Dr Alex Marland
Associate Professor of Political Science at Memorial University of Newfoundland and author of Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control (UBC Press, 2016)
Section 5: Overseas Perspectives
Unlike other contributors, I tried to avoid media exposure to the 2016 US election campaign. My reasoning for this unstructured social experiment? I was ineligible to vote, I live in Canada, I study Canadian politics, I am busy. I would loosely simulate the floating voters who pay little attention to politics, and who take information shortcuts to form basic impressions about leaders. My non-representative sample of one constitutes something of a control to illustrate the omnipresence of the campaign and captivation with the demagoguery of Donald Trump.
I live in North America’s easternmost city, St. John’s. I also spend time in a tiny rural community, population 110 on Sundays before the church closed down. My media consumption was a strict diet of small portions of Canadian news television, local Newfoundland radio, and Canadian news websites and email listserves. I watched bits of the debates, and had some brief exposure to American networks ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN. I did not use social media or a smartphone, and avoided conversation with others about the topic.
Here are my observations as I tried to avoid Trump.
During the primaries, Trump’s use of Instagram showed how an inexpensive controlled mechanism can build a political brand. His posts were information subsidies for the global media – free content that is accessible and easy to reuse. Provocative remarks and lewd behaviour fed an appetite for dramatic storytelling. Critics’ ensuing outrage was delicious theatre of heroes and villains. Forget public policy: this was a never-ending story arc involving public personas, with audiences drawn to part soap opera, part sports contest. As Trump’s celebrity and underdog story grew, American politics became infotainment on an international scale. By the time he accepted the Republican nomination, Canadian news had spotted a ratings winner, analogous to the escapades of Rob Ford, Toronto’s infamous crack-smoking mayor (on this, see Duncan Koerber’s 2014 about crisis communication in the Canadian Journal of Communication). It became impossible to avoid Trump because everyone wanted to talk about the shocking behaviour of a populist who eschews conventional wisdom.
It was soon a norm to evoke Trump in every social setting. Posters at Memorial University advertised public talks, ranging from a “Trump and Tacos” politics event to an English professor evoking Trumpian literary analogies. At a talk to discuss my book about Canadian political communication, the first questions were about Trump. At a staff meeting, an apolitical woman confessed interest in the election, explaining “it makes me feel dirty.” People with no post-secondary education in households that are otherwise interested only in local Newfoundland news became glued to CNN, watching late into the night. As Election Day neared, the Canadian Television Network’s news channel and website featured a digital countdown. The St. John’s chapter of Equal Voice, an organization that seeks to elect Canadian women, hosted an election night event. On the morning of November 9, St. John’s CBC radio uncharacteristically held a local call-in show about the results.
As with Ford, the tone of Canadian news and the public sphere was a mixture of perplexity, anxiety, morbid fascination and, above all, classism. Pollsters relayed that Canadians overwhelmingly preferred Hillary Clinton. Americans would want to relocate to Canada in the event of a Trump victory and realtors were on standby. A website urged citizens to move to Cape Breton, an island in Atlantic Canada. After the vote was in, the Canadian immigration website crashed. There is both smugness and relief about Canada being led by Justin Trudeau, the dashing Liberal prime minister. Meanwhile, Conservative Party leadership contestant Kellie Leitch is by evoking Trump as she rallies against Canadian elites and calls for immigrants to be screened for Canadian values.
Why were so many Canadians caught up in the American election? The globalization of news and communications technology is one explanation. Beat reporters have become multitaskers operating in a digital-first, mobile-first environment. In Newfoundland newsrooms, journalists stare at computer screens and smartphones, chasing whatever is trending on social media. Content comes in from Toronto and digital information subsidies constitute clickbait. Canadian coverage of American politics constricted attention that might otherwise have been directed at resolving local issues, or perhaps Hurricane Matthew which in early October caused mass destruction and deaths in Haiti.
My take-away is that a vote for Trump was likely a vote against elites concentrated in urban centres who are perceived as promoting metropolitan righteousness and who frown upon rural citizens. Social activists’ moral condemnation of a plain-speaking populist stirred anger against an establishment seen to be advancing a politically correct orthodoxy. More broadly, Canadians and others should question the implications of a global media system that displaces coverage of local public policy and human disasters in the developing world in favour of infotainment originating from major media centres.