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During the primary season, America was collectively stunned by the insults tossed around between presidential candidates—by the new material that is now the apparent norm for political ammunition. “You know what they say about men with small hands? You can’t trust them. You can’t trust them,” then-presidential candidate, Florida Senator Marco Rubio said of now Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump. Trump later hit back with, “my fingers are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body.”
Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has also faced criticism for bizarre reasons. According to CNN, Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus denounced Clinton for failing to smile at a national security event. She responded, “Actually, that’s just what taking the office of President seriously looks like.”
Since when have finger size and smile frequency seemed important measures of a candidate’s readiness for the White House?
Well, the rise of social media has certainly played a role in the norming of personal, trivial insults. In 2008, Twitter was a fledgling company. Now, it is a political battleground with over 300 million users worldwide. Clinton and Trump have 8.8 and 11.6 million followers, respectively. Each of their tweets will inevitably be viewed by millions, providing fodder for fervent online debate.
Never before have anonymous users known only by names like @Rockprincess818 and @pissedofflion been able to voice their opinions on a presidential election and be heard by the masses. Instead of arguing face-to-face the old-fashioned way, political enthusiasts may attempt to make their case through posting, commenting, trolling, and trading angry memes.
Unfortunately, the new types of online interaction that Twitter permits have resulted in the abbreviation and simplification of political content. Neither candidate is able to condense their plans for immigration, for example, into a 140-character tweet. Instead, they must outline their detailed (or, not-so-detailed) policies on their websites which are ill-visited in comparison to their Twitter feeds. Often, only the succinct jabs and sound bites of social media reach American voters and we are left to interpret them as we will.
Twitter has become such a prominent political tool partly due to our low tolerance for ads. Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu allow us to watch our favorite shows without being pestered by the political advertisements that used to characterize election season. For candidates hoping to reach a millennial audience, making bold statements via Twitter may be the only way to attract and maintain attention.
Another factor that has fueled the rise of no-filter politics: we crave entertainment. As reality TV shows like “The Bachelorette” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” grow in popularity, our perception of the real world is blurred. We are increasingly unable to focus on important information without having a dollop of drama to spice things up . Debates used to be saturated with policy information and argument; now, many people tune in just to laugh and/or gawk at the outrageous statements being delivered by the candidate, if they bother to tune in at all.
In the past, vanilla candidates like John McCain and Mitt Romney have taken the stage at the Republican National Convention, delivering dry, yawn-inducing speeches. Nowadays, we lack the patience for listening to such boring language. Which candidate satiates Americans’ lust for entertainment? Donald Trump, whose reality-TV background on “The Celebrity Apprentice” has taught him how to entertain—and how to shock—a crowd, seems to be winning the entertainment race.
Regardless of one’s political affiliation, it can be fun to watch such a flashy and controversial character ascend the political ladder. Like the audience in a nation-sized colosseum, we like watching the bloodbath that ensues when two candidates face off. We equally enjoy watching their respective armies duke it out on digital battlefields. We gobble up the carnage like popcorn.
The danger of this entertainment obsession is that candidates and their supporters become dehumanized. We forget that Clinton is a person when we label her “Crooked Hillary” and shout, “Lock her up! Lock her up!” We forget that Trump is a person when we compare him to genocidal dictators of the past. Instead, we think of them as mere characters in a dystopian film, moving images without human emotions and human flaws.
Some become so mired in this fantasy that the issues themselves don’t seem real. Trump supporters may share his enthusiasm for “The Wall,” but they may not consider the social and economic repercussions of such an undertaking. Likewise, members of the Clinton camp may support her methods of reducing college tuition without thinking about the tax hikes that would inevitably occur. Voters seemingly would rather focus on demonizing their opponents instead of appraising the candidates’ actual policies.
This closed-minded tunnel vision has resulted in polarization. At this point, one is labelled as either a Clinton supporter: a pretentious, politically-correct, dishonest, handout-loving liberal; or a Trump supporter: a bigoted, short-sighted, ignorant fascist who belongs in what Clinton has controversially dubbed the “basket of deplorables.”
Extreme mindsets and ultra-partisan attitudes often leave moderates stranded. These individuals will face backlash whether they choose to “Make America Great Again” or to announce, “I’m With Her.” Bloodthirsty conservatives and liberals alike are ready to pounce on moderates no matter which decision they make. This hostility has culminated in an unprecedented fear amongst voters; many are terrified of being publicly honest about their political leanings.
Even those who vote for third-party candidates like the Libertarian Gary Johnson or the Green Party’s Jill Stein find themselves accosted; someone will tell them that they are handing the election over to whichever candidate’s presidency they find most foreboding. It’s a trap. Even Mitt Romney—who nearly won the Oval Office—has refused to vote for either Clinton or Trump, eliciting criticism. When Republican runner-up Ted Cruz urged us to “vote [our] conscience” at the RNC, he was booed off the stage.
If we have any chance of steering our country away from ruin, we must rise above the underlying hostility that has poisoned our country’s morale. Otherwise, all the aggression that has poisoned this past year will not dissipate after the election has concluded. Instead, neighbors will still be arguing. Protesters will continue rioting. Conspiracy theorists continue fabricating sinister explanations for every stain on the presidency.
To emerge intact from an ideological civil war, we have no choice but to lower our arms and seek common ground. Otherwise, our mutual hatred will culminate in something much more terrifying than Twitter fights.