Watching the nail-biting US election results come to a close, I only have one question: How could this election have possibly been so close? A damp squib should have easily defeated such an ethically and intellectually flawed train wreck of a politician and yet Donald Trump only narrowly lost (due mostly to a simplification in the voting process in many states).
Many of my American contacts expressed how ashamed they were that so many of their compatriots voted for Trump. This is horrible! Something needs to be done! These people need to be fixed!
Exactly … The reason so many voted for Trump is they are sick to death of being told by smug, arrogant, sanctimonious zealots how to think, how to feel and how to act. Nobody likes to be fixed and especially not by self-righteous, moralising mercenaries.
As extremes become the mean in social-media driven tribes, the far left and the far right on the political spectrum are finding more microphones and volunteers for their agenda. As both extremes are militant and dogmatic, the right tend to exclude populations from their closed communities while the social justice factions on the left seek to impose their norms and values on everyone else.
But nobody likes to be fixed.
Socially Just = Morally Intolerant?
In striving to impose righteous moral and social ideals on society, social justice campaigners have not noticed how intolerant and awful they have become (until people have a chance to vote at the ballot box). Some of the things Trump voters have been told they have to change to be accepted have been anything but just or social.
You were told your society is:
- Too white
- Too male
- Too heterosexual
- Too Christian
- Too racist
- Too corporate
- Too materialistic
- Too wasteful
- Too colonial
- Too obsessed with development
- Too corrupt
- Too fascist
- Too authoritarian
- Too backward
And that to fix this, we need to change everything about your miserable world. Pull down all the statues we deem as representative of your shameful, intolerant past, defund the institutions you held as important, destroy the economic system you built up, take away your customs or traditions if it goes against our righteous dogma… There is no dialogue or discussion; the sanctimonious have decided you need to be fixed … but first they call you names and try to destroy your property.
Donald Trump was a lightning rod for those feeling vulnerable and excluded who simply wanted to be told they were loved, for those who did not feel that everything they did was wrong or awful and for those that didn’t appreciate being fixed by people they didn’t respect. Trump rallies were fascinating to watch as anxiety and communal reaffirmation were released in a primal celebration the likes of which have not been seen since 1933. Tens of millions at the ballot box found Trump’s intolerance and moral flaws less distasteful than the righteous social justice activists trying to tell people what to think, feel and do.
Left-wing zealots created Trump and his presence gave them one more threat they needed to eradicate in their missionary/mercenary campaign.
But people no longer need nor have to change. They recede into their social media communities where others think like them and they easily reject many common sense ideas merely because they have been framed as diktats by self-righteous, smarmy aliens. What a great place to spread conspiracy theories, with all of their warm, reassuring stories and values.
Addendum 22 November 2020: Certain discussions following this article suggest this is a defence of Trump voters. I’d like to think I am trying to understand the factors leading so many to vote in such a manner and it ends with some suggestions on how to avoid this worsening in the next election (also in other countries). But perhaps I should add a point I assumed to be common knowledge: except those driven by a clear ideology or a truly inspiring leader, a large majority vote against someone or some policy more than for something (fear and anger are much stronger emotions than love and respect). Since Mitterrand’s use of the Front National to give voters an awful choice, such cultural division has been the tool of choice for failing opportunists. White suburban women voted for Trump in 2016 because they could not trust (lying, crooked) Hillary. Biden was nominated not because of his inspirational vision for America but because he could beat Trump – a good amount of Democrats (and some Republicans) held their noses as they voted against Trump. While Trump’s base is loud and well amplified by the media, it is small and this article is in no way an apology for them.
The Trump Effect
When 20% of black males voted this year for Trump and even more within certain Hispanic communities, something curious was going on.
Whenever a group imposes a set of ideals on a population, it is only a matter of time before reactionaries push back. Time was we could expect a Hegelian synthesis but with social media tribalism, our social dimension merely recoils into ever-hardening extremes. This is the Trump Effect – an opportunistic reaction against forces of change, where reason and facts are managed via provocation, outrage and conspiracy theories.
If people choose not to believe something and they can find gurus and communities who support them, there is very little that facts or authorities can do. Alternative facts exist, mainstream news is fake and the most outrageous ideas just need more time to be accepted. What happened with four years of Trump was more reactionary utopian than irrationally dystopian.
It is not that people are stupid (a charge the zealots often levy), but rather they are angry, vulnerable or afraid. And this breeds what I have referred to as untelligence – when people who feel threatened turn, in their communities, to ideas grounded in socially-affirmative anecdotes rather than facts.
They often do not resist out of some ideology but rather, they are resisting the imposition of an ideology. It is not the facts they are against, but the authority forced upon them and this re-articulates every issue into a confrontation demanding resistance.
- Telling someone they have to wear a mask is articulated not as a means to protect other more vulnerable people at the time of a pandemic but as an affront to one’s liberty;
- Forcing people to vaccinate their children in order for them to attend school is no longer an issue of protection from diseases but over who has the power to impose decisions;
- Insisting that people be more tolerant while removing their historical icons, practises and traditions deemed inappropriate does not encourage social harmony but likely risks greater intolerance.
We have to stop thinking this is a question of the dark vs the light. If you shine a bright light into somebody’s eyes long enough, everything goes dark (and you become the source of the headache). So if social justice activists want to change the world, perhaps they need to try a new tactic.
Towards New Communications Approaches
As a communications professor, I see most societal problems as linked to communication structures and tools (when you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail) and we are in the middle of one of history’s greatest communications revolutions. Communications is the manipulative art of using certain tools to get others to perceive something in the way I want them to. As the tools evolve, so do our practises. We need to realise ideologies can no longer be imposed on online, closed communities via traditional communications tools.
Prior to social media tools, messages were communicated via authorities (kings, generals, experts, celebrities, scientists…) in a cascade from the top down. Messages were accepted at the bottom based on trust, interest, respect or necessity. But when authorities are no longer trusted, scientists considered as corrupted, and leaders perceived as living in “swamps”, people who try to communicate from an elevated position are merely seen as talking down to people. When media sources are politicised and individuals can let their algorithms choose the news and facts they want to believe, then power is measured by the influential.
We need to take new approaches to communicate with these fast-evolving social media tools. Donald Trump was the first social media president and four years ago I acknowledged his ability to move from community to community telling everyone what they wanted to hear in 140 characters. Four years on and the left is still trying to impose their ideology through political actions and system change. No wonder so many Americans voted for such a flawed individual and no wonder they are resisting any change from above.
We need to learn to communicate messages from the bottom up, via communities, gurus and individuals where buy-in is earned via consultation and tolerance of differences. People who are engaged and inspired will come around to trust and respect ideas. This is done within communities formed around commonly shared ideas, emotions and vulnerabilities (what drives our need to trust). Too often though, when there is disagreement, the easy solution is to block, ban or unfriend others and seek refuge in one’s tribes. It gets hard to communicate a message, even a very rational one, when people are no longer listening.
After the disastrous COVID-19 precautionary lockdowns, I articulated a blueprint to return our Western governance process to risk management (in what was perhaps my most ambitious project). Recommendation 11 sought to develop a “community trust / communications mechanism”.
If people are engaged, they are less likely to be enraged. If people are consulted, they have a better chance to consent. If social justice warriors continue to alienate, should we be surprised at how people retaliate?
So Donald … sorry. It was an interesting experiment and you will be missed. You served as a lightning rod merely as a means to boost your self-image. As the social justice activists on the Democratic Party’s socialist left continue to pursue their relentless campaign of imposing change and fixing humanity, the next lightning rod to step up will likely be far more clever, manipulative and dangerous. Then those rallies and primal chants will become more historically haunting.