So I admit to human foibles. But in doing so, I stress that they’re something we should strive to overcome. Rationality should rule the day. We should not embrace a future that’s built on the pushing of our collective hot buttons.
That’s why the current ascendency of one Mr. Trump is scaring the hell out of me.
Donald Trump is not stupid. He’s built his campaign to be one massive, ongoing A/B clickbait test. He floats Outrageous Remark A against Outrageous Remark B to see which generates the biggest response. He’s probing the collective psyche of America to see what goes viral.
And he knows that virality cannot live in the middle of the road. It has to live in the extreme margins. In order to be sensational, you have to provoke senses. You have to push buttons. To get people to love you, you also have to get people to hate you. This is an inevitable evolution of politicking in the Age of the Internet.
To this point, Trump’s tactics appear to be working. He’s distancing his Republican opponents by increasing margins (the latest has him doubling Jeb Bush’s support, at 32% vs 16%). He’s even closing in on Hilary Clinton, trailing by just 6% in a recent poll. Trump’s sledgehammer-subtle attack on the quick and dirty shortcuts of our brains seems to be triumphing over any rational appeal to the slow and reasoned loops of logic.
But is this really how we want our leaders to be chosen?
In 1856, America was edging closer to the ideological precipice of the Civil War. It was a time when it was easy to ignite hair-triggered passions. And the country was captivated by one senatorial race in particular, in the state of Illinois. There, incumbent Stephen A. Douglas was running against a little-known lawyer who had served one largely unremarkable term in Congress. His name was Abraham Lincoln. Prior to the debates, popular opinion had it that Douglas would eviscerate Lincoln.
The series of seven debates was spread around the state over a period of 56 days. The stakes were profound. Over 14% of the U.S. population was black. Of them, almost 90% were slaves. The future of the union revolved on the thorny question of the legality of slavery. No matter what side of the issue you were on, whatever came out of your mouth was guaranteed to be provocative.
Each debate was three hours in length. The first speaker spoke for 60 minutes, the other candidate had 90 minutes to respond, and the first speaker had an additional 30 minutes as a rejoinder. In total, that was 21 hours of usually eloquent political debate. The full text of all speeches were published almost verbatim in the nation’s newspapers (papers usually fixed the grammatical errors of whichever candidate they were supporting, while leaving the opponent’s remarks in rough form.)
Lincoln got off to a rough start, but hit his stride midway through the debates. By the final two debates, in Quincy and Alton, most everyone who was at all objective felt that Lincoln was the clear winner. He ended up losing the senatorial race to Douglas, but emerged as the national champion of abolitionists. The momentum from those debates eventually carried him into the presidency four years later.
In these debates, Lincoln managed to do something extraordinary. He reframed the slavery debate, moving it from a question of social equality to one of legal liberty. This sidestepped some fiercely held beliefs and allowed for a more rational examination of the question.
Beliefs are the bedrock of the quick-and-dirty mechanisms of our mind. It’s relatively easy to connect with someone’s beliefs. You just have to know the right buttons to push. It’s much more difficult to encourage people to think, as Lincoln did, and push them to question their beliefs. Beliefs act as bulwarks against open and rational consideration.
By the way, if you’re not familiar with the term, a bulwark is a wall built to keep things out. Like, for example, a wall on the U.S./Mexican border.