Though this article reports numerous ugly statements and inappropriate actions by mass media, political parties, and social media posters, please note that the author of this article is a middle-road Independent with no affiliation or party preference. Negative remarks about President Trump, his opponents, and his critics, are results of public statements, for which this article has no partisan bias.
America has entered a new era that may be more dangerous than anything this country has experienced since the Civil War.
Following the election in 2016, we have had millions of people in bitter conflict with each other. Though most of the conflict thus far has been in social media, mass media, and political venues, we have seen a few ugly street clashes and destruction on college campuses. Unlike political fights of the past, however, the fight seems to intensify and is becoming more violent and hateful.
Of course, our country has had social conflicts before. The anti-war battles of the 1960s and 1970s are good examples, as are the African-American Civil Rights struggles of the mid-1950s and 1960s. Though there were millions of people on both sides of these movements, these fights were different from today’s conflict in one extremely significant way: insurgents in both of these battles were fighting for specific, concrete goals.
The anti-war movement fought to end the Vietnam War. When the war ended in 1973, the angry energy died down. Similarly, the Civil Rights activists fought for specific things: the end of segregation in schools and restaurants, voting rights for people of all races, the end of racial violence, and admission to all-white universities. Once they had achieved these objectives or at least had made significant progress, the violence subsided, and the movement moved to the courts and politics.
Many other protest movements had no clear goals and therefore only mustered luke warm energy. For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement involved millions nationwide but had no leadership and no tangible objectives that middle-Americans could embrace. The movement, therefore, collapsed of its own weight.
The conflict we see today is a new kind of beast. Though political conflict typically has the Far-Left on one side opposing the Far-Right, the bitterness today is not only a political skirmish between Democrats and Republicans. There are splits in both parties. Conservatives fight with mainstream Republicans, and Progressive Democrats on the left remain furious with their party’s leadership and behind-the-scene operatives.
Nasty rhetoric began in the months before the November election, but when Donald Trump became President-Elect, opposition voices became more strident than at any time in recent history. Traditionally, new presidents have a so-called “honeymoon period,” in which mass media and opposition leaders permit the new Chief Executive to begin an administration free of bare-knuckle politics. Most new presidents have three to six months of this respectful courtesy. The honeymoon for President Obama was even longer. President Trump received no such courtesy period. In fact, the bombast against him began during the transition between administrations, long before his inauguration.
Many statements by leaders of the opposition party continuously use name-calling and false narratives with language and depth far worse than we have ever seen. Recently, a long-time Congressional Representative referred to the entire Trump cabinet as “a bunch of scumbags.” Other leaders have loudly called for the impeachment of the President. Despite the fact that there is no evidence of any offenses, other than Mr. Trump’s often annoying statements and tweets, his opponents continue to make nonsensical claims.
How did this fighting develop and continue to grow?
Though this unprecedented bitterness has several different causes, the growth of social media may be its strongest driver. Since President Obama’s victory in 2008, the number of social media users has nearly tripled. Moreover, President Trump’s highly publicized Tweets may have attracted more people to express themselves through this medium. Social media messaging has gained credibility with some people, especially people in the age range designated as ‘millennials.’ Though there is no way to measure this effect, social media users now seem to post or repost statements without any reliable source. In many cases, they admittedly “make stuff up” to fit a narrative, without concern for fact-checking of any kind.
More troubling is the new practice of media reporters—the internet, print, and cable news—to use social media, especially tweets, as support for a so-called news story. With so many different voices adding themselves to the fray, misinformation often takes on an aura of truth and becomes used as proof statements.
Whether antagonistic remarks are from political leaders, media opinions or whimsical social media posts, Americans read them, or hear them from others and repeat them, often augmenting them or using them out of context. Since they typically come from one side attacking the other, the aggrieved side fires back with equally irrational statements.
Why this war from within threatens America
Leaders of every country in the world follow internet reports and form opinions and strategies based on their analyses of America’s strength. Watching our current turmoil, our friends and allies may view the US as being out of control, and view American leadership with great skepticism. Our enemies may see our exaggerated conflicts as an opportunity to ignore America and continue policies that hurt our economy and safety.
For example, opponents of the President have nurtured a storyline that the Trump campaign plotted with Russia to hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign and help Trump win the presidency. The so-called ‘proof’ of this story, is that candidate Trump stated in his election campaign that America might benefit from an improved relationship with Russia. Opponents add that Trump hired a campaign advisor for two or three months who once had consulted with the government of Ukraine. Ukraine, of course, considers Russia to be an enemy of their country. A consultancy relationship with Ukraine has no bearing on a US relationship with Russia. Further, the former US Director of National Intelligence has stated that there is no evidence of a Trump-Russia collaboration of any kind. Nevertheless, Congressional leaders have kept this allegation alive and begun investigations in multiple committees. Stories like this one shake the confidence that our allies have in American leadership.
Domestically, we will soon have an environment of lawmakers who are unable to vote for or against any issue unless it is supported by a majority of the combatants in their states and districts. This will result in leaders who are unable to lead, in a gridlock that leaves individual Americans suffering in anger.
How can we end this foolish quagmire?
All Americans have the right of free speech, guaranteed by the Constitution. Nevertheless, our leaders and mass media writers have the tools to tamp down rhetoric that makes America look foolish to the rest of the world.
Though social media enhances the viciousness, the White House, Congress, and the mass media are the original sources of it. Following are some recommendations on steps these leaders must take lower the public temperature and create a positive national direction.
Recommendation One: President Trump should limit his Twitter tweets to issues of policy, or significant announcements. Criticism of celebrities and argumentative dialog with critics add fuel to the ongoing fires.
Recommendation Two: The White House should create private dialog sessions with all leadership groups, especially opponents and media leaders. All discussions should be kept confidential. Leaders need to work together to create ground rules for public statements. Ground rules must have mutual agreement and benefit to all parties. This approach will not muzzle anyone from speaking out on their opinions on policy. But it can depressurize the nastiness that has overtaken the country.
Recommendation Three: Unless new bills are likely to become future election issues, leaders of both parties should meet together privately to identify common ground. If possible, they should agree to limit public disagreement to policy issues. Regardless of the gulf between the parties, they should ‘sell’ their viewpoints without personal attacks or implying wrongdoing by the opposition.
Recommendation Four: The White House needs to reach out to the press, to create ground rules to benefit all parties. The President needs to speak with media executives privately and negotiate. Both sides in this kind of dialog have items with which to negotiate. For example, The President can eliminate statements about “fake news” and charges of lying. The White House can offer greater access in exchange for confidentiality. Media leaders can offer advance notification of stories to advise the Whitehouse of major negative stories.
Memo to the White House and Congressional staffers: The foregoing recommendations are seen through the eyes of an outsider. You may have better approaches. If so, we look forward to your success in changing the status quo. You have a responsibility to fix the chaos that is tearing the country apart. It’s not important to select the perfect plan. What’s important is making the plan work.
Memo to Mass Media: Words matter. Careless words often matter more. Please tell the truth.
“To borrow from the words of Winston Churchill: ‘Never have so many been manipulated so much by so few.’” — Aldous Huxley