Life After Trump


I am hopeful this is the last time I write about Donald Trump. To the extent that he obeys the law and vacates his position on January 20, 2021, and doesn’t run again for the presidency, I do have more interesting subjects to pursue.

I’ve tried ignoring him the best I could these past several years, but it would have been irresponsible not to call him out on his malfeasance. I attempted to look for interesting angles where I could in attempts not to repeat the obvious, but as a writer I had to be on the record as part of the resistance.

I don’t care if he starts TrumpTV or his loyal followers continue to listen to his divisive lies to the last day he broadcasts. I want him out of legal power. As the nation heals, so will I, although I suspect I will heal more slowly than most. His representation of an America so diametrically opposed to my ideal has taken a toll on my immune system.

More than half the nation didn’t sign up for this American carnage. A monster dumped it on us. Now we’ve dumped him.

Am I relieved? Only inasmuch as a cataclysmic disease goes into remission. You know it’s still there. The cancer is his belief set. Too many Americans still subscribe to that indefensible set of lies.

I’ve been thinking about the arc of our generation, the arc of the moral universe, as Dr. King reminds us: “no lie can live forever.” Our struggle for civil rights wasn’t expected to be without setbacks, but it also wasn’t meant to be bluntly derailed. Trump tried to hijack fifty years of progress in four years of devolution. I’m going to take a flier and say he failed, but now with broad restraints removed from the dialogue that would have us surrender too many of the hard-won social norms that edged us closer to justice, how will we choose to revive our spirits?

I think the ultimate legacy of this cynical presidency will be the accelerated deterioration in the public’s ability to discern fact from fiction. This president didn’t create the notion of fake news; he simply used his unyielding platform to make it a meme. He purposefully blurred the definition of traditional journalism for self-serving convenience. This may not be a crime in the lawbooks, but I think it is a crime against humanity.

There is fake news. It is not when a trained reporter for the Wall Street Journal makes a mistake and prints a retraction. It is when an undisciplined individual with an agenda expresses an unedited opinion as a fact without remorse, often in the chaos of social media, but sometimes opportunistically with more deliberate distribution. There is a lot of gray area between those poles, but it doesn’t take an advanced degree to understand which way the pendulum is swinging. The litmus test is intention and methodology. Is the intention to get to the truth or obscure it?

It’s not just the Trumpers to blame. The reactive nature of Trump’s opponents is often equally without reservation or hesitation. I don’t think the malady is entirely about retreating to echo chambers. I think it’s about the shameless effectiveness in discrediting the notion of authoritative sourcing.

We grew up to believe in asking for the source behind an assertion. If the public comes to believe that all sources are equally fallible, then all that is left is self-selection into bias or convenience.

To me that is the true definition of fascism—if we can believe in nothing empirical, we are left to align with a decision-maker on blind capitulation. Then all that’s left is a numbers game to determine right or wrong, also known as situational ethics, a world where there is no court of “correct” adjudication. Adherence is purely democratic and won with a majority, regardless of conviction.

That legacy is Orwellian, and it’s terrifying.

Are we at a point of no return in life after Trump? I don’t think so.

I think restoring faith in precise journalism is a critical remedy, but the how of that is in no way obvious. All media can now be lumped into the category of fake news, depending on who is making the argument.

No matter how much we may disagree, followers and detractors of InfoWars and the New York Times each believe one side is accurate and the other is lying. Somehow both of these get labeled into a bucket called media, and both are accused by those who dismiss the other as fake news.

That is the challenge facing us—can we find a way back to well-reasoned argument, or are we hopelessly lost in noise? Because the problem is solvable, I need to stay optimistic,

Watching the HBO documentary After Truth, a broad exploration of the deteriorating spread of fake news, it occurred to me what a mess we are in. We can agree that fake news is a thing, but as long as we fundamentally disagree on its definition, that definition can be weaponized.

As long as winning an argument is more important than having the correct information to assess an argument, we remain at risk of destroying each other in the name of winning. Call it the end of civility, call it the end of democracy and the doorway to fascism—whatever you call it, it’s not a world where the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.

That to me is the key challenge to life after Trump. We share a national infrastructure and pay taxes to a common federal government, with separate and to some extent irreconcilable visions of how we assess fairness, responsibility, justice, and facts. A new president isn’t going to resolve that. If we don’t commit to the need for resolving that as fundamental to our success, our best moments are likely behind us.

I don’t want to believe we can’t agree on what is true, but like many of you, I am weary after so much fighting. I don’t want to say I am exhausted, but I am ready for a dose of stability, a roadway that isn’t crumbling under my feet. I believe in government, but I want it in the background of my life so I can paint the foreground. I don’t want to talk about what the president tweeted today, whose career he destroyed, or the obvious embarrassment of his latest falsehood. I don’t want to feel exasperated before my work even begins. I want to trust science, logic, dignity, and common sense.

I want the truth to be the truth and a lie to be a lie and for most of us to agree on the difference.

If we can get there, life after Trump will be better, if for no other reason than we will leave behind the low point of celebrating absurdity. If we can’t discover a set of shared values that define us as a nation, then I suppose it won’t matter.

I’m going to take another flier and bet on integrity. We will learn together how to build a consensus around what is true, because we have experienced a taste of what happens when we fail to recognize this necessity. We live in the same world, and there are realities in that world that are inarguable. Orwell put it as succinctly as it can be said:

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.

Let’s start life after Trump by agreeing on that.

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Photo: Pexels

Lost in Noise is Learning

We are so bombarded by noise at times it’s hard to think. The raging debates around coronavirus public policy, racial injustice, and the presidential election form a perfect storm of noise. A cacophony of this magnitude only naturally sends us to seek shelter from the storm.

Don’t give in to the temptation of numbness. Where there is noise there is a signal. Sometimes you have to listen hard for it, but it’s worth the effort.

Where there is crisis there is learning.

During the entirety of the Covid-19 crisis, my own company has been digging deeper into data, questioning every one of our prior assumptions, revisiting foundational convictions that have proven to be upended by circumstances. It’s been meticulous work, exhausting in many ways, but every bit of analysis has been worth the long hours of difficult discussion. Through a highly Socratic process, we have reinvented our business model for the better.

All of that has me thinking: What else might these crises be telling us? What else can we learn from the turmoil all around us if we don’t allow ourselves to hide from the rhetorical barrage?

Here are a few ideas penetrating my consciousness in the realms of global warming, trusted communications, and government core competency.

Everyone Doesn’t Have to Drive Every Day

I live in Los Angeles. I look outside and the air is clear. The freeways are empty. Coincidence? An accidental moment without significance? Perhaps that’s the case, as some have argued the temporal reduction in emissions and anecdotal benefits of fewer cars on the road, but what if it were sustainable? Could one of the answers to climate change be so obviously right before our eyes? I’m not a scientist with the credentials to make such an assessment, but I certainly would like the problem studied objectively.

Until a few months ago, we woke up daily with the habit of getting in our cars and driving to work no more questioned than brushing our teeth. It was just something we did. In no previous discussion of environmental distress did I hear anyone credibly propose getting more than half our cars off the road, because the proposition would have been a non-starter. Then one day a bunch of us stopped getting in our cars. Poof, just like that, we were working from home. We also got the commute time back for more productive work, and while I’m at it, how about all of those car accidents that stopped because people behind the steering wheel weren’t texting. We will go back to the office regularly at some point, but does it have to be every day, for every person? Not in my world. The benefits are yet to be understood. Let’s understand them.

Media Desperately Needs Reinvention

We don’t understand fake news. We don’t even have a common definition of fake news. Some of us define fake news as the biased reporting of a media brand. Others identify it as the blatantly false information peddled to the public for effect without fact-checking. I remain a fan of journalism and consume branded media daily with my own filter for accuracy, but my litmus test for truth will never be yours. Until we can agree on some form of objectivity, we will continue to debate the source of our information rather than the implications of the information’s validity.

This is not healthy. If we can’t agree on what constitutes an empirical fact, the clear and present danger to our decision making is likely to have a catastrophic impact. No source, however reputable, is without fault. The New York Times isn’t sure what belongs on its op-ed page. Facebook as a public platform of democratic exchange has become an unmitigated disaster in its inability to parse purposely placed disinformation in unending disguises, free or paid. Elections are won cynically on ad volume, fueled by cash, fueled by special-interest investment in yet more noise. We know we need journalism, but given how few people want to pay for it and how compromising its ad base has become, its business model has failed. Whoever reinvents this business model is going to change the world. I believe this will happen, because accurate information is not a luxury but a necessity.

Readiness Is Pragmatic

Perhaps my most troubling observation is how flat-footed the United States has been caught with the ramifications of the pandemic. Of course no one knew any sooner than late 2019 that Covid-19 could interrupt every aspect of our lives, but we’ve been around long enough to know pandemics exist. How could we have so few of the necessary medical supplies or personal protective equipment in stockpiles for such a calamity? How could we not have a clear chain of command between federal, state, and local authority? How could we shut down the nation for three months and not make strides on healthy measures to address the next semester of student education?

We are a pragmatic nation known to focus our vast resources on innumerable global crises throughout our history, but have we become so focused on the here and now that we aren’t paying enough attention to scenario planning and game theory? If we don’t think carefully about reallocating resources to planning for the unknown, the chances we will be struck down even harder by the next surprise attack would seem to be 100%.

Do yourself a favor: Tune out the noise, but tune in the learning. Opportunity is always around us if we muster the discipline to trade demoralization for inspiration. That’s how we get better.

The alternative is to stick with what we’ve got. I hope we’ve learned that’s not much of an option.

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Image: Pixabay

Unfit: A Memo


TO: DJT, POTUS

FROM: Ken Goldstein, Author & Businessperson

RE: The Trump Legacy

SUMMARY ASSESSMENT:

You were unfit to hold the title of the executive office you won in election.

You were unfit to issue executive orders empty of study and laden with self-interest.

You were unfit to appoint cabinet officials whose job it is to challenge your opinions.

You were unfit to seek loyalty from the subordinates you bullied.

You were unfit to be seen as a role model by children in homes and classrooms.

You were unfit to talk of family values, ethical mandates, or moral imperatives.

You were unfit to order military action or report on its efficacy.

You were unfit to lay a wreath at Arlington.

You were unfit to represent our nation in state visits or international forums.

You were unfit to offer comment on science, health, or climate change.

You were unfit to speak of business norms or effective negotiation.

You were unfit to hold authority in the age of “Me Too” reform.

You were unfit to broadly attack our free press as perpetrators of fake news.

You were unfit to demand intellectual credibility when you lied consistently without regret.

You were unfit to be taken seriously as anything other than a threat to world stability and security.

You were unfit to embrace the gravitas of the immense power you commanded and the lack of humility you celebrated.

CORRECTIVE ACTION:

We will heal while you are mired for the rest of your years in shame.

We will recommit to values that embrace compassion and empathy.

We will again celebrate learning and understanding, particularly in matters of science and empirical knowledge.

We will rejoin the community of nations in saving our planet.

We will address income inequality.

We will recommit to healthcare justice.

We will acknowledge the safe haven of asylum and treat immigrants with dignity and kindness.

We will welcome the stranger.

We will not viciously insult distinguished participants in our democracy whose views reflect diversity of thought or background.

We will not embrace humiliation as a strategy to undermine those with whom we may disagree.

We will appreciate journalism and distinguish facts from dangerous manipulation.

We will reject the cynicism of pattern lying for convenience.

We will never forget the hardships we suffered under your fragile ego.

We will face the future with courage, hope, and love.

We will make our nation appropriately great again.

We will let time address your place in history.

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Image: Pixabay

More Fallout from the Zuckerberg Files

Should the unintended consequences that emerge in the course of a company’s evolution be a primary concern of management?

Is the exponential creation of shareholder value still the overriding force when a wildly successful company grows even faster than its own outsized vision?

Are the naive philosophical aspirations of under-experienced entrepreneurs a get-out-of-jail-free card from the ramifications of otherwise noble intentions?

In answering these and similar questions, is Facebook somehow a different animal?

These are some of the issues examined by a new Frontline documentary recently aired on PBS that frames a deeply damning critique of Facebook and its leadership team. While purposefully steering past the warm-and-fuzzy aspects of Facebook’s innocent exchanges of family photos and recipes, The Facebook Dilemma dives into Facebook’s structural roots.

The critique presented is strident but not unfair: Why didn’t Facebook as an enterprise heed the many early warnings of the pervasiveness of its influence and more strongly consider mitigation strategies, and now that the political chaos has been unleashed, is there any possibility of getting the bad genie back in its bottle?

When Facebook launched, founder Mark Zuckerberg braved a bold and curious global community manifesto:

“Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.”

That sounds good on the surface, and it sounded so good to so many of Facebook’s early employees that they rallied around the life-affirming purpose. They believed they were building a platform toward the betterment of humanity.

Simultaneously, the size of the audience embracing the platform created a media opportunity unlike any other in history. No company has ever thought about achieving monetization of a billion (heck, now two billion) individuals. To make sure no money was left on the table, Zuckerberg hired Sheryl Sandberg from Google to build that side of the equation.

The inherent conflicts soon became apparent. Facebook claimed to be a technology company, not a media company, even though its business model was selling advertising, which is what a media company does. To be the most valuable media company it could be, it needed two things: the world’s most in-depth data warehouse, and a rule set of utilizing that data with the fewest possible restrictions.

As a business, this all made sense. As you can see every day in the public company’s enterprise value, it worked beyond all expectations. The problem remains, it was initially fueled by another slogan:

“Move fast and break things.”

This ethos is not unique to Facebook. One of the tenets of Silicon Valley is to drive value from what is called an MVP, a minimum viable product. The point is to get a functional offering in the market quickly, find where it is successful, worry little about its failings, and start to iterate while building cash flow. Success is defined first by penetration (audience reach) and second by monetization (lifetime customer value). When things go sour, startups try to fix them, but because success is winner take all, most teams unapologetically expect there will be a lot of sourness to sweeten.

The question Facebook has encountered is unsettling: Is its very business model antithetical to fixing the byproducts of its success?

The Frontline documentary illustrates many of the ways Facebook has gone sour. Arab Spring. Fake news penetration in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russian intervention in media buying in the same election and outrageous exploitation of privacy by Cambridge Analytica. Violence in Myanmar.

Even Roger McNamee, a celebrated early investor in Facebook, took it upon himself to act counter to his own financial interests and ask Facebook management to step back and rethink the implications of its mindset. They did not heed his warnings. They were either too optimistic, too idealistic, too hooked on winning, too greedy, too ambitious, too arrogant, too busy to see the light of day, or a combination of all of those.

Facebook management has been reactive on all these fronts and done what it can to play whack-a-mole as crises emerge. Executives and managers there admit repeatedly they have been “too slow” to address the ramifications of their global viral adoption. The “too slow” apology parrots Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress. It was a well-played chess move. It reveals no ethos of a fundamental commitment to a proactive playbook of innovative solutions. It’s a cost center, not a profit center.

Traditional media companies work under the direction of a qualified, responsible editor. When a journalist makes a mistake, the media brand runs a retraction. Facebook doesn’t want to be a media company, and it doesn’t want to be an editor, but any way you slice it, the algorithm that sits under News Feed is a robotic editor more likely to show you what it thinks you want to see than what is true or real. Then a perfectly targeted ad is inserted. That is how the game has been won at Facebook. It’s a winning formula. Any risk to changing that is far riskier to the company’s stock price than a few incidents of political unrest.

The real question remains: If Facebook’s mission requires that the company remove most obstacles to the free flow of information, the result of which is to facilitate unfiltered speech, the result of which is chaos, can it both stay true to its values and smooth over the chaos? And if the company is selling some of the most valuable ads in the world because the vast archive of privacy data is what makes those ads click, how can it impose limits on the interests of its ownership?

It’s a greater good question, one that capitalism believes is best left to the free market to solve, but in this case, it’s almost impossible to see how that gap is bridged.

Zuckerberg likes to say that Facebook is an “idealistic and optimistic” company. He said it when we was hauled before Congress to address the breach of privacy trust. When he was a younger man, it was a quaint proclamation I could have believed were it not for the true origin of Facebook as a college hook-up site. When he says it today, it sounds cynical. People who work for him might still be drinking the Kool-Aid. He’s selling advertising, justifying it, and trying to dodge regulation. To wit, he’s doing his day job as CEO.

Part of the problem might be social media itself. Its greatest strength is its greatest weakness. While pure democracy of publishing without a filter is liberating, audiences can easily be misled and mislead each other in chaotic exchanges of raw opinion. Add in bad actors buying access for covert agendas and the danger can become uncontainable.

Shortly before Zuckerberg testified earlier this year, I wrote a post entitled Is Facebook the Next AOL? At that time I wasn’t sure. Now I am. The byproducts of Facebook are so pernicious and likely unresolvable, I do think at some point the vast audience will abandon the platform. The cost of trading one’s privacy for family photos and recipes is too high. I don’t know when that will happen, and Facebook has a ton of cash so it can last a long time, but I expect the devoted masses will eventually exit their loyal addiction in self-defense. I don’t think this invention can adequately address the inherent conflict of interest it has created to thrive. Creative destruction will replace it with a better, more respectful product.

A brand is a promise. When trust is eroded, a brand dies.

I remain active on Facebook, but the broad notion that the world would be better as an open and connected place has always troubled me. Maybe it’s because I grew up as a kid learning of Nixon’s enemies list. Privacy to me always seemed to matter. Today’s political climate almost makes the Nixon era seem welcoming.

I’ve long subscribed to the notion that technology is advancing much faster than our ability to understand its implications. I saw that in my early career with the addictive nature of computer games. We see it all around us with people’s attention glued to mobile screens as they bump into each other and fall into fountains. We don’t really know what this stuff is doing to us. We buy it and use it and another tech company goes public.

Silicon Valley moves fast and breaks things because it’s good for business. Collateral damage is expected and as long as a company survives and grows few real tears are shed. Expecting it will change is unrealistic. It’s a form of realpolitik. Expediency wins over ideology because of the vast money at stake.

Since you’re probably staying on the social media playing field indefinitely, protect yourself. No one else will.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Image: Pixabay