For all intents and purposes, as of last night, Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president. A lot has already been written — and a lot more will be written — about how an erratic businessman with no political experience, receiving strong opposition from the party Establishment, was able to pull off such a sudden and unexpected coup. (One obvious and correct answer is that a white, male billionaire, with decades of media exposure and brand recognition, would never have had a particularly steep hill to climb.) But part of the story is that the internet is changing the political process in America. And Trump is, so far, the man who’s best managed to take advantage of it.
A few months ago, the journalism professor Clay Shirky laid out, in a series of tweets, a loose theory of the last half-century of media evolution, specifically as it’s reflected in party politics. It’s worth reading in full, but his central idea is this: “Politically acceptable discourse is limited by supply, not demand. The public is hungry for more than politicians are willing to discuss.” In other words, there are sizable constituencies in the U.S. for various kinds of “politically unacceptable” rhetoric and ideas — from violent nativism to Nordic-style socialism — that have generally remained untapped because access has been mediated by a relatively small number of institutional media gatekeepers.
Until recently. The national arrival of cable television in the 1980s, the internet in the 2000s, and social media in the 2010s, has, Shirky writes, hugely diminished “[t]he ability of elites to determine the outside edges of acceptable conversation.”
The new scale Facebook introduces into politics is this: all registered American voters, ~150M people, are now a medium-sized group. Reaching & persuading even a fraction of the electorate used to be so daunting that only two national orgs could do it. Now dozens can. This set up the current catastrophe for the parties. They no longer control any essential resource, and can no longer censor wedge issues.
No longer do (usually) rich, white, male, pro-business executives, party officials, and editors enforce the boundaries of discourse. Where those boundaries were arbitrary, stupid, and ignorant, this is an unambiguously good thing. Where those boundaries also included an at-least vague relationship to truth and reality, their erasure is a little more complicated.
That’s how we get Trump, a candidate who spent this week theorizing that another candidate’s father had participated in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It doesn’t matter how negatively or derisively the New York Times and the Washington Post cover the quest to prove that President Obama isn’t American, or even if they don’t cover it at all. A birther candidate can still reach his constituency directly.
If Trump is particularly well-positioned to take advantage of a new-media environment, it’s in part because he seems to embody it. One of Trump’s many striking aspects is that he speaks offline in the cadence of online discussion: raw, unfiltered, off-the-cuff. When discussing things with friends on Facebook or in Slack, or wherever you may be, the standard for truth, accuracy, and political correctness is lower. People share fake, problematic stuff online all the time. The general tenor of these posts is something like, “I don’t usually share things like this but it makes you think!”
This is how Trump talks: Worth is judged by its relationship to feeling, not reality. The truth is beside the point — the share generates conversation and attention, the true currency of the digital age. A popular running joke is that Trump embodies the most racist, sexist, and vitriolic aspects of a YouTube comments section, which is true but also not quite right. Trump doesn’t exactly talk like he’s commenting on YouTube. He talks like he’s sharing stuff to Facebook. “Did you see this? Pretty interesting!” If it turns out to be fake, so be it. It feels right.