If not for my Twitter posts and Facebook status updates, I doubt I would know what I did with all my time. And who can blame me? Information moves so fast these days that it’s hard to catch up. The news cycle isn’t just 24/7—it’s 60/24. 60 minutes an hour, 24 hours a day. Stories of news and gossip sprout on the internet almost as fast as we can click refresh. And in between the new stories we can take to social media to gasp and talk and shout about the old. The pace at which we’re bowled over by new information resembles a runaway freight train with an infinite number of cars. Our long term memory for minutia has been obliterated.
I was first struck by this idea during the Cecil the Lion hullaballoo. Remember Cecil? He captivated the nation’s interest for five minutes back in 2015. Americans who’d never heard of either Cecil or Zimbabwe were outraged when they saw pictures of Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer with his trophy from the kill. Social media was in such an uproar over Cecil that arguments over the Confederate flag, raging since shortly after Dylan Roof gunned down innocent people in a South Carolina church, slipped to the back burner so that people could let fly their fury over this wealthy man going trophy hunting.
Then, before the story could get old enough to bore us, we shrugged and said, “What’s next?” Actual animal rights activists, abandoned by their casual allies of the moment, were left carrying the banner. And the news moved on to something else.
Considered in the light of instant gratification consciousness, Donald Trump’s ability to sidestep his missteps looks less like he has a Teflon coating and more like he’s a marathon runner whose opponents, mostly unable to keep up with him, are his own verbal gaffes. Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted, big hands, rapists and murderers, Carly Fiorina’s appearance, shooting someone and never losing a vote—all of it seemingly disqualifying and all of it lost down the memory (black) hole when the next news cycle comes ‘round. Controversies last only so long he as keeps them alive—see his feud with the Khan family. Is this just happenstance or is it the result of calculation—or even instinct? Trump’s inability to stay disciplined and on-message throws cold water on the idea that he’s gamed out this strategy. But either way, it’s working.
Why then isn’t Hillary Clinton helped by the same memory blind spot? Non-stop instant news and commentary is a relatively new phenomenon. Hillary Clinton and the public’s perception of her—unfortunately for the secretary—predates the digital erosion of our minds. Meanwhile Clinton’s controversies tend to be long, drawn out affairs. Consider the email story: every time it’s slipped from the news over the past year, something—new documents, a Congressional hearing, a FBI announcement—revive it. Meanwhile the flap over long-time Clinton friend and surrogate Terry McAuliffe suggesting that Clinton would flip flop on the TPP after her election vanished in a matter of days—replaced by other news from the Democratic National Convention.
Impassioned detractors of Trump, who remember all of his missteps, grow frustrated by people’s willingness to forgive Trump’s errors. But this election cycle, flooded with information and a candidate in Trump who often dominates media coverage, it’s just as likely there’s too many missteps to effectively remember all of them and unless the most infuriating are front and center the rage over them recedes.
George Orwell suggested in 1984 that influencing memory and imposing mass forgetfulness required a one-two punch of repression and control of language—the ability to change the way people think. Through technology we’ve achieved something quite similar without meaning to; it turns out that the opposite of Orwell’s argument is true—exposure to too much information can adversely impact a society’s willingness to retain any of it for a long period of time. Donald Trump has found in our collective forgetfulness his path to the presidency.