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Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Red Tube, Blue Tube, and the Mnemo-Narrative of Trump

Donald Trump

I'm still idealistic about the internet. I still think, even with all that we've seen and done so far, that it can be a tremendous force for good, giving voice to the voiceless, enriching minds and providing a pathway to mutual understanding, the first and most fundamental pre-requisite of peaceful co-existence.

Of course, not being completely insane, I'm well aware of the fact that it does not currently do any of these things very well. The temptation here is go on a tremendous rant, excoriating the epic, biblical scale of stupidity which is displayed, minute by minute, in any corner of the net you might wish to name. The rational thing to do, however, is to ask why this is so.

Why is the internet so often such a disappointing place? Why has public conversation been so infantilised that most political discussion is indistinguishable from a screaming match between nine year olds? What's happened to feminism? And, most incomprehensibly, why is Donald Trump?

One idea which has been in the public domain for quite some time now is the 'echo chamber' effect. We filter our online experience through algorithms which determine our preferences and prejudices such that it forms a kind of feedback loop - we believe the world is a certain way, and social media sites reinforce this belief by showing us the world according to our conception of it. This means that without breaking the red tube/blue tube effect, we are continually being provided with 'evidence' that the world is, in fact, the way we think it is.

When it comes to the curation of personal interactions, I have absolutely no problem with this. We have so little control over other aspects of our lives, there is an imperative need to control the tenor of what little time we have that actually belongs to us. If your idea of Nirvana involves cat pictures and pseudo-spiritual platitudes delivered by meme, all I have to say to that is: "fill your boots." The problem arises when we then decide to filter news, politics and broader world philosophies through this same set of algorithms.

What this creates is an instant mythologisation of the real world. Without serious effort, it is actually impossible to qualify and compare sources or to access points of view which diverge from our own. This means that every time something happens, each segment of the political spectrum creates, in real time, its own instant mnemo-narrative of the event.

In the past, it used to take years for an historical incident to be warped, mythologised and then co-opted to support a world-view or a broader idea. These days, however, it happens instantaneously. A plane crashes in the Middle East and it's immediately hard evidence of Islamists destroying the world or the CIA protecting its alien overlords or, more generally, of the non-Western world being just a little more crap than our own.

And by the time the investigators and other more responsible brokers of information have caught up, it's too late. The mnemo-narrative has been created, and yet another bulwark constructed between individual ideologies and the pluralism of actual reality.

It is fascinating to watch this happening with the distasteful phenomenon that is Donald Trump. I watch the red tube and the blue tube, the right and the left, and what I see is mutual incomprehension.

On the one hand, we have a mnemo-narrative of Trump as hero of the downtrodden and the excluded. A man for the people, who is radically against the world as it is currently configured - a configuration, I might add, which has routinely excluded, exploited and disadvantaged the unskilled, the under-educated and the poor. The red tube is full of praise for Trump's attacks on 'political correctness' and, more broadly, on what it sees as the 'intellectual elite' and its contempt for the 'ordinary man in the street'.

Over on the blue tube, we see the representatives of this 'elite' being simply unable to understand what is being said and how any message so fundamentally stupid can be accepted by anyone. The mnemo-narrative being created here is of Trump as an atavistic fascist, using populist trickery to drag the world kicking and screaming into the 1930's. His followers must therefore consist only of fascists, racists and the cognitively impaired. Careful interrogation and refutation of his spoken arguments is seen as being the kryptonite best suited for the fight against the Trump phenomenon.

In a way, this is stupider than anything Trump has ever said. One of the major discontents being channeled by Trump is the feeling that the 'elites' think 'ordinary people' are stupid. To attempt to discredit this by calling Trump supporters out for stupidity is a wonderful example of the kind of idiocy possible in a world viewed entirely through partisan filters.

The simple fact of the matter is that what he says doesn't matter. Populism is about being popular, and one look at the world as it is now and has always been should be enough to tell us that popularity has absolutely nothing to do with competence, sanity, rationality or any other objective measure. Populism is all about speaking the language of emotion, and this is a language that does not so much form sentences as it uses tropes. Apparently nonsensical slogans become pregnant with multiple shades of meaning, and the aggregate of these slogans comes to represent the totality of one's discontent with the world. This happens all across the political spectrum, which makes it even more incredible that politicos are confused by Trump.

We need to get un-confused, and very quickly. If we keep concentrating on irrelevancies like words, policies and arguments, and fail to address the very real, very intense emotions behind the rise of Trump, we risk alienating enough of the population to result in his election.

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