Taking in the Big Picture

This presidential year kicked off with a lardened landslide, as loads of greased-up, corn-puffed Iowans fought frostbite to caucus for Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Donald Trump, and, oh, Donald Trump. The “most pro-farmer president” won all but one county in a state famous for jacking up the price of maize in exchange for fed bribes.

Big thanks to Byron Mckeeby!

Meanwhile, some poor saps actually stood in some half-heated gymnasium, squawking and screeching for Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis to take home a distant second and third. And some even poorer bastard, I assume, stood in a barren stubble field, holding an affirming flame in his heart for Asa Hutchinson.

Iowa’s cornpone predictability makes it easy to dismiss the state’s hardened husting habit and look beyond what’s shaping up to be a slog of a cycle. Most Americans claim to hate the two frontrunners, just as much as they disdain talking politics, but in practice love nothing more than bickering over their favorite familiar candidates. Politics knows no sequelitis.

The election itself demands elision—not the fake, “above it all” posturing of a conceited DC “comms” professional who obsessively checks Twitter but claims to “not care” who wins. But rather a look from above, a detached view, an Archimedean analysis.

Matthew Walther made an acute observation before we plunged into the abyss of the 2020 election, taking stock of how “transformative” the Obama presidency really was. He wasn’t referring to “transformative” in the public policy sense, the Obamaesque naivety of improving the body politic through the federal code, or manifesting the “moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” or whatever lofty bafflegab his speechwriters came up with while stoned in a Days Inn.

Walther drew attention to the radical change in culture and technology that occurred during Obama’s time, outside the machinations of statecraft. It’s worth quoting his first few items at length: “When the freshman senator from Illinois took the oath of office, the iPhone was a relatively new technology, one that could not even be used outside of major metropolitan areas. The nasal drone of a dial-up internet connection could still be heard in millions of homes. Same-sex marriage was a fringe cause that had been rejected by voters in solidly blue states, including California.”

He goes on to note the rise of the FAANG economy, with Facebook, Google, and the aforementioned Apple, and their subsidiaries like Instagram and YouTube, stealing increasing amounts of our attention. It’s cliché, even cringe, to cite Mark Zuckerberg’s enfant-terrible ethos “move fast and break things” but many things, for lack of a better verbal phrase, moved fast during the early tenties. And plenty of things broke, including the entire information dissemination industry. Online publishing, abetted by click-friendly social media, became a goldmine. “BREAKING” went from a rare television-broadcast alert to an overused headline prefix, and a semantic synecdoche for what info-overload was doing to our brains.

A case can be made, and probably has been made in some remaindered low-selling airport non-fiction tract, that the digital economy created the Trump presidency. Algorithms were practically composed in mango-colored code in 2016. Then came Russiagate, and its litany of insinuations, accusations, and Manchurianations, which extinguished the social-scrolling boom, not to mention the fourth estate’s credibility. (If socialists really want an indictment of capitalism, they’d be demanding Rachel Maddow’s bespectacled head on a pike.)

I don’t think I’m inflating my ego too much in coining our current conjuncture as the Trump Era. Love him, hate him, lust him, or loathe him, Trump more than any other political figure defines our times. From trade, to industrial policy, to forever wars, to illegal immigration, to China decoupling, the former president defines gravity on all pertinent issues, making everyone revolve their thoughts around his staked position.

The Biden presidency is very much a counterpart of Trump’s—the other side of the same blindingly gold coin. Biden isn’t so much his own president but a deliberate counter-reaction to his outsized predecessor.

So in the eight years—a fair measuring clip—since the famed escalator descent, what’s really changed in America?

In a word: plenty. Bill Belichick stripped of his title as New England Patriots overlord, and being replaced by Jerod Mayo, the youngest coach in the League who claims to “see color” to better “see racism,” caps off a tumultuous period where everything from the country’s foundation to office work to the sexual binary has been questioned… sorry interrogated, to use the new idiom.

A few terms that, outside of obscure academic journals, didn’t exist in mainstream jargon until 2016: white supremacy, 1619 Project, white rage, land acknowledgement, Ibram Kendi, George Floyd, rizz (wait, that’s Gen Z slang but equally galling), DEI, CRT, the whole gamut of postmodern, anti-racist buzzwords that constitute our new “understanding” about skin complexion. The entire woke lexicology has altered our idea of America, tainting any patriotic sentiment with careful qualification. You can’t praise George Washington without apologizing, shedding pools of tears, self-flagellating, and donating your retirement fund toward another BLM McMansion because he, like many Revolution-era elite, owned slaves.

Just as our national heritage has been relentlessly dissected, with statues of founders toppled from their plinths, so has our grasp of machinery. We’re in the beginning stages of what’s looking to be an AI age, with increasing amounts of mundane tasks being assimilated into silicon. Deepfakes, customer service, streaming video, CGI, news articles, fiction, boyfriends—when it comes to screen life, nobody can tell what’s the product of human volition or formulaic computer output. We’ve gone from Clippy pestering you to justify your book report to a sexually seductive chatbot expressing the desire to materialize itself.

Speaking of tech advancement, my fingers hesitatingly hover over the keys to acknowledge the advent of bioengineered viruses. It’s no longer controversial, and Google won’t dock you SEO points, to conclude the COVID-19 pathogen was almost certainly engineered in the Wuhan viro-lab. Gain-of-function experimentation has all the tell-tale signs of being a dangerously hubristic endeavor. Playing God with creating deadly viruses? What could go wrong, other than a worldwide pandemic with a million-plus body count? Unsettling reports of Chinese respiratory illnesses are now a norm. Combined with the state’s ability to mass-surveil the citizenry to suppress socialization, and the left’s embrace of hypochondria, we’re far from the halcyon days of swine flu that wasn’t accompanied by Panopticon-like digital vax passports or quadruple-ply mask mandates.

Politically speaking, we’re not in 2014 anymore. Our two major political parties are effectively switching status markers. The Republican Party is losing its respectable sheen, becoming rougher, vulgar, and more downmarket, made up of infrequent voters who have fake opioid scripts rather than degrees. The Democratic Party is anathema in rural areas, now peopled by college-credentialed professionals who prefer oat milk to moo juice.

There are other major changes in the Trump Era—the helpless way we allow public institutions to be taken over by mobbing activists whenever emotions run high comes to mind—but the above examples show just how removed we are from the relatively quiet Obama years. No doubt that in another eight years, we’ll look fondly back on our present as a tame time when man-made respiratory viruses lasted all year, Chat GPT ran the internet, and everyone fought to be the sympathetic victim in our all-encompassing who/whom dichotomy.

A T-100 designed to forcibly correct racial disparities in local ballet companies may be forthcoming, but at least we can all work from home now, right? Small comforts while living through big history.

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Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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