From information to opinions to decisions

In response to two questions (see the end of this text) on Facebook, Jim wrote: I don’t listen to the media. Don’t trust them. (…) The media manipulates, which is why I pay them no attention. They discuss this and speculate that and set the public in alarm and have them screaming at Trump, all the while Pizzagate is being investigated but the media finds it unimportant. (…)

Your position raises a serious question, Jim. On the basis of what information are opinions formed and decisions made? 

We know Forty-Five gets his information from newscasts and talkshows on cable television and a right-wing, white-suprematist network, as well as a series of personal advisers and family members who have a very skewed view on the world. In your case, Jim, if you do not consult the media, how do you know that they alarm the public, that they ‘scream’ at the president, that they manipulate? If the media do not talk about ‘Pizzagate’, where did you learn about it? Where does your information come from? It doesn’t just materialise from nowhere.

Your refusal to heed the media, Jim, strikes a common chord with the main thrust of Forty-Five’s efforts to delegitimise the press. The media are repeatedly said to be motivated by vested interests, to be untrustworthy and full of fake news, although no reasoned justification for these claims is provided other than they don’t say what Forty-Five wants. The same goes for scientists and experts who are vilified and discounted, not to mention the judiciary, as well as the intelligence agencies whose work is to inform high-level government decisions. The question of global warming is a case in point. Without the support of media or expert opinion, who or what do we turn to to inform our opinions and make up our minds?

Looking at how advertising works might provide a possible way of understanding this phenomenon. Advertising uses words and images to create opinions. Careful analysis would point to nonsensical statements, ambiguities, misleading messages, unsubstantiated claims, although they generally shy clear of downright lies. But none of those matter. Why? Because in most cases advertising sidesteps logic and avoids analysis so as to directly influence people’s opinions or feelings.

By delegitimising media and expert opinion, and thus removing any possible checks and balances, it could be argued that Forty-Five produces political discourse as if it were publicity. Let’s take his accusation that the previous president wiretapped him. This has been shown to be unfounded. In a reasoned world, such a baseless claim would discredit the person making it, and in the case of a president might well lead to impeachment. But in a world in which political discourse and publicity are one, it serves to reinforce feelings of untrustworthiness of the prior president and his political party without having to persuade with reasoned arguments. It acts as a distraction from more serious accusations, substantiated these, about collusion between Forty-Five’s staff and the Russians. And above all, it lays the foundations for a society in which publicity rather than reasoned discourse drives political decisions.

If this hypothesis is true it would explain why traditional political actors are at a loss to deal with Forty-Five. They try to reason with his discourse when the intellect has little hold on his words and actions because they bypass reason and disqualify anyone who contradicts them. Herein lies the most alarming fact about Forty-Five’s behaviour. Once he has successfully undermined all possible checks and balances that could question his word, what he says becomes the absolute reality that cannot be challenged. There is a word for such a person who sees himself as the sole source of reality and who refuses to confront his vision of reality with that of others, the word is mad.

The unfortunate fact about the word ‘mad’ is that it is disqualifying. Rather as Forty-Five delegitimises the media, so calling him ‘mad’ could also be seen as an attempt to eliminate that which is disturbing. But elimination is no solution. Having ascertained that he seeks to set himself up as the sole source of reality and having realised that ‘his’ reality leads to decisions and acts that are dangerous for the wellbeing of people around the world, the question is what do we do? 

Much of his power comes from the position he has been elected to and this is enhanced by undermining the institutions that share democratic power with him. Unfortunately, actors in those institutions that should play a role in checking presidential excesses are hampered by their own efforts to protect vested interests. This is the very situation that produced widespread disatisfaction with politics and led to Forty-Five being elected. In addition, the president’s influence also stems from the massive attention media grant him. His outrageous proclamations, his attacks on media all serve to keep him in the centre of the spotlight. He may be the most unpopular president ever, but he must surely be the most talked about too. Media cannot ignore his outbursts (a journalist in Le Temps likened them to grenades indiscriminately chucked into the crowd) but more caution and restraint is required in talking about them.

Annex: The two questions

1. What should be done with a president who makes unfounded criminal accusations about his predecessor?

2. What should be done with the head of the FBI who, during the presidential campaign, publicly announced his agency was investigating one of the candidates about lost emails while omitting to mention that they were also investigating the other candidate and his associates for collusion with the Russians to interfere in the presidential election?