“Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community. They were immediately silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It's the invasion of the idiots.” 1
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Mar 3 2020 (IPS) - The great American impeachment show has ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. The dirt was washed away from President Trump, the perfect Teflon Guy. Maybe his invulnerability comes from the fact that he appears to be more of a brand than a real person, adapted to a frame of mind that increasingly dominates social media – cheap entertainment, shallowness, vulgarity, invectives, and catchy phrases without support in well-founded facts. Trump is all and nothing, a shape shifting trickster pretending to be the role model for voiceless masses.
We are subjects to a constant flow of information. Social media makes it easy to select issues that interest us. Influenced by this selective behaviour people tend to adapt their views to those of their idols, accepting them with lock, stock, and barrel, defending them as if they were part of them. Just as they tend to excuse their own improprieties, they accept the flaws of their role models.
An era characterized by strong mainstream parties with loyal followers and generally stable politics is now coming to an end, the latter being replaced by general opinions floating around on social media. However, this does not hinder that some of these opinions are supported by fanatical believers.
In 1848, Marx and Engels proclaimed: ”A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”.2 We may now replace this spectre with National Populism, haunting not only Europe, but many other regions of the world as well. This ideology has been claimed to emanate from the so-called Four Ds´ – distrust, destruction, deprivation, and de-alignment.3
Distrust of politicians and institutions fuelled by a general feeling that they are governed by elites distanced from ordinary citizens. It is also assumed that a ”voiceless” majority is ignored while historically marginalized groups, like women and ethnic minorities, gain voice and presence in the legislature.
Destruction of national groups´ historic identity and established way of life. North America and most of Europe are assumed to be ruled by culturally liberal politicians, transnational organizations and global finance, eroding nations and moral values by encouraging mass-migration. At the same time it is believed that ”politically correct” agendas seek to silence any opposition.
A sense of deprivation is growing, particularly among workers and small business owners who are experiencing decreasing wealth and vanishing benefits. Millions are convinced they are losing out relative to others. Feelings inflamed by a conviction that even if they do not belong to an underclass of strangers and welfare-takers they are nevertheless excluded from decision making. Accordingly, many suffer from de-alignment, feeling lost in a world perceived as more chaotic and less predictable than it was in the past.
Such notions are by demagogues successfully applied to seductive tactics. They present themelves and their party as spokespersons for the people, an imaginary unified group, with the same identity, interests, characteristics, and needs. What the people have in common are their nationality and culture. Gender, class, ideology, income, education or individuality do not matter. Political schemers indicate the existence of an elite that is not on the people’s side. A self-sufficient class of highly educated and wealthy politicians and bureaucrats who control media and have lost all contact with the common man, while lining their own pockets on the bases of their influence. For a political rabble-rouser it is also opportune to identify a group as scapegoats, who are not part of the people and accordingly lack any common interests with them. These scapegoats are depicted as being in league with the elite, which ensures that resources of the people are directed towards these alien parasites. Should the people get rid of the scapegoats as well as the elite everything would be just as fine as before.
Through such deceptive simplifications a politician like Donald Trump, in spite of the fact that he is a billionaire and part of a wealthy, privileged elite, attracts a fan base cosidering him to be the incarnate hope for benign change. Donald Trump, who was a pop-culture icon before he became a politician, has been adopted by what has been called toxic fandom.
Fan is short for fanatic originating from the Latin fanaticus, meaning “of or belonging to the temple, a temple servant, a devotee.” Fandom is a subculture composed of people characterized by a shared feeling of empathy and camaraderie emerging from a common interest. It is supported by a parallel ”make-believe” universe created by social media and a growing industry catering to the wishful thinking of gratified consumers. Several supporters of nationalist leaders seem to consider them as incarnations of their own beliefs. If such an idol is accused of misconduct his/her fans are ready to rush to his/her defense, since attacking an idol would be like attacking them.
Michael Schulman, staff writer at The New Yorker, recently stated that ”a glance around the pop-culture landscape gives the impression that fans have gone mad”.4 ”Couch potatoes” that earlier idled their time away in front of TV-sets and computers are now rising up and are through social media becoming active, opinionated participants in what is happening around them.
For example, when the TV-series Game of Thrones in May 2019 did not end in accordance with several fans´expectations more than 1.7 million of them signed a petition to HBO to ”remake Game of Thrones Season 8 with competent writers.” However, such incidents are nothing compared to what happens to an individual who dares to question the behaviour of an admired idol. Social media provides numerous examples of how idol detractors are targeted by outrageous threats directed towards them and their families.
The stout support Donald Trump receives from Republican politicians and his immovable base appears to be a mixture of fandom and concerns about personal power and well-being. Extremely few Republicans want, or dare to, state that ”the emperor is naked”, that Trump actually is an ignorant bully and a narcissist guilty of a great number of misdeeds and abuse of power. Doing that may result in being hounded by Trump fans who brazenly stood by his side during the impeachment proceedings.
Contrary to Trump, who seems to be a self-consciously constructed media product, US Senator Mitt Romney appears to be a morally motivated politician adhering to steadfast principles. Trump proclaims his guiding principle to be America First, while Mitt Romney in 2010 realeased a book he called No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.5 However, Romney´s Americanism is contrary to Trump´s populism founded on strict morals. The American Exceptionalism he brings forward in his book is based on three related ideas. The first is that US history is different from the one of other nations. Through the American Revolution (1765-1783) the USA became the first new nation and thus developed a unique ideology – Americanism, based on liberty, equality before the law, individual responsibility, republicanism, representative democracy, and laissez-faire economics. Second is the idea that the US has a unique mission to transform the world, that Americans have a duty to ensure that ”government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The third is a conviction that the United States’ history and mission give it superiority over other nations.
Mitt Romney served as Governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 and was the Republican Party’s nominee for President of the United States in the 2012 election. Furthermore, he is a fifth-generation member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) and has throughout his adult life served as this religion´s bishop. He is a faithful follower of the Mormons´ moral code based on a scripture called the Word of Wisdom. Accordingly, he abstains from the consumption of alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco and follows his Church´s Law of Chastity, which prohibits adultery and sexual relations outside of marriage. When Romney critizises Trump he does so from a moral standpoint.
One might be skeptical to both Mormonism and American Exceptionalism, though it is difficult not to admire the personal courage Romney displayed on February 5, when he on the Senate floor decried President Trump’s intents to ”corrupt” a general election to keep himself in office as “perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of an oath of office that I can imagine.” Romney was the only Republican politician who publically supported the impeachment of Trump. In his speech Romney condemned the lies and moral laxity of the US president, answering the question ”whether the President committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of high crime and misdemeanor” by ”Yes, he did.”
Romney counted with attacks and accusations of disloyalty from his fellow Republicans. And he certainly became a target of the uncontrollable wrath of Trump´s fandom and of course of their idol as well. Trump labeled Romney as a ”failed presidential candidate” adding that ”I don´t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong.” Nevertheless, it was the other way around – Romney used his faith to justify what he believed to be right. In opposition to the complicity of his party colleagues, he stood his ground by declaring ”I am a profoundly religious person. My faith is at the heart of who I am. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential.” 6
Mitt Romney proved that personal moral conviction and decency can survive within a party that has been hijacked by National Populism and spineless sycophants. We may hope that more people like Mitt Romney are prepared to listen to their conscience and be brave enough to reveal the manipulations and lies of narcissistic manipulators like Donald Trump. We also have to find effective means to address the deceit, hate and ignorance that have invaded social media.
1 Nicoletti, Gianluca (2015) “Umberto Eco:´Con i social parola a legioni di imbecelli´,” La Stampa, June 11.
2 Hobsbawm, Eric (2012) How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism. New Haven.Yale University Press.
3 Eatwell, Roger and Matthew Goodwin (2018) National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democarcy. London: Penguin Books.
4 Schulman, Michael (2019) ”Fans are more powerful than ever. Does their passion have a dark side?” The New Yorker, September 9.
5 Romney, Mitt (2010) No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. New York: St. Martins Press.
Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.