By Dr David Laing Dawson
I apologize for writing again about Donald Trump, but what is happening in that country south of our border may be very important for all of us. Many pundits have been sharing their views, but when you are living at the time of a tipping point in human affairs it is very hard to see what is coming.
I previously commented on Trump’s off-the-cuff speech pattern being akin to that of a teenager with ADD. (my apologies to all bright articulate teenagers). Well, there are two possibilities: that is his natural speech pattern and it reflects his pattern of thought or… or he is faking it. Which means he is masterfully engaging his audience in this manner because he understands the brain of those raised on Talk Radio and Duck Dynasty. I don’t mean to make light of this. It is a much worse alternative to thinking he simply suffers from some ADD, both for what it says about him, and what it says about our Reality TV and Celebrity Culture.
I remember the moment Television changed democracy. Nixon vs Kennedy. Nixon did not look good on camera. At the time people speculated that FDR would not have been elected had every household owned a television. As we know either Nixon looked better on color television or his consultants taught him how to look better next time around.
Over fifty years have passed since the Nixon Kennedy debate, and since that time the makers of film, television, and other commercial interests have become much more sophisticated in the manipulation of the human mind/brain. Which boils down to tapping into our arousal systems, our reward systems, our primitive fears, anxieties, frustrations, anger, our primitive responses, our seeking of certainty and security. The digital revolution has given them amazing tools to do this. The very tools that can make information and wisdom available to all can be used to make us play video games for days on end, binge watch a cable series, and tune in for another episode of “Reality Television”. We get hooked, we say. Well, yes, that is the point. A bit of fun, then mystery, then anxiety, threat, struggle, fear (albeit vicariously) then resolution and reward, repeat. Our brains love this stuff.
(McLuhan’s famous dictum “the medium is the message” sounds rather quaint now.)
Donald Trump knows this. Or he is a phenomenon created by this “Reality” TV culture.
Perhaps he is a one-off, an accidental politician, a throw-back, the subject of many future dissertations subtitled, “How and why did this happen?”
Or he is a sign of the times, a man of these times, a man who understands the way entertainment can tap into the human brain and destroy the boundary between truth and fiction, the manner repetition creates reality, the manner in which simple phrases can instill anxiety, the manner in which bluster can convince, and our brains’ desire to repeat that anxiety, fear, struggle, resolution, reward cycle as often and as quickly as possible.
Like the despots who managed to corrupt nascent democracies in the past Trump stirs up primitive anxiety, fear and anger and then offers us fentanyl, the quick fix. And he does this with a mastery of the new media and an accidental or calculated understanding of the brains of the fans of Reality TV.
Well, for the sake of my grandchildren I hope this is a one-off, and less to do with the impact of absorbing reality TV, entertainment, and video games with faster and faster editing taking us through that anxiety/arousal/reward cycle over and over again for many hours each day – I hope it has less to do with that and more to do with the residual racism and sexism in the American culture. The latter can be improved over time. I don’t know what we do with the former.