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Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: Donald Trump and the power of context

4 min read

I get depressed watching Donald Trump. Not for the things he says, or the spectacle of it; those things are almost immaterial. If you think he isn't part of a carefully-managed media strategy, you're flat-out wrong: there's too much at stake to let a man in a bad toupee and worse ideas climb onto the world stage unguarded.

Instead, it's worth noticing how everyone else has faded into the background. Trump is the warmup guy, designed to frame the other candidates. The Republicans are aware of their association with fundamentalists, and understand they're reaching the limits of this historical strategy. So: stick a crazy dude up front to yell objectionable crap that plays to this crazy base, and then let everyone else look completely sane and reasonable next to him.

Whether Trump himself is in on the plan is up for grabs.

The truth is like the blue dress that blew up the Internet a few months ago. There's a canonical truth, often, but it usually doesn't really matter: a more interesting story can be created by framing facts in a different way. Even a blue dress can seem white and gold if placed in the right context. Everything is about perception. If you know what you're doing, even in the face of bald facts, you can manipulate a story to your advantage.

So, too, our memories. It's hard for us to separate the emotion behind an event from what actually happened; our recollection of a key moment in our lives may take a rainbow of different emotions as our lives progress and take on new contexts and understandings. If you look at a photograph of an event today, you're seeing it differently to how you did when it was taken. Services like TImeHop cleverly understand this, and surface photographs much later, when you'll react to them in an entirely new way.

I have a high school reunion coming up, that I'll miss because the airfare is too much for me right now. As a result, all kinds of photos from 20 years ago are showing up on my Facebook stream. It's interesting to see them now: the anxiousness of high school has faded into nostalgia, and a genuine curiosity to see how everybody is doing. A lot of people seem to have children; I bet the way they look back on their school years has changed even more radically than mine.

It might not shock you to learn that I didn't always have a great time at school. I often felt singled out for being different (although I now suspect that everyone at high school feels that same way). I was certainly awkward, and as a result I was very nervous that people should like me; of course, teenagers will pick up on this, and it probably led to my being singled out more. I choose to think of the friends I made that I'm proud to still have to this day, and my framing of those memory means I think of high school fondly.

Some of my friends had a worse time than I did, and have simply chosen to close that part of their lives off. It's dead to them, in the same way that some people simply cut old partners out of their lives. I have to respect this, of course, but I can't imagine cutting any part of your life away. Every experience makes you who you are, and unless you feel like your life went south and stayed there - which isn't the case for any of my friends - I find myself grateful for where I am, and all the things that led there. In the case of cutting away old partners, you're either saying that the totality of that experience was worthless, or that the experience still hurts, and you haven't moved on from it. (Of course, in the case of abusive partners, getting the hell away makes a lot of sense.)

Something the Internet isn't particularly good at is creating ways to help you frame the memories and facts it finds for you. Context is lacking, both when you're sharing an article about Donald Trump, and when you're looking back at old photos (or having them TimeHopped back to the forefront for you). It's easy to click and share, or click and replay, without bringing any of the subtext or the relevance back with it. Content is still a series of disconnected atoms, and it's up to us to make them into molecules, and then something substantial. Sometimes that's just too hard for us.