“With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.”
– Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
“I’m running against the crooked media. That’s what I’m running against.”
– Donald Trump
Factoids and distractions
“It was a pleasure to burn.” With those words, we enter Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the tale of a dystopian society where firemen are tasked with torching banned books. In the Fahrenheit world, a controlling state has effectively destroyed literature, and men are reduced to learning books by heart if they hope to salvage the great works of yore. Unsurprisingly, Fahrenheit was interpreted as a condemnation of censorship and authoritarianism, and has been taught as such in classrooms worldwide for over six decades.
Except the book, Bradbury adamantly maintained until his death in 2012, is neither a cautionary tale about censorship, nor a criticism of an overbearing state. Instead, Fahrenheit seems to have risen from the subconscious of a man raised in modern history’s darkest times. “There was Hitler torching books in Germany in 1934, rumours of Stalin and his match-people and tinderboxes” said Bradbury, and out of the reveries of a childhood occupied with tales of the past, from the Salem witch trials (which his ten-times-great-grandmother miraculously survived) to the burning of Alexandria’s library.
Now, with its omnipresent screens, connected homes, and shortened attention spans, Fahrenheit 451, strikes a chord with the contemporary reader. Bradbury warns us of a society, in which we have let ourselves become numb and our minds be dulled by the constant carousel of half-truths distilled by television sets. Fahrenheit’s protagonist, Guy Montag, takes an interest in his young neighbor Clarisse McClellan because she dares to think outside the box, to observe and listen to others in a society where intellectualism is discouraged. Thus the danger, for Bradbury, was never an American dictatorship or political power gone awry, but instead, a self-inflicted abêtissement, a love of distraction so time-consuming it would turn us away from what originally spurred the need for distraction – reality.
“I’ve just been afraid of people playing their life away with too many toys,” muses an aging Bradbury in a short video posted on his website. Of Fahrenheit, he adds: “I wasn’t worried about freedom, I was worried about people being turned into morons by TV.” Bradbury elaborated on this fear in an LA Weekly interview five years before his death: “They stuff you with so much information, you feel full”.
That is so Media!
On 20 December 2016, Donald Trump tweeted the following: “We did it! Thank you to all of my great supporters, we just officially won the election (despite all of the distorted and inaccurate media.)”. Within this set of parentheses is what sets Mr. Trump apart from his forerunners: a declaration of antagonism that concludes a campaign presented as a battle waged on behalf of millions of forgotten Americans against a coastal elite symbolized by this vague “media”.
In Super Sad True Love Story (Granta, 2010), Gary Shteyngart told the tale of a middle-aged man raised by Russian immigrants and a perky Korean-American girl colliding in the muggy debauchery of an Italian summer before diving headfirst into an unlikely romance. In Shteyngart’s imaginary United States, books are “bound media artifacts” regarded with confusion and disgust. In a dystopian New York City, nothing is more desirable than to work in the creative economy, any stranger can rate your “fuckability”, and the word “Media” – capitalized – has turned into an envious interjection: “That is so Media.” America may not have become the scathing dystopia described in Super Sad True Love Story, but Shteyngart’s depiction of its rapport to intellectual life, made of equal parts hysterical admiration for the elite and defiance towards sophisticated thought, is dead-on.
The U.S. now awaits the inauguration of a President that perfectly embodies this knee-jerk attitude to the media. It is well-known that Donald Trump does not care much for journalists (“the lowest form of humanity”), even though their relentless, frenetic coverage of his antics brought him a victory he didn’t even seem to believe in himself. Nor does the next Commander in Chief express any gratitude for the role played by the press in safeguarding democracy through the exercise of free speech. Of course, Donald Trump will not be the first president to display such defiance for the press: Richard Nixon, for example, famously did not take kindly to the Fourth Estate (“The press is the enemy.”) But never before had a presidential candidate made his contempt for journalists one of the selling points of his campaign. Nor had one worked this hard to instill doubt in the public’s mind regarding the veracity of the reporting done by some of America’s foremost outlets. A cursory scroll down Trump’s feed yields countless targeted attacks on the media, from Vanity Fair (“big trouble, dead!”) to NBC (“inaccurate and bad”.) Trump’s vendetta against the press, which has included vague mentions of a potential libel law reform, appears to be motivated by a strong sense of personal injustice and an inability to handle the critical scrutiny associated with public office. We only need to read these excerpts from a March 2016 conversation between then-candidate Trump and The Washington Post:
“Okay, look, I’ve had stories written about me – by your newspaper and by others – that are so false, that are written with such hatred – I’m not a bad person. I’m just doing my thing.”
“If The Washington Post writes badly about me – and they do, they don’t write good – I mean, I don’t think I get – I read some of the stories coming up here, and I said to my staff, I said, “Why are we even wasting our time? The hatred is so enormous.” I don’t know why. I mean, I do a good job. I have thousands of employees. I work hard.”
“I’m not looking for bad for our country. I’m a very rational person, I’m a very sane person. I’m not looking for bad. But I read articles by you, and others. And, you know, we’ve never – we don’t know each other, and the level of hatred is so incredible.”
We might venture that the same desperate exclamation (“hatred!”) does not come up three times in the course of a single interview without revealing… well, something. But beyond Donald Trump’s personal grudge against the press lies a calculated strategy to mount Americans against the so-called media. To that end, Trump used the press’s largely critical coverage of his campaign as cannon fodder to beguile voters around the country that life’s greatest pleasure, for the educated, multicultural, liberal higher-ups, was to mock the less privileged. A strategy motivated by Donald Trump’s intuition that he did not stand a chance with moderate voters, and which led him to devote the bulk of his energy to drawing previously disengaged citizens to the urns, pitting them against their fellow Americans. “Make America Great Again” may well have been secretly intended to be heard as “Make American ours again”, whether “us” be the disenfranchised or … the white.
While his winning strategy consisted in delegitimising journalists by lumping them together with a despicable stratosphere inhabited by “the elite”, Mr. Trump is unequivocally a member of this elite himself: with a net worth of $4.5 billion and a Wharton education, he does not seem to have much in common with the poor, uneducated voters he successfully courted. But the elite he refers to in vehement tirades is a different one altogether. It is what Leonid Bershidsky described in The Chicago Tribune as “the U.S. intelligentsia: the left-wing academia in its ivory towers, policy wonks moving seamlessly between prestigious universities and the government, journalists always happy to quote the so-called experts.” A recurring motif in modern history, this hate of intelligentsia, so much so that it has a consecrated name: anti-intellectualism.
Anti-intellectualism and the reign of emotion
A relative newcomer to national politics, Trump could not be the candidate of the political establishment, or the candidate of experience. Neither could he be the candidate of knowledge, for reasons that are becoming more obvious each day. Instead, he chose to bet on America’s social fracture and become the candidate of emotions, of the fear, resentment, and frustration felt by many in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and which Trump channeled against the political ruling class and the establishment.
Yet this strategy would have fallen short if Mr. Trump did not, in fact, share this resentment towards the elite, and if this resentment did not come from an earnest place of jealousy. His manner of speech and vocabulary betray the fact that there is still one club Donald Trump cannot buy his way into: that of intellectuals. He is well aware of this – why else would a UPenn graduate call himself poorly educated, as he did while delivering his victory speech in Nevada? (“I love the poorly educated. We’re the smartest people, we’re the most loyal people”.)
Donald Trump’s anti-intellectualism worked superbly with voters because it is so visibly a core component of his personal identity. His wound is patent, shining through every time he uses the words “smart” and “stupid” to rate others’ personal value. The President, who reportedly had “never heard of Brexit until a few weeks before the vote” (New York Times) has managed to turn a narcissistic wound into a source of pride. “He’s not just ignorant, he’s proudly ignorant,” writes Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations. “He brags about how he doesn’t read books. For him, this is a point of pride, and unfortunately it is for a lot of his followers as well,” followers who Mr. Boot described as white working-class citizens with “a long tradition of hostility towards knowledge.”
Complexity is the enemy of Donald Trump, who won by selling a black and white worldview and continues to propose comically simplistic responses to some of the world’s most pressing and convoluted issues. Structured around the “great” and the “nasty”, Trump’s Manichaean perspective make no room for nuance. But nuance and complexity are at the heart of intellectualism and of evolved human thought. Doubt is a fundamental component of that, which allows for the constant refinement of our thoughts and opinions and eternally incomplete understanding of complicated realities. Donald Trump does not doubt.
Hostility towards knowledge and rejection of complexity are no new developments, and Mr. Trump is of course not the first man in American history to use anti-intellectualism to ensure his political success. Hate of the perceived elite has always been a powerful force in American political life and culture – see, for example, Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 Pulitzer Prize winner, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”.. Anti-intellectualism, which Hofstadter described as a “resentment of the life of the mind and those who are considered to represent it”, is a constant in American political life. But it has never been carried forth with such strength by a United States President, with one simple, specific goal in mind, whether conscious or not: to do away with the truth.
What is Truth?
“I really don’t appreciate campaigns thinking it is the job of the media to go and be these virtual fact checkers.”
– Kellyanne Conway
“A little hyperbole never hurts.”
– Donald Trump in Trump: The Art of the Deal (1987)
Like his predecessors before him, America’s new President speaks to the people. But his voice does not address the nation in carefully-chosen words, vetted by a team of strategists. Because he ran, and won, on the premise that he, unlike his adversaries, was “one of us”, on the same wavelength as the capital-P “people”, Donald Trump could not afford to address the nation in the same ways as past presidents. Instead, his voice booms daily over social networks, the most democratic (no pun intended) invention of the early 21st century. Ever free, open to all, Twitter, Facebook, et al. have made the idea that all human voices carry equal value a technical reality. At long last, here are platforms even more conducive than television to everyone’s favorite life plan, the fifteen minutes of fame, platforms where the anonymous and the famous can mix, the former revelling in the illusion of proximity with the latter. With his Twitter account, Mr. Trump gifts us unprecedented insight into the uncurated thoughts of a newly elected President. But mostly, he gives himself a precious gift: that of making the traditional press look expendable. No longer is the press a precious mediator, deciphering political events for the public. By delaying press conferences, refusing to answer journalists’ questions, or foregoing press releases in favor of tweets, Trump ensures that his falsehoods and lies, disguised as the truth, reach the public and fester in their mind long before the press ever has the chance to respond and analyze, challenge or criticize.
In the age of Trump, the public will have to sift through the information it is offered with a critical eye, something which is not likely to happen. What will differentiate journalists from liars with a blog? At face value, nothing. What will differentiate fake news platforms from established pure players? At face value, nothing.
And with facts lost in an outpour of fake news go complexity and, ultimately, truth. Echoed millions of times over social media, presented as facts by deceitful news outlets of the “alt-right” (read: white supremacist) persuasion, Trump’s lies will drown out fact-checkers and journalists alike. They will threaten the sanctity of truth and encourage liars and conspiracy theorists to come out of the woodwork in droves, as they begun to during the campaign. Trump will likely continue to issue unsubstantiated statements in 140 characters or less with the utmost confidence, just as he claimed that Barack Obama had created ISIS, just as he spurred the “birther” debacle, and just as he stated that he had seen Muslims cheering the fall of the World Trade Center with his own eyes.
What his use of Twitter ultimately highlights is Donald Trump’s unhinged relationship to truth: not necessary, not useful, not an obligation, not an end. There lies the danger in Mr. Trump’s laughable Twitter logorrhoea: his opinions are presented as facts, and because they are, his claims can no longer simply be treated as opinions, respected by default and best left untouched. They should be treated as factual ambitions, and thus be subjected to constant, minute scrutiny. It will fall to the press to try to ascertain whether Trump’s falsehoods are merely the result of his ignorance, or deliberate lies uttered by a sworn-in President. But journalists are not mind readers, and their most crucial role will be to draw the public’s attention to each and every single falsity that comes out of Mr. Trump’s mouth or Twitter account, and to correct them for the benefit of all. Fact-checkers will be very busy in the coming years shining a light on complex truths, less easy to comprehend and less entertaining than Mr. Trump’s brash assertions. It will be their job to make sure President Trump’s credibility is as undermined as that of any other liar or fool.
But mostly, it will be everyone’s job to protect the truth by upholding what Donald Trump so direly lacks: the right – no, the obligation – to doubt. If they don’t, Donald Trump’s anti-media discourse, his prime role in the rise of “post-truth”, will make of America what Ray Bradbury warned against: a society where people willingly abandon truth and complexity in favor of easy distraction and shock value.
Donald Trump is ushering us into the age of Post-Truth, an age where our handheld screens and their endless parade of viral videos, Facebook shares, and Twitter rumors may come to replace the science of journalism and phase out the currency of truth. But there is one powerful force, made of thousands of men and women, whose mission is to prevent that from happening: the press.
“Fahrenheit is not about censorship, it’s about the moronic influence of popular culture through local TV news, the proliferation of giant screens, and the bombardment of factoids,” says Bradbury on the video. He stares away from the camera.
“We’ve moved into this period of history that I described in Fahrenheit fifty years ago.”