Suffering through the second of what I fear will be four years of the Trump Administration, I began to ponder what drives some men over the age of 70 to increasingly shocking behavior. In the case of The Donald it is easy enough to imagine that there are some as yet-unpublished pharmacological side effects or interactions among the hair-loss, self-tanning and other performance-restoring drugs that the celebrated Dr. Bornstein may have prescribed. However, Trump is not alone in his Tourette’s-like appearances on Fox & Friends. Rudy Giuliani was once “America’s Mayor;” Alan Dershowitz was once a highly respected constitutional lawyer. Each has now taken on such increasingly extreme positions that observers like me who once had a modicum of respect for their prior achievements are left to wonder what drives this behavior.
I think I know the answer: Fame kills.
Talented individuals who become public figures can lose their bearings -– their moral compass – between their core human identities and their public personas. This may pass unnoticed at first, but becomes increasingly difficult to ignore once one is no longer Mayor of New York or the go-to Constitutional law authority. Trump also understands that the power to shock represents the power to focus the media spotlight. Obama’s birth certificate, Mexican rapists, cheating on your wife with a porn star – these are media honeypots.
So why are these racist, misogynist provocations newsworthy? For the answer we need to turn to the pioneering work in Information Theory by Claude Shannon of MIT. Simplifying greatly, the informational value or “newsworthiness” of a given event varies in proportion to its capacity to surprise. This is intuitively obvious. A newspaper headline that declares: “Today War Did Not Break Out in Iowa” is hardly newsworthy. Similarly, if I devise a game in which you need to guess the third letter of a three-letter word and I tell you that the first two letters are “th” there is less informational value in revealing that the third letter is indeed “e.” However, if I had not told you the identities of the first two letters, revealing the “t” would have had significant informational or news value.
I would never suggest that someone as intellectually lazy and arrogantly illiterate as Trump has studied Shannon’s seminal 1938 work A Mathematical Theory of Communication; nonetheless Trump intuitively grasps that the power to shock and outrage carries with it the power to mesmerize the news media. Lesser disciples like Giuliani and Dershowitz are like apprentice moths to the media flame – they attach themselves to the master moth and emulate his wing flapping.
So, how do we combat this demagogic trend toward ever more outrageous public speech? I believe that the answer lies in raising the costs associated with such bad behavior. As The Donald has shown, shame is not enough to deter the truly shameless. Instead the media should more aggressively fact check and challenge those who lie and not invite repeated liars back on air. Similarly those who engage in hate speech have the First Amendment right to do so in the town square but not on CNN or the pages of mainstream media. Finally, we as citizens must also do our part. Just as it is difficult to avoid “rubber-necking” and gazing at a highway accident, we must not rush to play the latest Trump obscenity on endless loop.
Finally, our real hope lies with the activism of the Parkland teenagers. It is their time to take back the country from the septuagenarian fame-seekers.