Social media did not give us Donald Trump and it is not weakening democracy

During and after the 2016 US presidential election, a number of commentators in the media and scholars of political communication and journalism embraced the notion that the ascent of president-elect Donald Trump as the Republican nominee was, at least in significant part, the product of social media and media change more broadly. Even more broadly, commentators tell us that Trump was successful because the Internet has brought about a “post fact” or “post truth” era, and point to “filter bubbles” as a significant factor in his rise.

As illuminating as these accounts sometimes are, they fundamentally ignore larger historical, cultural, and institutional factors that have created the context for Trump’s rise, especially the precipitous decline in citizen trust in government, professional journalism, and scientific expertise and the growing political importance of the white nationalist right in the United States. Attributing Donald Trump’s electoral success exclusively, or even primarily, to media and technological change is to dangerously abstract from the conditions that made it possible, even as new technologies have undoubtedly proved tactically effective for the candidate.

It is worth remembering that there have long been various strains of conservative movements that have embraced an amalgam of paranoid conspiracy theories, denied the existence of basic facts, adopted an anti-institutions posture, distrusted expertise, and embraced the uncompromising, anti-pragmatic politics stance that many commentators and academics see in Trump’s rise. In the 1950s, the historian Richard Hofstadter called this the “paranoid style of American politics,” which was fueled by feelings of victimhood and nostalgia, the fear of political breakdown, status insecurity, and a persistent irrational fear of global conspiracy. The historian Lisa McGirr traces the history of the New Right since the 1960s among affluent and suburban Sun Belt men and women, who combined a religious emphasis on Protestant moral values with themes of anti-communism and small government, deregulation, and anti-union and public employee sentiment, all of which were driven by conspiracy theories propagated in right wing films, study groups, books, newsletters, and national media outlets.

Throughout this history, the Republican Party has been the institutional vehicle for these right wing movements, providing them with the infrastructure to engage in electoral politics and advance their policy aims. Political communication scholars have, ironically, not done a very good job studying ideas, favoring instead studies of their strategic presentation, what we call ‘frames’. But it is precisely ideas of religious purity, small government, and racial difference that lie at the heart of the conservative identity that has defined the Republican Party for four decades, although the expression of these ideas takes various forms. Decades of conservative movement identity work, in our own time through conservative media infrastructure such as FOX news, has helped usher in the broad anti-institutional movement style of the right and the motivated reasoning that has shaped conservative views on everything from the denial of climate change to the distrust of legacy journalism. Meanwhile, the moral narratives of good hard working white Americans who are being taken advantage of by government bureaucrats, illegal immigrants, and the liberal elite on FOX News and in the rhetoric of the Republican Party’s candidates that Arlie Russell Hochschild documents in her fieldwork on the Tea Party, and that fuels the resentment Katherine Cramer documents, laid the groundwork for the white identity politics behind Trump’s run.

The internet did not bring about a ‘post-fact’ or ‘post truth’ era, nor did it bring about conspiracy theories, white nationalism, conservative identity and its farcical villains, and the distrust of institutionalized ways of producing knowledge, from journalism to science. Conservative movements since the post World War II era did, alongside its institutional vehicle, the Republican Party, and its media apparatus, from conservative radio talk shows to FOX News. The uptake of social media likely has given broader exposure to the particular mix of racial resentment, conservative identity, populist rhetoric, and economic anxiousness that marked the 2016 US presidential election and afforded it greater visibility, but it did not cause them. The emergence of outlets such as Brietbart, primarily distributed through Facebook, and Trump’s Twitter rantings might have legitimated dispensing with the dog whistle in favor of a racial bullhorn, but the underlying idea that white Americans are under a unique threat from people of color, elites, and experts resonates with millions who have been told that for decades by members of the Republican Party. And, while social media might increase the speed of half-truths, rumors, and outright lies, it did not create the cynical public that does not understand, or care to, how knowledge producing institutions work. Conservative movements and the Republican Party did that too.