The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium

Martin Gurri wrote in 2014:

* Can there be a connection between online universities and the serial insurgencies which, in media noise and human blood, have rocked the Arab Middle East? I contend that there is. And the list of unlikely connections can easily be expanded. It includes the ever faster churning of companies in and out of the S&P 500, the death of news and the newspaper, the failure of established political parties, the imperial advance across the globe by Facebook and Google, and the near-universal spread of the mobile phone.

* The moment tomorrow no longer resembles yesterday, we are startled and confused.

* A curious thing happens to sources of information under conditions of scarcity. They become authoritative . A century ago, a scholar wishing to study the topics under public discussion in the US would find most of them in the pages of the New York Times . It wasn’t quite “All the news that’s fit to print,” but it delivered a large enough proportion of published topics that, as a practical proposition, little incentive existed to look further. Because it held a near monopoly on current information, the New York Times seemed authoritative.

* as the amount of information available to the public increased, the authoritativeness of any one source decreased.

* Uncertainty is an acid, corrosive to authority. Once the monopoly on information is lost, so too is our trust. Every presidential statement, every CIA assessment, every investigative report by a great newspaper, suddenly acquired an arbitrary aspect, and seemed grounded in moral predilection rather than intellectual rigor.

* Pretty early in the game, the wave of fresh information exposed the poverty and artificiality of established arrangements. Public discussion, for example, was limited to a very few topics of interest to the articulate elites. Politics ruled despotically over the public sphere – and not just politics but Federal politics, with a peculiar fixation on the executive branch. Science, technology, religion, philosophy, the visual arts – except when they touched on some political question, these life-shaping concerns tended to be met with silence. In a similar manner, a mediocre play watched by a few thousands received reviews from critics with literary pretensions, while a computer game of breathtaking technical sophistication, played by millions, fell beneath notice.

Importance measured by public attention reflected elite tastes. As newcomers from the digital frontiers began to crowd out the elites, our sense of what is important fractured along the edges of countless niche interests.

* Lasting authority, however, resides in institutions rather than in the persons who act and speak on their behalf. Persons come and go – even Walter Cronkite in time retired to utter trivialities – while institutions like CBS News transcend generations. They are able to hoard money and proprietary data, and to evolve an oracular language designed to awe and perplex the ordinary citizen. A crucial connection, as I said earlier, exists between institutional authority and monopoly conditions: to the degree that an institution can command its field of play, its word will tend to go unchallenged. This, rather than the obvious asymmetry in voice modulation, explains the difference between Cronkite and Katie Couric.

* For security reasons, dictators must control and restrict communications to a minimum. To make their rule legitimate, however, they need prosperity, which can only be attained by the open exchange of information. Choose.

* Not long ago, a revolutionary was a dedicated professional. To achieve his goal, he needed an organization to conduct command and control, a published program to explain the need for radical change, resting on an ideology which persuaded and attracted large numbers of the public – who would then be formed into a mass movement by means of command and control . Organization, program, printing presses, ideology, mass command and control: this costly, slow-moving machinery, with its need for hierarchy and obedience, could be transcended by a single click of the mouse if Wael Ghonim won his bet.

* “Center” and “Border” can be applied to organizations embracing specific structures, ideals, and beliefs about the future. The two archetypes are relative to each other, and perform a kind of dance which determines the direction of social action.
The Center, Douglas and Wildavsky write, is dominated by large, hierarchical organizations.
It frankly believes in sacrificing the few for the good of the whole. It is smug about its rigid procedures. It is too slow, too blind to new information. It will not believe in new dangers and will often be taken by surprise. [19]
The Center envisions the future to be a continuation of the status quo, and churns out program after program to protect this vision.
The Border, in contrast, is composed of “sects” – we would say “networks” – which are voluntary associations of equals. Sects exist to oppose the Center: they stand firmly against. They have, however, “no intention of governing” and develop “no capacity for exercising power.” Rank means inequality, hierarchy means conspiracy to the Border. Rather than articulate programs as alternatives to those of the Center, sects aim to model the behaviors demanded from the “godly or good society.”
Making a program is a center strategy; attacking center programs on behalf of nature, God, or the world is border strategy. [20]
To maintain unity, the sectarian requires “an image of threatening evil on a cosmic scale”: the future is always doomsday. The Border somehow reconciles a faith in human perfectibility with the calm certainty that annihilation is just around the corner.
Sects resolve internal disputes by splintering. Their numbers must remain small. This may be the one strategic difference between the face-to-face sect, as described by Douglas and Wildavsky, and the digital network: the latter can inflate into millions literally at the speed of light.

* The digital age loves self-mocking names, which are a way to puncture the formal stiffness of the established order: “Yahoo,” “Google,” “Twitter,” “reddit,” “Flickr,” “Photobucket,” “Bitcoin.” Without having asked the people in question, I feel reasonably sure that the founders of Google never contemplated naming their company “National Search Engine Corporation” and Mark Zuckerman of Facebook never felt tempted by “Social Connections Center of America.” It wasn’t the style.
The names of two popular political blogs from the early days of blogging, Glenn Reynolds’ Instapundit and Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish , poked fun at the pretentiousness of the news business. Bridge-bloggers who posted in English from foreign countries leaned toward even more attention-getting names: Rantings of a Sandmonkey and The Big Pharaoh in Egypt, for example, and my favorite, the Venezuelan The Devil’s Excrement . Names of blogs have tended to become less outrageous with time – but the pull of digital culture is still toward goofiness and informality. The names asserted non-authoritativeness. They created a conscious divide between the old order and the new.

* The result is paralysis by distrust. The Border, it is already clear, can neutralize but not replace the Center. Networks can protest and overthrow, but never govern. Bureaucratic inertia confronts digital nihilism. The sum is zero.

* What Israel’s mutinous youth really wanted was this. They wanted the government to make things right. They wanted it to legislate a meaningful life for them in an egalitarian, fraternal, and, of course, affordable society. They had no plans to achieve this, or even a definition of what it meant, but it didn’t matter. That, too, was the government’s job – to listen to the politicized crowd, “the people” who demanded social justice, then somehow make it so. Israeli citizens, Leef asserted, “understand that we all deserve more; understand that they are allowed to demand more from the government.” [62]
The contradiction between the free-market predilections of Netanyahu’s government and their own haphazard calls for state intervention didn’t trouble them overmuch. They weren’t revolutionaries, but neither did they make a fetish of representative democracy – and, at the height of their popularity, they believed Rothschild Boulevard could dictate terms to Jerusalem. “From now on, the young people will shape the government’s vision,” declared Itzhik Shmuli, 31-year-old head of the National Students’ Union and one of Leef’s rivals as media face of the protests. [63]

In Israel, the public’s existential challenge to the established order came because Leef had found it unendurable to lengthen her commute.

* Like dueling naming conventions, the infatuation with V for Vendetta was a symptom, not a cause, of the larger conflict. It revealed an emotional orientation among the protesters: they were self-dramatizers to an extreme degree. The disconnection between their words and their actions, between their understanding of effects and their indifference to causes, can be explained by this trait.
As with V, their self-dramatizing was manifested in gestures of negation – of repudiation, accusation, destruction, erasing history and leaving the future blank. The movie ended with the demolition of the old regime. The rest would take care of itself. “With enough people, blowing up a building can change the world,” V had proclaimed. But that was true only in fiction.

* Political rebels in Europe, Israel, and the US felt betrayed by the failure of the structures of authority, particularly the government and the economic elites. The feeling wasn’t entirely unreasonable. The masters and regulators of finance had placed large foolish bets, but when the bottom fell out in 2008 it was the public, not them, who paid the losses. There was ample room for criticism, even for cynicism.
In the end, however, a term like “failure” can only be applied relative to some expectation – and we have seen that the rebels’ expectations of modern government were at once fantastical in their scope and vaporous in definition. They ascribed magical or, I venture to say, divine qualities to cumbersome, all-too-human bureaucracies. They believed government could work miracles: it could give meaning to their personal lives. This faith was most evident in Israel, a country that quickly overcame the effects of the crisis. Protesters there were affluent and employed, but expected the government to deliver personal personal fulfillment within a context of social justice. What that meant was never explained. Most of the American Occupiers also held down jobs. Conversely, those nearest to poverty never participated in any of the 2011 street revolts.
Even in the rhetoric of the protests, the connection to the economic crisis was, at best, indirect. Manuel Castells had it right when he wrote that “the movement” was about “everything and nothing at the same time.” [87] 2011 never fixated on 2008: the impulse was to abolish history entirely, and open up a future purified of cause and effect.
In their eagerness to play a part in some world-historical drama, the rebels often gave the impression that they were searching for causes. They disdained specifics – ideology, policy – but excelled at lengthy menus of accusations.

* Like money and marriage, legitimacy exists objectively because vast numbers of the public agree, subjectively, that it does exist. If enough people change their minds, the authorizing magic is lost. The process is slow and invisible to analysts, but, as I have noted, the tipping point comes suddenly – a matter of weeks for the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes. How far down this road existing liberal democracies have proceeded is a matter of guesswork. We still have time to discover that the street revolts of 2011, in V’s words, did “change the world,” and not in a good way.

* The street protests of 2011, while ostensibly political, were part of a global assault on the guardians of authority across every domain of human activity. The protesters stood in the same relation to government that bloggers and social media did to newspapers, YouTube to television, Napster to the recording industry, massive online courses to universities, Amazon to shopping malls, the open science movement to the scientific establishment. From the commanding heights of the information sphere, the public sought in each case to break a monopoly held by an accredited elite.
Authority, as I use the term, flows from legitimacy , derived from monopoly. To some indeterminate degree, the public must trust and heed authority, or it is no authority at all. An important social function of authority is to deliver certainty in an uncertain world. It explains reality in the context of the shared story of the group. For this it must rely on persuasion rather than compulsion, since naked force is a destroyer of trust and faith. The need to persuade in turn explains the institutional propensity for visible symbols of authority – the patrician’s toga, the doctor’s white frock, the financier’s Armani suit. Authority being an intangible quality, those who wield it wish to be recognized for what they are.

* Current structures of authority are a legacy of the industrial age. The public, when it needs answers, turns to institutions rather than to charismatic individuals. These institutions have been subjected to a Taylorist process of rationalization: they are, without exception, top-down, specialized, professionalized, prone to pseudo-scientific rituals and jargon. To enter such a precinct of authority requires a long and costly accreditation process – years of academic education and apprenticeship. Many are called, few are chosen. The elect believe themselves to be unquestioned masters of their special domain – and so they were for many years. From the middle of the nineteenth to the end of the twentieth centuries, the public lacked the means to question, much less contradict, authoritative judgments derived from monopolies of information.
Most people in authority today came to their positions in that happy time. On moral as well as intellectual grounds, they dismiss the outsider out of hand.

* The authorizing magic of legitimacy can channel social behavior more deeply and permanently than the policeman’s club or the millionaire’s check.

* The assault on authority has expanded to virtually every point in the social landscape where an established hierarchy confronts a public in command of the new platforms of communication.

* On November 19, 2009, someone who had hacked thousands of emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, Britain, released them to the public on an obscure Russian server. The names on the emails belonged to the most eminent climatologists involved in global warming research, and included many of the leading contributors to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The release had a pointedly political purpose. A gathering of world leaders to coordinate policy on climate change was scheduled for December in Copenhagen. From the emails, an unflattering portrait emerged of the hierarchy of climatology, caught en famille . The scientists sounded vain, petty, intolerant, obsessed with media coverage, and abusive to outsiders. They often appeared clueless when it came to their own data sets and computer programs. In this, they faced the same problem as Eddington: the past temperature of the earth wasn’t a single number but an interpretation of very many temperature “proxies” such as tree rings and ice cores. The emails made it clear that the published assertions of the climatologists exceeded their confidence in this data – much of which, in any case, had been lost. And here they confronted a new, more serious problem, one unknown and probably inconceivable to Eddington: a stream of requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the data sets cited in their papers. [95]
The alpha bureaucrats, ensconced at the top of the pyramid, were Michael Mann of Penn State University for the US, and Phil Jones, head of the CRU, for Britain. The two men nominated each other to awards and pressured colleagues to sign petitions supporting the IPCC orthodoxy. Questions of loyalty and disloyalty, of sustaining the information monopoly of the group, absorbed their emails. The threat which enraged these institutional gatekeepers was the intruding outsider, the interested amateur, the “skeptics” and “contrarians” who filed all those FOIA requests.
Mann, Jones, and the circle of scientists around them wrapped themselves in the mantle of the peer review process, which the “skeptics” had avoided. They were accredited science professionals, published in legitimate journals. This was their creed, the source of their authority. But since the group largely controlled peer review for their field, and a consuming subject of the emails was how to keep dissenting voices out of the journals and the media, the claim rested on a circular logic. The supposedly anonymous review process, it was apparent, had become something of a cozy club in climatology.

The emails showed the world’s leading climatologists busily working to organize a research cartel. Peer review was a legitimate source of authority when the process supported their positions. It was compromised, if not malicious, when it offered critics of the orthodoxy a platform. The wish to crush dissenting views, in their minds, had become indistinguishable from the pursuit of truth. In this attempt they ultimately failed, but not, the emails revealed, for lack of trying.

* Alan Greenspan’s most significant achievement had been to persuade the elites and the public that the pursuit of material happiness required supervision by a brilliant specialist.

* Most things fail, because our species tends to think in terms of narrowly defined problems, and usually pays little attention to the most important feature of these problems: the wider context in which they are embedded. When we think we are solving the problem, we are in fact disrupting the context. Most consequences will then be unintended.

* The president [Obama] has been mocked by opponents for having “community organizer” on his resume, but that work aligned him, from the first, with the rhetoric and self-image of a rebellious public. The community organizer is expected to expose, denounce, whip up indignation. He dwells constantly on the many injustices of the established order, and he demands change on a heroic scale. The change itself is pushed off to some other responsible party – usually, a government agency. The organizer deals in negation , not action. The president’s vision of democratic government can be described in similar terms. [200]
Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008 as an insurgent from the Border, but it was clear that, initially, he wished to govern from the Center by implementing big programs in the tradition of FDR and LBJ. This was a tricky pivot, and, as I have shown, the president never managed to pull it off… Whether by plan, or, as I think more likely, by temperament, he resumed the posture of a righteous outsider calling out a corrupt establishment. He distanced himself rhetorically from the power of his office, from the Center, and abandoned the claims of competence and heroic projects that had led his administration to failure and defeat.

…He had risen on a tidal wave of hostility against authority, and he had been smashed down when he, in turn, was perceived to be the authority. The public was angry and disgusted with government. Henceforth he would be the voice of that anger and disgust. The veteran community organizer would embrace and reinforce the public’s distrust of the established order.
The president became chief accuser to the nation. Liberated by the partisan divisions in Congress from the need to pursue a positive legislative program, he wrapped himself in the warm blanket of combative rhetoric, and turned his back on the strenuous give-and-take of democratic politics.
Between 2010 and the presidential elections in 2012, a large number of issues and episodes earned President Obama’s condemnation. All fit a politically divisive “wedge” profile: racism in the shooting of Treyvon Martin, economic injustice and the inequities of the market system, putative violations of the rights of women, immigrants, gays. In a remarkable political maneuver, the president’s re-election campaign ignored his achievements in office and portrayed him, once again, as an insurgent battling the status quo. His opponent, Mitt Romney, found that his career as a successful businessman assigned him to the millionaires’ cabal that really ran the country.

* Barack Obama’s detachment from the levers of power caused consternation among elites generally friendly to his administration, who had mistaken his accusatory rhetoric for the voice of traditional activism. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post chided “Obama, the uninterested president,” complaining that “he wants no control over the actions of his administration.” [205] A satire in the liberal New Yorker hammered at the same point: “President Obama used his radio address on Saturday to reassure the American people that he has ‘played no role whatsoever’ in the US government over the past four years,” it deadpanned. [206]

* Barack Obama, I believe, represented a new and disconcerting development in democratic politics: the conquest of the Center by the Border, and the rise of the sectarian temper to the highest positions of power.
It’s important to revisit these terms. According to Douglas and Wildavsky, the Border identified itself as the negation of the Center. The sectarian temperament was formed in alienation from the inequality and corruption of hierarchy. By this logic, the rule of the sectarian Border must mean the self-negation of government: the alienation of power from itself. To govern at the heart of this contradiction has been the essence of the Obama style. Failure was condemned pre-emptively, from the rooftops: failure of the previous political leadership, of outmoded economic theories, of the protection of basic rights, of “community values” and society as a whole. Condemnation served to prove the president’s good faith, and to rally the public – not, indeed, behind the institutions of the Federal government or the democratic process, but behind his administration and his person. Legitimacy adhered to qualities intrinsic to Barack Obama, sectarian prophet, the president who was going to be fighting side by side with the public every step of the way.
As for democracy, its value was made contingent on specific outcomes. A process that allowed women’s rights to be trampled and businessmen to promote inequality could not in good conscience be tolerated. Thus the election of Barack Obama made democracy legitimate, rather than the other way around. His defeat could only have been the result of conspiracy by secretive forces, and would have justified the public’s flooding the streets in indignado -style protests.

* But representative democracy, as it actually exists, is a procedural business. Either it tolerates pluralistic outcomes, or it will degenerate into chaos or coronations. More to the point, the president demanded outcomes that – to paraphrase Ormerod – were not within the power of government to ordain. Economic inequality, for example, has grown everywhere despite the best intentions of democratic governments. In the US, it increased under the Bush administration but worsened under President Obama’s. The president has managed to detach his own claims of competence from the “problem” of inequality, and thus escaped the democrat’s dilemma, but he has done nothing to bridge the gulf between democratic politics and reality.
The accusatory style of government must be understood as a pathological development, a deformation, brought about by the underground struggle between the public and authority. Like all politicians, Barack Obama needed a viable political space from which to maneuver. In his particular case, he was squeezed between the ambitious failures of modern democracy and the predations of a networked public. After the defeat of 2010, the president decided on a strategy that placed the public’s chosen weapon against authority – negation – at the center of government. He divorced his political personality from his official position, a paradox best explained as a desperate response to severe external pressures. His personal success made it likely that he will have imitators.
Yet the public remained as before: unsubdued, unquiet, unhappy. It could erupt at any moment, as it did in 2010. President Obama was able to mimic the public’s voice, but he was not its chosen instrument: he’s riding a tiger, and must constantly sharpen his rhetorical attacks to avoid having it turn against him. This can only intensify the public’s corrosive distrust of the political system. When that distrust is validated by the highest elected officials, outright rejection of democracy becomes a defensible position, to be invoked at the next, inevitable, failure of government.

* Every expert is surrounded by a horde of amateurs eager to pounce on every mistake and mock every unsuccessful prediction or policy.

* Elected officials were routinely described as tyrannical by insurgents from the right. A favorite political conceit used by the Tea Party was the American Revolution, with Barack Obama playing the part of King George. Nobody seriously advocated a violent overthrow, but the metaphor was telling. Like the president, Tea Partiers believed that it hadn’t always been so, but their time horizon for “our nation’s decline” was much longer – “it has taken us a hundred years or so to reach our present state of crisis.” [215] According to Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots, the gist of this crisis was the trampling on the rights of Americans by a government voracious for power.

* So we were back to the cinematic nihilism of V for Vendetta : “With enough people, blowing up a building can change the world.” We were back to the real-world nihilism of the London rioters in August 2011: “Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!) fuck the feds we will send them back with OUR riot!”
I want to be extremely clear about what I’m suggesting. A vast structural collision – pre-eminently, the revolt of the public against authority – has left democratic governments burdened with failure, democratic politics far removed from reality, and democratic programs drained of creative energy, and thus of hope. At this point, the nihilist makes his appearance. He is not a philosopher with an elaborated ideology, or a political figure leading an organization. Membership in the Nihilist Party cannot be had for love or money. Rather, the nihilist is merely reacting, as all human beings must, to the pressures applied by his environment: which means, in this case, that he is acting to destroy that environment.
If I’m correct with this line of analysis, the nihilist, while essentially at war with himself, will happily bring down the entire edifice of democracy as part of his suicide pact. He has taken radicalism to its logical extreme. He doesn’t mean to conquer power or replace it with some new deal, only to obliterate the institutions that stand in his way: “fuck the feds.” And if this is truly the case, I think it’s worth spending a few moments examining this political mutant, on whom so much of the future seems to hinge.

* Being connected, the nihilist is networked. He can link to others just as destructive as him, and bring them together in a flash of real-time mayhem. And there are always others: the nihilist isn’t one but many. He belongs with the public when he’s interested in an affair, as sometimes he is, but his predilections are sectarian to an absolute extreme. He is morbidly, monstrously, against . He imagines he would be happy, if the society in which he lives were wiped out tomorrow.
In politics, this impulse pushes him way beyond rejection or revolt. The nihilist is a political black hole, allowing no light or mass to escape his violent embrace. Yet he’s not a professional agitator, as he surely would have been in the last century. He’s a private person, an amateur in politics moving among other amateurs. Nihilism, in him, isn’t a full-time job – it’s a latent condition. It erupts on a case by case basis. The fuse might be lit by some news on his Twitter stream about the war in Afghanistan or the flood of immigrants into his country. Or he might just reach a tipping point in that all-consuming feeling that partakes so much of alienation. Then he becomes what he is: an agent of annihilation.
In the assembly of protesters, his is the loud, irreconcilable voice. In the peaceful demonstration, his is the hand heaving a Molotov cocktail through the shop window. In confrontation with police, he is eager to shed blood. In online forums, he is fertile with ideas to hack, expose, paralyze the institutions that run the world. He is the bomber, the random shooter: a terrorist without a cause.
I could go on. He is possessed by a fuzzy but apocalyptic sense of doom, for example. The world, he holds, is going to wreck and ruin. To push it along is the best thing. The government could fix everything and solve our problems if it tried – for all his alienation, the nihilist is convinced of that, and the most persuasive evidence he has of government corruption is that life keeps getting worse.

* The mortal riddle posed by the nihilist is that he’s a child of privilege. He’s healthy, fit, long-lived, university-educated, articulate, fashionably attired, widely traveled, well-informed. He lives in his own place or at worst in his parents’ home, never in a cave. He probably has a good job and he certainly has money in his pocket. In sum, he’s the pampered poster boy of a system that labors desperately to make him happy, yet his feelings about his life, his country, democracy – the system – seethe with a virulent unhappiness.
Feelings of this sort compelled Daphni Leef to pitch her tent on Rothschild Boulevard to demand the destruction of “swinish capitalism.” She came from an affluent family. She was a film school graduate and held a job as a video editor. Compared to most people anywhere or anytime, hers was a privileged life. Yet she seethed with a sense of injustice because he couldn’t afford her old apartment. She felt the system was fundamentally rapacious, and she would bring it down to shorten her commute. “We all deserve more,” was her one commandment. In the clouded mind of the nihilist, that “more” stretched infinitely toward utopia.

* So here we have a privileged class in revolt against itself. Here we have the beneficiaries of democracy loathing democracy and clamoring for its demise, even without an alternative in sight. Like the character in the cartoon, the nihilist hates the knotty branch on which he sits, and conceives the idea that it should be sawed off. Does he know he will plunge to earth and break his neck?

* The nihilist is dangerous in part because he’s right. Zapatero was egregiously mistaken when he imagined that the Spain of 2008 was not in the grip of an economic crisis. President Bush was equally mistaken about Iraq, President Obama about the stimulus. These were very unlike political personalities, espousing very different ideologies, but they were similar in one crucial respect: they believed they could ordain the future. They embodied a system that had lost touch with reality. If democracy is to be judged on their performance, it would be hard not to lapse into negation.

From the 2018 edition:

* Donald Trump is a peacock among the dull buzzards of American politics. The one discernible theme of his life has been the will to stand out: to attract all eyes in the room by being the loudest, most colorful, most aggressively intrusive person there. He has clearly succeeded to an astonishing degree. The data on media attention speaks to a world-class talent for self-promotion.

* For a time, elite news media became enamored of that rare and vanishing species: the American Nazi. The New York Times told the story of “The Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” about a young man soon to be married who happens to be “the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux.”

Naturally, Donald Trump “helped open a space for people like him.” Almost simultaneously, The Atlantic published “The Making of an American Nazi,” focused on one of the more revolting contributors to the Daily Stormer. Trump’s name features 39 times, as in, illustratively: “[H]is writing taps into some of the same anxieties and resentments that helped carry Trump to the presidency—chiefly a perceived loss of status among white men.”

If Russia and Putin were the hidden hand that delivered the impossible Trump to power, the Nazis, in the fevered mind of the elites, represented the monstrous outcome of this manipulation.

* The peril to democracy under present conditions of information isn’t any of these things: it’s the spread of nihilism in the public and the demoralization of an elite class that has lost any claim to authority.

The August 2017 events in Charlottesville fit this pattern. Nazis and white supremacists were there in insignificant numbers when compared to, say, the huge anti-Trump protests that followed the elections. They and their “antifascist” antagonists exemplify the public’s escape to exotic islands of identity: they are evidence, therefore, of the fracturing of American politics, not its takeover by violent mass movements. Yet these groups did take over the streets in Charlottesville. The cause was the abdication of the authorities. Elected officials in the city hesitated between their wish to oppose the racist protesters and their duty to preserve the peace. The police, which could have overwhelmed
any disturbance, felt that its presence would actually incite violence. A single school crossing guard was posted at the intersection where the car attack occurred. She was soon removed out fear for her safety. An independent review of the events, commissioned by the city, stated baldly:

“[T]he City of Charlottesville protected neither free expression nor public safety on August 12. The City was unable to protect the right of free expression and facilitate the permit holder’s offensive speech. This represents a failure of one of government’s core functions—the protection of fundamental rights. Law enforcement also failed to maintain order and protect citizens from harm, injury, and death.”

Here was the crisis of authority, writ small. The space abandoned by the democratic elites was immediately occupied by sectarian war-bands. None of these, by definition, were organized along old-fashioned fascist lines. That is the
structural reality of our moment. So far as we know, the 20-year-old who plowed his car into the crowd at Charlottesville wasn’t acting on orders from his führer or from anyone else. He acted on an impulse: the urge to kill and destroy. Rather
than chase after Nazis or other phantoms of history, those concerned with the future of democracy should fix their attention on that young man: on the nihilist who believes, with passionate intensity, that destruction and slaughter are by
themselves a form of progress.

* Trump has mastered the nihilist style of the web. That, to me, is the most significant factor separating him from the pack. His opponents speak in jargon and clichés. He speaks in rant. He attacks, insults, condemns, doubles down on misstatements, never takes a step back, never apologizes. Everyone he dislikes is a liar (see “Lyin’ Ted Cruz”), a thief (see “Crooked Hillary”), a “bimbo,” “bought and paid for,” the equivalent of a child molester. This is American politics portrayed as the last circle of hell: treachery by the people, from the people, against the people. Taken literally, it would mean that not a single pillar of our institutions deserves to be left standing. Coming from a president, it has the feel of the state devouring itself.

* Politicians swept into office by the anti-establishment flood face an immediate dilemma. Once in government, they can continue to smash away at the institutions—but this will damage the economy and consequently their popularity. Alternatively, they can move to the mainstream and compromise with the elites—but this will demolish their credibility and alienate their base of support. Few have found a way out of the labyrinth. Alexis Tsipras tried each approach in turn, and failed at both.

The bizarre schizoid style of the Trump administration becomes intelligible as an attempt to escape this dilemma. Elected as an agent of negation, President Trump must now promote positive policies and programs. Any direction he takes will
alienate some of his supporters, who are bound together largely on the strength of their repudiations. A predilection for the mainstream will alienate most of them.

* It’s a zero-sum struggle for attention that rewards the most immoderate voices—and, without question, Donald Trump
is a master of the game. His unbridled language mobilizes his anti-elite followers, even as his policies appeal to more “conventional” Republicans and conservatives.

Politically, it’s a high-wire act without a net. Trump was never a popular candidate. He’s not a popular president. To retain his base, he must provoke his opposition into a frenzy of loathing. Ordinary Americans, inevitably, have come
to regard the president as the sum of all his rants. For our confused and demoralized elites, who have no clue about the game being played, Donald Trump looks something like the Beast of the Apocalypse, a sign of chaotic endtimes. Writes the normally reflective Ian Buruma: “the act of undermining democratic institutions by abusing them in front of braying mobs is not modern at all. It is what aspiring dictators have always done.”

But dictators don’t deal in tweets. Trump is in the style of our moment: a man from nowhere, with no stake in the system, ignorant of history, incurious about our political habits and traditions, but happy to bash and to break old and precious things in exchange for a little attention.

* The election of Donald Trump can be said to have demolished the intellectual foundations of the news business. The pretense of objectivity had been abandoned for a higher cause. The claim to furnish “all the news that’s fit to print” was now refuted by the failure to grasp the shape and outcome of the contest. No one who followed the news understood the forces at play. None guessed what was coming. Continued consumption of news seemed to lack any justification, other than amusement or habit.

* If fake news deluded the masses into electing Donald Trump, and sophisticated Russians who hated democracy were responsible for the fake news, then an explanation for 2016 had been found that absolved the news media. The question
was never asked why people would believe fake news over the real stuff. Trust in news as an institution had imploded.

* In a private session with the network anchors, Trump was asked what surprised him most about becoming president. “The fact that you never changed your coverage,” he replied, ever attentive to media attention. “The fact that it never
got better.” He was right. Negative coverage of the president has hovered consistently around 90 percent. According to one study, the top issue covered by mainstream news sources in 2017 was collusion between the administration and Putin’s Russia.

The tone of coverage was even more one-sided. It was the media, of course, that gave us the caricatures of Trump as Hitler, Mussolini, and a white supremacist. It was the media that made every day into the last day of democracy in America. The rage that was once the monopoly of online politics — and poisons so much of the president’s own rhetoric—now poured out of the inky pages of old-fashioned newsprint.

A side had been chosen: the other “half of America” was to be discarded.

* Howard Kurtz sums up the conflict: “Donald Trump is staking his presidency, as he did his election, on nothing less than destroying the credibility of the news media; and the media are determined to do the same for him.” But credibility, in
this case, isn’t necessarily a question of either-or: both the president and the institutions, including the media, have stripped themselves of authority down to a fig leaf of rage and negation. “This is, at bottom, a battle over the truth,” Kurtz concludes.

But it’s really a battle for dominance, fought on a darkling plain where truth, when encountered, is used strictly as a weapon.

* For all the sound and fury about fake news, not a shred of evidence exists that they influenced the election outcome.
An analysis of online media election coverage by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center suggests the opposite: “Although fake news—fabricated and verifiable false reporting—was a phenomenon during the election, it had a minor effect on the media ecosystem of the presidential election according to our findings.”

The relationship between information and human behavior is exceedingly complex: but we seldom change our core beliefs because of a story we read online. That’s so whether the story is true or false. On the question of influence, too, the distinction between fake and real news tends to disappear. Mark Zuckerberg, responding to questions about Facebook’s role in the election, had the weight of evidence on his side when he stated, “Voters make decisions based on lived experience.”
Predictably, Zuckerberg was harshly criticized for this comment, and has been compelled to walk it back.

* Digital reality, I said above, has been swallowed by the rant—and everyday life, increasingly, is digital. This is the day of the truther, the denier, the birther. I’m struck by how we constantly put forward, like a battered shield, the word “literally”—as in “Trump is literally Hitler.” We are not inclined to tease apart our will from the world.

* From the first, elites have treated the web as an existential threat. Teachers forbade students any taste of that forbidden fruit. The Pentagon, taking no chances, blocked access to social media in the building. The news media, which
purports to interpose layers of editors and fact-checkers between the journalist and the public, routinely portrays the web as the mother of all lies. Anyone can say anything and publish it. No penalties are incurred for peddling falsehoods, even intentional ones.

In the actual evolution of the web, true or false have come to matter less than like or dislike, friend or unfriend, follow or unfollow. The great platforms of social media labor relentlessly to “harvest your attention”—Zeynep Tufekci’s
phrase—by nudging you toward the like-minded, telling you what you already know, giving you what you have always wanted.
The effect—in Matthew d’Ancona’s phrase—has been “online huddling.” The public, which as a whole has risen in revolt against the established order, in its parts appears determined to defend a partial status quo—some source of identity or selfrecognition that is placed beyond the reach of doubt or change. Online stories that reinforce the source of identity are consumed as nourishment for the soul, regardless of accuracy. They confirm, externally, a subjective order. Only in this way does Trump get to be literally Hitler.

* On the broader subject of lies on the web, a very different sense of the matter has been advanced by Andrey Miroshnichenko in his brilliant little book, Human as Media. Miroshnichenko discerns a “viral editor” eternally at work online: a “distributed being of the internet, a sort of Artificial Intelligence” composed of every user, which performs many of the same functions of fact-checking and review claimed by the media. The digital universe, Miroshnichenko holds, is not indifferent between truth and falsehood:

If a lie is significant, it will circulate until it reaches witnesses and experts who will denounce it, because they know the truth. If a lie is insignificant, no one will denounce it; but it won’t circulate. Every example of a lie on the internet, actually, is an example of the disclosure of this lie.

* The elite vision of a post-truth era ultimately rests on a fallacy. It assumes that there was once a time when voters acted on some sort of rational calculus based on “objective facts,” and were immune to “appeals to emotion and personal
belief.” Consider Matthew d’Ancona’s condemnation of the tactics used by Brexit advocates: “This was Post-Truth politics at its purest—the triumph of the visceral over the rational, the deceptively simple over the honestly complex.” But that has always been the way.

* Reality is as unyielding as a policeman’s club. Unlike that club, however, the shared reality of 320 million persons can’t be experienced directly: it’s mediated. For the last century and a half, the elites, and even more the institutions they manage, have been the arbiters of mediated certainty and truth. The government addressed social “problems” and placed difficult national episodes in perspective. The news media selected for the public’s attention a handful of topics and events. Scientific institutions gave out trusted advice on health and other specialized matters.

Each of these institutions possessed a semi-monopoly over the information in its own domain. They were keepers of the stories that explained us to ourselves. They uttered, from above, the authoritative truth. What happens when the mediators lose their legitimacy—when the shared stories that hold us together are depleted of their binding force? That’s easy to
answer. Look around: we happen. The mirror in which we used to find ourselves faithfully reflected in the world has shattered. The great narratives are fracturing into shards. What passes for authority is devolving to the political war-band and the online mob—that is, to the shock troops of populism, left and right. Deprived of a legitimate authority to interpret events and settle factual disputes, we fly apart from each other—or rather, we flee into our own heads, into a
subjectivized existence.

* Having lost faith in authority, the public has migrated to the broken pieces of the old narratives and explanations: shards of reality that deny the truth of all the others and often find them incomprehensible.

* Extremist kooks and cranks have always enjoyed wild conspiracy-mongering more than dull reality. With the collapse of the mediator class, this toxic mindset is seeping into the mainstream. When the neo-Nazis of The Stormer look on America, they see a “race war” against whites and “filthy Jew terrorists” in charge of the government. That is crazed bigotry posing as truth. But when the elites look on the neo-Nazis, they don’t see a tiny band of attention-starved bigots: they discern instead the awful consequences of Donald Trump in power. Nazis become a symbolic judgment on Trump—much as, for Trump, electoral fraud is a symbolic judgment on his enemies. Even if objectively false, both propositions embody truth as it should be. Once that door is open, strange things start to happen. The very liberal news media has glamorized neo-Nazis and
racialists by lavishing attention on them wholly disproportionate to their numbers, making creepy marginal characters seem like important actors in US politics.

* The reality of the world for the “antifas”—young members of selfstyled anti-fascist groups—consists of a V for Vendetta-like melodrama of oppression and revenge. The antifas have always believed that Hitler’s Germany and contemporary American life were fundamentally the same. That is their sliver of truth. Within the circle of the web and the war-band, it probably appears irrefutable. Unlike the elites, antifas have taken the resistance to Trump’s election to its logical conclusion: violence, they proclaim, must be met with violence.

* The unbundling of truth makes the business of democracy ever more difficult to conduct. As we fly ever farther apart, we can only hear each other when we scream. The result (I repeat) has been paralysis for democratic government. In nearly every instance of provocation and violence, officials at every level, elected and appointed, have chosen to play the part of silent observers. No arrests were made in the Berkeley riots. Few persons were arrested in Charlottesville after a day of street fighting—and most were “drunk people.”

* Among the political left, there has been a robust debate whether to applaud or condemn antifa violence. The authorities that make life-and-death decisions are more concerned with not ending up on the wrong side of history. In the era of post-truth, with reality up for grabs, nobody wants to be perceived as anti-antifascist.

* I believe there’s a relationship between our fractured reality and the rise of the nihilist—persons and groups that consider destruction and mass murder to be a form of progress. The nihilist lurks in a broken sliver of truth that is impossible to debate or refute. There, he experiences absolute grievance and the absolute negation of the system, the repudiation of everything that stands and of everyone he encounters. Not just politics but all of humanity, he holds, must be purified and made new. As the last righteous person, the nihilist aims to bring this about in the blood of random strangers. He acts out the violence that so many others perpetrate verbally and virtually on the web: he is, in that sense, the avenging angel of post-truth, and the rant made flesh.

Even as democratically elected officials watch their authority dissipate in a fog of uncertainty, the nihilist commits his crimes with absolute conviction. The assurance of being compelled—“triggered”—protects him from any sense of responsibility. In the midst of death and carnage, he feels innocent as a lamb. Guilt for his crimes must fall on the social order: he is merely an instrument of justice. “I have to do it . . . and you have to go.

* Somehow, large numbers of citizens have come to believe, like him, that the system has failed, and the social order must be smashed. A case can be made that the president of the United States is among them. The nihilist, that righteous monster, appears to be a reasonably faithful likeness of us, in a more advanced state of moral decomposition.

* An affluent, well-educated, hyper-connected public is in revolt against the system that has bestowed all of this bounty upon it. The great motive power of the revolt isn’t economic resentment but outrage over distance and failure. Everyday life is increasingly digital and networked. From dating to hailing a cab, most social and commercial transactions occur at the speed of light. This mode of life incessantly collides with the lumbering hierarchies we have inherited from the industrial age. Modern government, above all, is institutionally unable to grasp that it has lost its monopoly over political reality. It behaves as if imposture and depravity will never be found out: but under the digital dispensation, everything is found out. The public is accustomed to proximity but finds the exercise of power removed an impossible distance away: reasons are never given, questions are never answered, and in this way begins the long, foul rant that is our moment in history.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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