On the podcast No Such Thing as a Fish, there’s kind of a running bit that illustrates how people have a hard time comprehending complex systems such as evolution, without wanting to assign motivation or direction to it. Often when they’re talking about interesting physiological behaviors or adaptations, they’ll word it in terms that suggest intentionality: like “the plant wants to reach the most sunlight,” or “the female spider wants to find the healthiest males to mate with.” Usually Dan Schreiber will ask something like “does the spider know this is the healthiest male?” to which John Harkin usually responds, “does she even know she’s a spider?”
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as I’ve been barraged with media that seems to want me to be perpetually panicked, angry, and frightened. Obviously, I’ve brought some of it on myself by diving back into the Performative Awareness Platform known as Twitter — even in read-only mode, it works perfectly as designed, taking me from resting anxiety to blood-boiling, panicked rage in about 60 seconds. But even when I’ve got that shit turned off, I’ve seen the people who I usually trust to be rational become obsessed with Trump’s bullshit rambling quotes about not accepting the outcome of the election. It’s a coup! He’s going to throw out the ballots and the Republicans are just going to appoint him President!
One of the only voices of calm and reason I’ve been able to find is from Teri Kanefield, who wrote a great op-ed for The Washington Post (and has been talking about it in Twitter threads). I’d encourage anyone who can get around the paywall to read it, but essentially, she reminds us all that he can’t do that. He can’t control state elections, he doesn’t have control over state legislators, and he doesn’t control the judiciary. He just wants you to believe that he can, because he’s losing in just about every legitimate poll available.
Of course, it is unequivocally, undeniably, unacceptable for the President of the United States to be casually speculating about a treasonous coup during a press conference. But, I mean, welcome to 2020.
People should understand now that it’s possible for something to be an unacceptable perversion of American Democracy and basic human decency; but also at the same time, meaningless nonsense trolling bullshit. I’m not saying ignore it. I’m saying don’t build a news cycle out of the headline “Trump is forming a coup to stay in office despite the election results.” The message should be that it’s unacceptable for him — or anyone anywhere near the presidency, for that matter — to be saying shit like this, not that it’s something that we need to be worried about and prepared for. If a child is throwing a tantrum and threatening to hold his breath until he passes out, you tell him to stop it; you don’t immediately call 911.
I think Kanefield’s key point — at least, it’s the one I most strongly agree with — is that all of this panic helps no one but Trump. It helps cement this baffling idea that he’s somehow powerful enough to overthrow the American government, control the minds of 50% of the population, bend the legislative branch to his will, and display a preternaturally savvy understanding of the media and how to manipulate it. All this about a barely-functioning moron who is clearly in way over his head. Who not only lost the popular vote, but lost it by the largest margin since 1876. Who is hated by the military — who I’m assuming would be at least nice to have on your side for a proper coup — because he’s a draft-dodger who routinely, casually, and openly insults and denigrates them. Who has the “support” of the Republican party, but only by means of a relationship that’s less like the houses in Game of Thrones and more like sharks and remoras, in that they’re spineless opportunists who don’t really give a shit about most human beings.
You can tell how widely Trump is disliked when even the conservative jackasses speak out against him. One such jackass has accurately pointed out that Trump’s interactions with professional media are more like professional wrestling than genuine governmental communication. And I can’t think of a better analogy than comparing Trump to kayfabe: He saunters into the ring and blathers off some racist, misogynist, blatantly anti-American bullshit. The people who we look to as referees or announcers all lose control and scream about this unprecedented display. No one can imagine what a decent American adult could possibly do when a competitor dares to break every norm of the sport and bring a folding chair into the ring oh my God I’ve never seen anything like this before, is this the end of America as we know it?!
If you’re in the media, or if you’re a politician hoping to stop this nonsense, then you have a responsibility when it comes to responding to Trump’s bullshit posturing, if you respond at all. What you don’t do is keep asking him if he’s going to do it, cementing the idea that it’s up to him to decide. Instead, you point out that he can’t do it, and that’s the end of the story. Or, if you believe that he can, you explain how, and you tell us all what the American public can do to circumvent it. It’s irresponsible to keep treating this asshole like he’s Billy Mumy in The Twilight Zone, magically gifted to enact whatever cruel whim he comes up with.
This whole incident is a perfect example of how the media — both legitimate and social — just stumbles over itself trying to give him more attention and more unearned significance. I suppose having someone in the office of the President who will just randomly spout out racist, fascist bullshit is like a negative zone version of the Puppy Bowl: it’s cheap, it’s easy, and it gets a strong, immediate reaction from the audience. And the state of mass media in the 21st century is a complex system that happens to feed off of knee-jerk reactions to blatantly provocative trash. Our insistency on immediacy, and on the distrust of gate-keepers, has created an environment where even the cheapest and laziest disturbance can ripple out into a gigantic, self-perpetuating feedback loop, more quickly than actual news has ever been able to spread.
But giving Trump credit for “manipulating” that environment would be as misguided as assuming butterflies have insidious powers of weather control when they flap their wings and cause a hurricane on the other side of the planet. (Now I’m going to be embarrassed when we discover the butterflies have been the supervillainous architects of 2020 this whole time).
If this is a chaotic system, like I’m suggesting, then it’s probably a mistake to assume malicious intent on the people warning us about every incident of Trump’s incompetently authoritarian, clown-fascist posturing. In fact, I’d assume that most have the best of intentions. After all, if the president is even casually threatening to refuse to leave office, it is news, even if it’s not an imminent threat. I think the issue is that people are ignoring the notion that journalism and politics are both supposed to be a public service. It’s not enough to tell us what’s happening; you have to either put it into a useful context if you’re a journalist, or tell us what you’re going to do about it if you’re a politician. But one of the few things that both the “left” and the “right” can still agree on is that our politicians don’t feel obligated to represent us. For over a decade, most of the people representing me in the federal government have been less interested in impactful legislation and more interested in crafting the most impactful, buzz-generating statements on Twitter. Let that sink in.
Calling Trump “the heel” — in the perpetual Wrestlemania that national politics in 2020 has become — can be interpreted as an attempt to diminish his awfulness, but that’s not the case at all. It’s not hyperbole at all to say that four more years of Trump would be catastrophic for this country. But it wouldn’t be a “master manipulator,” or some shadowy dark state puppet-masters taking over the country in a violent or non-violent coup. It would be more a case of Americans just giving into apathy, selfishness, and hatred, letting the cancerous decay take over everything. It’d become a nation of Tucker Carlsons and Kellyanne Conways. But calling him “the heel” is a good analogy because it’s a reminder he’s not just a tool for the Republicans to root for or hide behind. He’s there to give the Democrats somebody to boo at.
In 2016, the Democrats spent an entire convention reminding us that Trump was a demagogue. I’m guessing that they didn’t ask Michelle Obama what that word means, exactly, because they sure as hell seem to be trying to make us as fearful and suspicious of each other as they can. It should go without saying that I’m voting for Biden. And more than that, I like Biden, and I trust him, because he’s one of the few politicians at the national level who seems incentivized to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. But I don’t know what the hell Biden’s campaign is doing.
There are all the annoyances with overwhelmingly frequent donation requests, and tone-deaf and robotic messaging, which are all probably inevitable in a national election campaign these days. But what I find disconcerting are the messages that seem to be intended to make us afraid or worried. I’ve seen donation requests that claim “the polls” put Biden at Trump within 2 points of each other, so it’s crucial that I send a grassroots donation of $100 or more, even though I’d already read on the same day that Biden is winning significantly in polls all over the country. I’ve seen claims that the Trump is raising hundreds of millions of dollars and Biden is the underdog, right after seeing reports that Trump’s campaign is as bankrupt as his casinos and Biden is out-funding him significantly.
I understand the desire to keep people involved and keep voters from becoming complacent, but if you can’t do it honestly, then that sets a horrible precedent. When apathy is largely responsible for putting one of the most obviously shitty and dishonest people in the United States into the office of president, we can’t just shrug and say, “eh, politicians and political campaigns lie all the time. That’s just the way it works.” There’s something very dishonest about whipping people into a panic about the president stealing the election in an unprecedentedly underhanded coup attempt, and then telling us that the only way we can stop it is by voting. Doing otherwise just undermines the entire system of democracy that we have in place. You can’t warn people that they’re in imminent danger and then not give them any tools to actually do something about it.
There is no real choice in this election — it’s either Biden or disaster. But that was also true in 2016. I think a lot of liberals like myself assumed that since nobody in their right mind would vote for Trump, there was no chance he’d make it into office. And I think the Clinton campaign made the mistake of assuming that the race was between Clinton and Trump, when in fact the race was between Clinton and apathy. That’s exactly why I want the Biden campaign to focus on the whole “build back better” message (which I happen to think is perfect) and less on the “Trump is a lying piece of shit and he sucks” message. The reason is because the goal of the Democrats in this campaign shouldn’t be just to win, but to get people engaged again, helping build up our communities, restoring faith in our democracy and our ability to do better. Stop letting some shithead dominate the conversation and make everything about him. Instead, remind people how the government — and law enforcement — are supposed to work for us, instead of being in control over us.
In other words: back off the hyperbolic “coup” bullshit until you’re trying to get us to actually mobilize to overthrow the government. Until then, just try being honest with people about the severity of what’s happening in the government, and our role in it. If you want to encourage voting, encourage voting; don’t just gin up meaningless social media engagement and call it “activism.” If you want people to volunteer, give them opportunities to volunteer, and do what you can to make them productive. Give people opportunities to combat and counteract voter suppression attempts, instead of just being angry about them. As it is, yelling “Trump is going to throw out your ballots and steal the election!” seems only a step removed from “Obama is coming to steal your guns!”
Trump is obviously unfit for office, and he’d already done 10,000 disqualifying things before he even started lying about a disease that’s killed over 200,000 Americans so far. This is serious. But our role in it at the federal level is pretty simple and straightforward: research the candidates for local and state races as much as possible, make informed choices in those races, vote Joe Biden and Kamala Harris into office, and encourage friends and family to do the same. If we want to be more involved, we can volunteer for campaigns or volunteer to work at the polls. Or we can get back to focusing on local issues, where we can probably make better use of our talents and have a larger impact.
But part of the beauty of having a representative government is that the vast majority of us don’t have to spend every waking moment of the day in a panic about what’s happening in the federal government, because people have been screaming at us that not being anxious 24/7 is the same as being complicit. Hell, if you want to convince more people to vote for Biden and Harris, just remind them what it was like to wake up not worried whether the federal government had collapsed while you were asleep. Remind them what it was like to be able to travel and not be embarrassed to be American. Or to travel at all, for that matter. Maybe campaigns want each of us to feel like we’re super-important, but our actual role at the federal level is pretty simple and straightforward. But over 300 million people taking the responsibility to do something simple and straightforward can make for a complex system that wants to do the right thing.