Anne Applebaum: Since you brought in Europeans, I do think it’s important that—and particularly this audience I’m sure sure agrees, to point out that Donald Trump is not an American phenomenon, solely an American phenomenon. We see Trumps emerging all across the West, all across Europe—Western Europe and Eastern Europe. And they are repeating themselves in very similar ways. I think this is related to the cultural thing that you won’t let me talk about yet—
Jeb Bush: Talk about it.
Sean Wilentz: Get into it!
Bush: Don’t ask. Don’t ask.
Applebaum: Can I say it? Okay. Okay, there are three points to make about culture, alright? Number one is to do with pop culture. People have talked a little bit about Reagan and Reaganism. I recently read a book about Reagan, it reminded me the degree to which Reagan was the embodiment of the popular culture of his time. He was a Hollywood actor. He believed in the values of Hollywood, which were by the way the values of film companies all across Europe and around the world. And the values of Hollywood were good guys win, good triumphs over evil, the nice guy gets the girl… And those were the kinds of things—you can laugh at it and people did—but those were the things that people looked up to and admired.
What does Trump embody? He embodies the values of reality television. Reality television is something we have in the Netherlands, we have it in France, we have it in America, we have in Britain. Who wins in reality television? The most vulgar, the loudest… Who doesn’t get voted off the island? It’s often the person who shoves the other people aside. And this is the most popular form of entertainment in the West right now. And he comes from it, he was of it, he embodies it, he reflects its values, people understand what he’s doing. The most brilliant analysis of Trump I’ve seen was somebody who analyzed him by comparing him to the victors of reality television series. He is literally doing what they do in order to win the contest. That’s what he is. That’s how you win.
The second point is to do with the nature of the Internet, and the nature of political information now. Which is exactly the same in the United States and Europe. And we spoke about this a good deal last night. The Internet has changed the way in which people receive news. People don’t receive news from newspapers directly, or from television direct—although to some degree they still do. They receive it from their friends, and from their social networks. Which means that it’s curated and separated in a way that it never used to be.
And this has a number of effects. One of them—there was a very brilliant thing that The Wall Street Journal did a couple of days ago which is it put up on one page a liberal Facebook feed and a conservative Facebook feed, and you can—I highly recommend you look at it. You can press on a button and see what the conservatives are saying right now about I don’t know, Hillary Clinton or terrorism, and what the liberals are saying. And they are completely different worlds. They live in completely different universes. And part of what’s underlying the problem that the governor described of people not being able to talk to each other is that we now have political systems—and this is, I live part of the time in London and part of the time in Poland. And this is underlying the growing gap between the parties. And the reason why people can’t have a shared conversation is because they literally don’t have the same facts anymore. They don’t see the same reality.
And I promise you that’s true in Poland. I understand that it’s to some degree true here. People simply don’t see the same numbers, the same— I’m watching right now the Brexit campaign. There’s one number that the out campaign keeps citing, which is that Britain pays £350 million pounds a week to Europe. This is a fictitious number. It has been proved over and over again that this is wrong. This is not the real number, there are numbers you can come up with it, it doesn’t reflect anything. It’s not a number that you will immediately get back from Europe and you’ll be able to spend it on the National Health Service. It’s fake.
Nevertheless, they use it, they put it on the side of their campaign buses, they put on posters, they use it over and over again—it does not matter how many times it’s debunked or how many fact-checking web sites take it apart. This is simply not part— You can’t do that anymore, the debate. So you now have completely separate worlds. And how do you even have democracy—and this is not an American problem, this is a problem of the West. How do you have democracy now, if the democratic nations aren’t talking about the same thing? And don’t agree on what’s happening. You can’t analyze, you can’t solve a problem if you don’t agree on what it is.
And so you know, the statistics about terrorism, the statistics about immigration, they are completely different depending on which form of media you’re reading. And that makes rational and sensible debate impossible. And that’s why you have so many—you know, we know in this country, we know in France, we know in Poland, we know in Hungary—there are so many examples now of politicians who are able to operate on completely phony views of reality and sell them to people, because they can see it on the Internet.
The second effect…I mean, there are multiple, but the second effect is that the onslaught and cascade of information that people now have in democracies devalues the political process—you know, ruins the…undermines—that’s the word I want, undermines political speech. I mean, you read so much, there’s so much information, there’s so much news. Some of it’s true, some of it’s false. Can you really believe any of it? Are any of these people up there really telling you the truth? Aren’t all those guys lying? Who do you believe? Who’s authentic, you know. Maybe Trump is authentic because he shouts louder. Maybe Bernie Sanders is authentic because he wants to attack rich people—because he’s old, you know. He’s not media-friendly—no, I’m serious. He looks not—he’s not a made-up politician, you know. So he looks like an authentic person. Jeremy Corbyn leads the Labour party in Britain for similar reasons. He’s authentic, he’s real, you know. Never mind that his views are irrational and he’s advocating policies that didn’t work the last time they were tried thirty years ago, you know. But because he seems authentic in an era when there’s so much garbage around, he has an appeal.
So we’re we’re not operating in the same political culture even of five years ago, you know.
Bush: That’s so true.
Appelbaum: Five years ago, the political world was different, people were getting their information in different ways, so there’s a reason why these different Trumps and these different Wilderses and these different Kuczynski’s, you know, are emerging all over democratic countries all at once. And it’s because of the nature—the way in which people get political information, and the disappearance of the real world and real facts from politics.
Wilentz It seems to me that Trump has combined—because Trump is a reality television guy, he gets to change his facts whenever he wants to.
Wilentz: He can say something at 10:00 AM…and at 2:00 PM says exactly the opposite.
Appelbaum: And he’s done it.
Wilentz: So facts [crosstalk] have been—
Appelbaum: That’s how you win on reality TV.
Wilentz: Exactly. Facts are obliterated—
Appelbaum: Mm hm.
Wilentz: —in this. Not just that we have different facts, facts are obliterated. They have no meaning, anymore. More than that, when Donald Trump is asked where he got his information he says, “I got it on the Internet.”
Roger Berkowitz: Or The National Enquirer.
Derek Shearer: You know, Sean… Sean, this is not entirely new. I mean, I’ve been involved in lots of campaigns. And I’ve always tried to tell my liberal college professor friends, campaigns are not educational affairs.
Randall Kennedy: That’s true.
Shearer: It is not about facts. It is about emotion, about narrative, about story. And I think we have to— I mean, everything Anne said is true, I think. But there’s a little more piece to the Trump story. He has a narrative that explains the world—I argue this is the first actual election about globalization. Because there’s a lot going on in the world, okay. And Trump puts it all into a neat story, you know. He’s got the bad guys, the Mexicans, and the Muslims, and the Chinese. They’re the bad guys. And he’s got really clear, easy solutions—build the wall, build the tariff—and we’ll make America great. It is a believable story…if, you don’t spend a lotta time on you know, reading books or being a college professor, and you’re pissed off. Plus he tells you he can’t be bought, so that’s probably why his story is true.
And Bernie has a similar story. Bernie doesn’t get into details. Bernie doesn’t bother with facts. He doesn’t even bother with human beings. It’s Wall Street, you know, break ’em up. Free this, you know. It’s the system. Political revolution—Bernie’s been saying this for you know, years.
Wilentz: Forty years.
Appelbaum: Like Noam Chomsky.
Shearer: Well, but Noam at least actually tries to have some facts. But I mean—
Appelbaum: [making so-so gesture] Mmmm…
Shearer: —the point is that Bernie has a story. He has a narrative line. And it appeals to his supporters just like Trump does. And you know, narrative is very powerful in politics. Emotion…emotional resonance counts—
Appelbaum: Yeah but we used to be able to check that narrative against something real—
Shearer: Well no no. Yes.
Appelbaum: —and the criticisms of the narrative would get through. And now they don’t. If you live in the conservative half of the—or the far-right, whatever you’re gonna call it—piece of the Facebook world, you don’t get anything that contradicts that narrative. You don’t ever see it. It doesn’t penetrate.
Shearer: That’s all true but I just don’t want to deny the power of both—
Shearer: —of these candidates, and the fact that look, the globalized world is pretty scary to a lot of people.
Shearer: And I think that we can’t fault whatever there is of a global elite, whether they’re liberal or conservative, who said you know, “This is the great era. Everything’s fine, everybody’s going to get better, we have this wonderful globalized world,” and somehow nationalism would go away… No. There are people who don’t like this world. That’s what the real revolt is of ISIS and other groups. They are opposed to this globalized world. And you know, we haven’t taken that, I think, seriously enough. It’s a much more complicated issue than just you know, people are misusing facts or it’s the Internet.
Roger Berkowitz: The technology I think is largely neutral here. I mean, I agree with Anne and Derek and other people. I mean, you know I actually think it’s gonna get worse. I think pretty soon you’re going to have your eyeglasses, you’re going to have intravenous things, and you’re going to pick whether Facebook or Google provides you with your information. And it’s gonna be inserted into your nervous system, right. I mean, it’s going to be—
Bush: Yeah, wait till the network movie about that comes out.
Berkowitz: But, on the other side we have more resources to check facts now than we’ve ever had. All you have—
Appelbaum: Nobody believes them.
Berkowitz: Well…well, okay.
Bush: [indistinct; possibly “There’s facts and there’s facts.”]
Appelbaum: Nobody believes them.
Berkowitz: I happen to agree with you. But the point is you have the resources there. So the question is why are they not believing them. Why aren’t they going to them. And what I wanna suggest, and this probably will not be popular around here but who knows, is that the real issue here is that we have had an experiment that’s been going on, depending on how you look at it, either since the 1930s or the 1960s. In either case it was a time when college professors and college-educated people entered politics in a massive way, and college education became a dominant requirement of politics. And the people who are college-educated, what Hannah Arendt calls “problem-solvers,” have asked for a bargain: “Let us do it, and we’ll solve the problems.” And over the last seventy years they failed. The problems haven’t gotten better. And I think the— Well, I don’t think education’s gotten better, I don’t think immigration’s gotten better—
Shearer: That’s not— That’s just not a true statement.
Berkowitz: Well I— Okay—
Shearer: No no.
Shearer: Do you ever look at metrics?
Berkowitz: Do I look at metrics—
Shearer: Yes. We have—
Berkowitz: Poverty is cured.
Shearer: We have the best higher education, we have the best universities in the entire world—
Berkowitz: Best, in what sense?
Shearer: Best quality of research, best quality of professors, best students [indistinct] world—
Berkowitz: You mean the professors spend no time teaching, [crosstalk] and largely spend their time doing research.
Shearer: That’s not true. What world, what world do you…live in?
Berkowitz: I’m in a university.
Shearer: I mean, I— You know… [laughter]
Democracy Today in the USA event page