Two dystopian novelists, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (published in 1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (published 17 years later in 1949), rocked the West by challenging foundational suppositions that are the bedrock of America’s liberal democracy. It was with some relief that 1984 came and went without an Orwellian nightmare. Fears that we would be overcome by externally imposed oppression, that books and printed media would be banned and we would be deprived of information and, ultimately, the truth, never manifested themselves.

Huxley, quite apart from Orwell, had offered a different prophecy. He feared there would be no reason to ban books, because there would be no one wanting to read them and that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. In 1984 people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell prophesied that what we hate will ruin us, Huxley, the opposite, that what we love will ruin us.

In 1985, just a year after Orwell’s ominous date, a comparatively obscure professor of media ecology, Neil Postman, wrote (among 19 other books) Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, one of the most influential and germane nonfiction books I read last year.[1] After observing 36 years of history unfold after  Orwell’s 1984 was published, Postman concluded that of the two celebrated novelists, Huxley’s Brave New World was more prescient.

Postman died at age 72 in 2003, having been an eyewitness to the encroachment of his gravest concern: that television would destroy the “serious and rational public conversation” that was sustained for centuries by the printing press.

Moral Reasoning and the Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind, written in 2012 by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, attempts to give us some guidance in coping with a most vexing contemporary political problem that has reached the boiling point: the presidency of Donald Trump and the resultant adamant, uncompromising, and often acrimonious political polarization that has driven a wedge both between Americans and the members of Congress who represent them.[2]

Haidt aptly describes the horns of the dilemma. We humans—unlike all other living creatures—are capable of forming large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship. Our advanced linguistic proclivities allow the creation of moral narratives that ground these communities through defining jointly held definitions of righteousness.

Those definitions, however, are rarely explicit. Rather, our moral reasoning typically occurs on an intuitive level. Rational articulations of those values are typically ad hoc and post facto. Societies that hold common values still often find themselves at odds, such as the perennial debate over abortion and Roe vs. Wade.

When these inevitable conflicts arise, Haidt encourages us to give the counterparty the benefit of the doubt. If we know that 99% of our moral reasoning is the result of intuition, we may become more empathic and less likely to react negatively when the moral arguments of others conflict with our own.

An Attempt at Gracious Critique

Donald Trump is unquestionably a phenomenon. Holding Haidt’s hesitant rush to judgment in one hand, I venture to say that were Postman alive today, I doubt he’d be surprised by the ascent of Trump on the global stage. Moreover, he would most assuredly attribute the uniqueness of Trump to his (Postman’s) very caution against intellectual atrophy.

As explicated in our 2019 annual report, recent decades have seen the religious, political, and social beliefs that root our lives come under siege. While not assuming causation, we see modern innovations in technology—the latest being the ubiquitous smartphone and its innumerable apps—creating entirely new conditions of thought and existence.

To examine the election, presidency, impeachment, and acquittal of Donald Trump requires we employ Haidt’s admonition and give Trump’s ardent loyalists the benefit of the doubt. It would be disingenuous to suggest that there aren’t smart and educated people on both sides of the Donald Trump dichotomy. Moreover, their moral narratives likely overlap more than they diverge. What if, though, the effect of modern technology is robbing friend and foe alike of the space and time to listen? What if Trump is merely a bit player in a much bigger, evolving drama?

Postman elegantly captures the heyday of 1780s media, writing, “America was the first nation ever to be argued into existence in print.” He cites Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and The Rights of Man, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers as documents written and printed to make the “American experiment appear reasonable to the people, which to the eighteenth-century mind was both necessary and sufficient. To any people whose politics were the politics of the printed page, as Tocqueville said of America, reason and printing were inseparable.”

Those thought leaders and framers of the Constitution lived in the world of the printed word with its emphasis on logic, sequence, history, exposition, objectivity, detachment, and discipline. Most importantly, these mediums strongly induced an audience to listen.

With the advent of television, along with its predecessors including the telegraph, public discourse was quickened. The emphasis in public communication has become imagery, narrative, presentness, simultaneity, intimacy, immediate gratification, and quick emotional response—i.e., the ideal medium for a person with Trump’s personality and skills. Television’s redefinition of what we once meant by the terms “political debate,” “news,” and “public opinion” was brought into sharp relief when Trump made public his presidential aspirations in 2015. The importance of attention was highlighted by the spectacle of his entrance, slowly descending from “on high” via the Trump Tower escalator. The limited attention that audiences (or presidents) have is demonstrated by the two-minute response allotted candidates in presidential debates.

Essentially, while reasoning may be more intuitive than cognitive, the latter still has a role to play. It allows the listener to, at a minimum, understand the different opinion of their opponent and to reflect on the emotions generated by the intuitive impulse. The faster communication becomes, the less apt the audience is to this task. Further, social media have segregated the conversations so that audiences are no longer diverse masses, but discrete tribes. This derives, perhaps, from the very nature of media today.

The Real Medium of “The Media”

Media no longer exist primarily for the communication of information but more as a conduit for material consumerism. Without advertising, there would be no television. Even product marketing didn’t gain an economic toehold until the beginning of the 20th century. The Postal Act of March 3, 1879, gave magazines low-cost mailing privileges. It was only a matter of time before a fundamental principle of neoclassical ideology was cast aside: namely that the producer and consumer were engaged in a rational enterprise in which consumers made choices on the basis of careful consideration of both the utility of a product and their own self-interest.

Today’s television commercials rarely extol the character of products but, rather, the character of the consumers of products. The images tell little about the product but everything about the fears, fancies, fantasies, and dreams of those who might buy them. Advertisers need to know not so much what’s right about the product but what’s wrong about the buyer. Product research has shifted to market research, causing business to shift from making products of value toward making consumers feel valuable.

Apply that template to the marketing of Donald Trump. For the tens of millions of Americans who feel disenfranchised, Trump has used the media to reach them at a most visceral level. His vitriol, invective, and crass commentary—from which few have been spared—have changed the rules of political discourse. The more aberrant his behavior, the more he distances himself from the coastal elite, the more he appeals to average working-class Americans, sometimes referred to as ordinary Joes or Joe Sixpacks.

By eschewing the 50-year-old convention of White House press briefings since the end of 2018, Trump has unleashed in their place a daily barrage of grammatically challenged (I’m-one-of-you) tweets that has fomented a direct, filter-free link between his loyalists and the White House. The segregated audiences of the newly spawned social media platforms allow the listeners to rant and rave in their echo chambers unburdened by social convention to listen carefully or critically. The very medium erodes social norms, something most mainstream platforms still maintain. Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian media analyst of the 1960s, was right then—and even more so now—when he said, “The medium is the message.”

This is the epoch of the synthetic crowd, strangers coalescing in virtual space around any number of proliferating causes. So observed French polymath Gustave Le Bon, whose short masterpiece about crowd behavior during the French Revolution, The Crowd: Study of the Popular Mind, was so persuasive that more than a century later it unwittingly captured the imagination of both Hitler and Mussolini. According to Le Bon:

The most striking peculiarity presented by a psychological crowd is the following: Whoever be the individuals who compose it, however like or unlike be their mode of life, their occupations, their character, or their intelligence, the fact that they have been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind that makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from what each individual would feel, think, and act were they in a state of isolation. There are certain ideas and feelings that don’t come into being, or don’t transform themselves into acts, except in the case of individuals forming a crowd.

Moreover, Le Bon noted that crowds exhibited the psychological characteristics of “impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgment of the critical spirit, the exaggeration of the sentiments, and others.”

Empowered by today’s technologies, the Trump phenomenon, in certain respects, reflects the mass-psychology characteristics of which Le Bon wrote, the impact of social media being a new and largely unpredictable addition to the equation.

The behavior of the capital markets resembles the crowd in far more classic ways. The introduction of new technology in finance merely exacerbates the latent tendencies of human greed and speculation. Until just a week ago, volatility in the S&P 500 was near-record lows, levels not seen since the volatility complex blew up in February of 2018. The “impulsiveness” of the crowd is the mean reversion of quiescent volatility. Whether the catalyst is a medical virus or a financial one, like that which gripped the markets in 2008, a change in direction spells trouble for those who haven’t adequately prepared for the eventuality. Given the continuously stratospheric valuations of equities today, we believe that such an eventuality is likely closer than most exuberant investors think.

While humanity’s crowd-mentality tendency offers no silver lining for capital markets, for Haidt it isn’t always an intrinsic evil. The same usurping of the individual that produces a riot or a lynch mob also produces altruism, heroism, and other forms of self-sacrifice. As the world tackles novel viruses, a climate crisis, and any number of domestic trials, such forms of altruistic service may be the best hope for rescuing a democracy under siege.

[1] Inspired by Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, I wasted no time in turning to Postman’s sequel, Technopoly, written in 1993.

[2] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

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