Bubble babble

I’m entirely certain you’re well-acquainted with the idea that “media bubbles” are a big problem right now, effecting disinformation and perverting ideology and generally destroying society in an orgy of postmodern technological mediation. Certainly, there is cause for concern; unlike in the past, when everyone had complete correct information that they used to make fully rational decisions, nowadays humans have somehow become closed-minded and parochial. The figure of the barely-informed loudmouth shouting his kneejerk opinions into the public square represents a truly new development in history. And now that bad things are happening in politics, which has never been the case before, it’s clear that something must have gone horribly wrong.

No, okay, so I’m super annoyed about all the hyperventilation, there’s nothing more obnoxious than small-minded arguments against small-mindedness, but there’s also a real issue here. The internet certainly is generating a world-historical amount of garbage data, and political polarization really has increased to an extreme degree. The fundamental dynamic at issue here is what pretentious people like to call “epistemic closure.” When one’s sources of information or methods for evaluating it are limited in some fundamental way, certain areas of knowledge become inaccessible – or, worse, only accessible in the wrong way, such that the formation of inaccurate ideas comes to be considered true knowledge. Fox News will never give a sympathetic hearing to an idea like universal single-payer health care, so if that’s where all your information comes from, you can never develop an informed opinion on this topic. It’s important to realize that this is an absolute constraint; it’s not that it becomes harder to get to the truth, it’s that it becomes impossible. This is the double-edge of the Enlightenment ideal: since there’s no such thing as divine wisdom or whatever, you cannot form correct ideas without accurate and comprehensive information, regardless of how smart or conscientious or committed you are.

Now, one of the few positive results of the 2016 election is that no one is any longer laboring under the delusion that there’s any kind of “unbiased” source that can be relied on for complete information. “Traditional” news sources simply represent one particular set of biases. There’s plenty of issues on which they’re incapable of informing you. Most obviously, an enforced centrist perspective will fail to understand a situation where the “center” is falling apart and all new growth is happening on the “extremes” (that is, it will understand the situation incorrectly, as a “breakdown of communication” or a “legitimacy crisis” or whatever). So the popular response to this is the idea of a “balanced media diet.” The worry is that the internet allows and/or forces people to self-sort into ever more polarized communities, so you have to make the effort to seek out sources that oppose your existing beliefs. The villains then become “algorithms” that deliver pre-polarized information, or “cult-like” communities that suppress dissent.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The most important source of epistemic closure is our finitude as physical beings. Simply put, there are only so many hours each day you can spend reading shit, so it’s more than a little odd to argue that people should be spending more of said hours reading things they believe to be more wrong. If you could really read everything, and also spend the requisite time to analyze and distill it all, then sure, that would solve the problem. In reality, though, you have to choose what you’re going to care about, and any choice you make is going to define a particular horizon. If you’re a feminist, for example, you could spend half of your time reading feminist sources and the other half reading anti-feminist sources, and this would give you a “balanced” perspective, in the sense that you’d understand what’s going on on both sides. But this understanding will necessarily be shallower than the one you’d get by focusing your time on one side; you’ll miss deeper arguments and distinctions and internal diversity. For one thing, you might come to believe that there are only “two sides,” which is not the case. Anyone who knows a second thing about feminism knows that its herstory is coated with blood spilled by many thousands of vicious internal disagreements. One way to get over feminist dogmatism is to read more anti-feminism, but an equally effective option is to read more feminism. There isn’t one choice that “works” and one choice that doesn’t. There are different choices that have different effects. Some bubbles are bigger than others, but you can’t not be in a bubble.

This is why blaming the internet or “algorithms” or whatever misses the mark. Like, I don’t enjoy defending tech assholes, but they really just aren’t relevant to this situation. There is a sort of consumer rights issue here; people should be able to find out how their feeds and things are being customized and change them if they want to. But arguing that search results should be more “responsible” is arguing the opposite: it’s arguing for non-transparent corporations to have more control over what people read. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that most people talking about this are only thinking things through from their side. They see lots of “bad” articles floating around, and they feel like “someone should do something,” so they imagine that Google can somehow code social responsibility for them. Practically speaking, though, you can’t make that kind of a distinction in general.1 “Misinformation” is a value judgment made by the end user. If you write an algorithm that adds more articles about global warming to the feeds of denialists, that same algorithm will necessarily also add more denialist articles to the feeds of people who believe in global warming. You can’t have it both ways. Rather, trying to have it both ways is exactly how things get fucked up. Someone at the New York Times gets it into their head that they have a “liberal bias” that needs to be corrected, so they hire an Islamophobic global warming denialist to write opinion columns. Problem solved.

People want to read things that accord with their beliefs, and – this is the important part – they have good reasons for doing so. The reason feminists, for example, disprefer reading misogynist diatribes isn’t because they’re offended or whatever, it’s because they believe feminism to be true, and they’re obviously more interested in reading things that are probably true than things that are probably false.

You don’t just automatically start understanding things once you’ve read broadly enough. You have to process the information, and how you do that – and why you’re doing it – is going to affect what conclusions you end up with. Like, there is a problem with certain types of feminists spending all of their time yelling at Bad Things and not actually developing their ideas. But if you’re one of these people, and you decide to “broaden your media diet,” all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to find more things to yell at. It’s going to strengthen your existing biases, and that’s going to happen regardless of what it is that you’re reading, and the reason for this is because it’s what you want. This isn’t even a bad thing, because the only way this is not the case is if you lack the ability to critically analyze information, which is, um, a somewhat worse situation to be in. If your goal is just to avoid being wrong, then you might as well not read anything. But if your reason for reading things and drawing conclusions is to do something with the information, then you can’t just wait around until you’re “sure,” because that’s never. In order to actually get somewhere, you have to take a stand somewhere and start moving, which will necessitate rejecting opposing ideas. Breathing underwater requires a bubble.

I’m not just applying this to my own side, either. The fact that people believe all kinds of weird conspiracy theories about the Clintons makes perfect sense, because the Clintons really are classic amoral political schemers, so if you’re opposed to them, it’s more accurate than not to assume that they’re up to some shady shit. Besides, liberals believe whatever nonsense people come up with about Trump, too. It’s the same thing. This is the normal way human communication works.

It does remain the case that the normal way human communication works is badly, and that real lies have real consequences. If you believe that Planned Parenthood is literally dismembering infants and selling their body parts to, uh, somebody (I’m not deep enough into this to know whence the nationwide demand for baby torsos supposedly originates), your advocacy on the subject is going to be somewhat more zealous. But learning the actual fact that only X% of Planned Parenthood’s expenditures go towards abortion-related services doesn’t change the moral calculus of the situation. If abortion is evil, then a little bit of it is still evil. It’s certainly worthwhile to correct lies, but you can’t fact-check your way around morality. If abortion is actually moral, then Planned Parenthood’s particular operating details don’t matter. An organization that spent 100% of its funds on abortion and sold the remains for ice cream money would be a moral organization. Focusing on the nuts and bolts here means dodging the real issue, and this is generally the case in political discussions. Even if Clinton really did use her secret email server to help the Illuminati plan Benghazi, the actual question at hand remains which policies we prefer to advance as a society. In general, misinformation does not add a unique problem to our existing difficulties in figuring out how to talk to each other. It makes things worse, but it’s not itself a crisis.

What is a crisis is when these sorts of discussions become impossible, when an enforced “healthy diet” drains the flavor from the world. When you’re stuck reading nothing but “respectable” media sources, that’s when you have a real problem, and extremism is the solution to that problem. It’s what makes new things possible. Which means that, yes, even the recent explosive growth of rightist extremism has to be understood as a positive development. InfoWars may be maximally false, but if you don’t have InfoWars, you also don’t have the truth. The fact that people have these beliefs is a bad thing, of course, but given that they do, it’s better for them to be out in the open. I mean, their agenda hasn’t actually changed, right? Reagan talked pretty on the TV, but his whole cut-services-and-fellate-corporations deal was exactly the same thing as what the current government’s up to right now. People lately have been praising Bush Jr. for talking nice about Islam, but he was doing this at the same time that his administration was turning Muslims into America’s new Great Civilizational Enemy; Trump is just picking up where he left off. Those situations were worse than the one we’re in now – rather, those situations are why we’re now in our current situation – because there was more obfuscatory rhetoric that had to be disentangled before you could get at what was really going on. This is now less of a problem; we’re getting closer to the point where people actually know what the stakes are.

It’s comforting to imagine that there’s a “middle ground” where we can all get along peaceably, but there’s not. Extremism doesn’t create disagreements, it reveals the disagreements that were already there, because people have real disagreements. Pretending this is not the case prevents anything worthwhile from ever happening. We don’t want a society where there’s “reasonable debate” about sexism, where half the time the Hyde Amendment is in place and half the time it isn’t. We want a society where sexism doesn’t exist. We want everyone trapped inside the feminism bubble, permanently.

This is the truth that must be acknowledged. All the things that people are so concerned about these days – political polarization, ideological extremism, the speed and diversity of information, the dethronement of traditionally respected sources of various kinds of authority – are the things that are, in spite of everything, going well. There’s no way to “fix” this, because it’s not broken. What was broken was the “end of history” bullshit that convinced people there were no fights left to be had, and that situation is now better. We are more confused now because we are closer to the truth – we have, in at least some sense, stopped lying. This is what has to happen. Getting the ocean without the roar of its many waters is not a real option. The real options are: retreat or advance.

 


  1. From a technical perspective, the reason this can’t work is that you have to write the code before you know what data it’s going to be run against, so you would have to be able to predict what information is going to be true or false before that information has actually been generated, meaning you can’t rely on the details of the information itself, meaning you can’t actually be making a real judgment as to whether it’s “disinformation” or not; you can only be relying on contextual coincidence. And if you try to get around this by using human intervention, all you’ve done is appointed an arbitrary, unaccountable person to act as an arbiter of truth, which is obviously several steps backwards. 

This story must be told

Okay, one more obnoxious post-election lecture and then I’m going to get back to what I was supposed to be working on before the bottom fell out of the world. That’s not a retreat, by the way, it’s actually my first point: the way we get through this is by recognizing that we have better things to do than to pay attention to fucking politicians all day. The way we defeat Trump is by resisting where we can but otherwise continuing on as though he has no power over us, because he doesn’t. Living well is the best revenge.

The problem right now is that people are making various points about everything but nobody’s really connecting the dots. The question isn’t why the media guessed wrong about the outcome, that obviously doesn’t fucking matter, the question is why the media was unable to convey to Trump supporters the fact that he was not actually going to help them. Especially seeing as that’s the exact thing that the media is supposed to be for. Like, of course the Democrats aren’t doing anything to help people who are economically struggling, of course Clinton didn’t offer people anything in this regard, and of course we are required to address this issue if we are to have any hope of constructing a society that works for people. It would be one thing if Trump were a racist/sexist/authoritarian/etc. who was actually going to try to help people who are getting screwed over by technocratic globalization. In that case we would have to have a conversation about tradeoffs and symbolism and soforth. But everyone who’s been paying attention agrees that he’s bad for all those other reasons and he’s also going to be terrible for poor people. So this is not about signing on to Clinton’s agenda, it’s just that anyone concerned about any issue should have recognized that, on whatever issue that was, Clinton would have been less bad than Trump. Asking “whether” Trump won because of racism or economic anxiety is a stupid question, both because the answer is obviously both and because either issue should have disqualified him: his administration is going to be super racist and it’s also not going to help poor people in any way. We do still have to go through all of the usual political nitpicking and maneuvering and everything, but the fact that the worst possible candidate won is a critical issue all by itself.

When Trump started getting popular based on racism, the various branches of the political establishment noticed it, and their reaction was to support other candidates. So there was the “never Trump” movement during the primaries, and then there were all the newspaper endorsements of Clinton during the general. The logic was: “Trump’s campaign is racist, and that’s unacceptable; therefore, you should vote for someone else.” But this is backwards right off the bat: what Trump’s support indicated was precisely that racism is acceptable. Hence, the syllogism fails to hold: people who never thought that Trump’s behavior was beyond the pale in the first place were given no reason to change their minds. Rather, the response to realizing that people are more racist than you thought must be to start doing better at fighting racism. There’s been some complaining that the media just wrote Trump supporters off as racists without trying to understand their concerns, which is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t actually get us to the place where we’re doing something about it. If a better candidate than Clinton had adequately addressed the concerns of working-class voters and thereby won them over, that would not have addressed this issue. It would not have reduced the acceptability of racism. We want it to be the case that racist demagogues are rejected by the general population.

The argument against calling Trump supporters racists is that, sure, people noticed that Trump was running a racist campaign, they just didn’t think that was a big deal; they voted for him for other reasons. Any given voter may have done something to indirectly promote racism, but that doesn’t make them A Racist. But this is an absurd distinction: what can possibly define a racist person other than engaging in racist behavior? If I, during a friendly visit to your home, steal a $20 bill that you left on your dresser, I am a thief, regardless of whether I have ever stolen before or ever will again, and regardless of my opinions on the merits of private property or the conditions under which coercive economic redistribution is justified. And of course all the times I respected your property do nothing to absolve me. I am a thief because I am a person who has “engaged in stealing behavior.” When you find out about this and respond by calling me a thief to my face, you are correctly assessing the situation. In precisely this sense, everyone who voted for Donald Trump is a racist. They engaged in racist behavior.

I really hope this doesn’t come across as a brag, but if you call me a racist, that’s going to be the start of a conversation. If I have some sort of racist tendencies, or I’m making an argument which is racist in some way (both of which are probably true some of the time), I’d like to know about that, and I’m more interested in this than I am in defending myself against charges of being a big bad racist. For most people, being called a racist is the end of any possible conversation. “Racist” is a pure insult, like being called a shithead or human garbage, so once that word comes out, there’s nothing more to talk about. You have no option other than to get offended and angry. The reason for this is that most people have no concept of racism as a structure, which means they have no means with which to analyze claims of racism. So yes, calling people racists doesn’t help, but the solution is not to avoid the issue, it is to start talking about that structure, such that the relevant types of conversations become possible to have.

Regarding Trump specifically, he always does the normal thing were he “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body” and is “the least racist person you’ll ever meet” and etc., and for most people this resolves the issue. Sure, he may “go a little too far” sometimes, but the fact that he says he cares about helping black people means he must necessarily not be a racist. In the same sense, the fact that he hires women for executive positions sometimes must mean that he’s not a sexist.

Let’s follow up on that notion, seeing as it’s become kind of a thing recently to assume that a woman climbing up the corporate ladder is “empowering” and therefore feminist. There’s a specific reason why money is a feminist issue, which is that women being able to support themselves means they are not dependent on men for survival. It does not follow that a woman earning a lot of money is necessarily freeing herself from oppression. If, for example, two paychecks are needed to support her family and she’s still tacitly required to do all of the housework and childcare, then her earning money is in fact not liberatory, but merely another, shinier-looking chain. Understanding things in this sense makes it very easy to understand why “leaning in” is bullshit: it encourages women to embrace rather than resist oppression. (I mean, it’s right there in the name. I was initially very confused as to how anyone calling themself a feminist could view “leaning in” as anything other than a con. I hate hippies, but it’s pretty depressing that we’ve fallen behind the point of “turn on, tune in, drop out.”)

Which brings us back to our point: the fact that these things are structural problems and not ice cream flavors is why, properly understood, they are not competing interests but rather the same issue; they go together. To address them, then, requires a unified approach, which itself requires a cohesive accounting of where we are and where we need to go from here. This sort of thing is commonly referred to as a “story.” A story is more than a plot; it’s not just an A-then-B explanation. It’s also the context in which that explanation makes sense. A story implies a world, and we have not yet established a narrative for a better future. Hence the power of the notion that America can be made great again: the slouching inevitability of neoliberalism, dragging us all into the dullest future, makes such a thing appear to be the only alternative.

Clinton’s story was: everything is fine, we just need to keep gradually doing better. Trump’s story was: everything is not fine, so we have to resort to whatever grotesque measures are required to get back to the imaginary perfect society of the past. As you know, neither of these is the real story: everything is not fine, and the reason for this is because of all the stuff that we fucked up in the past; therefore, what we require is a different future. What was missing from this election was the idea that the world can be made other than as it is. Of course, that’s missing from every election, and that is the central point: politicians will never be able to make this case for us. They’re not the sort of people who are capable of it, and it’s not their job anyway. They’re bureaucrats: their job is to collate the series of forms and signatures required to put things into practice. Our job is to create the world as it must be, and then force them to do the paperwork that makes it so.

Let’s try one of the less charged examples to understand how this can work. The media was very, very concerned about Trump’s failure to release his tax returns during the election. This was supposedly “disqualifying” behavior, because we need that information in order to judge whether a candidate is fit to hold office. But as Tom Scocca pointed out, if the media really believed that, they sure weren’t acting like it:

“There is supposedly a consensus across the entire mainstream press on what the terms here are. It is unacceptable for any candidate to conceal their financial situation. To be a candidate, a person must disclose their tax returns.

Yet reporters continue to ask Donald Trump questions about subjects other than his missing tax returns. When they do this, they are conceding that Trump can be a presidential candidate, after all, despite refusing to release his returns. It is a losing strategy.”

In short, a political crime is not disqualifying unless you actually disqualify someone who commits it. If it’s just one bullet point among many, then it’s merely what business assholes call a “nice-to-have” rather than a requirement. Ergo, nobody cares (I seriously doubt that anyone voting against Trump did it because of the tax returns either).

The same analysis applies with even greater force to the campaign’s more dramatic issues. The Access Hollywood tape and the ensuing accusations raised what should have been the only issue of the campaign: whether Donald Trump is in fact a serial sexual assailant. Surely if anything is to disqualify someone from the presidency, behavior that is both illegal and misogynist is it. Yet the whole thing was treated as just another “scandal,” and the reason for this is that the media – including the Clinton campaign – did not push any better narrative. During the second debate, immediately after The Tape came out, the issue was raised, but it was raised as a Debate Question. Clinton and Trump yelled at each other about it for a while, and then the moderator moved on to the next question. The next day, the “spectacle” was described as follows:

“Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton collided in an almost unremittingly hostile debate on Sunday night, a 90-minute spectacle of character attacks, tawdry allegations, and Mr. Trump’s startling accusation that Mrs. Clinton had ‘tremendous hate in her heart.'”

In other words, the New York Times does not give two shits about whether or not Trump has actually committed sexual assault. Framing the problem in terms of “hostility” and “startling accusations” is a complete evasion of what those accusations are actually of and what reasons people might have for being justifiably hostile. Calling Trump a “divisive” candidate implies that there’s no real problem, that different people simply have different, equally valid opinions. To the media, it’s all just “character attacks.”

So one practical takeaway here is that the way we conduct debates, and indeed the election in general, basically guarantees that issues of substance cannot be raised. Trump’s one-man vaudeville show didn’t change anything; the media had already smoothed out the path so that someone like him could stroll carelessly down it whensoever they chose. We were lucky that this hadn’t happened until just now, so what we ought to do is stop relying on luck. The reason we have these constant back-and-forth shifts based on confused signifiers like “jobs” and “taxes” and “regulations” is precisely because we are not addressing the real substance of the issues. To avoid calling things as they are is to go further down this road, to retreat from the truth. Rather than news personalities carving out space for soundbites, the electoral process ought to be a matter of experts making real assessments of the candidates’ various attributes and relaying these assessments to regular people by means of understandable narratives. Of course, Americans don’t like this sort of thing. They don’t like “being told what to do” by “elitists.” We report; you decide. But the thing about experts is that they actually possess expertise. They have knowledge that most people lack, and disseminating this knowledge into the broader population is supposed to be a major part of what the media is for. Lumping real knowledge into the general concept of “elitism” is perhaps the one true failing of the American media. If we believe that the current lowest common denominator is not good enough – and this belief is strictly required in order to avoid basic nihilism – then we are morally obligated to reject the tactics of dumbing-down and pandering to know-nothings and to instead raise the level of discourse.

You may be thinking that this is too much to deal with all at once. Certainly, that exact point was made during the election: so much was so wrong with Trump that none of it stood out; it all just faded into particularly annoying background noise. But dealing with situations like this is exactly what stories do. They organize a huge amount of information into something that is understandable as a whole. In this case, the story is a simple matter of what all of Trump’s sins have in common: they’re all symptoms of privilege. Trump can get away with things that others cannot because he is a rich white male. This is why pointing out the individual issues didn’t matter to his supporters. Because they believed in privilege, they were already making that excuse for Trump. What must be targeted, then, is those beliefs, and the way this is done is by changing the parameters of the conversation in which we discuss them. Calling Trump “abnormal” gets you nowhere if you continue to treat him normally, and labeling his behavior “disqualifying” is meaningless if you continue to act as through he is qualified. Trump was allowed to plausibly proclaim “I am your voice,” when his supporters should have been made to realize that he is exactly the person who has been picking their pockets all this time. Norms are only functional if you do them rather than merely saying them; you have to actively denormalize behavior that you consider to be unacceptable. Otherwise, what you are actually doing is accepting it.

And the specific issue of sexual assault is really the perfect example, because we actually have seen a major shift in the way the mainstream narrative about sexual assault works, and it has happened very recently. Feminists have refocused the conversation around sexual assault such that it proceeds from the perspective of the victims rather than the perpetrators, and this has had practical consequences. Bill Cosby was about to die beloved as America’s Goofy Dad, but now, thanks entirely to this refocusing, he and his reputation are on a one-way, nonstop flight to secular hell. Now, this was an extreme case: Cosby’s behavior was maxed-out sociopathic, he was already a washed-up relic lacking anyone with a real interest in defending him, and the fact that he’s a black man shouldn’t be discounted, either. But of course our first victories are going to come in the easiest cases. This should still be encouraging: it proves that this strategy works, and that we really can change things by pursuing it. Unfortunately, we still have quite a ways to go. With Trump, we saw a reversion to the usual pattern. A bunch of accusations popped up, it was considered a “scandal” for a little while, and then it all went away and Trump went right back to doing whatever he wanted, which in this case just so happened to include winning the presidency.

But in this same sense, Trump’s victory actually demonstrates that the type of thing that we want to achieve really is achievable. He changed the narrative. Ever since the Republicans decided that he wasn’t worth the fight and instead sent Pence in to manage things, Trump has been an agent of the establishment, but in the beginning he was just some asshole on an escalator. He won in the face of unified mainstream opposition, and since then, the political establishment has had to rearrange itself to accommodate him. It hasn’t had to move very far, because his campaign was never based on any real convictions, but the general shape of these events is what needs to be possible in order for anything to get better. Trump is the bizarro-world version of what we ought to be aiming for. So it’s crucial to remember that he didn’t win by being a great marketer or whatever. He really did bungle things about as badly as possible. He won by coincidentally tapping into a huge, throbbing vein of resentment. The disadvantage we have is that, for us, no such vein is flowing just yet. People know what holding on to their own privileges is like, whereas nobody knows what living as a responsible citizen of a just, caring society is like, because no such thing has ever existed. But there is enough blood for us to work with; we just have to get it pumping. The fact that people can feel that things are wrong and that “something ought to be done” is also to our advantage. Yes, it makes fascism possible, but that’s simply because it makes change in general possible. Maintaining what we have now for fear of something worse also means maintaining what we have now for fear of something better. And since what we have now is really just anesthetized decay, it’s long past time to let go.

So the long and short of this is that there’s no point in arguing for or against the individual candidates themselves. We know this for a fact now: Trump as an individual was argued against as hard as possible, and it didn’t matter. Vox.com, where ideology goes to die, infamously insisted that the only issue in this election was that Trump was an “abnormal” candidate and Clinton was a “normal” candidate, and I hope we can all understand at this point why this is the wrongest possible perspective. Trump’s victory indicates precisely that he is normal to enough people to matter. You can find a handful of weirdos who believe pretty much anything (hi), but it is just flatly implausible that anything approaching 50% of the country voted for chaos. The overwhelming majority of people do not want to remake society. They want jobs, they want low taxes, and they want to feel safe, and it is for these conventional reasons that people voted for Trump. The slogan “make America great again,” a slogan which Trump supporters took much, much more seriously than people normally take slogans, is the exact opposite sentiment to “burn it all down.” It’s been much noted that Clinton’s rejoinder, “America is already great,” was a massive strategic blunder. This is exactly correct, and this is why: what we consider “great” is the entire substance of the issue. Our task, as people insisting on a better tomorrow, is to redefine greatness.

That is, the information needs to be out there; it needs to be known that, for example, The Wall wouldn’t actually have any effect on either immigration or unemployment, and you don’t know that until you run the numbers. But if someone supports The Wall for other reasons, this information doesn’t do anything. That’s what we have to get at: people’s reasons. The problem is that lots of people tried to demonstrate Trump’s racism, but because the situation was so obvious to everyone who cared, nobody bothered trying to explain why Trump’s campaign was actually racist. I know that sounds weird to you, but that’s exactly the point: other people have different ideas about racism than you do. The fact that you think they’re wrong is exactly why you have the responsibility to prove it.

Specifically, the common working notion of racism is that some people just suddenly manifest a snarling fury whenever they see someone with a certain skin color, and anyone who doesn’t do this is perfectly fine. This is why the Black Friend Defense is something that makes sense to people, even though to you and me it’s a transparent joke. A few particularly dense people have taken the fact that a lot of Obama supporters voted for Trump to mean that those people must not have been motivated by racism, which is another version of this attitude. Obama voters had one positive attitude towards one black person one time; therefore, they must not be racists. This is the story that we need to rewrite. The correct lesson to draw from this fact is not that racism is less of an issue than we thought it was, but that racism operates differently than the explainer class has been assuming it does. We need to make racism understandable in terms of its effects as part of a social system, which means synthesizing it with everything else, including our own behaviors. It’s certainly easier to treat racism as an individual pathology, because then those of us who don’t manifest the symptoms can be assured of our purity. Don’t blame me; I voted for Obama. But this is exactly the formulation by which Trump supporters absolve themselves. If we’re going to be better than them, then we need to do better than them.

And again, we have to do this ourselves; the establishment will not help us, because engaging the issues in this way implicates them. It prevents Clinton from glossing over the fact that she helped create the mass incarceration system that is one of the primary vectors of today’s racism. So I guess this is kind of a silver lining: Trump won on racism, sure, but there wasn’t actually an anti-racist candidate opposing him. Same deal for feminism and capitalism and imperialism and everything else: none of these issues are really being addressed in the mainstream conversation yet. To be honest, I’m not optimistic about what the results of a real fight would be. The great mass of humanity has not historically demonstrated any particular capacity for wisdom or discernment, or even basic kindness. But we haven’t lost yet.

Postmortem

Alright shitheads, bereavement period’s over. Time to get serious. Here’s what we’ve learned – by which I mean here’s what we already knew and have been lying to ourselves about:

  • The media is completely useless

There has been quite a lot of introspection about whether the media was doing “enough” to “stop” Trump, or whether it was “enabling” him. This is not the point. The issue is not how often the media got it “right” or “wrong”; the issue is that none of it mattered either way. I mean, they did get things right, for the most part. The media is made up of educated people. They knew what was going on and there were all kinds of investigations and things. They got the facts right and most of their arguments were correct. No one cared. Every newspaper in the country endorsed Clinton in the strongest possible terms, and none of that ink moved one single vote. Clinton was declared the definitive winner of all three debates. Didn’t fucking matter. Everyone was all anxious about whether Trump would try to skip the debates, but he might as well have, because they had absolutely no effect on anything.

All that shit about Clinton’s “ground game” and the “Obama Coalition” was also meaningless. There is no “vetting,” there are no “qualifications,” the debates are not “job interviews.” All just made-up terms inflated by professional hacks to justify their paychecks. The election spectacle has no actual function. This past year has been a complete waste of everyone’s time and money. This is the thing that Trump was the most right about. It is now a proven fact that there was no reason for him to play the game as dictated by the David Brooks contingent, because those people are irrelevant idiots and their game is bullshit.

(This is also the thing that Clinton was the most wrong about. Her entire political life has been hobbled by the mistaken impression that she was required to play pattycake with the gatekeepers of Seriousness and hire a bunch of dull campaign hacks to make sure that everything was being done The Right Way. Even as someone without natural charisma, she would have been better off without them. And it should be pretty clear by now that none of it protected her from sexism in any way.)

Also, what the fuck was all that polling shit for? The amount of yammering about polls was completely insane. Every fucking day it was some new set of arbitrary percentages that supposedly meant something. There was a whole fucking Game of Thrones-level dramatic arc about whether FiveThirtyEight‘s methodology was still valid. All meaningless. Like, what was even supposed to be the point of it? Was there supposed to be some perfect, magical poll that would somehow have locked the election for Clinton? What is the purpose of telling people what the results are supposedly going to be when those people are the ones who are actually going to be making the decision? All the time spent preparing and running and rerunning and analyzing and analyzing and analyzing those polls was time that could have been spent fighting.

Relatedly, the media is a tiny niche population. There are 325 million people in this country. The media speaks for about twelve of them. Which is a real problem when you combine it with the fact that media types fucking love to hear themselves talk. All day, every day, the media is constantly chattering to itself, about itself, and the only people listening, aside from other members of the media, are idiots like me who have nothing better to do with their time. Immediately before the election, everyone in the media was writing pieces under the assumption that Clinton was going to win handily. There were actually debates about whether it was going to be a blowout or just a landslide. How many voters did the people writing these pieces represent? Not fucking enough. We like to make fun of the “right-wing echo chamber” in which hardcore conservatives live, but it is actually us “informed” media-consumers who occupy the smallest and most distorting bubble. The people applauding each new “takedown” of Trump were suffering from just as severe a case of epistemic closure as anyone reading Breitbart or InfoWars. It’s a hell of a drug.

(If we can get slightly technical for a moment, one of the big problems with the internet is the way it facilitates the “small world” illusion. Even as it seems like there’s an incomprehensibly huge amount of stuff going on, you’re really only communicating to your tiny group of friends, while the rest of the world has no idea what the fuck you’re on about. The way you feel about flat-earth theory is exactly the way most people feel about your opinions on most topics. You might know what I mean if I ask you which set of pronouns you prefer, but upwards of 99% of the world would literally not understand the question even after having it explained to them slowly and repeatedly. It is not interpretable within their worldview. You can scroll through page after page of tweets supporting a sexual assault survivor without realizing that they represent about 0.01% of the real-world population. The world is a big place.)

(Also, the fact that Clinton won the popular vote is nice (as well as being genuinely important to remember for the purposes of analysis, especially regarding people who think the problem is that Clinton was a terrible candidate and everyone hated her), but it has no bearing on any of this. Even if she had won the election, the fact that anything approaching 50% of the population looked at Trump and said “yes” or even “sure, why not” contains the entirety of the problem. The fact that Trump is actually going to be president is certainly its own category of disaster, but we lost the battle as soon as he was accepted as a general election candidate. That alone proved that no one who mattered was willing to fight when it counted. Y’know, as painful as this all already is, we have to remember that Trump is not the worst-case scenario. There will come a night on which the glass finally breaks, and when that happens the Responsible Adults will all be down on their knees, poking thoughtfully at the shards. The story of 2016 is this: America allowed Trump to happen.)

Perhaps the most pitiable aspect of all this is the fact that the media was very, very serious about the whole thing, and that seriousness specifically was nothing but empty posturing. People don’t take things seriously just because the media says they should. This whole thing was and is a joke to most people. They’re wrong, but the punchline was delivered anyway.

  • The American political system is completely useless

A Trump presidency is exactly the situation that the entire American political machine is designed to prevent. A large mass of uninformed people made a rash decision based on limited and confused information. The electoral college, the primary system, the Congress, the courts, the media, and the party apparatuses are all designed to safeguard against this, to restrict the ability of the people to make sweeping changes based on momentary whims. Instead, they all indirectly conspired to achieve the exact opposite.

It is easy to understand the basic reason this happened: specific procedural details do not have general effects on outcomes. Sometimes they work one way, and sometimes they work the other. It was initially thought that the Democrats had the electoral college advantage this time around, with Clinton only needing one or two big states to clinch it. And that could very well have been the case; votes could have been distributed slightly differently to achieve the inverse outcome. But in neither case does the process confer any sort of legitimacy on the results. There is no connection between moral or even factual correctness and political victory. The actual outcome of this election was a draw; Trump essentially won on a coin flip. (The fact that this is the second time in living memory that this has happened and the final results favored the Republicans both times is potentially suspicious.)

So not only is there no point in defending the specifics of one particular process, the opposite is true: what we must fight for is dynamism, the ability to change the process as needed. All those people talking about how important it is to respect the process in tumultuous times are worse than wrong; they aren’t even part of the relevant conversation. They’re completely out to lunch, filling out checklists as the world burns.

(Oh, by the way, a Trump presidency guarantees that the U.S. will not respond to global warming in anything approaching an adequate manner. That probably wasn’t going to happen anyway, but now we can all rest assured that we’re definitely going to burn to death. We are past the critical point of action, so the destruction of the planet is now a certainty.)

  • America is not one country

Both sides were completely convinced that they were going to win, and both of them were correct. Within each subculture, there was no debate. The only issue, this whole time, was how many voters were going to turn out for each side. No one was ever going to be “persuaded.” There are, of course, the famous “undecided voters,” but they’re the exception that proves the rule: only a tiny percentage of people are not already in one camp or the other. The celebration of the increased diversity in Congress is all well and good, that’s certainly an improvement, but it’s not a consolation. It’s more evidence that America consists of two trains running on completely separate tracks.

Frankly, it’s starting to look like the Confederacy was on the right side of history. I mean, the Civil War was never really resolved; it ended in the temporal sense, but Reconstruction was thwarted, and we’ve been fighting that battle ever since. There is increasingly little point in pretending that we actually have any kind of “union” going on here. The obvious problem is that, if we accept a division, we are abandoning half the population to a situation that we believe to be immoral. But while force may be justified where something like slavery is the case, there’s little point in trying to save people from a hell they’ve chosen for themselves.

  • The Republican Party is alive and thriving

The speculations about whether Trump was going to destroy the Republican Party were bad enough when he was losing – even without being able to win national elections, the party would still wield massive, agenda-setting power on the state level and in the Congress. But now that whole angle is just downright comical. The Republicans are not “relics” who are being “left behind” because they’re “on the wrong side of history.” This sort of teleological complacency is exactly why the Democrats are such a bunch of losers (see also the use of “this is 2016, why are we still debating this” as though it were an argument rather than an admission of defeat). There is no “march of progress,” no moral arc inscribed onto the universe. “Progress” is a story we tell ourselves after the fact; it has no claim on the future. The first black president, married to a descendent of slaves, has been succeeded by someone who would probably be a literal Klansman if that weren’t bad branding. History does not move in a straight line; it is a tangled mess. Good things happen, but things do not gradually “get better” of their own accord. The corpses keep piling up. This is a war, and we are not fighting it hard enough. While we’ve just been trying to run out the clock, the other team has been constantly scoring behind our backs. If we don’t start getting our shit together with extreme severity, “history” is going to start looking a lot worse than even the pessimists among us have fantasized.

  • America is fucking racist

No one who genuinely opposes racism could possibly have considered supporting Trump. Even if you assume (pretend) that his campaign was not primarily about racism, the raw volume of it should have been a dealbreaker. Unless of course that was the deal you were looking to make in the first place.

Also, religion doesn’t matter, at all. There was never any such thing as the “Religious Right.” They were always just bigots. There are no “values voters,” in the sense where “values” means things like humility and integrity and all of that fluffball shit. In exactly the same way, “conservative principles” were never anything more than the self-important preening of a tiny handful of pompous pseudo-intellectuals. People do, of course, vote based on real values, and the realest of those values are, more often than not, racism and sexism.

  • America is not ready for a female president

I normally wouldn’t discuss things in these terms, but the conclusion seems to be unavoidable. There’s a book (or at least a pretentious blog post) to be written about the exact mechanics by which Clinton’s gender destroyed her, but it’s hard to doubt that it did. She’s basically a human checklist for the ideal presidential candidate, and, if the common media understanding of the situation is correct, her gender should have been an added bonus, a chance to make history. That understanding is not correct. We still live under patriarchy, and a woman still takes a step too far when she attempts to claim the mantle of rulership – even when she is someone who has devoted her life to preserving the existing social order, even when she is specifically expert at walking the finest line through the minefield of gendered expectations, and even when her opponent is as though chosen specifically to let’s say “heighten the contradictions.” Nothing is enough to overcome the fear of a female planet. It remains the overriding concern of a great many people – including women – that the center of the universe be a dick.

One specific fun fact that we are all now inescapably subject to is that sexual assault is not disqualifying behavior for the most important job in the world. Most people are, in fact, totally fine with it, and this group, again, includes a lot of women. This is another example of something the media class agrees on and most other people don’t. While the media whipped itself into a frenzy over the deeply troubling implications of The Tape, parsing and reparsing it endlessly to determine What It Means For America, everyone else was simply hearing normal masculinity, and it was their interpretation of the situation that was correct.

It’s been much noted in much despondency that white women went for Trump, but there’s nothing unexpected about this. Feminists have their own brand of epistemic closure: they believe that all women are naturally sympathetic to feminism. Not true. The real feminist insight here is that men and women are not so different in this regard. Most women are sexists (meaning sexist in the normal sense, against women – yet another thing that’s become clear is that people cannot be relied upon to correctly interpret basic factual statements). White women went for Romney and McCain as well; white women have always gone Republican, because race is what politics in America is about. Gender is not. The recent popular upsurge in feminism has achieved cultural acceptability by abandoning its political content, and these are the wages of that sin.

Actually, America isn’t ready for a black president either (which would be the other half of the reason this happened). Obama was obviously exceptional – his legendary charisma (and ideological chameleonicity) superseded the normal dynamics of the situation. While we’re reminiscing, let us recall that Obama’s 2008 campaign was run on 0% issues and 100% rhetorical razzmatazz. Trump actually did stumble into real issues on occasion; he had more substance than Obama. Which is not surprising, because . . .

  • Elections have always been reality shows

I read something somewhere calling Obama “the first celebrity president.” Come on. Reagan? Kennedy? Roosevelt? Hell, Washington himself was nominated solely on the basis that he was a war hero and people liked him (which itself was mostly because he was tall). The notion that this election had a notable absence of policy discussion, or that Trump introduced reality-show style feuding into politics, or that our discourse has degraded to the level of insults and implications, is entirely mistaken. All of these things have always been the case. Which is to say that . . .

  • Trump is not an anomaly

All the talk about Trump destroying “democratic norms” is completely backwards. What has happened is that Trump has demonstrated (entirely on accident) that those norms don’t actually exist. But of course this is how norms work in any case: they only exist to the extent that people convince themselves that they exist. Other than that, they don’t actually do anything.

Remember how het up the media was about Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns? Probably not, because literally no one in the country cared. I’m dead serious about this: does anyone really think there is even a single person who voted against Trump because he didn’t release his tax returns? Given this, what’s the point? Why should any candidate bother releasing their tax returns, ever? How is the process anything other than an establishment-class circle jerk?

Understanding this compels some unfortunate conclusions. If Trump’s unusualness was entirely aesthetic, then there’s no “excuse” for why he won. His “abnormality” didn’t cost him the election, but it’s not why he won, either. He won on the merits. The people comparing Trump to Brexit were entirely correct: Brexit did not succeed because of lies, and Trump did not succeed because he’s a con artist. They both won because more people wanted them to, and the fact that this impulse has triumphed twice so far (and is generally growing in strength everywhere) forces us to reject the comforting notion that these things were flukes. This is the new wave of horror poised to sweep over the 21st century. Face it.

  • Democracy is a real thing and a real danger

All the people hyperventilating about the unprecedented threat posed by Trump to democracy seem to be forgetting that Trump was supported by ordinary morons and opposed by a shadowy cabal of hyper-educated, unaccountable elites. The Founding Fathers may have been a bunch of slavefucking lawyers, but at least they understood that democracy was a threat that needed to be contained and not a magical wish-granting unicorn princess. Every idiot who’s ever rhapsodized about the power of “the people” has now received what they were asking for.

(This is also why we’re double-fucked on global warming. People will never vote to lower their own standards of living in order to save the planet.)

  • Structure decides

There was an article somewhere by some political scientist talking about how structural factors such as which party holds the White House and how the economy is doing correctly predict the outcome of every modern presidential election, and how the factors for the current election predicted a Republican victory. I’m sure most such theories are just as wrong as everything else, but something along these lines is certainly the case. For example, it has almost always happened that a two-term president has been succeeded by someone from the other party, likely as a result of the fickle mushhead contingent wanting “change” or something (this is part of why the two-party system is a greater evil than either party). Trump is an agent of historical and material forces exactly as much as Clinton is a victim of them. They’re both puppets. Which, again, means that everything the media does every election is a complete waste of time. None of this shit about temperament or experience or gaffes or any of it matters at all.

This suggests a somewhat more optimistic interpretation of the results. During the primaries, Clinton was never polling well against any of the potential Republican candidates. We all know how much polls are worth now, but it’s conceivable that she would have lost to any Republican. Someone reasonable-seeming and non-alienating like Kasich could very well have flattened her. So the fact that the election was a virtual tie indicates that Trump actually underperformed expectations. He was such a bad candidate that he almost blew a gimme election. The only reason he won was that he was ultimately a typical Republican – or at least close enough for government work. (Not that there’s anything okay about a typical Republican being president).

This is also why the whole exhorting-people-to-vote ritual is a particularly obnoxious waste of everyone’s time. You will never move significant numbers through individual hectoring. If you want to move numbers that matter, you have to move the structure. For one thing, indirect voter suppression is a critical issue that has not been given its full due. Which leads us to the most depressing interpretation of the results: Trump won because of Shelby County v. Holder; in other words, he won because Jim Crow isn’t actually dead yet.

This dynamic also implies a strategy: given that “electability” has been revealed as an empty shibboleth, the Democratic Party would do better to run candidates who are as far to the left as possible. An extreme leftist, even one as insane and incompetent as Trump, could have won in 2008. Of course, no one who is in a position to implement this strategy cares; quite the contrary, the Democrats are always highly concerned to make sure that no one with scary ideas gets any significant amount of party support. This is among the many reasons why supporting Democrats does not help.

There, that’s it. That’s the situation. Decide what you’re going to do about it. Now.