Donald Trump and the Dumbing-Down of America

5 June 2016


About a year ago, I gave a talk about the importance of storytelling to a group of American literature professors, and to prove one of my points – about the dumbing-down of moviemaking in America – I researched the top films of 2014. The list was far more juvenile than I thought it would be. Here are the biggest box-office successes for that year:
    X-Men: Days of Future Past, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Neighbors, Interstellar, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Gone Girl, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, It Follows, Whiplash
    These days, almost all the big money-making movies in America are re-worked comic books, adolescent comedies and sci-fi Westerns. Even films that might offer slightly more sophisticated narratives – such as Kingsman – turn out to have silly, clichéd plots (great good versus merciless evil!) structured by the use of special effects. Often, as with the Lego Movie, which grossed $258 million in America, they seem to have been written and produced in order to sell toys to kids.
    Such blockbusters are obviously made to attract teenagers or even pre-teens. But here is the problem: they are also seen and appreciated by tens of millions of adults.
    But are those moviegoers really adults – psychologically speaking?
    I ask that because understanding such films requires so very little worldly experience or complex reasoning that a twelve-year-old is going to get from them all there is to get. Which is nearly nothing.
    The stories are not open to different interpretations. They do not require the viewer to consider his or her most traumatic or joyful or tragic experiences in order to understand the behavior of characters.
    Anyone who has reached adulthood – who has adult thoughts and needs – will find them childish and boring. Judging from the box-office figures, however, vast numbers of men and women in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s find them exciting. Perfect entertainment.
    And now – as if by design – these dumbed-down moviegoers have the perfect presidential candidate: Donald Trump.
Trump looks like a comic-book caricature of a rogue millionaire forever primping and posing for the nightly news, and he speaks like one, too. Here is his famous plan to deal with Mexican immigrants, for instance. “I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
    Is that Captain America or a presidential candidate? Both, it seems.
    At other times, he speaks as if he has cast himself as the misogynist hero of his own big-budget Western – John Wayne in a business suit. Hence, his bragging about his sexual allure: “All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me – consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected.”
    In order to create that image of a straight-shooting man’s man, he frequently insults woman in ways that he clearly considers clever. Here he is on one of his staunch critics, for instance: “Ariana Huffington is unattractive, both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man – he made a good decision.”
    Have no doubts, for audiences that find adolescent comedies like Neighbors a laugh-riot that’s what passes for wit. They find Trump entertaining and clever.
   In fact, it’s become clear that the American networks cover him so prominently precisely because – like the latest Marvel Comics’ screen adaptation – he can be guaranteed to get good ratings while panning to the lowest common denominator.
    Leslie Moonves, President and CEO of CBS, has said exactly that. Here he is speaking about Trump’s candidacy. “[It] may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” The reason? “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now?... The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going!”
    In case any of us have any doubts about the low level of discourse in today’s political campaigns, keep in mind that when the Princeton Review analyzed the vocabularies used by candidates in the Presidential debates of 2000, they discovered that George W. Bush spoke with a vocabulary of a sixth-grader, while Gore scored slightly higher, with a discourse appropriate to seventh-graders.
    Politics for a populace of 12-year-olds. Yes, that’s America’s most recent innovation.
    But maybe the level of discourse was always very low.
    No, in fact, it was once much higher! According to the analysis done by the Princeton Review, in the Presidential debates of 1858, Abraham Lincoln spoke at an eleventh-grade level, while Stephen Douglas spoke at a twelfth-grade level.
    Make no mistake, our political system has evolved to appeal to voters who are unable to understand anything more sophisticated than Toy Story or Spider Man 3.
   This year, Trump and his fellow Republicans seem to have brought the level of discourse even lower – and not just in terms of vocabulary. How can we forget, for example, Trump and Cruz debating the size of the Republican frontrunner’s genitals? Furthermore, the hollowness and arrogance of Trump’s positions on any number of domestic and foreign issues reveal him to be nothing but a provincial con man who believes he can bully and bluff his way into the White House. Here he is on competing with China: “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore….When was the last time anybody saw us beating let’s say China in a trade deal. I beat China all the time. All the time.”
    For Trump, it’s always good versus evil – which basically comes down to America versus the rest of the world.
    Like any ignorant demagogue, he will also happily distort the truth in order to create fear in voters and cast himself as a superhero coming to their rescue: At a Nov. 21, 2015 rally in Alabama, he told the crowd, “I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering. So something’s going on. We’ve got to find out what it is.”

Am I right in saying that Donald Trump is the perfect candidate for a voting-age public that interprets the world as if it were a comic book?
   Whatever your answer, here is the terrifying truth: the dumbing-down of America isn’t going to stop anytime soon – it’s too profitable. Which means that even if Trump loses this time around, we’re sure to have more Captain Americas running for President in the near future, vowing to crush Dr. Doom and Islam and feminist critics and anyone else who doesn’t agree with them. Unless we significantly improve our education system, cultural output and election coverage, one of them is going to be living in the White House sooner rather than later.

Michael Fieni