Planning your escape to Canada? Before moving to the land of poutine and progress, consider just how many would-be Trump voters live there. Thinking about Europe? Trump voters are there in droves. You can run from the President-elect, but you can’t escape his voters.
Donald Trump is merely an American expression of a Western crisis. We are living through a pivotal historical transition, where postmodern subjectivity and technology have intertwined in a profoundly destabilizing fashion.
Trump voters, in the United States and across the world have been simultaneously disempowered and empowered in this moment. The very technologies that have destroyed so many ‘traditional’ jobs in advanced post-industrial countries also created, in the internet, a series of siloed information and rumor exchange economies. Media organizations, universities, governments and other “guardians of knowledge” have had almost no chance against these virulent rumor economies.
As we struggle with the implications of the Trump vote in America, it is vital we recognize the President-elect didn’t just see an opportunity in the misery and anger of those who feel left out. He saw an opportunity in the self-quarantined post-fact conversations enabled by digital rumor economies.
As we analyze this phenomenon, we need to recognize it is global. Trump voters share characteristics with supporters of other right-populist leaders, including: anger at a loosely constructed notion of ‘elites’; titillation and an uptick in loyalty in response to bad behavior; and, an agonistic relationship with facts.
Look no further than Canada or the UK. Just over six years ago, Toronto, the most diverse city in North America (or the world, according to the BBC) chose as their mayor a bigoted, loud-mouthed, anti-elitist, multi-millionaire. When, in 2013, the late Rob Ford became world famous for smoking crack cocaine, his support remained high.
Or, consider Boris Johnson, who emerged as a central figure in the pro-Brexit campaign. He comes from Rob Ford central casting: casually racist, anti-elitist, and uncouth. Indeed, there are an astonishing number of similarities in the careers, personalities and visuals of Johnson, Ford and Trump. Their personae appeal to the disempowered and encourage a playful disregard for truth. After Trump’s impressive victory, radicals, like France’s Marine Le Pen, are already planning to follow a similar blueprint to victory.
In a world full of Trump voters and wannabe Trumps, the United States is the country I run to. It is not the country I run away from.
Consider liberal Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is just barely a year into his term. On most issues, he does represent the progressive cosmopolitan Canada of liberal American dreams. He has embraced Syrian refugees. And, he made a powerful statement about women’s equality by ensuring gender parity in his cabinet, “because it is 2015”.
But, Trudeau was elected after almost 10 years of Conservative Party rule, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. For almost a decade, scientists had been forbidden from publishing reports that didn’t fit government priorities. Media organizations were intimated, defunded and, arguably, censored. Government officials were forbidden from speaking to the press. And, we’ve just learned Quebec police have been spying on journalists for years.
This sort of thing is possible in Canada because it lacks America’s strong Constitutional protections. Canada has a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but what it allows government to do would make the average American faint (Google ‘notwithstanding clause’ to get a taste).
Trump’s blatant disregard for key principles of American government and civil society give pause. His aggressive approach to media, in particular, suggests he would be pleased to do away with the First Amendment. Try as he might, he simply can’t ignore it.
Let’s not be naïve. It is already becoming clear that he is going to try to work around and between it (Steve Bannon as chief of staff?). So, we will need to be vigilante. But, the First Amendment gives citizens a great deal of power. And while we are absolutely justified in fearing what Trump will do with the ever-growing powers of the imperial presidency, we need to take a deep breath. Even with reduced checks and balances, he simply doesn’t have the power a figure like Le Pen might command should she win in May.
The Constitution is a shield that is far more powerful than similar but ultimately weaker instruments in too many other liberal democracies. It is what brought me to this country and it is what will keep me here, even with President Trump.
And, it is because of the Constitution that I truly believe Americans are best positioned to address the global Trump voter phenomenon. Behind the shield of the Bill of Rights and checks and balances, we can begin to unpack this ugly fusion of subjectivities and technologies.
We need to start with media. Yes, cable news should shoulder some of the blame the 2016 election. And, that conversation has already begun. But, the conversation we desperately need isn’t about the MSNBC or Fox News bubbles. Cable news is too small and too local. The real conversation is digital media. Facebook rumors begin anywhere and spread everywhere. Digital media silos the world.
Global Trump voters will likely continue to put their faith in the post-fact digital rumor economy. In the US, at least, the First Amendment also protects that space. So, we have a clear job: we must resuscitate the internet. We must rework digital rumor economies into healthier engines of a global knowledge economy.
It is time to admit the utopian promise of the 1990s internet has largely been forgotten. Instead, we’ve become infatuated with the commercial promise of networks that allows precise demographic targeting and predictive marketing. What we haven’t been honest about is that those technologies don’t just measure behavior. They create behavior. They encourage population silos and knowledge/rumor bubbles. They profit from it.
For years, Apple told us to think different. In 2016, too many Americans did.
Silicon Valley helped enable post-fact rage. It is now time for the architects of the digital rumor economy to take responsibility for their contribution to the problem and to come together with other leaders and institutions to build a solution.
The Trump voter is a global problem. The solution must be American.