My writing this was inspired prior to last week’s result by an article from May of this year, which proclaimed 2016 as the first “internet election.” The author, Andrew Keen, was less concerned with rigorously defining what an “internet election” might entail, and more interested in throwing a variety of questions at 2016 in order to rip it away from the course of standard electoral discourse. The barely-implicit question, of course, was to explain away what seemed––at the time and until last week––the outlier that was Donald J. Trump.
Each question Keen threw at 2016 was less convincing than the one that came before. An “internet election” could not be one predicated on the virality of small moments taken out of context, because that is what halted Howard Dean in 2004. An “internet election” could not be one in which truth was coincidental to politics, because as Nathan Jurgenson aptly reminded us, that described most of Bush’s major policy decisions.
If an “internet election” means we’re post-ideology, Trump is a strange figure to examine how post-ideology functions. He has, generally speaking, espoused a narrative of self-improvement through freedom, using differences in identity as a scapegoat for severe economic depression, and emphasized the need for law and order to protect hard-working Americans. These are all fundamental tenets of a Right-nationalist ideology, one energized by populist support.
I was initially fascinated with the way that each of these questions accepted––and helped produce––a Transcendental Trump. Trump was constructed as extraordinary and unprecedented, which therefore amounted to unexplainable. In order to account for it, we had to look at what else happened to be distinct about this election: enter discussions about social media ruining the election. Throughout Trump, we’ve had fun pathologizing him.
Trump winning the election, however, has changed that narrative. Instead of a one-time anomaly, liberal pundits are learning a vocabulary that presents Trump as the apex of horrors outside of our liberal bubble. Paul Krugman epitomizes this narrative shift to a T:
“What we do know is that people like me, and probably like most readers of The New York Times, truly didn’t understand the country we live in. We thought that our fellow citizens would not, in the end, vote for a candidate so manifestly unqualified for high office, so temperamentally unsound, so scary yet ludicrous.
We thought that the nation, while far from having transcended racial prejudice and misogyny, had become vastly more open and tolerant over time.
We thought that the great majority of Americans valued democratic norms and the rule of law.
It turns out that we were wrong. There turn out to be a huge number of people––white people, living mainly in rural areas––who don’t share at all our idea of what America is about. For them, it is about blood and soil, about traditional patriarchy and racial hierarchy.”
I pick on Krugman, but Nate Silver also normalizes this outcome by explaining what happened fell in the realm of possibility according to his polls. Jonathan Chait was only joking about leaving for Canada: we will overcome Trump through a sheer determinism of individual will and liberal monopolization on facts. They lead to similar conclusions: the stupid, racist, ignorant, people were more powerful than most of us imagined, and they need to be kept underfoot, (perhaps by eliminating the electoral college or contacting faithless electors?) This is precisely the wrong type of normalization.
A more realistic approach might start with the premise “People are voting for Trump for particular reasons.” From such a premise we get into cohesive discussions about where Clinton lost ground, people who voted for Obama, then voted for Trump, the successful rise of voter restrictions in states like Wisconsin, and the surge of suicide rates since 1999 for all but two groups, a surge that includes a rate twice as high for people 10-24 in rural regions than their peers in cities. This is not a question about invoking empathy for the white working class, as though there were one group of ideologies, histories, and practices that constituted “the white working class,” a point that pundits would also do well to remember with “African Americans” “Women” and “Latinos.” It simply opens a facet of Trump’s victory that we must confront at some point or another: he won, in part, because he produced a particular vision of affinity politics. You’re hurting, Trump said, I will help fix that.
My initial conclusion was that the “internet election” embodied our need to rip Trump from our present moment, and freeze him in time as a barbaric inversion brought on by some people who refused to “get woke.” History was only helpful insofar as it described Trump as backwards, irrational, and emblematic of some social order from the pre-Civil Rights Era. Political pundits expanded on this vision, and ran away with mythologies of Trump free from any constraints of history. And I imagined that this would dovetail neatly into the dominance of quantitative methods to free ourselves from rigorous studies of the past.
My new conclusion is that if “internet election” is a term, it refers not so much to the loss of facts or ideologies but that information now flows with a particular force and volume to which we have yet to fully adjust, in a manner similar to the Catholic Church struggling against the printing press. Jurgenson has recently pointed to the commoditization of this amplification as factiness, and it operates on both sides of the aisle. Liberals are capable of weaving entire fantasies through the media we share, whereas “fake” news articles on the Right receive consistent and constant dissemination.
While depressing, these threads of communication also have amazing potential for organization and protest. The successful marshalling of xenophobia and misogyny by the Right is a global phenomenon; tools like Bridge currently respond to it by pushing through language boundaries. Memes can play right into the machine as Crystal so carefully traced here yesterday; they can also bring into discourse groups of people who are illiterate, or otherwise struggle with textuality. From a national perspective, both Jacobin Magazine and the Democratic Socialists of America have reported surges in memberships and subscriptions. The protests against Trump have shown that no matter how large his shadow becomes, we are capable of finding new sources of light. And if Derek Black, the son of David Duke and socialized from birth to be the new face of the white nationalist movement, could turn his back on family, friends, and the world in which he was raised, I feel cautiously optimistic about our capabilities to bring a Transcendent Trump back to Earth.
Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a doctoral student in history at Brown. He tweets on occasion.