I spend a lot of time reading essays, wondering about the sentences and paragraphs which impact and enlighten me. To that end, Twitter is a mixed blessing. I learn so much through it, but not only has that learning failed to become mastery of the platform, it can also confuse the value of snarky tweets with what's involved in crafting longform.
However, Chris Hayes recently shared a magnificent passage from George Saunders' "The Braindead Megaphone." It's one of those paragraphs where you have to let every detail soak. Hayes says it predicts "certain developments in our politics:"
Re-reading The Braindead Megaphone for an essay I’m writing and it’s amazing how well it holds up and, um, predicts certain developments in our politics. pic.twitter.com/URST4a9wLS— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) July 21, 2021
I'll write Saunders' paragraph out in full:
"Let's say he hasn't carefully considered the things he's saying. He's basically just blurting things out. And even with the megaphone, he has to shout a little to be heard, which limits the complexity of what he can say. Because he feels he has to be entertaining, he jumps from topic to topic, favoring the conceptual-general ("We're eating more cheese cubes—and loving it!"), the anxiety-or controversy-provoking ("Wine running out due to shadowy conspiracy?"), the gossipy ("Quickie rumored in south bathroom!"), and the trivial ("Which quadrant of the party room do YOU prefer?")."
I love this because it allows us to conceive of Trump as a symptom, not a singularity. Yeah, "he hasn't carefully considered the things he's saying," but so many in this country haven't either. We talk and think like the media we consume. The news which briefly elaborates a headline before switching to the next topic. Talk radio and interview shows designed for quotable outrage. I honestly don't know where I got my ability to pay attention. In grade school I was obsessed with speed reading and newspaper columnists who were amateur comedians. (I realize now, writing that out, that's lightyears beyond relying on Facebook for news.)
I don't think it's possible to properly inform future generations how committed we are to "just blurting things out." A panic grips certain adults in suburbia, for example. In, say, ten minutes one has heard fears regarding inflation ("I can't save, that's why I only own 3 properties"), crime ("Why are THEY here? I'm not racist, but..."), government waste ("Why should I pay for...?"), and co-workers ("They're useless! They hate me! I only got promoted because of my competence"). The insecurity on display is staggering, to say the least. It creates the most random yet uninteresting collection of thoughts and words.
I believe I understand why kids watch people play video games. On streams, problems are shown. "Hey guys, I'm failing to get past the level with the ninja assassin too. See, he one shots me with his poison dagger." The problem is identified, made relatable and specific. Then, various ideas are introduced and explained to solve it. "Look, I know you guys hate using the item shop in level 3-2, because the shopkeeper's voice is annoying. But you have to search the shop, and further down the list of items, there's the Poison Immunity Potion." You use the knowledge in your own gameplay, because you were treated like an adult. "I took the damage from the dagger but it was nowhere near fatal, and I was able to subdue the ninja." Kids have more serious expectations of adults than adults have of themselves. They can't always tell when one is "just blurting things out."
"...even with the megaphone, he has to shout a little to be heard, which limits the complexity of what he can say."
He's got a megaphone, but still needs to shout. An amazing detail.
When I'm lecturing or recording, I have to slow myself. Project a bit. I'll feel a bit stilted, artificial, doing this.
I don't think our megaphone user is in the same predicament.
He wants his voice to dominate. He doesn't care about his words or his tone. Perhaps it would be better if it were angry or miffed. Some will say he's expressing solidarity with a cynical, bored mass of people. On one level, that is happening. But on another, he's dominating. It's the projection of that feeling of control which gets him shouting a "little" into the megaphone.
What's really strange is how it works. Our defense mechanisms may kick in. We feel we're being shamed, like we should be attentive. So we submit. Or, we hear him, and we wish we could be him. That's not quite solidarity. It's an emotion like awe, but an awe on the edge of turning into envy.
Here, obviously, I'm speaking of Trump or a Trump-like demagogue. But Saunders imagines the megaphone user at a party, extending that by analogy in his essay to how the news dumbs us down. Saunders' example is meant to make us think about "consumer choice" in media. How it leads to producing anything for the sake of our attention, including news segments which are considerably worse than infomercials.
Saunders' examples of randomness are too high concept. If I were to discuss Trump, or any right-wing demgogue, as "favoring the conceptual-general," I would be barred from writing ever again. Saunders' point speaks more to advertising and infotainment. How do news and advertisements pretend to inform us, and why do we accept it? "We're eating more cheese cubes—and loving it!" falls flat. But "the Super Bowl has a culturally significant halftime show" is more or less accurate because of the sheer amount of hype around a media spectacle.
It's funny to try and think about Trump himself uttering Saunders' phrases, despite the fact his rally rhetoric does much the same. You can't imagine him saying "Wine running out due to shadowy conspiracy" because that's too many syllables. "Quickie rumored in south bathroom" is too nuanced—why say "rumored" and hint at a lack of authority when you can say "people say" followed by the worst thing you could possibly say. I can't imagine any politician nowadays using a word as complicated as "quadrant." They simply do not talk like that anymore, for some good reasons as well as bad.
But a mix of trying to be entertaining, controversial, gossipy, and trivial? Yeah, that's a TV personality as President, except a personality shaped less by a cable channel like Comedy Central and one more shaped by the news itself. Trump's own particular genius lies in the dumbing down of the already dumbed down. Not "we all eat cheese cubes" for solidarity, but instead "you can't flush a toilet because they want to save water." This sort of thing works with an audience inherently contemptuous of the very concept of policy. Why do we need laws and regulations? Aren't we free? Shouldn't I be allowed to hate whomever I want? Why can't government hurt whomever I tell it to? The gossip the right-wing indulges, I realize, is its approach to the other party. Political scientists and serious media observers note that Red America is encouraged to treat Blue America as no less than the enemy. That's true, but I submit there's a deeper reason why it is the case. There's simply no ability to assess the actual political achievements (or lack thereof) of politicians when you don't recognize anything they do as credible in the first place. Democrats are thought of as a specific type of person as opposed to people who want certain policies. And that type is a product of stupid and credulous right-wing gossip: "They love sushi. And are vegans. And hate guns and church and Two and Half Men."
Or, to put the matter as succinctly as possible, those who genuinely believe "The Apprentice" was a good show telling the truth about business are resentful that anyone might find it suspect. Extremely resentful, truth be told. The megaphone is a divine relic, an aspect of the gods.