Donald Trump the Frankenstein creation of ‘us v them’ thinking
Progressive political rhetoric in US died after 9/11. Reactionary stupidity reigned
Donald Trump during a campaign event: the reluctance of American journalists to confront his lies with facts is staggering. Photograph: Damon Winter/The New York Times
It’s strange to think that there are kids studying for their Junior Certificate now who were born after the Twin Towers were attacked. Fifteen years is a long time, but it also flies.
Looking at the United States now, and at a presidential campaign that is essentially a flailing unmanned garden hose with the water pressure on full blast, we can see the roots of how crazy the American political scene and its rhetoric became in the aftermath of 9/11. George W Bush heralded the “with us or against us” era, initially about external enemies, until the populace subsumed that attitude and ran with it inside their own country.
These days, New York band LCD Soundsystem open their set with a pertinent tune. Their frontman, James Murphy, is known as a brilliantly insightful lyricist, simultaneously propagating and skewering hipsterdom with urban and urbane wisdom.
Here is a sample lyric from the band’s first single, Losing My Edge, released in 2002, when Murphy was 32: “I’m losing my edge to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties.”
LCD Soundsystem dramatically disbanded five years ago, but have reformed in response to festivals throwing bags of money at them. They now start their gigs with Us V Them. I saw them do it at both Glastonbury and Electric Picnic this summer. “Us versus them” the song goes, “over and over again.”
Opening with this song is no accident. We’re living in a world that very much feels like us versus them, over and over again.
Progressive political rhetoric in the US died in the days after 9/11. Reactionary stupidity reigned, and the place is still picking up the pieces. That dark and grim time was broken by Barack Obama, who countered the rhetoric of hate, division and despair with love, unity and hope.
Of course, an unfortunate byproduct of his success is that stupidity had to get stupider with the Tea Party Movement, a Frankenstein who has created the orange monster Trump. Now the political rhetoric is mind-boggling, dragged into the pit. But Trump is not the only one to blame.
One of the biggest players in that culture is American broadcast journalism. At an NBC “forum” last week – effectively two half-hour interviews with Trump and Clinton meant to focus on foreign policy questions – NBC’s Matt Lauer showed how ill-equipped even one of America’s “biggest” broadcast journalists are.
Clinton’s ‘scandal’Lauer, like many broadcast journalists, has continued to obsess over Hillary Clinton’s email “scandal”, an issue that we’ve been through so many times that further questioning is now simply tedious. That “scandal” pales in comparison to the range of scandals and potential scandals Trump whips up every other day. Yet Trump was dealt softball questions.
The reluctance of American journalists to shut down Trump’s ramblings, confront his lies with facts, and actually challenge his incompetence is staggering. He was treated as a real, viable candidate by US news channels, and thus became one.
The absence of critical and challenging broadcast journalism to truly confront Donald Trump’s racist and fascist ramblings now – fragments as vicious as rubble falling in lower Manhattan then – is not just a failure of journalism, but a failure of wider critical thinking and intelligence. This rhetoric coincides with an era of hyperbole, partly fuelled by the brevity that online communication has fostered as a style. With audiences now lured by clickbait, the snippet or headline has to become incredibly heightened in order to make an impact. Messages are limited by characters and attention spans, and have to be either furious or “inspirational”.
At an Electric Picnic talk, Irish Times theatre critic Peter Crawley spoke about how no one reads three-star reviews, even though they’re the most interesting because the journalist is teasing things out. We read the one stars and five stars; the in-between is just boring.
Trump has also been described as a YouTube comments section running for office, which is shorthand for outrageous, inflammatory and rude statements that veer off subject and into personal insults. Nastiness and bullying has become a substantial part of online communication, a troubling and damaging part.
Tribalism reignsCommunication now has a tendency to go from 0 to 60, saccharine and fluffy to rage-filled and violent, with no middle ground. Nuance and grey areas fall into the gulfs between. It is in these intellectual and semantic chasms that Trump and contemporary American right-wing rhetoric resides and tribalism reigns.
When you let that language through, and when journalism itself stokes the flames, the pay-off is pretty damn ugly. While the roots of current discourse might be in the cowboyisms of George W Bush, they are also in the red-faced screaming on Fox News, the inanity of US broadcast journalism, the soft-touch questions from anchors who are in fact entertainment presenters, and the pageantry of infotainment, with all its red and blue news studios, pompous theme tunes and flashy graphics.
The first US presidential debate is on September 26th. Whoever wins, it certainly won’t be the rhetoric that is now fostered in these arenas.