It’s hard to find hopeful things to say about our degraded political and civic culture. Especially for those of us on the left, blaming President Trump for nearly all of the toxins that pollute the public square is tempting, but this mistakes an effect for a cause. Perhaps it’s more precise to argue that the vulgarity, sensationalism, and contempt for basic civil discourse that Trump embodies can’t be understood apart from trends that existed long before the billionaire descended an escalator to announce his improbable candidacy.
America’s collective temperament increasingly seems defined both by a proud anti-intellectual triviality and a cutthroat rhetoric of political extremism, the latter especially dividing our civic space into warring tribes less committed to the common good than defending turf. One book in particular saw it coming. Three decades ago, long before Twitter and “fake news,” the media critic and commentator Neil Postman wrote the now-classic Amusing Ourselves to Death. The United States, he argued, reflected Aldous Huxley’s dystopia depicted in A Brave New World more than Orwell’s ubiquitous Big Brother. An addiction to technology, specifically the visual drug of television, had influenced culture, politics, the media, and daily ways of interpreting the world to such an extent that the line between entertainment and news had been blurred beyond recognition. Our capacity to reason, discern, and make informed decisions—dependent on prolonged attention spans and the ability to think logically—was dissolving. The triumph of images and brands, rather than the more deliberative form of the printed word, he argued, had led to a dumbing-down of a culture more interested in instant gratification than serious ideas. “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books,” Postman wrote. “What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.” When citizens become “distracted by trivia,” he contended, “when a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a real possibility.”
The spectacle of “reality TV,” where dysfunction and vice become the raw materials for creating minor celebrities, had not yet arrived when Postman wrote those words. Neither had we yet seen the rise of Fox News, which created a powerful conservative echo chamber that not only dumbed-down debates, but helped create a new form of dark “entertainment”—the angry political pundit rewarded for relentlessly attacking ideological opponents with little regard for factual truth. While American politics has never been a genteel affair, Fox and Rush Limbaugh threw gasoline on the emerging 24-hour news cycle, a context that rewarded the shrillest voices more than sober analysis.
Donald Trump emerges from these fetid swamps. His obsession with tracking cable news, and his use of Twitter to demonize and degrade his “enemies,” reflect a leader who fully embraces the worst excesses of his era. When the president of the most powerful nation in the world tweets a video of himself body slamming a wrestler with a CNN logo superimposed on his face, it’s imperative that we not only denounce him, but also contemplate cultural pathologies that led to such a leader in the first place.