January 28, 2018
The phantom feeling that something should’ve happened, but didn’t or won’t, flows through each of the central stories of the moment: Trump’s presidency, the nightmare revelations of sexual abuse, and the accumulating problems of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. What institutional power looks like in 2018.
Donald Trump has an unusual kind of power: He reveals weakness.
This quality he extends to all things — people, traditions, movements — and while you know all this by now, the way he traffics in lingering doubts (e.g., Lyin’ Ted) and the malleable dignity of those around him, in all the small compromises people make with themselves toward an end, what all these individual shortfalls do in the aggregate is to expose the fragility of our modern national institutions.
What exactly, for instance, is supposed to happen if the president wonders why we accept immigrants from “shithole” countries? Or says a group of white supremacists included “very fine” people? Backhandedly calls the North Korean dictator short and fat?
Nothing, of course. There’s no institution to guard against any of that. And since there’s no way to quantify the harm in any of it, either (no laws broken, no physical destruction), all these things that President Trump says just land in a weird rhetorical DMZ, where there is no recourse. That unease defined the last year. And it’s this kind of phantom feeling that something should’ve happened, but didn’t or won’t, that flows through each of the central stories of the moment: Trump’s presidency, the nightmare revelations of sexual abuse, and the accumulating problems of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. What brings all these things together is the assault, from the White House and from journalists, for worse and for better, on core institutions.
With Trump, it’s like constantly watching a fly ball fall between a shortstop and a left fielder — that kind of suspended anxiety free fall, where nobody really knows what to do, because there’s nothing to do. Morning in America is disorientingly open with possibility, because who knows where Trump will take things next?
“It’s oddly riveting,” George Saunders wrote during the campaign, nearly two years ago, “watching someone take such pleasure in going so much farther out on thin ice than anyone else as famous would dare to go.” Nobody ever decided whether that dynamic drove or hindered Trump’s success, but what it definitely did was expose the extent to which the American political system was relying on shame to keep it in check.
Trump constantly subverted the expectation of what a normal candidate would do (e.g., apologize for accusing Judge Curiel of bias based on his Mexican-American heritage) by never conceding any mistake. The idea generally is that campaigns, like corporations, are basically built to apologize, walk back, and/or preemptively manage expectations so that the minimum number of voters take offense at any given thing. Trump rejected that framework entirely, but stretched the understanding of what was normal so far that there was a sense (a flame that apparently burns eternal) that some objective, imagined hand of authority — the Republican Party or the RNC or the delegates at the convention — would step in. No one did, because the uneasy reality is that candidates and their own campaigns alone govern the candidate and campaign’s conduct. If you’re unafraid of the public’s distaste, there are a lot of places you can run with that. Basically: If a candidate says, well, listen, I’m doing this and you can’t stop me — maybe you actually can’t. Trump, then, is like some classical Greek, Shakespearean character sent to reveal that weakness in the system.
That has produced some nostalgia from all different sides for back before, when a political party might change the rules on a candidate, or the media could more tightly control what viewers saw and heard. But these are also the same kinds of institutional controls that made all Harvey Weinstein’s accusers go away for so long, and that realization — the way institutions made bad things go away — links a lot of these kinds of stories.
Smash the exterior of an institution and you may reveal catacombs of cruelty, shame, sickness, all the terrible things people with power can do to those without it in the corridor of a hotel suite, inside an office, inside a home, in small places you feel as though you are not meant to be. This past year dropped floodlights into the biblical depths of human behavior — the way an obsession with control or some sadness within a person can curdle and warp in the dark of a professional, civilized society. And for all the righteous strength witnessed in and derived from the crack-up of an open secret, each begins with long-suppressed anguish. “That’s the most horrible part of it,” Lucia Evans told the New Yorker of Harvey Weinstein. “People give up, and then they feel like it’s their fault.”
If you read all these stories and start writing down (or calculating out) the ages of the people in them, the interns and assistants and desk assistants and students, especially the women (and men) whose names you’ve never heard before, a pattern emerges. “We were so young at the time,” Karen Katz, who’d worked at Weinstein’s Miramax, told the Times. “We did not understand how wrong it was or how [she] should deal with it.” Many of these stories concern people too inexperienced to know who to tell, or how or when. “I still on some level thought I had been a tiny adult,” one man explained of how he did not appreciate, until he was an adult, the way he says Kevin Spacey abused him when he was 14. “I assumed I was the problem for thinking badly of you,” Aly Raisman said of Larry Nassar, the Olympic doctor who is accused of abusing more than a hundred girls. “I wouldn’t allow myself to believe that the problem was you.”
A robust institution can be isolating in that way. You can’t identify patterns like those alone. You can suffer alone, questioning even your own story. You can also be the cool cynic wise to the harsh ways of the world (“I felt a weird sense of pride about being able to ‘handle’ the environment,” wrote a colleague) only to realize, in retrospect, years later, you were in over your head. “I was, like, ‘Look, man, I am no fucking fool,’” Asia Argento said of Weinstein. “But, looking back, I am a fucking fool. And I am still trying to come to grips with what happened.”
The wild and unsettling thing about the last six months is both the pervasiveness of abuse and harassment, and how what’s at the heart of an open secret often turns out to be much worse; there is a sudden realization that maybe something terrible has been lurking beside you all along. Because it’s apparently at the ballet, on the manufacturing floor, inside the massage parlor, in jail, at the Olympics, on the morning show, at the theater, on the radio, on the court, on Capitol Hill. This is where you can end up wondering what the point of a “civic institution” even is. And on the most basic level — in the most amateur-hour intro philosophy seminar way — isn’t the idea that any one of these institutions (the church, the military, the government, the media, any of them) is meant to give people place and purpose, and to judiciously amplify some virtue in men (strength or kindness or charity), or to bend our collective power toward some common benefit (safety or prosperity), and above all, isn’t the idea to blunt wickedness? But here you have the agents who kept taking women to Weinstein, the studios that didn’t look at his finances, parts of the tabloid machine under his control, the way everyone seemed to know, and it’s like a blood disease — everything an institution is supposed to do, but corroded, and turned in on itself.
And then there’s all of us, consuming this weird year through our phones, living inside new institutions that are mind-blowing in scale and horribly ill-equipped for the task of handling us. Whatever it was that happened — the election? — something has shifted in the way the media, lawmakers, and even some people on them view the platforms.
“Facebook has grown so big, and become so totalizing, that we can’t really grasp it all at once,” Max Read wrote last year, listing off a dozen different comparisons the platform has elicited, from the Catholic church to a railroad company. “Like a four-dimensional object, we catch slices of it when it passes through the three-dimensional world we recognize.” Twitter (in 34 languages and producing inconceivable numbers of words every second) and YouTube (in 88 countries with people watching 1 billion hours each day) operate in similar dimensions.
Nobody can monitor that kind of volume — but algorithms can’t quite either, and so all kinds of bad behavior can only belatedly be contained, if at all.
YouTube will soon employ more than 10,000 people to screen videos (and train algorithms) to detect child exploitation (e.g., kids “restrained with ropes or tape”) and extremism (e.g., jihadi videos); that news preceded the 48 hours a (now former) YouTuber’s video lived online featuring a dead man’s body inside Japan’s suicide forest. Twitter still, still struggles with harassment, especially in places like India, where women are on the receiving end of harassment in six different local languages. In realms where political news gets delivered and consumed, the platform can feel constantly combative, meta, and wearing — kind of like a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos where the hippos are outfitted with razors. Facebook has found itself the host body for live shootings, dystopian authoritarian propaganda, and a philosophical debate about the meaning of news and truth, in which a small move could result in shifting reality for someone. Kevin Roose compared an admission from Facebook leadership that they did not realize ad targeting would be used to reach anti-Semites to Victor Frankenstein’s lament: “I lived in daily fear lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness.”
Basically, the platforms are dealing with a) the loftiest, most existential of questions about information and speech, and b) every kind of domestic dispute in every small town across dozens of countries every hour of every day.
And every response to these super-old problems — rumors, lies, abuse — tends to be thin and unsatisfying, almost alien, from the endless vow to improve transparency to Facebook’s intention to have 2 billion people decide the trustworthiness of news outlets. These are the products of a culture that sometimes “views nearly all content as agnostic, and everything else as a math problem.” The underlying principle to these platforms isn’t some huge mystery: Everything is keyed toward cascading reactions, an endless series of provocations, both good and bad. “I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives,” wrote Facebook’s Samidh Chakrabarti last week, “but I can’t.”
There’s been a lot of talk, over this first year of Trump, about an abstract sense that things are falling apart, or that it’s not the same country it used to be, or that this feels like the end of an era, even if what that era was cannot be so easily defined. This is, I think, partly a function of the way our phones intensify everything intellectually, in both good and bad ways, so that you can feel, within the space of minutes, a directionless jolt of anxiety at every Trump tweet about North Korea and the immersive warmth of texting with exactly who you hope most to hear from. It is disorienting to know so much and feel so much all the time. It is also a function of the reality where we get hit again, and again, and again, with reminders that fundamental assumptions about the society we live in (that you can’t say that, that you can’t do that, that you couldn’t have hid something like that) aren’t really true. It’s too difficult to keep a secret in 2018, especially about the bad things people can do to one another.
So maybe it’s political insecurity that’s causing that static in the signal, or maybe it’s disillusionment with these old, sick systems that kept sending people to Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar, or maybe it’s the sense that the platforms are like big boxes that we’ve thrown the full crush of humanity into. Whatever it is, now we are free to tear apart every last institution until every last vestige of that kind of pain is gone, hurtling toward some new future where you can only hope the kindness in our hearts wins out.●