Donald Trump and Marshal McLuhan

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Marshall McLuhan’s phrase “The medium is the message.” is often quoted glibly. I am sure I have done this myself. It means, I think, that the medium through which we receive messages alters, itself, the way we view the world, the way we receive these messages and understand them.

I think we quote Marshall glibly because as white rats in the experimental lab we are not often able to see how the medium, or media, are changing our perceptions. And Marshall said this before the internet arrived, and certainly before Twitter.

I have never thought of Donald Trump as a clever man, a man of deep thought and consideration, but damned if he doesn’t appear to understand Marshall better than the rest of us. I assume this understanding comes from being a creature of the media, a man without an inner life of doubt and shame and empathy and consideration.

And within all the noise in the past few weeks and months about Trump, Zelensky, the phone call, the quid pro quo, one minor point seemed to go unnoticed. Trump asked Zelensky to open an investigation into the Bidens, father and son, and to announce this “in a public box”. He didn’t say “invent some dirt on the Bidens”, or “charge them with something”, he asked that an investigation be announced in a public forum. He knew that such an announcement on TV, cable news, Facebook, Google, and Twitter can, in and of itself, blossom into a fixed perception of guilt. It is the world we live in today.

Trump has also intuitively understood that the medium of Twitter and its daily onslaught can make the unacceptable acceptable, can deodorize something putrid, can make the irrational seem rational, and a lie seem plausible, through copy, assertion, and repetition.

Evidence that he intuits this rather than fully grasping it lies in the letter he sent Erdogan. As a series of tweets this might have passed. As a letter, the ignorance, grandiosity, and adolescence of the message was clear.

Then Trump goes back to his favourite medium and he tweets a bizarre accusation and clear intimidation while the witness, Yovanovich, is testifying in the impeachment hearing. And we find ourselves again pondering Marshall’s words.

Written on paper and delivered as a letter, or overheard and recorded on a wire tap, Trump’s words would be perceived and understood as clear evidence of witness tampering. The same message in the medium of a Tweet? Is it just Trump being Trump?

And where on earth are Twitter, Snap Chat, Whatsapp, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, internet forums, texting, and blogging for that matter, taking us?

1 thought on “Donald Trump and Marshal McLuhan

  1. Twitter tweets and Facebook headlines inspire knee jerk extravagant emotional reactions, like road rage on the page. The comments debate then continues in kind, often including personal insults concerning previous comments. This has reached a point of threatening freedom of expression, demanding that a person’s career be destroyed because they said something unpopular, or that their right to speak in public be shut down. Some politicians in England now require personal security due to death threats. Are these media influencing these reactions, or merely exposing what was always there — generalized anger and viciousness, contempt for facts and battles over ideology? I don’t remember newspaper letters to the editor being quite like this — of course, those were vetted. And that is the difference. We now have a free for all on the internet. Keeping an open mind, being willing to listen and to speak with care, researching the facts, engaging in civil discourse on the issues of the day, humility, are in short supply. It is so tiresome I rarely comment now on controversial subjects in these fora, as I don’t want to be drawn into the thread of poison. Sigh.

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