This election, as we’ve all heard, is dominated by angry white people.
That is because the primary system is fundamentally racist. The first two presidential contests occur in states whose populations are 92% and 94% white, respectively. They are the only primaries that media pay attention to for months beforehand, nevermind that states that look much more like America than episodes of Petticoat Junction — with cities and African-American and Latino populations — will soon follow. No, the tide of this election and our future is set by these two racially, demographically, politically, and perhaps emotionally anomalous homelands of the peeved.
Thus the people who have a four-hundred-year birthright to anger are completely disenfranchised from the primary process thus far. And the people who are being attacked as outsiders because they know how to speak another language have no voice in it.
This is how we get Donald Trump: because media are paying attention only to angry white people and because media love the show he gives them. He is media’s self-fulfilling news story.
At Davos, Edelman presented its sixteenth annual Trust Barometer and as I’ve written before, I was shocked by the extent of the worldwide growth in mistrust and anger toward institutions, particularly government, among certain segments of the population. Edelman contrasts the attitudes of the informed elite (the 15% of the population who earn in the top 25% in their countries, are college-educated, and use news often) versus the other 85% — the rest, the mass.
Edelman found an accelerating disparity in trust of institutions between these two groups. The largest gap occurs in the U.S. with 19 percentage points separating the elite from the mass. There boils the dark and angry cauldron that has produced Trump, Cruz, and — yes — Sanders. In the U.K the gap is 17 percentage points. France, India, Australia, Mexico, and nine other nations in Edelman’s survey show double-digit gaps.
This isn’t just a phenomenon of the 1%, though inequality is a — no, surely the — key driver of the gap in institutional trust. This is also driven by media, an institution that, like the other institutions it covers, it losing control. Edelman found that “two of the three most-used sources of news and information are peer-influenced media” (that is, search and social) and the third is the peer-rabble-rousing medium, television; newspapers and magazines — as well as blogs — are also-rans.
Thus Edelman sees what it calls an “inversion of influence,” in which the elite might still believe it holds authority but the mass now holds influence. Influence no longer flows from authority. That is smart analysis by a public relations firm trying to understand the public’s relationship with the institutions and companies it serves.
But there is something else happening here, something much bigger in my view and it is not centered on “the mass.” To the contrary, what we’re witnessing is the disintegration of the mass as an externally, institutionally defined lumpenproletariat.
The optimistic way to see this phenomenon — and that is usually the first lens I try — is that communities can now find themselves and form around no limit of self-defined interests, needs, backgrounds, and lifestyles. The dystopian way to see this — which I’m afraid is how I see this election — is that the mass has devolved into a mess of mobs.
The mass isn’t supporting Donald Trump. A mob is. His gross numbers — as Nate Silver comforted us — are not overwhelming, though media would certainly like to make it look that way. The problem is that he has enough media attention to get people to follow him and enough people who follow him to get more media attention and when that internal combustion engine kicks over, we find ourselves cruising down the highway to hell. Media made Donald Trump. Donald Trump makes media. Jane, stop this crazy thing!
I could go on to call the followers of Cruz, Rubio, Carson, et al mobs, but the farther we get from the Trumplandia, the more unfair the characterization becomes. I wouldn’t call Sanders’ voters a mob. But they are just another relatively small, anti-institutional community — perhaps best seen as the political wing of #OccupyWallStreet.
Now what of the other communities that are getting no attention so far in this election because they are not represented in Iowa or New Hampshire; because they do not constitute big enough audiences to interest old, mass media and its business model built on volume; because they are chronically disenfranchised? The optimist in me would say they now have an opportunity to assemble and act together. The pessimist in me realizes that Trump beat them to it and with media as his willing accomplice is shutting them out once again.
As a small fix, I would so like to see a state that is more representative of America — say, Maryland or Michigan or my own New Jersey — get an early primary and the attention of media. Will that prevent the next Trump? Will we survive this election to find out? I shudder to ask.
The bigger story here is the one mass media doesn’t know how to cover: its own death and with it the death not only of its business model but of the construct media itself created — the mass.
Will we merely devolve into angry mobs, cliques, and communities, yelling at each other, egged on by desperate, dying, mass-media hacks? Or can we instead collect into larger societies of shared interest?
That is what I want to investigate now: What becomes of us after the mass? Trump? Or our better selves?