One of the great ironies of this insufferable election is that something we all knew was inevitable and only a matter of time – the full, seamless integration of the reality TV / social media paradigm into our elections – was achieved by a highly unattractive 70 year old man. It is as apparent now two weeks out from the election as it was in the summer of 2015 when this nightmare began that Trump has no real interest in being president, a job that is by most estimates rather challenging. Instead this has been one long exercise in building the Personal Brand, of achieving the kind of multi-platform social media saturation that brings entire rooms full of Social Media professionals at SXSW Interactive to instantaneous and powerful orgasm. When a campaign spends more on hats bearing an eminently hashtaggable slogan than it does on polling, it becomes nearly impossible to argue that this is anything other than politics as viral marketing, a painfully long product roll-out for whatever insufferable Web 3.0 media product Trump plans to shove down the throats of his gullible herd of followers. It is a campaign not for votes but for Likes and Follows, the end goal being a list of potential subscribers' credit card numbers rather than accommodations on Pennsylvania Avenue.
As an adult old enough to remember the world before the internet, it isn't difficult for me or anyone else of my generation to see this for exactly what it is. We have been through enough elections and seen enough political campaigns to know what campaigns look like. We recognize, consequently, that this is not one. What I worry about a lot lately, especially given my constant contact with people in the 18-22 age range, is what long term effects this will have on the attitudes of people of different generations who have grown up with the internet and social media. Someone born in 1998 has never lived in a world without clickbait, viral videos, shitposting, memes, Facebook, Reddit, apps, and the idea of life as incidental things that happen so one can post pictures of it on the internet. It is not that today's college-aged voters are incapable of answering the question, "Is this a real campaign or is this all just a publicity stunt?" – what is troubling is that it would never occur to young adults to ask that question. When you've lived since infancy in a world in which saying outrageous and offensive things is a standard part of the repertoire for attracting valuable attention in a the internet's competitive marketplace of self-promoting assholes, this very well could appear to be normal. You can feel the collective shrug, the sense that nothing about what happened this year is in any way out of line with one's expectations about how the world of 2016 works.
One valuable Teaching Moment from this campaign was the vice-presidential debate. Students were able to see for one evening what, for most of recent history, a presidential campaign has looked like: two extremely boring older white guys using a lot of words to say very little. It contrasted sharply with the WWE Monday Night Raw spectacle of the presidential debates, which they view primarily through the lens of what they can provide in entertainment value. Much is said about the shrinking attention spans of younger generations, and I think there is a real element of truth to those fears. It's not surprising that today's young people, just like young people of years past, would find a Kaine-Pence type election extremely boring. What's worrying is the idea that, rather than considering this year's presidential election appalling and embarrassing, it not only seems normal but even desirable because it holds their interest. If they find this funny and entertaining we are likely to do it again in the future, and it will only be "funny" until one of these candidates – some media hog less personally repugnant than Trump – wins, at which point the joke will be on all of us.