Decades ago McLuhan, an obscure Canadian academic, correctly predicted today’s Twitter-ish, instantaneous, electronic culture, where ideas mean less and image means more. Computers and television are now themselves the purpose and reason, not the ideas they project. Phrases like “the medium is the message” and “electronic interdependence” led us to a new reality: “The world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside ... we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors.”
Sound like anyone we know?
Trump has perfected a politics where the actual ideas matter less and less, where truth itself is irrelevant, and where outcomes are a function of messaging, not consequences. And where “panic terrors” are the chief political currency we all use.
Nothing better illuminates the new reality than Trump’s political successes. For two years, Republicans and Democrats would carefully explain the baloney and danger implicit in the Trump agenda. The response was 140-character outbursts. Call it marketing or branding but his ability to crystallize and move public opinion was revolutionary and brilliant. “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “winning again” didn’t need evidence and logic. Everyone understood what he meant. Add them to Twitter’s electronic ubiquity and you end up with the President of the United States.
For all it’s success in the campaign, there’s evidence that governing is a different animal. Eventually, in the health care debate, the hard reality of numbers and ideas rose up and bit Trump hard. Spin it as he tried, taking healthcare from 20 million Americans couldn’t be Tweeted away. Nor could the virtues of the Iran nuclear deal, or the practical limitations of building “the Wall,” or the strength of the Chinese.
No matter how fast he works his thumbs, reality has impinged and his tenure as president is a much diminished version of his time as candidate for president.
That’s not to say he can’t recover. A smarter man would have tailored his actual proposals to limit opposition. But that requires him to pay attention to more than the message, which ain’t gonna happen.
The lesson is that opposition to Trump will succeed only to the extent that he loses control over the internet debate. His instincts on health care were politically sound at the beginning, when he challenged right-wing orthodoxy by refusing to repeal Obamacare without a replacement that would protect the newly-covered. He let Paul Ryan and the Koch Brothers drag him from his original position and made him the president of “mean” health care. He might not make that same mistake on other parts of his economic and social agenda.
That would reinvigorate his McLuhan-ish strengths. One way or another McLuhan’s predictions are now realities. Trump is tweeting us into a brave, new world. A worse one, if the human consequences are measured.