Making America Scared Again

After ruminating over the national conventions these past two weeks, I want to comment on the Republicans first. I am disturbed by their peddling of a fantasy that we are living in a post-apocalyptic scenario. The opening day of their convention was themed “Make America Safe Again”, despite the fact that violent crime has been declining in the United States since the early 90’s. In his speech that day, Sheriff David Clarke argued that to make America great again, the country would have to be safe again. He cited a recent Gallup poll finding that most Americans (53%) worry a great deal about violence in 2016—the highest since 2001. He spoke of a collapse of the social order in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Baton Rouge. And yet the United States at the end of the Obama years is in the midst of its lowest crime rates in 45 years. This was effectively brushed aside by Trump—he suggested we focus on very particular statistics about crime going up in big cities in 2015 relative to 2014. Afterward, Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich crowed about how politicians deal in feelings, not facts; implying he’d continue to encourage people to fantasize about a post-apocalyptic scenario that, of course, only Trump can save us from.

While Republicans may represent an extreme in fact-free politics, false beliefs about escalating violence are not unique to Republicans. News media—both mainstream and independent—have financial interests to cover violence vividly and thoroughly. And even when covering relatively mundane issues, the media looks for and encourages conflict as it commands more attention than agreement or complicated nuances. As CBS CEO Les Moonves put it in February in the context of the rise of Donald Trump’s politics, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” However, the problem is not as simple as the popular scorning of “the media” implies. Exclusively reporting mundane reality predictably gets lower ratings than more sensationalist fare. This is true for obvious reasons. Human beings find sex and violence far more interesting than subtle insight and comparative statistics. After all, the evolution of our consciousness, just as the evolution of all other living systems, has been driven by reproduction and survival (and so we’re particularly fascinated by sex and violence). And as a result of the same evolutionary history, we prefer narratives to make facts more memorable and comprehensible. It’s only natural that fantasy plays a central role in our society.

This central role of fantasy is troubling in the context of democracy. In the case of Donald Trump, what is most troubling is the fact that his ascension proves that there are tens of millions of Americans ready and willing to vote for a cartoon-like narcissist for president. Regardless of who wins in November, this group will continue to live in a shared fantasy world. Trash talk radio will continue to make money patting listeners on the back for seeing the world “as it really is” (i.e., for living in this shared fantasy world). The Republican establishment fought hard to defeat Trump… and lost. Trump’s rise is genuinely populist… and delusional. This is a problem that our media has failed and continues to fail to cover.

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