The Post-Literate American Presidency
... It’s not just that Trump is a creature of TV, but that he’s also allergic to text. Tony Schwartz told The New Yorker that in the 18 months he spent with Trump co-writing The Art of the Deal, he never saw a single book in Trump’s office or apartment. In May of 2016, when Megyn Kelly asked him to name the last book he’d read, Trump said, “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time.” He told the Post two months later that he doesn’t have time to read books: “I never have. I’m always busy doing a lot. Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.” By early this year, The New York Times was stating it as accepted fact: “Mr. Trump, who does not read books, is able to end his evenings with plenty of television.” The president even has trouble digesting briefing books, so his aides now use “big pictures” and “killer graphics” to hold his attention. Trump is truly a malevolent version of Chauncey Gardiner, the TV-addicted naif of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970s novel Being There, who ends up being elected president thanks to his ability to repeat banalities he’s heard on the boob tube and in ordinary conversation. The question is whether he’s an outlier in this regard, or a harbinger of a post-literate American politics.
The rise of television as a mass medium in the 1950s sparked the rise of media studies in general, led by Marshall McLuhan, a literary-theorist turned cultural guru. McLuhan and his followers argue that television is no mere entertainment appliance, but helped initiate a central shift from the age of typographic culture (when print shaped and structured how we saw to world) to our contemporary post-literate world. In books like The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan recast the conventional history of Western Civilization with a technological-determinist bent, tracing the movement from orality to literacy to post-literacy. The implications of these shifts were interrogated by major literary scholars like Neil Postman, Walter Ong, and Hugh Kenner.
The key insight of the McLuhan school is that print culture is deliberative, while television is performative. Typographical fixity preserves, and gives a certain permanence to, written thought. It doesn’t just transmit information; it creates habits of thought, and encourages the cross-examination of ideas. On television, by contrast, everything is in a perpetual present, an endless flux. No wonder Trump, a master of television, has no permanence of thought. He shifts his positions depending on opportunistic ambitions or passing whim, sometimes motivated by nothing more than a desire to echo whom he is talking to. Indeed, sometimes his ideas are little more than echoes of what he sees on Fox.
“A written sentence calls upon its author to say something, upon its reader to know the import of what what is said,” Postman argued his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death. “And when an author and reader are struggling with semantic meaning, they are engaged in the most serious challenge to the intellect.” Further, he notes that “the sequential, propositional character of the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the ‘analytic management of knowledge.’ To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weight ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another.” ...