Trump came to power at a time when the digital age reduced us to a mediocre lot, ready and willing to entertain, in many cases embrace, the mind-numbing ignorance of a man who offered ready-made packets of trivial and ridiculous political perspectives. Part of the nostrum effect, which I have mentioned in the previous installment, is the epistemological power of conspiracy theories. In other words, conspiracy theories derive their power and resonance from the hollowness of their knowledge claims. Conspiracy theories become mindless distractions when certain individuals promulgate empty claims as facts. However, when people who rise to power perpetuate ideas grounded in coincidence, irrational beliefs, fear, paranoia, racism, hatred, stupidity, and every other human projection that affirms our collective ignorance, then you have entered an Orwellian reality. Conspiracy theories present themselves as having epistemic plausibility, with facts and sloppy syllogistic inferences, but upon critical examination such “theories” are nothing more than evident chains of nonsense. It is within this interstitial space between rigorous knowledge and fantastical beliefs that Trump imposes an Orwellian worldview.
The world of the pre-digital age no longer exists. The digital age has hammered away, to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, at the old world order until it is now a distant memory.
The power of conspiracy theories is directly correlated with the power of belief and strengthened by a pervasive distrust of authority. For much of human civilization, top-down hierarchies, where credible and authoritative knowledge claims flowed vertically down, the digital age came along to simultaneously dismantle this hierarchy and establish a more horizontal structure of disseminating information. According to Michael A. Peters, who is a Distinguished Professor of Education at Beijing Normal University, there is a, “historical epistemological thesis that might also be seen to highlight the contemporary distrust in authority, authoritarian, and even authoritative sources, reflecting a shift from top-down hierarchies of news and information distribution to flatter horizontal and more democratic structures sometimes privileging highly stylized peer, interest and religious groups. There is always a kind of deep attraction to some mistrustful souls that operates when conspiracy theories purport to explain something different to mainstream accounts by reference to a secret group of actors who are operating unlawfully in their own interests at the expense of the public.”[i] If conspiracy theories, and those who peddle them, lacked a platform to reach a wider audience, Trump would not be president today.
Social media has democratized the spread of information, but democracy in this context lowered the standard of our public discourse to such a degree that all we are left with are bits and pieces of what was once credible knowledge. In effect, social media has become the waste disposal system of the internet. Imagine for a minute our impulse towards crude behavior; our predilection for the sensational; our affinity for fantastical stories that somehow comfort and protect us from evil leaders who want to keep us in the dark, and now amplify that impulse and share it with millions of like-minded individuals. What do you end up with? You end up with a culture that projects and magnifies our collective mediocrity. You end up with a culture that is ready and prepared for a charlatan to seize on our weakness and vulnerability; a figure who takes control of the echo chambers created online for the purpose of misinformation and disinformation. This is precisely what Trump did. He found an entry point and used his celebrity status to appeal to the worst of our nature. He used our vulnerabilities and our muted intellectual ability to tell different sectors of the population exactly what they wanted to hear. If one group resented immigrants, he disparaged immigrants, particularly the poor and downtrodden. If another sector viewed Islam and Muslims with ignorant trepidation, he promised to ban these terrorists from coming to our city on a hill. It is by constructing an “us” versus a paradigmatic “other” that Trump gradually built the very structure of our Orwellian reality.
Let me quote a philosopher that I’ve long admired for his intellectual clarity and keen insight. Karl Popper, in his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, wrote in the preface: “If in this book harsh words are spoken about some of the greatest among the intellectual leaders of mankind, my motive is not, I hope, the wish to belittle them. It springs rather from my conviction that, if our civilization is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men.”[ii] Popper, who as an Austrian-born British philosopher and cultural critic, published The Open Society and Its Enemies in 1945, but the actual writing of the book occurred in the 1930s. His distrust of leaders was in response to the rise of Nazism in Germany and the fascism sweeping across Europe. His distrust of intellectuals was directed at those who looked to science as offering us certain knowledge. He questioned the idea, popular at the time, that history moves according to inexorable laws. Popper rejected all political systems that governed from the top down, including Plato’s philosopher-kings, who would wield absolute authority over society. Popper rejected the idea that leaders, however enlightened they appear to us, have been the cause of destruction.
Philosophy is dead, declared Stephen Hawking; the metaphor is dead, that is to say, the richly textured layers of meaning are dead; reading is on its deathbed; substantive discourse is dying; mediocrity is our new virtue.
Popper’s conclusion is that men must free themselves from the authority of those who would want to impose their will upon the rest of us. His concluding remarks are worth quoting:
“Our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous — from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows. These troubles are the byproduct of what is perhaps the greatest of all moral and spiritual revolutions of history, a movement which began three centuries ago. It is the longing of uncounted unknown men to free themselves and their minds from the tutelage of authority and prejudice. It is their attempt to build up an open society… It is their unwillingness to sit back and leave the entire responsibility for ruling the world to human or superhuman authority… This revolution had created powers of appalling destructiveness; but they may yet be conquered.”[iii]
Popper was, of course, correct to caution us against the tyranny of authority, regardless of where the authority stemmed from. He argued against Plato’s political philosophy, where enlightened philosopher-kings rule society with absolute authority. The fear, and Popper was correct here, is that enlightened rulers may also find themselves moving towards the slippery slope of totalitarianism. Popper championed an open society where people are free to think for themselves. This noble and liberating view would become obsolete in the digital age. Popper’s view of an open society, always distrustful of authority and skeptical of its leaders, is no longer valid simply because it is anachronistic.
Karl Popper died (1994) on the eve of the digital revolution. He simply could not have predicted the fundamental transformation of a world that was about to usher in the most concentrated, sweeping, and totalizing change in the history of humanity. In one respect, the digital age has realized Popper’s dream of an open society. The internet connected us in unimaginable ways. The free exchange of ideas became a reality and the promise of utopian possibilities became tantalizingly close to being realized. What the architects of the digital revolution failed to realize, or ignored for the sake of profits, was the utopia they envisioned would soon become a dystopia. With the rise of social media, people connected with one another in such a way that it fractured our unitive sense of community. People took advantage of the idea of instantly connecting with others by finding those who shared their interests, views, beliefs, hobbies, political leanings, and a seemingly endless list of shared outlooks. This would give rise to the phenomenon of echo chambers, which are virtual gathering places where people find affirmations (echoes) of their beliefs.
People no longer engage in critical discourse about serious topics. Rather, echo chambers offer participants a place to spread conspiracy theories, lies, false information, ideologies, hate, and generally anything that lacks substance. In this regard, Popper’s idealized vision of a free society has been turned on its head. Rather than engage in the virtual public square of ideas, we surrender ourselves to the tyranny of ignorance and the folly of groupthink. The digital age has shortened our attention span, made it difficult for us to focus, robbed us of our critical thinking, distracted us, fractured us, alienated us, reduced us to numbers, and seduced us with shiny gadgets. It was only when all of these forces converged that an Orwellian figure such as Trump rose to power. He found a way to reach millions of people who exist in echo chambers. With each tweet, he bends reality just enough to diminish our capacity to discern truth from fabrications. His rampant narcissism, coupled with his pathological need for constant attention, would have him undermine the epistemic foundation of our world and replace it with his own distorted and twisted vision of truth.
Physical books will soon be looked upon as quaint reminders of a past where people actually touched paper.
Popper worried about the tyranny of authority, of men with ideological blueprints, who ask us to follow them. History has taught us painful lessons about Hitler, Stalin, and countless others who left in their wake unimaginable horrors. If the verticality of ideological leadership failed us, then the more horizontal, democratic distribution of ideas today is potentially worse. All we need today is for a social media celebrity to emerge and impose upon us an Orwellian landscape filled with a digitally altered reality. Trump was the first to emerge from this brave digital world, but others will follow. Ignorance seems to have risen to the top. Let’s look at a few Trump tweets to illustrate how ignorance and stupidity, coupled with narcissistic excess, became virtues in their own right.
“Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest – and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.” — May 8, 2013.
“Lowest rated Oscars in HISTORY. Problem is, we don’t have Stars anymore – except your President (just kidding, of course)!” — Mar 6, 2018.
“We should have a contest as to which of the Networks, plus CNN and not including Fox, is the most dishonest, corrupt and/or distorted in its political coverage of your favorite President (me). They are all bad. Winner to receive the FAKE News Trophy!” — Nov 27, 2017.
“Are you allowed to impeach a president for gross incompetence?” — Jun 4, 2014.
“Actually, throughout my life, my greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star…” — Jun 6, 2018.
“The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of American People!” — Feb 17, 2017.
“Mexico will pay for the wall!” — Sep 1, 2016.
“An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud.” — Aug 6, 2012.
“Despite the constant negative press covfefe.” — May 31, 2017. [spelling error is from Trump]
“China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented act.” — Dec 17, 2016.[iv] [spelling error is from Trump]
These few sample Tweets reveal a man who is disconnected from the world and trapped in an echo chamber of his own making. From April 1, 2009 to April 18, 2020, Trump amassed 42,399 Tweets, most of which reflect a bitter, self-absorbed, irrational, impatient, bullying, sophomoric, conspiratorial, idiotic, confused, isolated, and generally offensive simpleton who happens to be the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. Here is an irony, both tragic and absurd, that Karl Popper would have appreciated.
We have achieved the seemingly impossible: technological sophistication beyond our comprehension, and yet we have become a footnote in our ongoing historical narrative of what it means to be human.
Trump benefited from the democratic exchange of information. He used Popper’s free society to rise to the top. Once he became president, he engaged in a systematic effort to undermine journalists whenever they wrote or spoke anything remotely critical. In the wake of the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, Trump tweeted: “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame… of Anger and Outrage and we will then be able to bring all sides together in Peace and Harmony. Fake News Must End!”[v] This has become a typical rhetorical tactic for Trump: he engages in the hateful discourse, only to transfer the blame unto others, particularly the news media. This is the essence of what an Orwellian society is designed to look like: stoke the flames of hatred and turn around and blame the very people who are attempting to serve as a check on his power.
Nicholas Carr, writing for Politico in January of 2018 wrote this of Twitter: “Twitter is a digital drug designed to constantly feed our egos. What does it mean when the addict in question happens to be the most powerful man in the world?”[vi] Popper was wrong to assume that a free and open society can elevate us. If you doubt this, then consider the naivety of Twitter’s founder, Evan Williams, who said, “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas the world is automatically going to be a better place… I was wrong about that.”[vii] What Evans, and other technology companies failed to take into account is human nature. As Dostoevsky reminded us over 150 years ago, twice two sometimes is a five. Our nature is irrational through and through. Despite our exalted achievements, there is a dimension to our existence that will rely on others to structure the world for us. Karl Marx argued that religion is the opiate of the people. Regardless of whether he was correct or not, there is no denying that digital technology has become our new addiction.
There is an ongoing debate as to which dystopian vision, Huxley’s or Orwell’s, was realized. I would argue that the combined vision of both writers anticipated a future filled with trivial distractions; a world where truth is no longer recognizable; a world of manipulation, deceitfulness, image over substance, ignorance, fleeting images, ephemeral ideas, mediocrity, false sophistication, alienation, isolation, fractured and disjointed identity, angst, banality, digital-addiction, and the blurred lines between that which is real and that which is an illusion. Huxley was proven correct that we would live in a world of drug-induced distractions, however, we have no need for a soma drug to distract us. Our distractions come from our shiny gadgets. Orwell was accurate in predicting a future filled with doublespeak and other epistemic asides, but he was wrong about the darkness and bleakness of it all. In other words, our world today, from a cursory perspective, is filled with ease and comfort, artificial happiness, and the quiet transition towards a post-truth reality. What both Huxley and Orwell could not have predicted was the speed by which our world changed.
We cling to our shiny little toys, believing that we have somehow arrived at a proud moment in our history.
The world of the pre-digital age no longer exists. The digital age has hammered away, to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, at the old world order until it is now a distant memory. In short order, philosophy is dead, declared Stephen Hawking; the metaphor is dead, that is to say, the richly textured layers of meaning are dead; reading is on its deathbed; substantive discourse is dying; mediocrity is our new virtue; physical books will soon be looked upon as quaint reminders of a past where people actually touched paper; and meaningful human contact is no longer fashionable. The digital revolution continues to unfold all around us and the future seems to be headed towards an Orwellian reality of our own making. Once the epistemic foundation is undermined, it will be nearly impossible to go back to the way things were. Once Pandora’s box is opened, we may never be able to close it again. We have achieved the seemingly impossible: technological sophistication beyond our comprehension, and yet we have become a footnote in our ongoing historical narrative of what it means to be human. We cling to our shiny little toys, believing that we have somehow arrived at a proud moment in our history. Both Orwell and Huxley captured different aspects of our dystopian present, but not all of them.
[i] Peters, M. (2020). On the Epistemology of Conspiracy. Journal of Educational Philosophy and Theory. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00131857.2020.1741331.
[ii] Popper, K. (2012). The Open Society and Its Enemies. Abingdon-on-Thames. Routledge. Preface.
[iii] McCrum, R. (2016). The 100 Best Nonfiction Books: No 35- The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper(1945). The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/26/100-best-nonfiction-books-karl-popper-open-society-its-enemies.
[iv] (2020). Trump Twitter Archive. http://www.trumptwitterarchive.com.
[v] Breuninger, K. (2018). Trump Slams the Media as ‘the true enemy of the People’ Days after CNN was targeted with mail bombs. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/10/29/trump-slams-media-as-true-enemy-of-the-people-days-after-cnn-targeted.html.
[vi] Carr, N. (2018). Why Trump Tweets (And Why We Listen). Politco. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/01/26/donald-trump-twitter-addiction-216530.