Trump is the navel-gazing president for our navel-gazing society
It's hard to imagine a president more suited to our era than Donald Trump.
I don't say this because Trump is the president we need right now, or even the president most of us want. I say this because Trump is the president our society deserves.
Since Trump launched his bid for the White House in 2015, his name has dominated the news headlines. Every major newspaper and news magazine is guilty of publishing at least a handful of Trump stories every day. Some — this publication included — publish dozens over the course of an afternoon.
Why? Because Trump is an incendiary character who likes to say outrageous and controversial things. He's a viral news story waiting to happen. Almost every time Trump logs onto Twitter, he says something that spins into thousands of news stories and social media postings. He feeds the outrage machine every day.
Which means that the outrage machine has come to rely on Trump for its daily sustenance. Whether we like it or not, Trump is the news of the day — the unknown that drives journalists to check their email every morning, the question mark that urges news junkies to log onto Twitter after work. Without him, headlines would be a lot more boring. And if there's one thing our internet-obsessed society doesn't like, it's boredom.
In Neil Postman's classic 1985 work Amusing Ourselves to Death, he argued that television was harming America's intellectual and political life: Its very nature encouraged a shortsightedness, craving for entertainment, and lust for scandal that could only harm American society.
Fast forward to 2018, and the same principles apply — Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC all love to offer flashy "breaking news" updates and bickering talking heads — but the internet has deepened and exacerbated these tendencies. If we were short-sighted in 1985, we all have an attention-deficit disorder now. Then, we enjoyed our politics with a side of scandal; these days, we've turned the presidency into a 24/7 reality TV show. A veil of civility may have shrouded the boorish facets of our politics at one point, but that veil was ripped away a long time ago.
"When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility," Postman wrote.
Trump is both the progeny and propagator of this culture. Long before his political career, Trump dealt with constant tabloid attention. He was a reality television star, a New York City celebrity, and a bestselling author. He knows what audiences want; he knows how to offer a nonstop cycle of baby-talk and vaudeville, swagger and self-promotion. Trump loves attention, even when it's outraged attention, because he can sell the latter to his base and garner even more accolades and (you guessed it) attention. He's the navel-gazing president for a navel-gazing society.
It would be nice to have a president who drew out our virtues; who called us to be more than this, to turn away from our devices and the incessant cycle of internet outrage, and instead to strive to be good neighbors and citizens. It would be nice to have a president, perhaps, who asked us to consider what we might do for our country — or a president who appealed to the "better angels of our nature."
We want, at least on an intellectual level, for our president to be reasonable, subdued, and gentlemanly. But subdued behavior doesn't usually generate mass social media attention. We say we want another George Washington, or a new Abraham Lincoln. But we click on Trump.
Trump knows this, and caters to this tendency. Thus, we have a president perfectly fitted to our vices. He stokes our tendencies toward incivility and bigotry, inattentiveness and navel-gazing. Trump encourages us to stay as glued to the television set or the Twittersphere as he is.
The best thing we could do with Trump's Twitter tirades or incendiary comments would be to ignore them: to rise above them, and to cultivate a better, more dignified form of politics. It would be great if we could focus on Trump's policies and executive decisions, and cast distracting rhetoric to the wayside. But Trump is the president of the United States, and thus necessarily demands a response. To dismiss his bluster isn't just silly — it is impossible. When he hints at nuclear war with North Korea, or calls the news media "the enemy of the American people," we can't just ignore him.
This conundrum will follow us as long as Trump is in power (and, depending on who eventually succeeds him, after). But perhaps our awareness of this quandary, and of our role in it, can help provide some reprieve. Maybe, just maybe, if we learn to respond to frenzy with calm, and to bombast with articulate thoughtfulness, we can starve the outrage machine a bit — and perhaps even reform it.