We Should Have Seen Trump And Sanders Coming

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Over at Politico Magazine, Troy Campbell, an assistant professor of Marketing at the Lundquist College of Business, University of Oregon, has a fascinating piece on Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

The gist is that both men shift the “Overton Window” and create new permission structures. The duo, Campbell writes, have “become what people in my profession of psychology see as enabling dissenters.”

For example,

Today, Trump supporters voice opinions that yesterday they may have been unsure of or publically [sic] afraid to acknowledge for fear of being alone and called a “racist” or “bigot.” Likewise, today, Sanders supporters voice opinions that yesterday they may have been unsure of or publically [sic] afraid to knowledge for fear of being alone and called a “socialist.”

This, I believe, is made possible partly because we no longer have a national consensus about anything. Although there are good things that come from shedding preconceived notions about which issues are “legitimate,” the destruction of universally agreed upon boundaries was bound to cause some sort of political disruption or reordering.

Back in the old days, we may have had different opinions, but we at least had the same facts. Today, that’s no longer true. And while the media monopoly filter was far from perfect (inasmuch as it perpetuated liberal bias), there’s also something patently unconservative about the modern world where the “truth” is always debatable and dependent on which shows you watch. As the late novelist David Foster Wallace wrote in his Atlantic essay, “Host”: “[T]he ever increasing number of ideological news outlets creates precisely the kind of relativism that cultural conservatives decry, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which ‘the truth’ is wholly matter of perspective and agenda.”

The rise of alternative media has produced both good and bad externalities. And, I suspect, you could say the same about Trump and Sanders. You know the saying “All’s well that ends well”? It’s a truism that, I think, applies to Trump’s candidacy on the Right. Despite all the divisiveness and chaos he has created (and some of the unseemly bedfellows he has excited), it’s still possible that he could lose–and that his candidacy will have been a net-plus for Republicans. “Long after their wild hair no longer graces the front pages of newspapers,” writes Campbell, “their equally wild ideas will flow through the news and in the hearts of the masses.”

Let’s take the fact that Trump has now made it socially acceptable for journalists and pols to discuss Bill Clinton’s sordid past.

Until a week, or so, ago, we had collectively decided that it was old news and a cheap shot (nobody asked my opinion, of course, but almost everyone got the memo that this was out of bounds). Today, even liberal columnists agree that Clinton’s indiscretions are fair game. Trump likes to take credit for injecting the immigration debate into this campaign, and that has always struck be as absurd. But he does get credit for defusing Hillary Clinton’s “war on women” victimhood card. And frankly, this impact could outlast Trump, and benefit some other Republican nominee. (In some cases, this is in the eye of the beholder; I might view this as a positive development, while my liberal friends might see it as a negative.)

Back to the main point: To get a sense for just how much the Internet, social networks, and technology have contributed to the rise of Trump and Sanders, consider this from Campbell:

The most powerful way Trump and Sanders have legitimized their fringe beliefs is through social facilitation. Today, a person can easily find a local or virtual community of like-minded believers to become a part of. In the past, one could not easily inquire whether others were “socialist” or “for banning Muslims from entering the USA.” Now, one can just ask, “Do you support Sanders or Trump?” (or find someone wearing a hat) to get the answers to those questions.

The interesting thing is that I’ve heard this same phenomenon explained as a positive. The nerd who feels out of place in a small rural town can now find other kids all over America who are interested in the same geeky things that he is. Suddenly, he has a support base and a future. His life is changed for the better!

The point here is that technology is inherently philosophically neutral. There are numerous technological and cultural trends that have been loosed upon us, and they will be both good and bad. Some of these things lay dormant until a tipping point causes them to manifest. I would argue the arrival of Trump and Sanders is an example of this. These paradigm shifts are so stunning that they confound the experts who are used to the old ways. We might argue over whether or not these dramatic changes are good or bad, but we have to acknowledge that they are big and real.

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