Politics, Detachment and the End of Earnest Discourse
Even before Donald Trump was elected president, much was written and said about the role of truth in politics. The conversation continues: “Fake news,” the buzzword of 2016, has been joined in 2017 by another oxymoron: “alternative facts.”
A less-discussed innovation of modern politics is the collapse of earnestness in public discourse. Sarcastic and ironic modes of conversation have sprouted like fungi wherever political discussion occurs --in political speech, formal journalism, social media formats, and on online content aggregators such as Reddit and Tumblr. This mode of discourse provides lazy, comfortable white noise as a backdrop to political discussion, a rhetorical style that can be genuinely funny but that masks a lack of faith in one’s words. Moreover, it deprecates sincerity as a value worth striving for while engaging others. A meme shared in the wake of the Russian ambassador’s murder in Turkey last December captured the sense of cynicism prolific today: affixed to an image of the assassin in mid-scream was a caption along the lines of “World War III might be starting, but at least it's fertile ground for online content!"
Americans watched in real time as this attitude exploded during the election cycle. It’s never easy assigning blame. Which came first, the chicken (candidate Trump’s Twitter feed) or the egg (the cynical and angry response from his critics on social media—and in the mainstream media)? “I love watching these poor, pathetic people (pundits) on television working so hard and so seriously to try and figure me out. They can't!” Trump tweeted back in August. His critics have consistently responded in kind.
On January 21, his second day in office, now-President Trump described his media tormenters as “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler on Friday assessed Trump's first week as "seven days of false claims, inaccurate statements and exaggerations," specifically noting his continued "difficulty with facts."
Earnestness, not to mention civility, has been in decline in American politics for a while. But the election -- and how the media covered it – accelerated the trend. Both general election presidential candidates this cycle were perceived as historically untrustworthy. With her reputation for mendacity and longtime mistrust of voters’ acuity, Hillary Clinton devalued the ostensibly sincere, traditional rhetorical style inherited from generations of nominees looking to inspire voters. For his part, Trump simply discarded it, pushing forward with the tone of a circus showman; indeed, his fans seemed eager to hear the anticipated boasts, flippancies, and outright lies.
Lacking compelling positive speech, partisan supporters took epithets meant to demean and repurposed them into defiant tokens of identification. Trump voters would modify their Twitter handles to include some form of “Deplorable,” while the phrase “nasty woman” became ubiquitous in captioning photos of female Clinton supporters.
Journalists responded to the great show of Trump’s bombastic candidacy by returning the candidate’s antagonism, thereby underscoring his central point about the press. Meanwhile, Clinton’s caginess in taking questions from the media was exhausting in its own right. The combination resulted in a sense of fatigue verging on cynicism in a lot of 2016 reporting, rendered even more negative by the unusual vitriol the candidates spouted at each other.
This was not lost upon consumers of the news. Already historically skeptical of the media, readers and viewers were exposed to journalistic hand-wringing over the “normalizing” of Trump’s behavior as news channels would cut away from regular programming to provide wall-to-wall coverage of the candidate’s rallies. Despite their naked hostility toward Trump, news outlets seemed obsessed with covering him, only validating the sense of distrust they’d already engendered. And when inundated with campaign melodrama, along with real-life tragedies occurring both near and far, it becomes difficult for news consumers to organize -- and channel -- their sense of compassion. The Internet provides a release valve for this: Its platform of faceless interactions enables users to discuss current events without the sympathetic signaling that in-person conversation entails.
And so develops a culture of ironic detachment, wherein the default response to the undifferentiated mass of news fades to no reaction at all.
There are structural reasons for this shift. The permanent digital footprint of even casual online discourse makes getting something wrong even more humiliating. As a result, the easy out is to cloak all comments in less sincere forms: jokes, irony, sardonic parody--aspects of language that fall short of earnest exchanges of ideas.
Other current trends offer little room for hope. The trigger-happy deployment of the term “fake news” is a tactic so toxic that it offers greater incentives to slander the source of an argument than to engage the argument itself. And as the media market has become more decentralized in the last two decades, political news consumption increasingly is limited to outlets in line with one’s ideological sympathies.
These changes, combined with the mutual antipathy between the new administration and the mainstream press that covers it, leave civility and sincerity very much in question as shared rhetorical norms. How these trends evolve – or further devolve -- over the coming years may not just determine the future of political discourse in the U.S. but the very nature of our politics as a whole.