Hobie Anthony examines how politics are like sports now, taking sides, and how media and algorithms have amplified the combat through quantitative trending.
America is in trouble. The ship of state is run by a madman / idiot / clown / gangster / criminal / misogynist / kleptomaniac … every minute someone comes up with the newest way to put old Dumpy down. There are people on Twitter who make it their daily routine to create a new hateful moniker for the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. I have done much the same, at various points. I don’t even use his name, except in very special circumstances. Yet America remains in the most perilous position it has faced since the Civil War.
But, we’re resisting, right? When I tweet at the Resident-in-Chief that he’s a royal ass deserving of the electric chair, I’m winning, right? I think that narcissists surely hate criticism. Their fragile egocentrism cannot possibly handle my scathing remarks. Surely my hard work will pay off. I’ll keep resisting.
At some point during the 2016 primary season, I heard some outrageous stuff Dumpy said during a debate or at one of his rallies. I heard it on NPR, as a matter of fact. I was in my car near a grocery store in Southeast Portland and it was cold and rainy. His statement was comical, really, so obviously outside of the mainstream. I shook my head. I switched to music. That guy would soon be a memory, another joke for The Simpsons or MAD Magazine.
However, I kept hearing the stories. Every day, then several times a day. I noticed that his polling numbers continued to rise, despite all of the allegedly negative stories. I discovered a formula. For every new day’s worth of inanity and attendant criticism came a +5 boost for the Orange Cyst.
On Facebook, my smart, well-educated writer friends would post smart retorts to his pronouncements. They rightly smeared him as a misogynist, sexual predator, liar, and thief—surely more. Just when I thought I’d heard the last of it, he’d say something inane or hateful or obviously untrue. Every reputable media outlet would report the statements, true or false, in an attempt to be fair and balanced. Polling numbers rose.
Somewhere along the line, I heard a Cracked podcast about narcissists. They discussed various public figures, including Hitler. They made the point that Hitler rose to power in no small part due to his use of the microphone. That was brand-new technology at the time, a true marvel. Microphones were the Internet of the day. Your neighbor could hear you from a whole block away. Stadiums full of people would hear a speaker’s every word. It was amazing.
Hitler is known to have rehearsed all of his crazy, jerky movements. He was a performer. He knew how to manipulate large groups of people with his mastery of the microphone. This technology, as well as some deceptive rhetoric, helped Hitler’s numbers rise just enough to gain the larger third in a three-way race. Dumpy’s numbers hover in the 30% range.
I’m neither a computer scientist nor a mathematician. I can only claim a vague understanding of algorithms. However, I did see a documentary about them. I know that an algorithm measures what you tell it to. The algorithm knows, for instance, when I share a news story. It probably knows when I comment on it. It knows when my friends re-share the story, tweet it, comment on it. The algorithm only shows how many times a thing is clicked, shared, viewed. It quantifies a thing’s popularity. There is no appeal to quality. Qualitative analysis is still beyond the ability of algorithms, as far as I know. Outrage and wicked-smart analysis are qualities of a response to a story loaded with increasingly valuable advertisements. The algorithm doesn’t need your opinion, everyone has one of those.
The algorithm told its masters that stories of a certain sort were very popular. I imagine a bleak cubicle dweller, a status-starved drone, crunching the data and finding that phrases such as “Trump said” were the most viral and yielded the most advertising gold. The crazier the statement, the faster it would rise to the top of the Google News front page. Mainstream media outlets saw the handwriting on the wall. Dump-centered stories far outnumbered those for Clinton and dwarfed those for Sanders. Mainstream media outlets are said to have raked in billions in advertising revenue.
Les Moonves, the Chairman of CBS, said of Dumpy’s candidacy, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” That quote was from February 2016.
He knew. We knew. All of the evidence was available, but we couldn’t help it. We were smarter, we knew that Dump was a rancid human being. That’s why Clinton and the DNC pushed him to the press in the first place. They knew better. But they didn’t. They had forgotten that Dump had spent years studying crowds, creating ratings bonanzas. He might spit fecal matter, but he knew how to do it so that the crowds would go crazy—every single demographic.
His fans took glee in our rage more than they did in the content of his statement. After all, politics these days is more akin to a football rivalry than a healthy discussion of issues and policy; a win is a win, sports fans know. Even an ugly win counts.
When Dumpy spoke, his words found a sea of liberal boosters who all had something smart to say. Every liberal click and share bought Moonves and his ilk a new $1000 necktie, a pair of cufflinks, maybe a bottle of the finest champagne. Moonves surely ordered his editors to write more copy with those golden keywords, Trump said. Add to the numbers the ardent Dump fans who were pleased as punch to see us elite liberal assholes hopping mad. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, they cried! Dumpy’s base solidified. We called them deplorables and they dug in their heels, the chasm in our divided populace was codified. We were conquered.
He was elected.
Then we deepened the divide. We declared that he was elected by a bunch of sexists, assholes, idiots, racists, etc. It’s a neatly drawn narrative: evil voter vs. good voter. Some of it is true. Dumpy stoked the fires of misogyny, racism, and classism and many who adhere to those things voted for him. Those things were the fuel behind so many shares and clicks, including those from liberals. He built his brand on such impropriety mostly due to the fact that good liberals reacted so strongly. His fans took glee in our rage more than they did in the content of his statement. After all, politics these days is more akin to a football rivalry than a healthy discussion of issues and policy; a win is a win, sports fans know. Even an ugly win counts. Turn on Fox News, they’ll tell you how might makes right.
Somewhat inconveniently, we now see special elections in red states and districts that flip for married lesbian liberals and people who have broken the gender binary. Sexist homophobes rarely change their stripes so quickly, unless the story is more complex than we thought. However, those stories aren’t making the top of Google News, nor the front page of The New York Times. The algorithms, being electronic, play on binaries. Conflicts forged in phony absolutes absolutely build ad revenue. Nuance is never trending.
Outrage is a tricky thing. In some ways it’s necessary. When our moral sensibilities are offended, it’s natural to vocalize the offense. Often, the offender is causing harm and it is right to call foul. In the case of a politician, a narcissist, calling out their name in anger might not have the desired effect. My scream of outrage loses its quality when it’s translated into a data stream. I have only accomplished two things: I have stoked my sense of superiority, but I surely have increased the actual strength of my target. The numbers prove it. Les Moonves’ new Rolex proves it, his new Rolls doubly so.
This is not to say that we should not speak truth to power. We should, but we need to be mindful of our actions. When we raged at Dump, we strengthened his cause. That’s because he’s a narcissist born and bred on black-hole energy. The emotions of personality politics blinded us, and both sides of the establishment divide used that.
We could have used our energy to support good causes and to discuss real issues. We still can. If we focus on stories that support civil rights, environmental causes, new energy technologies, and other progressive trends, we necessarily weaken regressive forces.
We can also look at what the media used to enrich itself and impoverish us all—personality politics. They primarily supported a contrived personality conflict between Clinton and Dump. Neither talked with any substance about real issues. The only candidate that spoke about issues was more popular than either, but he received a small percentage of the media’s attention. Perhaps because he promoted unity and not division. Unity is the opposite of conflict and it is not easy to write about. It requires nuance and a real test of one’s inner strength.