Maybe this wasn’t exactly the way Neil Postman wrote it up in 1985. After all, Instagram and Twitter were unfathomable in a world where the internet was still a closely held secret among computer-sci geeks. Yet that was the world in which the late New York University media critic wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death that essentially predicted Donald Trump, the drug of 24/7 cable news, and ... everything, decades before they actually occurred.
But Postman would have inherently understood multibillionaire Mike Bloomberg’s surging 2020 presidential campaign and what it says about an American democracy that many critics believe is comatose but which in fact may already be dead and nailed stiff to its perch, in an effort to fool the pet shop’s new customers.
It’s the way that a candidate with a Coca-Cola-size bank account is teaching the world to sing his praises by bombarding every possible frequency with 60-second ads, branding himself more effectively than Coke Zero Sugar but with the same amount of empty nutrition. It’s the cheap social media stunts executed through buying off 20-something “influencers” and their millions of followers for pennies on the dollar. And it’s the calculated insults that become trending topics on Twitter, all aimed at ousting a reality-TV president by putting on a higher-rated, hipper show.
The campaign of Bloomberg — the septuagenarian former New York mayor and media mogul ranked as America’s ninth-richest person, with a nest egg pushing $60 billion — has been paying off the owners of popular Instagram accounts with names like Tank Sinatra to post memes that basically make fun of a 78-year-old guy trying to make himself cool on Instagram. The self-deprecating irony loop doesn’t tell young voters what a Bloomberg presidency would do for their health care — dude, that would be so 1950s! — but it’s building the candidate’s brand, for the kind of mass consumers Postman predicted 35 years ago, willing to trade their vote for a good laugh.
Maybe it’s the $1 million the Bloomberg candidacy drops on Facebook ads every day, a tsunami that’s swamped the chumps like Joe Biden or Sen. Amy Klobuchar trying to run for the presidency the old-fashioned way. Or the campaign rallies that offer a swank buffet and free wine, which somehow is considered progress from the old days when a Philly ward leader simply bought you a beer for your vote. Or cornering the market on young campaign help, by paying kids just out of college $6,000 a month to “like Mike” and gather his petitions.
But Bloomberg seems to be playing chess while the other Democrats are jumping slowly around a checkerboard, one square at a time. In the large March primary states where Bloomberg is first competing, he’s already moving into the lead — with a lot of room for growth if Biden, who was the front-runner in these states, continues to fade and if those Facebook, radio and TV ads keep coming. He already leads in Florida, a big state that votes March 17, and in Arkansas, one of a number of March 3 Super Tuesday states where Bloomberg has been campaigning while the other Democrats clubbed each other in Iowa and New Hampshire.
His campaign’s unconventional late-entry strategy has so far kept him off the debate stage, where Bloomberg would have to defend his record as mayor and businessman, while swamping the ad market where he fully controls the message. And — contrary to the conventional wisdom of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other moderate Dems that voters only want to hear about health care — Bloomberg’s message is what folks really want to hear, which is getting in the face and under the skin of their tribal enemy, Trump.
Last week, Bloomberg probably gained five more points in the polls by giving it back to the president — who’s been tweeting a lot about his former golf partner, calling him “mini Mike” even though Bloomberg isn’t that short — and attacking him on Twitter as a “carnival barking clown." Even some who’ve been cynical about the (real) billionaire’s campaign cheered his New York chutzpah. Maybe Democrats don’t really want to talk about Pell grants; they just want to see The Apprentice crushed in the November sweeps.
Which brings me back to Postman. In 1984, the NYU prof was asked to deliver a lecture around the year and the theme of George Orwell’s iconic dystopian novel, about an age of government censorship and thought control. Postman’s provocative thesis was that modern society was devolving not toward Orwell but toward Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which the masses surrender their agency as citizens for a soothing drug called soma. Except the real-life soma is TV and other mass entertainment. Engaged civic discourse in America would soon wither away because, as Postman titled his book the following year, we were amusing ourselves to death.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.
Postman already saw in the 1980s — when a Hollywood actor was winning his second term as president — that Americans "do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.” Postman died in 2003 — seven years before the launch of Instagram— but he clearly saw it coming. Ditto for the potential nightmare of a general election showdown between Trump and Bloomberg.
In 2015-16, some writers — myself included — saw the rise of Trump as the embodiment of Postman’s 20th century predictions. Here was a soulless demagogue whose mass rallies, with unpredictable rants targeting everyone from Mexicans to CNN, got boffo ratings, in a series that the soma-zonked masses found must-see TV to the point where people would watch the image of his plane on a tarmac.
In little more than three years as president, Trump has been systematically dismantling the basic rule of law and many of other Democratic norms, establishing a modern presidency where stealing elections and other crimes are above the law, where Congress and the courts are no longer a watchdog. The slim majority of Americans who seem to be alarmed by this have been saying that nothing less than the fate of democracy is on the ballot in 2020.
But what if democracy has already died and we just don’t want to admit it. The ascendancy of Bloomberg 2020 has also been something of a slap in the face to those of us who’ve watched the Elizabeth Warrens and Cory Bookers and Julian Castros of the world — appealing for small donors and taking selfies and talking about crazy stuff like making college affordable, only to bore the electorate to tears, as each TV debate saw shrinking ratings. Too many Democrats didn’t want ideas, or even ethics — not when they have the centrifugal bumblepuppy that is Michael the Insult Comic Dog.
If Bloomberg captures the Democratic nomination in Milwaukee this July, and I’d rate his chances at about 50 percent, it will also be an acknowledgement of what is already true -- that the hopelessly quaint notions of debates and position papers and kissing babies belongs in a 20th-century time capsule. And that all future presidents will be decided by who has the hippest Instagram memes or the cruelest Twitter putdowns, paid for either by the obscene personal wealth of sweatshop capitalism or by selling out to the highest bidder, even if that’s a foreign adversary like Russia.
Take away the $60 billion fortune that Bloomberg amassed on the backs of his workers too afraid to take bathroom breaks, and there’s no way he should even be at 0.3 percent in the Democratic polls, let alone leading in some states. In a time of the #MeToo movement against misogyny and sexual harassment, Bloomberg and his company have settled scores of lawsuits from women over a toxic work environment, including crude remarks from Bloomberg himself about women’s looks or their pregnancies. Bloomberg both expanded and praised “stop-and-frisk” policies in which black and brown people — the vast majority of whom committed no crime — were subjected to a cruel and sometimes violent police occupation.
At various times, Bloomberg has bashed the idea of a living wage, waged war on teachers’ unions, endorsed the Iraq War and the war-criminal president who started it, expressed nostalgia for “redlining” policies that discriminated against black and brown home buyers, and even — shades of Donald Trump — praised authoritarian regimes like China’s Xi Jinping and once said Americans should learn from Singapore, which executes drug dealers.
This ... this is the Democrat? I’m old enough to remember when there was no liberal principle held higher than that the American White House is not for sale, so why the sudden embrace of this billionaire getting away with it in broad daylight? The quiet part of the Bloomberg revolution is this notion that democracy is broke beyond repair in a time of pure tribal warfare, and so the only way to beat their dictator is with our oligarch. But if this is how 2020 works, then who would even attempt to run for president as a small-d democrat in 2024? Or 2096, if we’re not under three feet of water?
It’s not destined to be this way. I mentioned earlier that I think there’s a 50 percent chance that Bloomberg buys his way to the nomination. But I also think there’s a 50 percent chance that Bloomberg’s billionaire brand is a wake-up call for Democrats. Preventing a Bloomberg-Trump general election could rally Democrats behind (hopefully) the woman who could best fight for actual progressive values, Elizabeth Warren, or (more likely) get many to start dropping their qualms about Bernie Sanders as a fiery leftist standard-bearer.