Just One Damn Thing after Another

Ophelia Benson

In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote that of the two great twentieth-century dystopian warnings, it wasn’t Orwell’s Stalinist Big Brother we had to worry about so much as the seductions of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

And that was thirty-five years ago, in what now looks like such an innocent time. “As I write,” Postman observed, “the President of the United States is a former Hollywood movie actor. One of his principal challengers in 1984 was once a featured player on television’s most glamorous show of the 1960s, that is to say, an astronaut.” Who knew we could do even better at electing someone completely random and unqualified and incapable to this all-too-powerful job? Who even knew we were trying for a record?

Ronald Reagan in comparison seems an almost rational choice, or at least not an entirely arbitrary one. He did have some experience of governing and a record of political engagement—bad governing and engagement, but still a few lines on the CV. George W. Bush, too—another dim bulb—had the governor box checked on the application form. What did Donald Trump have? Besides a loud mouth and a cosmic ego?

The answer at the time was “deal-making.” His relevant skill for the job was making deals, and the rationale was that he’s good at getting the best deal for himself and his company, so he’ll be good at making deals for the nation.

It seems to me that this chain of reasoning leaves out a few things, such as the fact that making deals for one’s own profit is not so much a path toward making deals for 350 million other people as it is the opposite. For-profit enterprise is exactly that: for profit, as opposed to the larger public good. There is also the fact that marketing is not about truth-telling but about persuasion, which is quite another thing.

What is the whole point of marketing? It’s to nudge people to buy your product by whatever means necessary. It’s not just distinct from truth; it’s often hostile to it. Having a perfect product to sell is great, but if you don’t, you still have to sell the damn thing—so you embellish, you exaggerate, you fiddle with the numbers—in short, you lie. Trump is notorious for doing exactly that. Prosecutors in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office were looking into allegations of fraud in the marketing of Trump Soho until District Attorney Cyrus Vance dropped the case, to cite just one instance.

Postman argued that the problem is even more fundamental: it’s not simply that marketing and advertising don’t bother with the truth; it’s that they don’t even bother with rational claims that the audience of consumers can evaluate to accept or reject them: “The move away from the use of propositions in commercial advertising began at the end of the nineteenth century. But it was not until the 1950s that the television commercial made linguistic discourse obsolete as the basis for product decisions.”

I can offer a recent example of a commercial I actually liked as a little playlet that had no detectable connection to the product at all. You’ve probably seen it: there’s a couple, and the woman’s dog hates the man, and then the dog stops hating the man; the end. The product could have been beer, shoes, camping gear, anything. (In fact, it was a car.) Political candidates are now all about the funny and heartwarming dog stories. “By substituting images for claims,” Postman writes, “the pictorial commercial made emotional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer decision.”

Postman’s thirty-five-year-old book is not about Trump, of course, who at the time was known only as an annoying Manhattan real estate developer who ruined people’s views with his massive ugly tower blocks. The book is, however, a kind of prophecy of him, and it is all about the nature of his peculiar and irrational path to the presidency. It’s about the media-besotted short-attention-span American voter, and who else could have elected a Donald Trump?

In a chapter elegantly titled “Now … This” (quotation marks in original) Postman points out the bizarre subject-changes and inappropriate perkiness of TV news:

We have become so accustomed to the discontinuities that we are no longer struck dumb, as any sane person would be, by a newscaster who having just reported that a nuclear war is inevitable goes on to say that he will be right back after this word from Burger King … .

Doesn’t that sound familiar? It’s Donald Trump talking—to reporters on the White House driveway, to visitors to the Oval Office, to cheering crowds at his endless rallies, to the world via Twitter. Trump, like history, is just one damn thing after another.

Trump, like all of us, grew up in this world of fragmented news and seductive images, but unlike some of us he didn’t also grow up in a world of books, of slow attentive reading, and of the kind of thinking it nurtures. It’s impossible to imagine him on his first trip to a public library, overwhelmed by the riches available to him. He’s a “Now … This” guy all the way down.

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).