capacity to dehumanize others.
Instead of facing this trait within our neighbors, but most of all within ourselves, we spin flights of fancy that turn Donald Trump into a Kremlin patsy or a Clinton plant. Despite the difficulty of fleshing out these fantastical notions, we find them easy entertain because they relieve us of the responsibility of accepting that Donald Trump is a product of thoroughly American tendencies and traits.
02. Confirmation Bias
The second reason is harder for a lot of us to face, especially for those on the right who believe that the mainstream media is deeply invested in deconstructing the privileged positions of white people and white males in particular. As Propane Jane compellingly argues, however, this is mostly the consequence of so many of us living in almost exclusively white social spheres that amplify our preconceptions (and fears). It’s always been easy to assume that other people do, say, and think the same as we do. But because of social media, it’s easier than ever to live a life where that’s at least in part true.
Facebook, the world’s most popular social media site, is deeply invested in getting you to stay on the platform. The number of minutes you spend there directly translates into the number of dollars Facebook makes off of your usage. So Facebook has worked assiduously to curate the content you are most likely to interact with to your news feed via likes, promoted stories, and prioritization of certain profiles over others. Hell, you can even unfollow people who get under your skin, and the people most likely to do that are the people with whom you disagree.
This doesn’t constrain itself to the realm of social media. Propane Jane pointed this out to me as well: the demographics of the American voting base are more diverse now than ever, and there’s pretty much no way that Donald Trump will secure enough of the ever-expanding minority votes to reinforce his gains with white conservatives.
The hand-wringing and tooth-gnashing serves a purpose for us. It motivates us to vote and to care about politics and to think and feel deeply about the future of American democracy. But it also serves a purpose for mainstream media. Specifically, it generates massive revenue for the media outlets unceasingly reporting on Donald Trump’s campaign in an era where mass media is finding it increasingly difficult to earn a buck.
So now I have an exercise in trust ahead of me. Do I let my predominantly white news feed continue to stoke my anxieties until November 8th? Or do I trust the millions of minority eligible voters who would never, ever, cast a vote for Trump? It may be that this question, and the lack of trust it highlights, is the most telling symptom of the implicit racism that (much to my shame and chagrin) I perpetuate. I grew up in a world where white words mattered the most. I grew up in it so well that, despite efforts to the contrary, I managed to reproduce it on my Facebook and in my media consumption.
White people won’t save the republic. We can help, we can be a part of that, but we can’t be the singular difference. It is a particularly appealing fantasy because it caters to sentiment of a privileged position that we have historically occupied (at great expense to the interest of others). But it’s something we have to let go. All we can do is our part, but our part is (statistically) only a part. Thank God for diversity.
This doesn’t translate to me ceasing my worry over Donald Trump. In fact, I can’t in good conscience quit caring. He has appealed to violent, racist, and ruthless people. When their nominee loses, many of them will seek blood. Many of them will draw it. And then we white folk will have a real test in front of us: do we stand in solidarity with vulnerable minorities, or do we stand aside to protect ourselves?