Social Media Did Not Give Us Donald Trump and it is Not Weakening Democracy

During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a number of commentators in the media and scholars of political communication and journalism embraced the notion that the ascent of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee was, at least in significant part, the product of social media and technological change more broadly. Some pointed to the importance of social media as a primary way that citizens are exposed to and share political information, while others saw the power of the candidate’s use of social media to set the agenda of the professional press, which in turn provided oxygen to his racist and nationalistic claims. Others focused on the rise of white nationalist (or “alt right”) outlets fueled by the distribution channel of Facebook. Still others pointed to a decline of trust in legacy media institutions as a result of this rise in the importance of social media, while others focused on the role of technology in reshaping political institutions. Even more broadly, commentators tell us that Trump was successful because the Internet has brought about a “post fact” or “post truth” era.

To many of those working in the media industry, and often among those studying it, media and technology play a causal role in political and social phenomena. As illuminating as these accounts sometimes are, however, they fundamentally ignore larger historical, cultural, and institutional factors that have created the context for Trump’s rise, especially the precipitous decline in citizen trust in government, professional journalism, and scientific expertise and the growing political importance of the white nationalist and racist right in the United States. Attributing Donald Trump’s electoral success exclusively, or even primarily, to media and technological change is to dangerously abstract from the conditions that made it possible, even as new technologies have undoubtedly proved tactically effective for the candidate.

First, it is worth remembering that scholars have long observed a particular “paranoid style of American politics,” which fueled phenomena such as Barry Goldwater’s rise long before social media, as we use the term, was invented. While the historian Richard Hofstadter, who coined the term, located this style throughout many eras and causes in American political history, he powerfully analyzed it in the conspiracy right behind Joseph McCarthy, the John Birch Society, and Goldwater. This movement was fueled by feelings of victimhood and nostalgia, the fear of political breakdown, status insecurity, and a persistent irrational fear of global conspiracy. Eschewing Hofstadter’s overly psychological account, the historian Lisa McGirr traces the history of the New Right since the 1960s among affluent and suburban Sun Belt men and women, who combined a religious emphasis on Protestant moral values with themes of anti-communism and small government, deregulation, and anti-union and public employee sentiment.

In sum, there has long been a conservative movement that has embraced an amalgam of paranoid conspiracy theories, denied the existence of basic facts, adopted an anti-institutionalism posture, distrusted expertise, and adopted the uncompromising, anti-pragmatic politics stance that many commentators and academics see in Trump’s rise. They have been sustained in part by the media of different eras, from books and pamphlets to direct mail, talk radio, and cable television outlets. And, throughout this history, the Republican Party has been the institutional vehicle for these right wing movements, providing them with the infrastructure to engage in electoral politics and advance their policy aims.

Political communication scholars have, ironically, not done a very good job studying ideas, favoring instead studies of their strategic presentation, what we call ‘frames’. But it is precisely ideas of religious purity, small government, and racial difference that lie at the heart of the conservative identity that has defined the Republican Party for four decades, although the expression of these ideas takes various forms. McGirr notes, for instance, that the New Right moved from the embrace of explicit racial supremacy and overt segregation to narratives of a “color-blind” society and individual rights, which sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva called “racism without racists.” But disguising racism never made it go away, even if respectable Republicans would rather speak in the terms of individual freedom of opportunity and ignore white supremacy.

Indeed, even though Donald Trump’s white nationalist and populist right looks very different from the New Right McGirr analyzes, and from the current institutional establishment of the Republican Party, Republicans have largely embraced him as one of their own, with some notable exceptions such as Mitt Romney, Michael Bloomberg, and George W. Bush, and a #NeverTrump movement featuring some leading practitioners. The institutional and cultural history of the Republican Party since Nixon’s ‘southern strategy’ created the seeds for his rise and helped ensure that ordinary and elite Republicans did not have to travel very far ideologically or identity-wise to embrace his racist views. As extensive survey evidence tells us, Trump’s supporters are not the affluent, religious suburbanites that made up the base of the New Right, they are uneducated working class evangelicals, who actually do not go to church all that often and prioritize economic over moral issues. Indeed, the rise of Trump should be seen in some ways as a reaction to the 1990s success of conservatives to de-regulate the economy and help usher in the economic precarity that has given new legitimacy to explicit racism and economic populism. Even still, despite these differences, the Republican Party has largely embraced Trump as their nominee.

Meanwhile, that so many in the Republican establishment have been willing to get behind Trump’s candidacy, even amid fundamental disagreements over things such as foreign policy isolationism and trade protectionism as well as marked differences in tone and style, speaks to the importance of identity and the institutional workings of partisanship in setting the stage for Trump’s run. Decades of conservative movement identity work, in part through conservative media infrastructure such as FOX news, has helped usher in the broad anti-institutional movement style of the right and the motivated reasoning that has shaped conservative views on everything from the denial of climate change to the distrust of legacy journalism. Meanwhile, the moral narratives of good hard working white Americans who are being taken advantage of by government bureaucrats, illegal immigrants, and the liberal elite on FOX News and in the rhetoric of the Republican Party’s candidates that Arlie Russell Hochschild documents in her stunning fieldwork on the Tea Party, and that fuels the resentment Katherine Cramer documents, laid the groundwork for the white identity politics behind Trump’s run.

The internet did not bring about a ‘post-fact’ or ‘post truth’ era, nor did it bring about conspiracy theories, white nationalism, conservative identity and its farcical villains, and the distrust of institutionalized ways of producing knowledge, from journalism to science. The conservative movement since the post World War II era did, alongside its institutional vehicle, the Republican Party, and its media apparatus, from conservative radio talk shows to FOX News, despite whatever differences may exist between them. The uptake of social media likely has given broader exposure to the particular mix of racial resentment, conservative identity, populist rhetoric, and economic anxiousness that marked the 2016 U.S. presidential election and afforded it greater visibility, but it did not cause them. The emergence of outlets such as Brietbart, primarily distributed through Facebook, and Trump’s Twitter rantings might have legitimated dispensing with the dog whistle in favor of a racial bullhorn, but the underlying idea that white Americans are under a unique threat from people of color, elites, and experts resonates with millions who have been told that for decades by members of the Republican Party. And, while social media might increase the speed of half-truths, rumors, and outright lies, it did not create the cynical public that does not understand, or care to, how knowledge producing institutions work. The conservative movement did that too.

Framing Trump’s run as a symptom of technological change erases the very real agency of conservative movements, over forty years, of undermining trust in government and institutions from journalism to science, eroding the idea of ‘facts’ in domains from smoking to climate change, and fanning the flames of racial animosity while systematically blocking attempts to achieve equality. Focusing on the Trump campaign’s social media tactics, meanwhile, takes us away from the fact that he is only successful in the world that the conservative movement laid the groundwork for.

This article is adapted from a piece to be published in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election Campaign Report published by the Centre for Politics and Media Research and the Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture and Community at Bournemouth University in the UK.