Once upon a time, we had the tools to deal with assholes. Society mattered. One’s name mattered. The good opinion of your peers mattered. The unwritten rules mattered. But assholes used those tools on people for being different. For being black, for being female, for being gay, for coloring outside the lines – and so we lost those tools. Think about how impeachment is tarred as being an inherently political and unsuitable tool, and think how it got that way. When the unwritten rules don’t matter that much, it’s not a big leap to decide that the written rules don’t matter that much either, and then all you have to do is look pious and say “we should focus on moving forward” and then “why you bringing up old shit” and that’s how you skate on any consequences for the Iraq War, or tanking the US economy, or undermining the country in the face of hostile foreign action.
The moral rot of the 21st century really began in 1988, when George HW Bush decreed that anything was permissible in the service of winning elections. Then the talk radio hosts and Newt Gingrich decreed that anything was permissible in the service of winning, period. Norms and guardrails began to deteriorate, culminating in a perjury-trap impeachment. And then in 2000, the reasonably-clear intent of the voters was decreed obsolete. After that, especially in wartime, it was a short hop to decide that facts and reality were whatever you wanted them to be, and the bottom fell out extra-quickly after that.
Because once you’ve punted on reality, punted on the rules, and decided that anything goes no matter what, and that anything is acceptable if it helps you win, you get what the GOP did in America and what the Tories did in Britain: an open embrace of ignorance and thinly-veiled racism in the service of staving off defeat. “Economic anxiety” became the fig leaf for an appeal to “we can make things like it used to be” that for some reason never summoned up the spectacle of unions or high marginal tax rates. The problem is, once you hitch your cart to ignorance, those who prey on stupid have a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun…and that’s where Facebook came in.
Facebook’s principal achievement has been to leverage ignorance for profit. Twenty-five years ago, openly racist screeds full of lies and calumny could only be obtained furtively. Now they can be routinely piped straight to your browser window, thanks to a deliberate decision to optimize for the most provocative and outrageous content possible. Dumb people, people too dumb to know how dumb they are, get a steady diet of lies and reinforcement. Lack of awareness? Lack of empathy? The misbelief that you’re fully and reliably informed? Silly Con Valley normalized it, propagated it, got rich off it, and then sure enough, when it lit the world on fire, all the paste-eaters in hoodies in Menlo Park and Mountain View and Palo Alto began their hooting chorus of “who could have known, we are working hard to solve the problem, no one could have foreseen” – and will probably skate.
And all the proof you need is Elon Musk – smoking weed on camera, clapping back at regulatory agencies on TV, spewing the precise and exact sort of Twitter bullshit that he placed his company in jeopardy by spewing in the first place. No sane CEO would ever have done this in days gone by; this is the behavior of someone who has come up with the belief that consequences are for other people. Failure is fine; there will always be other investors, there will always be more money, and a Lucas Duplan or Elizabeth Holmes can and will ride that freedom from consequence for as long as no one knocks them off their asses.
And there’s an opportunity cost to all this. Unicorn valuations and hockey-stick growth mean that there are good ideas out there that won’t see the market or come to fruition because the ROI isn’t fast and sexy enough. Half-wit frat bros will sit on the judicial bench for decades to come, ensuring that one Bush v Gore will inevitably lead to hundreds more and make the cleanup generational in scope. Cultivate enough stupid, and you guarantee that the future won’t be driven by American innovation, and you only have to look at WeChat and “social credit” to realize where things go if you let the wrong people drive.
Trump isn’t an accident or an anomaly. We were a good thirty years getting here. We’re going to be longer getting back.