Trump and the age of the ipinion
The shift to populist politics isn’t really about politics at all, says Richard Clarendon, it’s all down to a mutated species of opinion.
President Trump is the result of two factors that have risen to the top of our shared western culture over the past decade. The first is the growing belief by politicians that the job is just like managing a SME business but with lots more money passing through the till. And who’s your daddy when it comes to making big bucks? The Donald.
The second Trump enabler is social media, or rather the kind of political thinking it encourages. It’s a phenomenon lauded for connecting people, which it has done. But politically, social media has given people a chance to connect with others who share their opinions and the results can be empowering in a bad way. That’s because opinions have a nasty cousin, prejudice, and for many of us it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.
E.g. Based on my experience, I think two guys having sex is hot, great, beautiful. But a straight guy might think it’s disgusting. I would say he has a prejudice, but isn’t it just his opinion? Doesn’t he have the right to say he thinks it’s disgusting? It’s not like he’s bashing poofters in the street.
Let’s say this straight guy mumbles his opinion about gays at home and finds his brother kind of agrees, but his sister thinks he’s a dick. So he seeks out a better audience and finds it online. He organises an anti-gay rally and marches down Ann Street – does he still have that right to his opinion? Well, he got a police permit, so yeah. What if he runs for political office? It’s not like he can’t find heaps of support on social media – he gets tweets and posts every day from people in his electoral area saying they agree with his opinions.
He gets into state parliament, cuts funding to gay community organisations and lobbies his federal colleagues to vote against pro-gay legislation. He’s now wielding considerable power, but he’s holding the same opinion he did back when he was living at home, still based on nothing but disgust for an act he’s never witnessed. Of course, he could have been raped by a guy when younger, but rape is not consensual sex, it’s violence. (He thinks about putting the rumour out anyway, to get some sympathy. But he knows his electorate and knows it could put people off him because he’s ‘done it’ even though it was rape. Too many questions could be asked, too much confusion. He drops the idea.)
Instead of an opinion, our man is holding something else – a mix of opinion and prejudice. In the era of fake news, this new self-referential opinion – let’s call it an ipinion – needs no basis in fact, because the more unprovable an ipinion is, the stronger it becomes. It’s like faith, but without the push for social justice that religion brings to the table. An ipinion is right because it’s yours and it’s been published on Twitter, Facebook or wherever. It requires no other credentials.
I think when someone says ‘this is my opinion’, they should be challenged to provide evidence to support it, whether we agree with it or not. We need to show that reality still matters, and that opinions need backing. We hear that the media is reporting 'fake news', that it's biased. So what? If the reporter can prove that what she has reported has a basis in reality, backed up by evidence, then you can call that bias if you like. Trump's greatest threat is not the Democrats or immigrant-loving liberals, it's the professional media who are trained to identify bullshit and inform the public. His attempt to drive a wedge between the public and the media by accusing them of reporting fake news is not a by-product of his administration, it's vital to his survival.
But back to actual politicians, as opposed to former game show host billionaires. Politicians should provide well thought-out ideas for improving society; in fact, one famous definition of good government is that it weaves together the strands of a society harmoniously, and politicians should be providing us with ways to do this.
We’ve let politicians off the hook when it comes to deep thinking, and the result is we have a businessman who’s never held political office running America. His ipinions are so strong that he has left any reference to facts far behind. This tendency is trickling through into reality, where ipinions face their inevitable limits. Trump’s official diary reveals the President spoke with the “President of Australia”. No one in the administration batted an eye-lid. No one blushed – holding strong ipinions means never having to say you’re sorry. His press secretary then referred to our PM as “Prime Minister Trunbull”. So what? The guy isn’t under any pressure to get things right, after all. He’s from the land of ipinions.
‘Make America Great Again’ – Trump’s campaign slogan was a brilliant appeal to the ipinionated. Don’t ask why America isn’t already great, or when did it stop being great or what ‘great’ means. When you hold ipinions you never have to ask such questions again.
Cory Bernardi has jumped on the bandwagon back home. He’s leaving the frustrating world of party politics, where he’s always being told he’s gone too far, and going it alone. He’s already appealing to the ipinionated – remember that photo where he’s in the hat that says ‘Make Australia Great Again’? He’s learning from the master.