In 2008, many people considered U.S. President Barack Obama's election proof of a tectonic shift that was reshaping the racial contours of U.S. politics. But today, the changes wrought by that election seem insignificant compared with the possibility of Donald Trump becoming the Republican Party's 2016 presidential nominee.
Now deeply immersed in the 2016 presidential primaries, political scientists feel like tourists who, having flown into a new country late the night before, open the hotel curtains in the morning to see a brand new landscape. As someone who teaches American government courses to eager young minds at a large university, I believe I speak for legions of "polisci" academics who feel as if they, like Matt Damon's astronaut character in "The Martian," have ended up stranded on another planet. On Planet Trump, even familiar landscapes are not as they seem. There appear to be mountains and valleys, rivers, flood plains and volcanoes, but they don't belong to the political landscape typologies we once accepted as the earthly norm. This is a crisis for the political science academic discipline as we struggle to explain the momentous changes that seemingly defy long-standing academic theories predicting what strategies help candidates win American election campaigns. We need a map for this new political world we are about to enter. To paraphrase Damon's Mark Watney, "[we're] left with only one option. [We're] gonna have to [political] science the [expletive] out of this!"
Part of our disorientation is caused by the entertainment system provided by our flight attendants on last night's trip. At first, we were intrigued by the virtual reality goggles that allowed us to watch an "augmented reality" version of the political classic Robert Redford film, "The Candidate." This morning, we realize with trepidation that the augmented reality effect has permanently altered our views of Planet Trump, even after removing the special goggles. Just as in the 1980s sci-fi film, "They Live," we seem to be wearing special sunglasses that make us aware of the subliminal messages hidden beneath the surface of what once seemed to be "normal reality." Since political scientists are hard put to explain the Trump ascendancy using conventional electoral theories, it’s our task now to figure out the ways in which our observations are leading us to false predictions about what works and doesn’t work in 2016. They key may lie in the media glasses we’re wearing.
Since the 1950s, philosophers, media and cultural studies scholars have explored the multilevel ways that media-based popular culture, intentionally or not, influences people's understanding of social and political realities. George Gerbner's research, for example, indicated that heavy television viewers believe crime levels are significantly higher than they are, and therefore support the need for tougher anti-crime measures. Meanwhile, Kathleen Hall Jamieson showed that negative political advertising, even when disliked by viewers, affects their attitudes toward political candidates. And according to Neil Postman, pictures affect voters' candidate preferences more than text-based information. Finally, linguist Noam Chomsky has looked at how political administrations have used media messages to win public support for wars.
Postmodernists such as France's Jean Baudrillard and Slovenian media commentator, philosopher and filmmaker Slavoj Zizek have looked beyond consumers' interactions with media to examine the complex interactions by which reality becomes perception and perception becomes reality. What their work suggests is that our constant immersion in mediated worlds creates a virtual reality that we increasingly cannot tell apart from the "real" one. From this perspective, TV showman Donald Trump is both the creator and product of a new political world of virtual reality made real by our Internet-obsessed culture and society.
From this perspective, TV showman Donald Trump is both the creator and product of a new political world of virtual reality made real by our Internet-obsessed culture and society.
As the post-modernists have pointed out, one useful way to orient ourselves in this new virtual landscape of Planet Trump is to consider our explorations similar to when visiting a theme park. When we go to Disneyland, it makes sense to us that the roller coaster in Tomorrowland is a spaceship, while in Frontierland it is a sawed tree log. In the 21st century, online video games earn far more money than films; the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises to date have together earned billions more in revenues than has been spent by all the world's nations on "real" interplanetary space missions. With the post-modernist perspective in mind, the 2016 U.S. political landscape can perhaps best be navigated as a Trump-designed political theme park.
Remember, one voluntarily pays for admission to the theme park. And so it is in our 2016 Trump political theme park, "Billionaireland," which you experience wearing the special Trump Glasses included with your admission ticket. And what sights we see! As we walk down the main street our eyes feast on huge slabs of Trump steaks roasting on the spit in Trump's Foodlandia. A bit farther on, we hear cries of joy as slot machines spit out their winnings to Trump Casinogoers. But the main attraction lies ahead. A white shining castle, seemingly suspended in midair, beckons us to enter; its virtual escalator carries us up to its gilded gates. Inside, we sit on levitating vehicles resembling high-end smartphones that respond effortlessly as we lean from right to left to move from one attraction to the next. Swipe left, we enter Diplomacy World, where we are privy to Chief Diplomat Donald earnestly negotiating a wonderful deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Another swipe right and we are in Security World, watching drone strikes destroy Islamic State strongholds.
Most important to note in this new political world, we are voting not on which candidate's program is best able to meet the demands of geopolitical "reality," but rather on which theme park purveyor provides the most satisfying experience. For Trump is not alone in this new political realm. From the post-modernist perspective, each voter can choose to buy a ticket (i.e., vote) to the theme park of his or her choice. Will it be Trump's Billionaireland, Ted Cruz's Fundamentalist Christianland, Hillary's Powerfulwomenland or Bernie's Socialistidealland? From now on, voters' choices will be based on how the theme park makes them feel. Because like all theme parks, none of them depict the true real-world experience — the very thing political virtual realities allow us to avoid.