The fires consuming Australia, products of record-breaking heat and drought, suggest an unwelcome alternative meaning to the phrase advocating a month without alcohol. They are also a reminder that the phrase’s intended expression of a yen for sobriety is far too narrow for the times: booze may settle a steady fog on the nation’s faculties but its influence is nothing compared to the dizzy degradation brought by our over-indulgence in garbage media and tribal politics. It’s this, more than that second martini, that’s impairing our speech and reasoning, wrecking the conversation required not only for responsible environmental stewardship but democracy itself.
A quarter century ago, Francis Fukuyama wrote that we were entering “the end of history,” a period in which democracy would increasingly assert itself and overspread the earth. One reason for this, he said, was the widening availability of information, which would thwart the brainwashing and disinformation campaigns that dictatorships, including populist dictatorships, had traditionally relied on. But that’s not quite how things turned out. Modern technology still allows the worst leaders to significantly control information, and where information is openly available it has been hyperdemocratized and weaponized by a billion tribalist partisans.
Since the FCC’s 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which had been quelling caustic on-air partisanship since 1949, we’ve experienced an unprecedented flood of sewage, first from talk radio and television, and now, probably incurably, from the internet and social media. By combining this flood with a political primary system that amplifies the fringes, we’ve created a populist circus perfectly designed to excite the very passions that the Founders worried would be our democracy’s downfall.
Those passions spiked to a new high in 2008, when a black family moved into the White House. Half the white people in the country went to DEFCON 1, and created a bull market for birthers, one of whom is now president. Donald Trump is famously dry every month of the year, an avowed teetotaler, but chronically spews more nonsense than the craziest soused uncle at the Thanksgiving table. His followers don’t care that his rants demonstrate a profound disrespect for their intelligence, don’t care that he hasn’t delivered the health care that he promised, or a border wall, or a scheme to get Mexico to pay for it (instead he’s robbing the Pentagon), that he hasn’t brought the troops home from the Middle East, or brought us greater respect in the world, or repaired our infrastructure, or brought back the manufacturing sector, or found a way to boost the stock market without creating unconscionable deficits. They imagine they’re in the throes of a race war and that Donald Trump is the general in their foxhole, and that’s that. They’ve tuned their echo chambers to that frequency and ripped the knob off.
But it’s the sewage that will be playing on that station next January that should have us most concerned. On the 20th day of that month (assuming his impeachment ends in acquittal), Trump may not leave the White House even if he’s defeated this November.
We know Trump will cry foul if he loses the Electoral College because he has never stopped whining, and lying, about his loss of the popular vote in 2016, even though that had no bearing on the constitutional legitimacy of his election. And, of course, it was never just a matter of whining: From May 2017 to January 2018, Trump tasked Vice President Mike Pence with chairing a self-satirizing “Commission on Election Integrity” whose sole aim was to locate the source of millions of nonexistent fraudulent votes. When the commission collapsed under the weight of its own inanity, Trump was still whipping up supporters by claiming “substantial evidence of voter fraud.” In July 2018 he humiliated our nation by standing on foreign soil, next to Vladimir Putin, a foreign dictator actively making war against a NATO-aspiring Ukraine, publicly siding with Putin over our own U.S. intelligence services in regard to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, for no reason other than that it serviced his psychotic ego.
Then, in 2019, still talking about how great a winner he is, Trump further demonstrated his belief that he can’t actually win without unfair help by holding up congressionally mandated military aid to Ukraine to extort their interference on his personal behalf — a demand tied to discredited, garbage-level internet conspiracy theories. To the sewer.
So it is virtually guaranteed that he will make mincemeat of reality if he loses this year. And because his followers listen to nothing that calls him into question, he will be able, and probably willing, to tweet hundreds of thousands of them, or more, into the streets.
What can we do? Send money to the Center for Public Integrity, whose FOIA request extracted documents from the White House and Defense Department that shed crucial light on the Ukraine scandal. Demand real presidential debates, in which the candidates face each other, talk to each other, and are fact-checked by moderators, sitting at the table in real time. Be prepared to take to the streets, peacefully, to demand an honest and fair election. And support and subscribe to legacy newspapers. They are biased. They make mistakes. But they admit and correct their mistakes, and their Op-Ed pages include opposing points of view. They’re our best bet to ferret out the deepfakes and every other kind of fake coming our way.
Buckle up for a bumpy 2020. Go ahead and have that second martini if you want. You don’t have to stay dry. But stay sober.