Donald Trump and public discourse

Posted November 24, 2016
By Richard Moon

What is left to be said about the election of Donald Trump and the state of political discourse in the US and Canada?  Not much, I suspect, and so what follows may already seem familiar to many readers.

It has been apparent for some time that the advantages of the new media, notably the reduction of the access costs and editorial control associated with the traditional media -- that had kept some speakers and perspectives out of public debate – are also its drawbacks, contributing to a fragmented public sphere and the flow of (false) news that is often unchecked and un-contradicted. The election of Donald Trump has made us painfully aware of these drawbacks. Many voters came to accept false claims about Hillary Clinton simply because they were repeated so often and were not challenged in the social media sphere of these voters. The acceptance of these claims was certainly aided by ‘confirmation bias’ – our tendency to accept as true that which supports our existing views – and by the dominance and acceptance of the advertising model of communication, which seeks not to persuade its audience but instead to impact them emotionally or viscerally. But it may also be the case that many of us receive information in the new media, without having shed habits or assumptions developed from our reading/viewing of traditional media – news sources that seek to be accurate, even if they are sometimes limited in the scope of the views they provide. These habits had earlier contributed to the success and influence of Fox News, a precursor of the internet’s false news sites. The extreme, and often dishonest, partisanship of Fox News became possible only with the repeal under the Reagan administration of the ‘fairness doctrine’, which had required broadcasters to be ‘fair and balanced’ in their reporting – no small irony given the network’s slogan.  

Politicians in the US and Canada have in the past appealed to prejudice, often in coded language. In Canada, the previous government’s talk about ‘barbaric cultural practices’ is an obvious example. But no one before had imagined that a politician -- at least at the national level – could make explicit racist and sexist statements and still be elected. The Trump campaign reminds us that hateful or bigoted speech – particularly from a high profile individual -- is a concern for two related reasons. It can encourage the spread, and the openness, of bigoted views and hostile actions. Attitudes that were publicly dormant or privately concealed are raised to the surface of public life and daily interaction. And it can encourage ‘isolated’ acts of violence against members of a particular group, acts such as ‘gay-bashing’. While it is unlikely that a large group of individuals will be encouraged by hateful speech to commit violent acts, the risk or likelihood of an individual – ‘a lone wolf’ – or small group taking action is significant.

Spin or distortion or even lying is now an expected part of politics. Indeed, we have become so cynical about politics that we may even view a politician who is scrupulously honest as a poor politician or an ineffective leader. (Many years ago Kim Campbell during an election campaign made several frank remarks about politics and economics. She was criticized in the media for these remarks, not because they were untrue but simply because they were not the sort of thing that a successful politician was supposed to say during a campaign. She was criticized because she was too honest – and good politicians are never that).  But there had been limits to this acceptance of deceit or distortion. A politician might twist the truth, but she/he could not eschew it entirely. Or the voters might suspect that they were being told things that were untrue or exaggerated – but as long as the lie was not exposed then it was accepted as part of politics. However, if the candidate was caught out in a lie, she would almost certainly be defeated at the polls – although even that seemed to change with Rob Ford. Ford often lied. He would deny and deny the truth until video evidence made denial no longer possible. Yet he always managed to  redeem himself with an apology. With Donald Trump the rules have again changed. Even when he was caught out in lie after lie, Trump would carry on – without apology or even acknowledgement – and offer a fresh lie. Even the façade of truth no longer seems to be necessary. For many voters the appeal of Trump is that he is ‘plain spoken’, ‘direct’. He may lie repeatedly, but in the minds of his followers, he speaks a larger truth. They accept that politicians must engage in fiction and fabrication in order to advance this truth.

Trump’s election may also mark the culmination of another change in politics. There have always been individuals who have sought political office for personal gain – and here I mean financial gain and not simply personal vanity or gratification. Many people, though, sought office to advance the public good and not simply their own interests or even the interests of their class or ethnic group. Even when politicians pursue a neo-liberal agenda of reducing the role of the state and ‘freeing’ the market to distribute goods, they defend the pursuit of self-interest in the private sector as something that is in the public interest – that is to the benefit of all. In this way they continue to draw a line – however thin - between private interest (as the motivation of market actors) and public interest (as the motivation of politicians). But with Trump even this thin line now seems to have been erased – or is in the process of being erased. Already we have seen that he and his family are willing to use his political position to advance their business interests. And we also have begun to see an electorate that is willing to say, ‘why shouldn’t he take advantage of his position in this way’ – that sees politics as little more than the pursuit of self-interest. 

Running a campaign for Congress still involves significant expense, even with the increasing role of new media. Despite Trump’s claim that he will ‘drain the swamp’ of corruption and undue corporate influence in Washington, nothing will change as long as there are no real limits on the amount of money that can be spent in support of candidates and policies during (and in between) election campaigns. The US Supreme Court has blocked all important legislative efforts to limit campaign expenditure and will continue to do so as long as a majority of the Court’s members are Republican appointees – who believe that the spending of unlimited amounts money in support of speech is protected by the First Amendment. None of the individuals on Trump’s list of potential appointees to the Court are likely to join with the  progressive (Democratic-appointed) minority on the Court to reverse this position.