The Media Supplied the Kindling

…and most of the fuel for the political phenomenon and conflagration that is Donald Trump. And it all goes back to ratings.

Let me explain. Quite a number of books and articles by reputed scholars and others that point out – despite the troubles in the U.S. and elsewhere – that we still live in the most prosperous time in human history, with the longest average life-spans and best health, and a far lower percentage of people living in extreme poverty or dying from violent causes. That doesn’t mean life is perfect, only that for most people, it’s a whole lot better than at any other time in human history. Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence, despite the statistics, a majority of Americans feel that things are getting worse.

While there’s no doubt that this is true for some people, the fact is that in any dynamic society, things are getting better for some people and worse for others, and in the last decade, middle class earnings haven’t increased, or depending on the definition of middle-class, have actually declined a few percentage points, which is significant if it’s your income. But… compared to a generation ago, things are a lot better. And the vast majority of people suffer less from infectious diseases and from sicknesses caused by environmental factors.

Yet there are huge segments of the population who talk and act as if the United States is on the verge of collapse, despite having the largest economy in the world, the most powerful military force the world has ever known, and a high-tech industrial base that no one else can match.

Why?

Because every news program, as well as social media, is permeated with problems and disasters, tales of violence and killings, disaster after disaster – and this has become even more prevalent in the last fifteen to twenty years. And this media-blitz does nothing to put this in perspective. Yes, we have terrorist attacks, but so far this year the total casualties in the U.S. are in the low hundreds, if even that high. We kill over 40,000 people on the highways in a single year, and there’s pressure in many states – as in my own state of Utah – to increase the maximum speed limit. Our freedom to “bear arms” results in over 300 million firearms and over 13,000 deaths a year… and we oppose any further gun controls – but the country is going to hell in a handbasket because a handful or two of Islamic or other terrorists kill a few hundred people?

Modern media technology can tell us of bombings and natural disasters anywhere in the world in minutes, when in the past, people didn’t find out for weeks, or even years, if they ever did at all. This contrast makes the past seem so much safer than the present, when in fact, the opposite is true.

Unhappily, this decades-long media diet of gore, violence, and disaster has created a public belief in how bad things are – and Donald Trump has used this to great advantage in stirring up fear, distrust, and anger. What’s most amazing to me is that the fact-checking outfit Politifact has stated that 70% of Trump’s statements are either mostly false, false, or blatantly outrageously false, yet most Americans don’t see matters that way. By comparison, only 28% of Hillary Clinton’s statements fall into the mostly false, false, or blatantly outrageously false category, yet most people think the two are in the same general range of untrustworthiness. And that, I submit, is because of the media slant on the news in general, that is, “bad is good, terrible is better, and the worse it is, the better for our ratings.”

And, one way or another, we’re all going to pay the price for the media’s gorging on disaster and despair in order to fatten their bottom line, not that my observations, or all those of the scholars who’ve studied the matter in far greater depth than the media or Donald Trump, will persuade many people after decades of commercial brain-washing.

A Few “Obvious” Basics

I was recently reminded that sometimes I state the obvious, and that’s true. But there’s a reason why I do, and that’s because even intelligent people who are wrapped up in busy lives often tend to forget the obvious, particularly when that particular obvious isn’t part of those lives in a meaningful way.

Nonetheless, dismissing or disregarding the apparently irrelevant obvious can have great peril, particularly in government. Government is the tool that human societies use to regulate human behavior. In the United States, government laws and regulations and modified economic capitalism set the boundaries because even the Founding Fathers recognized that without order there is no liberty. Setting boundaries always involves trade-offs. Like it or not, there are no perfect absolutes.

As an example, since I do have a background in environmental matters, I’ll state an obvious point. There is no clean perfectly environmentally sound way of generating electrical power. Every single method of generating power has significant environmental downsides. People cite solar power, but while the power itself is clean – at least here on Earth – every system built to use it effectively requires extensive industrial processes involving toxic chemicals on a huge scale. Hydro-power requires dams, and dams have adverse impacts on water flow and wide-spread eco-systems, not to mention the underlying geology, or the pollution involved in building the dams, turbines, and even the electrical distribution network. Nuclear power plants produce virtually no emissions, but leave a significant long-term radioactive disposal problem. Natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel, but drilling for it releases far more methane than has been recognized until recently and burning it raises atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which, along with the methane, increases global warming. There are similar drawbacks to various other “clean” power sources as well. Burning coal is the cheapest way to generate electrical power, but coal is the most environmentally damaging source of electrical power.

So… if government allows the unrestricted use of coal-fired power plants, electric power is cheaper, but the health and environmental costs are the highest. Thus, our government has attempted to strike a balance between health and cost. People can and do argue about where that balance should be struck, but no matter where it’s struck, there will be costs and health effects.

Free trade agreements result in lower prices for consumer goods, but they also drive higher cost U.S. industries off-shore and reduce U.S jobs in those industries. Raising tariffs against foreign imports in those industries might preserve some of those jobs, but at the cost of raising prices to U.S. consumers, and only for a while, until, as has already happened, those industries replace workers with higher tech machines that lower production costs. All of that is obvious, but U.S. workers who lost jobs don’t care. They’re angry, and they’re going to vote against “the establishment” that “let it happen,” even though the establishment had little choice if those companies wanted to stay in business because, overall, Americans voted with their dollars for lower prices from automated factories or off-shored labor over higher-priced goods produced by more U.S. workers.

Voting against the “obvious” in this case has two possibilities – either restrictive trade barriers that will trigger retaliation, resulting in higher prices and economic deterioration, as happened in the 1930s, which made the Great Depression worse, or lots of rhetoric changing nothing.

Obvious, but not so obvious, trade-offs also occur in non-economic areas. Police “profiling” does reduce crime, but the down-side is that it results in harassment of the poor and of minorities and creates political and civil unrest. Yet not having a more intensive police presence in higher-crime areas actually results in higher death rates from violence in those areas, but that presence results in more arrests and arrests for minor offenses, offenses that often do not result in arrests in more affluent areas, and those arrests have long-standing and negative economic impacts, especially in black communities. There isn’t a good, simple, or easy solution, and any solution here will have costs to some group or another.

In the end, there’s always a reason for the “obvious,” and that reason is seldom a given politician, businessman, or government bureaucrat. But the all too human response, and one that’s coming to the fore in the current election, is to focus anger on the candidate who doesn’t seem to think the way you do.

Politicians, business executives, and bureaucrats are all trying to strike the balance they think is most favorable, and while that balance may not be what you think is the best one, they’re really not out to destroy a “way of life,” unless, of course, your way of life involves crime, discrimination, environmental degradation, or shameless exploitation of the vulnerable.

But then, it’s so much easier to insist that the problem is obvious, that there’s a simple and equally obvious answer, and that all it takes is one person in charge who has THE ANSWER, rather than support leaders who are willing to acknowledge that problems in the highest technology and most complicated society in history require thought and compromise, especially since, in all history, there never been a single simple and workable answer to a complex problem, no matter what the current demagogue insists.

“Toughing It Out”

Over the weekend one political correspondent suggested that Hillary Clinton’s tendency to “tough things out” might cost her the election. I think it’s fair to say, as others have, that Clinton is not a “transformational” candidate and would not attempt to make radical changes to government if she became president. Despite the rhetoric from the far right, Clinton is essentially an “incrementalist improver,” regardless of what her supporters or detractors claim. She wants to make further progress on the issues important to her, as she has outlined in fairly extensive detail. She is not suggesting major changes. Trump would try to make broad, dramatic, and sweeping changes, although it’s highly unlikely that he’d have much success, for reasons I’ve outlined in past blogs.

But the election isn’t coming down to what either candidate can or cannot do. It’s coming down to the commitment of their supporters, and those supporters are going to be moved more and more by emotion in the coming weeks.

Currently, most polls have the two candidates in a virtual deadlock, but there’s one area where Trump has a significant advantage – and that’s in the commitment of supporters. According to a poll cited on CBS news, 90% of those eligible to vote favoring Trump are determined to vote, while slightly less than 80% of those favoring Clinton are determined to vote. Assuming that the current polls are correct, if voter sentiment remains close to even and those commitment levels hold up, Trump will win, and it may not even be close.

Clinton’s problem is that incremental improvement doesn’t motivate people as much as the great and sweeping statements made by Trump. And while I won’t claim to speak for anyone, from my perspective, it seems as though, among those who seem to be key to her election: (1) black voters are getting tired of incrementalism and want more dramatic and effective efforts to remove the remaining discriminatory impediments that disproportionately affect the black community; (2) younger Americans want decisive action on improving education, lowering the costs of education that students and their families bear, and improving job opportunities for younger workers; and (3) a great many women, especially younger women, are tired of the continuing pay and opportunity gap between men and women, unhappy with the continuing number of glass ceilings that are all too infrequently broken, if broken at all, and want more than incremental change that never seems to solve the problems they face.

I’d submit that Clinton’s incrementalism simply isn’t motivating those who should be her supporters to the same degree that Trump’s sweeping and emotional appeals are motivating his supporters. Part of this is because incremental improvement doesn’t lend itself to sound bites, and most people find the recitation of facts boring. Part of it is that people want to see that their candidate is passionate about his or her beliefs. And part of it is that “toughing it out” is a mindset all too foreign to younger voters, who want immediate change, and they want it now.

One of Trump’s “strengths” is that he clearly believes whatever he’s saying at the moment, even if he changes his mind later. He’s very much “in the moment.” Hillary Clinton isn’t nearly that much “in the moment,” and she continues to act as though her long and dedicated effort to what she believes in speaks louder than emotional promises, but most people don’t see the work she’s done and don’t think that the past speaks to the present. They only see the images, and today images speak far more than substance.

“Toughing it out” might work for Clinton, but I have very strong doubts that it’s going to be effective in this election.

The Problem of “Perspective”

I’ve noticed a growing trend in public and private discourse over the past several decades, where people at all levels, but especially at the higher levels of politics, business, and, for lack of a better word, “celebrity,” offer their perspective as if it were factual. And they’re using the term “perspective,” as if to convey greater weight than mere opinion. Now, I know their “perspective” is factual to them, but the selective use of facts converts them from the realm of attempted accuracy to mere opinion. And, as a very old saying goes, “You’re entitled to your opinion, but not [just] your facts.” Or just the facts you find convenient.

We all have the tendency to ignore unpleasant facts, those at variance with what we wish to believe, or at the very least to give them less weight and credence, and to overweight those facts that support what we wish to believe. And none of us is truly objective, nor can we be, because, by nature, we’re subjective. But the mark of the truly thoughtful individual is to attempt to weigh all the facts, to fight against the immediate instant opinion that comes to mind, and to consider those things which he or she would rather not.

There is a practical problem with this, however.

Aristotle classified arguments by type, those rooted in facts and figures (logos), those that rely on the speaker’s expertise and credibility (ethos), and those playing on an audience’s emotions (pathos). Donald Trump clearly relies on his reputation, essentially saying he’s an expert, while playing almost entirely on the emotions of the audience. There are virtually no credible facts and figures, but that apparently makes no difference to the effectiveness of his arguments because his appeals are overwhelmingly gut-level emotional.

Hillary Clinton has also relied on her expertise, but she has attempted to present her case for being president far more on logical basis, and polls have consistently revealed that she is weaker than Trump in appealing to her audience, or any other audience. All too many of her supporters are merely “with Hillary,” and not with as strong an emotional connection as Trump supporters have for him.

The problem is that winning this “argument” and the presidency can clearly be accomplished without accurate facts.

I can certainly understand the concerns of disenfranchised former white male middle class industrial workers. The changes in industrial production methods, especially automation, and world trade patterns have effectively destroyed tens upon tens of thousands of U.S. semi-skilled jobs. But the facts suggest that no amount of political rhetoric is ever going to bring those kinds of jobs back. And anyone’s “perspective” that insists a politician will be able to overturn the impact of massive technological change is mere unfounded opinion. Yes, better skills training will equip workers for the new kinds of jobs, but the old ones are gone forever. The logical basis of this argument doesn’t appeal in the slightest to all too many of those displaced, and when it’s placed in an emotional context, facts lose out in the hearts and minds of all but the most thoughtful individuals.

Global temperatures are rising inexorably; glaciers all over the world are shrinking or vanishing; practically every month in the past year has been hotter than that same month in any previous year, something that as far back as we’ve been able to measure has never happened before. Summer northern polar ice caps are the smallest ever measured, and water temperatures around Antarctica are continuing to rise. Yet there are those whose “perspective” denies this. Do we know the precise reasons for this? Not to decimal point precision, but when global temperatures for centuries having been rising in concert with rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and human activity is at present the major source of increased carbon dioxide, the facts strongly suggest that we’re responsible. Trump doesn’t bother with the facts; he makes an emotional argument that global warming is a hoax, suggesting it was perpetrated by China.

In comparison, Hillary comes off as a policy wonk, trying to persuade people, and one thing I’ve learned from twenty years in politics is that facts are never enough to convince anyone who doesn’t believe you in the first place. Lyndon Johnson once observed that you couldn’t change people’s hearts and minds until you “have ‘em by the balls.”

And those differences between Hillary and the Donald are why this election, barring some major surprise, will be very close, and why Donald Trump may well win.

The Misogyny Card

As I noted a good year ago, Donald Trump has made a blatant and multifaceted appeal to the less than college educated white males who feel disenfranchised by industrial automation and by the offshoring of once high-paid semi-skilled jobs. Call that the disenfranchised white male card.

What has been part of this appeal, but largely overlooked, or thought to be merely a by-product of Trump’s boorishness and crudity, is a pervasive attack on and minimization of women, particularly intelligent professional women. I’ve seen too many “Trump the Bitch” bumper stickers to believe that his attack on women is merely macho boorishness, although it’s certainly that. Widespread bumper stickers aren’t the product of lone wolves.

Why else do I think that Trump’s use of the “misogyny card” is deliberate? Because of who happens to be replacing those “disenfranchised” white males. As jobs for semi-skilled white males have dwindled, the numbers of higher paid jobs for women, particularly educated women, have increased (if not enough in my opinion). And in many ways, Hillary Clinton is one of the first of those women to take on directly the last citadels of male privilege… and, sorry to say, all too many men, particularly white men with less than a college education, don’t like powerful women.

The attack on Hillary Clinton for her “lying” and “untrustworthiness” amounts to a proxy attack on women in general. After all, is Trump exactly the paragon of truthfulness and integrity? He’s lied time and time again, and he’s certainly not trustworthy in business deals. Yet there’s almost no furor about Trump’s lying and untrustworthiness.

Why not? Because it’s not newsworthy? Or for some other reason?

Men, again, like it or not, have created an image of women as more deceptive and secretive than men. Yet, for example, more men than women have extra-marital affairs. Interestingly enough, as more and more married women work and have come to earn more money and power, the percentage of married women who cheat has increased. Obviously, this is a form of “power” and is just another movement toward gender equality that grates on at least a certain percentage of men, and not just those who have less education.

Over a career that spans fifty years in the military, in business, and in government, I’ve seen, time after time, the good old boys and their attacks on competent women. For some reason, what men do in government and business is just fine for them, but not for women. Years ago, after I’d just promoted a woman over several male colleagues, one of them cautioned me that she was “ambitious and out for herself,” totally ignoring the fact that all the male candidates were every bit as blatantly ambitious. She did just fine, and in fact, far better than those who succeeded her when she finally moved on. When women are attacked for doing what men do in the same field, same time, and same way, and the “boys” aren’t, it’s misogyny.

And that’s what Trump’s doing, and what the media is doing is letting him get away with it. But then, after the Roger Ailes scandal, why should we expect anything else?