Admit it. Twitter isn’t quite as sensational without its leading troll, President Donald Trump. Online disinformation — perhaps the most compelling content available on social networks — is down 73% since he was banned. Not even the response to an armed attack on the Capitol or the fake news about antifa and Black Lives Matter having instigated it as a false flag event have been enough to stir up the social media landscape to previous frenzied levels of activity. And if social media is already suffering in the post-Trump era, imagine how boring cable news is going to be without its leading villain?
Our whole media ecosystem has been dominated by Trump. As a result, love him or hate him, Trumpism has been America’s addiction for the past four years — not just an entertaining distraction but an addiction with destructive consequences. The extent to which Joe Biden can succeed as our next president may rest on all of our ability to let go of the most consuming American spectacle since, well, ever.
With any luck, we have hit bottom — not in the sense that the cynically contested election or Capitol insurrection should serve as some 9/11 equivalent, spurring us to new levels of surveillance and security. No, it’s more the kind of bottom an alcoholic reaches when they realize they’ve lost their family: We have, as my favorite media studies teacher Neil Postman once warned, been Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Postman was concerned that the migration of news journalism from print to TV would end up turning current events into a kind of entertainment. Text can be debated; images either capture our attention or not. The values of television, however, are not information or deliberation but captivation and stimulation. Making matters worse, in 1987, the Federal Communications Commission eliminated its fairness doctrine, the federal policy requiring television stations to provide a certain amount of news programming in order to keep their broadcast licenses. As a result, TV news went from an unprofitable, mandatory public service to another potential profit center.
And as we’ve come to learn, this means favoring sensationalism over information. “Bang bang” was what the newsrooms I worked in back then called it, referring to any video of gunfire, explosions, or bleeding in war zones. These days, it means anything having to do with Trump — the more salacious or outrageous, the better.
Imagine “the president” as something you think about once a week, not twice an hour. We can have that.
Those of us on the left became so addicted to the soap opera that we even fell for an overwrought explanation of Trump’s 2016 victory as a highly coordinated conspiracy between him and Vladimir Putin while simultaneously holding the knowledge that Trump isn’t even capable of a highly coordinated conversation. Questions of equivalence aside, many of us on the left succumbed to panic and hyperbole at least in part because our sense of trauma was being mercilessly magnified by the for-profit media outlets we had entrusted with informing our perspectives.
Under the guise of being informed citizens pushing against fascism, blue staters dutifully tuned into Morning Joe, Rachel Maddow, and Don Lemon for a daily dose of outrage. These reports may have been largely factual, but their purpose was less to motivate civic participation than to stimulate a few shots of adrenaline or cortisol. Exaggerations of Trump’s gaffes abounded, from miscontextualizing Trump’s claim that he was “the chosen one” to accusing Trump of calling Covid-19 a hoax. We have become no more addicted to this stimulus than the networks have to the ratings and ad revenue.
The far right, meanwhile, has gone online and become addicted to dopamine. The news of the day serves as little more than fodder for a LARP (live-action role-playing) game based not on Dungeons and Dragons or the Harry Potter universe but on conspiracy theories. And because this activity is interactive, the cycle of addiction it engenders is even more compelling than TV.
QAnon leverages the mechanisms of fantasy role-playing and fan fiction to engage its participants in a form of active sense-making and pattern recognition. Every time an addict is able to draw a connection between Biden and Burisma, John Podesta and Pizzagate, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and antifa, they get a shot of dopamine. Once the easy associations are used up, players must go deeper into the absurd in order to connect a blackout at the Vatican to the fictional arrest of the pope or prove how a 2015 data theft in Italy means that Barack Obama manipulated the Philadelphia voting results remotely.
Like a sex addict who needs to resort to progressively kinkier behavior for the same thrill, any of us going down these rabbit holes must dig for deeper and more absurdly totalizing conspiracies to trigger the same sense of release. Making matters worse, this overstimulation of the dopamine system triggers paranoia, which in turn pushes the addict to make more sweeping connections between utterly unrelated phenomena. This paranoia then triggers the least stable among us either to commit acts of violence — from shootings to storming the Capitol — or to interpret these tragedies as false flag or MKUltra operations of the deep state. People and media on the left then use this violence as justification for more surveillance and control, which triggers more paranoia, and on we go.
These addictions are simply incompatible with a working civilization. Civilization is a compromise. At some point, we surrender some aspects of autonomy for the common good. Wearing a mask in public sucks, but it’s only being experienced as a personal humiliation because it has been cynically leveraged as a symbol of castration. It’s important we acknowledge and restore the dignity that middle America has lost to neoliberalism’s outsourcing of jobs, military pursuits, and opioid profiteering. But we don’t need to retrieve the Protocols of the Elders of Zion’s child abuse mythology in order to do so. It’s only the addictive cycle that’s calling for scapegoating — always just “one week away” from being realized.
Likewise, the far left must give up its dream of the ultimate purge that will somehow cleanse America of racism and other retrograde views. Critical race theory is still closer to an academic art project than an actionable civic strategy. Attempting to identify and cancel everyone who supported Trump or his crazy conspiracy theories — while satisfying — may not be the most practical path toward restoring the civic fabric or even race and gender equality.
Turns out we don’t have an easy solution for democracy or human civilization. It’s a struggle, it happens way too slowly, and any efforts at making sense of the whole picture will always leave us incomplete. It’s just too complex. Our brains are being trained to seek certain and totalizing answers for such paradoxes and to be intolerant of the incomplete and unresolved state in which we actually live.
Rather, we must begin to make sense of the world together. Using the attack on the Capitol or Trump’s coming impeachment trial as a starting place may not be such a good idea. Yes, an addict has to face real justice for the crimes committed in pursuit of the next fix — but that’s not how we address the underlying addiction.
The better choice in such an environment is to turn to our actual neighbors and address real problems. Engage in mutual aid. Favors. Take our eyes off the instantly gratifying screens and feeds and put them back onto the real people in our world. The screens only show us what’s wrong and turn any potential activism into some version of fan fiction through which we attempt to interact, en masse, with the mostly obsolete top-down systems of our society. No wonder we’re so frustrated. And addicted.
The real world is way more accessible — even under a pandemic. It’s not even about making friends with our adversaries but cooperating and solving problems together. We can engage in the hands-on, practical work toward creating food security for people around us, build Wi-Fi mesh networks for kids who can’t get to school and don’t have good access, or do community outreach for health care or elder care. There’s real service we can do today to relieve pressure, make us less angry and paranoid, demonstrate alternatives to addiction, and replace dangerous dopamine with the bonding hormone, oxytocin.
Imagine “the president” as something you think about once a week, not twice an hour. We can have that. Turning away from Twitter and TV is not some luxury of being privileged. Staying on those platforms or glued to the cable networks and making uninformed pronouncements of our own about the issues on which we are being misinformed by entertainment companies and worse — that’s the sign of privilege. It’s okay to stop watching this show and get on with the real work.
That’s why I believe the best-case scenario for the coming year or so is for politics to become boring. Trump leaves Twitter, Biden demonstrates basic but uninspired competence, the cable shows lose their most sensationalist fodder, and people on all sides turn elsewhere for entertainment. We don’t go back to the failed West Wing fantasy of Obama’s presidency but the successful reality of unremarkable federal administration. We don’t simply ban Trump from social media; we ban all public officials from social media. They have official channels and shouldn’t be competing for our attention on for-profit networks optimized for polarization and alarm.
Biden has a huge challenge with Covid-19. He must promote policies from mask-wearing to lockdowns and vaccinations without triggering fear of mass incarceration or nanobot implantation. (Even hunting down these links gives the vicarious thrill of connecting the dots.) But the left-wing cable news can support him by refusing to resort to scare tactics or cherry-picking incendiary examples of red-state people refusing to wear them. Our goal must be to reframe top-down solutions to Covid-19 and other crises as uncontroversial, boring inconveniences.
This will, in turn, give less ammunition to the conspiracy theorists who feed on totalitarianism in order to enrage and ultimately betray the interests of the red-state Americans they pretend to empower. They’ve set the cause of true racial and gender reconciliation for their followers back a decade or more and seduced too many people with dreams of instant, explosively gratifying liberation.
Realizing that sort of human freedom is a longer, harder process. It’s not going to be as satisfying moment to moment as piecing together a theory or playing a fantasy role-playing game. That’s fiction. Reality may prove more monotonous, but it can also be less violent.