Traditionally, I tend to play it safe when it comes to making bold claims and assumptions — I don’t fall into the conspiracy theory traps, I’m highly skeptical of new claims, often demanding either rigorous philosophical argument or scientific evidence to sway me. The rise of Trump has left many of television pundits and everyday citizens guessing at how this complete disassociation from facts and reality on the behalf of both Trump and his supporters came to be, as well as where we go from here. I think that everyone’s simply waiting for things to just go back to normal. To this, I’m sorry to report, that Trump is likely the new normal, and free and open information created him.
We can begin with the idea that Trump and his supporters are completely disassociated from factual reality. Having a conversation with one of them, even for five minutes, will soon reveal deep and patently untrue conspiracy theories including mentions of Q-Anon, the quasi-fictional organization and borderline religious cult transferred into the world of politics. You instantly know that you’re dealing with someone who’s got a complete disregard for facts. We’re now in a world where we can live our own fiction novels.
Trump, meanwhile, is just the face of a much larger problem in the United States, the problem of the complete blurring and distortion of the hard and fast lines which separate fiction from reality, fact from dreamy idealistic narratives which are wholly untrue. TV pundits and journalists all seem to be anticipating what’s going to come next, which will be the next big break from reality that the President and his supporters take, always watching and hypothesizing about the moment things will just “go back to normal.”
Meuller was supposed to be some savior that ushered in that new moment. Before that, it was the investigation. Before that, it was Hillary Clinton and even before that, Jeb Bush and the Republican contenders for the presidency.
Yet, all of these entities failed. I’m not suggesting that Trump is such a genius that he could go on indefinitely undefeated, but what I am saying is that these problems started long before Trump.
The so-called “political left” isn’t exactly innocent either, here, with their constant steadfast refusal to accept scientific findings and advancements that challenge their notions of equality or the moral inclinations which make them feel good. Even outside of the various political stances, flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, and so forth exist; basically, people believe crazy things and there’s a significant amount of them who are willing to believe crazy things simply because it’s popular or abundant. This is the availability heuristic at work, the mental shortcut that people universally use which secretly tells them that the more they see some type of information, the more important or truer it is. This, of course, is fallacious thinking.
If I asked you which were more likely, dying in an airplane crash or by drowning, what would your answer be? Some people think it’s a toss-up, others lean toward airplane crash, then very few go for drowning. So, what are the actual numbers?
Every single year, at least 3,000 people drown, and 2017 was no exception, with 3,709. There are about 10 deaths per day from drowning in the United States. On the other hand, there were zero fatalities from airplane crashes in the United States in 2017. It’s not even close. Most people report that they think an airplane crash is more likely when posed this question, when there isn’t even a comparison between the two. This is the availability heuristic at work, our brains reach back for information from our past, it remembers the 24–7 news networks all singing a song of death-by-plane-crash in unison every time a jetliner has gone down. The media colors our minds in a way that’s wholly undetectable to us. Drowning victims are almost never reported, especially not nationally. At 10 people a day, that would pretty much eat up all of the available news coverage hours. A list of similar heuristics can be found here. Heuristics are natural, we make mental shortcuts when faced with overwhelming amounts of data at the expense of accuracy, and the untrained thinker is more likely to use them, often while being completely wrong in their conclusions, than the trained professional.
Trump, anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, the people who deny the smoking and lung cancer links, and the moon conspiracy theorists are simply a byproduct of what happens when we freely disseminate information. It’s an unintended consequence, but I’m proposing that it’s definitely a real one. Simply put, most people aren’t very good at information processing. Critical thinking takes vigorous training and is offered in almost none of our classrooms in school, maybe outside of Philosophy and some Science grads, it’s essentially absent.
Critical Mass, Atomic-Age, Bullshit
We simply weren’t ready for the Pandora’s Box that the information age opened up. I think we tend to assume that other people are reasonable, like us, that they see things like us, but it wasn’t really until the advent of the internet that we see that people really see things radically different. Before the internet, the teeming ignorant masses of people who didn’t quite know how to reason weren’t really able to come together and create a formidable political force. Better still, what if we’re being unreasonable? How would we really know without analyzing all of the available data, with the proper methods that we’re wholly unaware of? The answer is, we wouldn’t, and we’d likely think that other people who were as wrong as we were, were actually correct in their thinking. We’d stick by these people, we’d support them in their incorrectness. Just like the movement of people who actually believe that 9/11 didn’t happen at all and that the airplanes and victims of the tragedy were just CGI graphics imposed on films of the Twin Towers (yes, there is a group who actually believe that).
So, what does all this have to do with Trump?
Trump isn’t an outlier. Trump isn’t that different from many everyday Americans. Trump is just the current iteration of a long lineage of American quackery, starting with the Puritans, the Quakers, the Salem Witch Trials, the Mormon religion, Scientology, radiation sold as skin-care products and even drinks, Mercury used for so-called “medicinal value,” contemporary American Libertarianism, Alex Jones and the 9/11 Truth Movement, and much, much more; and the only thing that’s truly new, is the Internet and mass-media. Trump isn’t this massively out-of-step-character straying from the cultural Zeitgeist that is American thought, he’s basically just Alex Jones put in the position of the presidency. American bullshit has been around for a very, very long time, and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
We’ve conveniently been able to simply ignore these people in the centuries and decades past, but now the Internet has given them the ability to gather and they are legion. Simply put, if Donald Trump evidences anything, it’s that these various groups of people who are wrong, not ethically, but factually (ethically also) on just about everything, have gathered enough in numbers to propel one of their own into the highest office in the land, destroying the very fabric of every institution we hold dear in the process, from government to science, education to the press.
What if it’s not “the media” as in the media organizations which are causing the problem? You know, CNN? What if it’s the vast bombardment of constant streams of data into our minds that we can’t handle? Facebook and Google, especially Google, the unvetted conspiracy theory videos that our population has been drinking up since the mid-2000s on YouTube? What if it’s the fact that the Internet has given literally everyone with a computer and even a slow dial-up connection (supposing they still exist) a voice which can be heard. We’ve always lived under this assumption that the latter is a good thing, that unbridled free speech and free expression are a priori beneficial to society, but what if they’re really not? And, is there a difference between free-speech and everyone being given a platform, regardless of credentials or credibility?
When all it takes is questioning the highest, most intelligent and credible sources in the land, like those found in academia, and suddenly, anyone’s pet theory gets equal (or more) time, is reality really real anymore? Or have we stepped into a slow and digitally-induced episode of The Twilight Zone?
So, yes, I think that Donald Trump is merely the current face of this fundamental change that’s happening in our society. Beneath everything, it seems that everyone is confused, no one knows what to think or who to believe — no one really knows what’s real anymore, which means they’re vulnerable. This is how the American population is handling the slow-moving panic of becoming confused into paralysis. We elect Trump, then we talk about electing Oprah Winfrey to counter that, then we sit and debate climate change rather than taking action, then, tragically, some people even completely lose their minds and we end up with the hideous acts of violence which have transpired recently. When no one knows what’s real, anything goes, and all of life itself becomes a fantasy. Donald Trump, after all, is the reality TV star-turned-accidental, and some would say illegitimate President of the United States. Everything has been flipped on its head and I think if we’re waiting for things to return to some resemblance of the normalcy that was before, I’m sorry to say, it might never be coming back. A reality in question is no reality at all, it’s a fantasy because once we open the door to question reality, in a very real way, anything goes. We may finally be entering into the post-modern age, fully, where we’re immersed in the virtual reality so real that we actually never stop living it, 24–7, and we become it.
For those of us who’ve seen the 1991 film In the Mouth of Madness, this is just simply becoming too surreal for comfort; the entire nation may actually be slowly be slipping into psychosis while we remain sane, a terrifying nightmare-turned-reality…or virtual reality, at least. Trump is just the beginning.