Donald Trump, like much of the American public, is entranced by electronic images. He interprets reality through the distortions of digital media. His decisions, opinions, political positions, prejudices and sense of self are reflected back to him on screens. He views himself and the world around him as a vast television show with himself as the star. His primary concerns as president are his ratings, his popularity and his image. He is a creature -- maybe the poster child -- of the modern, post-literate culture, a culture that critics such as Marshall McLuhan, Daniel Boorstin, James W. Carey and Neil Postman warned us about.
It is not, as some have suggested, merely that Trump speaks at the level of a seventh-grader or that he harkens back to a preliterate oral culture. He embodies the incoherence of the modern digital age, filled with sudden shifts from subject to subject, a roller-coaster ride of emotional highs and lows punctuated with commercials. There is nonstop stimulation. Seldom does anything occupy our attention for more than a few seconds. Nothing has context. Images overwhelm words. We are perpetually confused, but always entertained. We barely remember what we saw or heard a few minutes earlier. This is by design of the elites who manipulate us.
"It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse," Postman points out. "It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails." Americans, because television stages their world, "no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other." Trump is what is produced when a society severs itself from print, when it pushes art, ethics, classics, philosophy, history and the humanities to the margins of the universities and culture, when its members spend hours sitting inert in front of a screen. Information, ideas and epistemology are, as Postman writes, given form today by electronic images.
It is a mistake to see what is happening as cultural regression. It is worse than that. Oral cultures prized memorization and cultivated the high art of rhetoric. Leaders, playwrights and poets in oral cultures did not speak to their publics in Trump's crude vernacular. More ominous than the president's impoverished vocabulary is that he cannot string together sentences that make sense. This replicates not only the shoddy vocabulary of television, but more importantly the incoherence of television. Trump is able to communicate with tens of millions of Americans, also raised in front of screens, because they too have been linguistically and intellectually mutated by digital images. They lack the ability to detect lies or think rationally. They are part of our post-truth culture.
Nearly any tweet or spoken remark by Trump illustrates this incoherence. In a Jan. 31 interview with The New York Times he gave this answer when asked about the gruesome murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul:
"Yeah. Khashoggi. I thought it was a terrible crime. But if you look at other countries, many other countries. You look at Iran, not so far away from Saudi Arabia, and take a look at what they're doing there. So, you know, that's just the way I feel. Venezuela is very much in flux. We've been hearing about it for probably 14 years now, between the two of them. And some terrible things are happening in Venezuela. So, if I can do something to help people. It's really helping humanity, if we can do something to help people, I'd like to do that."
Electronic images are our modern-day idols. We worship the power and fame they impart. We yearn to become idolized celebrities. We measure our lives against the fantasies these images disseminate. If something does not appear on a screen or is proclaimed on a screen its authenticity is questioned. We fervently build miniature social media platforms where we daily update our "life the movie," confusing self-presentation with genuine communication and friendship. This yearning to be validated by electronic images and their audiences has made us an isolated, uninformed, alienated and very unhappy people.
"Now the death of God combined with the perfection of the image has brought us to a whole new state of expectation," John Ralston Saul writes. "We are the image. We are the viewer and the viewed. There is no other distracting presence. And the image has all the Godly powers. It kills at will. Kills effortlessly. Kills beautifully. It dispenses morality. Judges endlessly. The electronic image is man as God and the ritual involved leads us not to a mysterious Holy Trinity but back to ourselves. In the absence of a clear understanding that we are now the only source, these images cannot help but return to the expression of magic and fear proper to idolatrous societies. This in turn facilitates the use of electronic image as propaganda by whoever can control some part of it."
The fixation on electronic images by Trump means he and millions of other American adults -- who, according to a 2018 report by the Nielsen company, on average watch four hours, 46 minutes of TV each day and spend "over 11 hours per day listening to, watching, reading or generally interacting with media" -- have severed themselves from complex thought. They have been infantilized. Television, including the news, reduces all reality to a childish, cartoonish simplicity.
News as presented on screens "provides degenerate photographs or a pseudo-reality of stereotypes," James W. Carey writes. "News can approximate truth only when reality is reducible to a statistical table: sport scores, stock exchange reports, births, deaths, marriages, accidents, court decisions, elections, economic transactions such as foreign trade or balance of payments." News on our screens is incapable of imparting complexity and nuance. It is devoid of historical, social or cultural context. TV news speaks in easily digestible cliche's and political and cultural tropes. It is sensational and fragmented. The frenetic pace of TV news means that except when delivering statistics, the programs can trade only in established stereotypes. TV news is, in essence, divorced from the real, mindlessly grounded in the ruling elites' reigning ideology of neoliberalism, militarism and white supremacy.