The Tripping Point

A recent House Financial Services Committee hearing provided Americans a brief moment of clarity in regard to both Mark Zuckerberg and our nation’s cultural quagmire. As the Facebook founder answered questions about political advertising and his proposed cryptocurrency, a Congressman’s comparison of Zuckerberg to Donald Trump provoked a reaction that went viral.

Zuckerberg’s physical façade is a billboard when it comes to communicating this important point: rarely has he had to put up with anything that’s made him squirm. His forehead, in particular, suggests the Great White Plains of upper-middle-class access to things like high-performance front-load washers. Whatever nasty CSI was unfolding among the world’s demimonde, Mark Zuckerberg—just laundered and encased by central air—continued clacking code on a taut keyboard.

That offended wince you might mistake for the discovery of a garlic-salted crouton in a seventeen-dollar takeout salad revealed a crack in an otherwise dense cultural firewall. It reminded us that Trump and Zuck, the two great disrupters in everyone’s life, are breaking things at the same time and at the same scale. They have two significant things in common: they are white, entitled males, and they cheated their way into running the world.

The American culture that confronted the likes of the barely adult Zuckerberg at Harvard and the newly gold-carded Trump of the Apprentice was becoming much more democratic and less patriarchal. This was not so true of Americans themselves, but certainly women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community had influenced the evolving system, so that an orange old man could not sit behind a desk and fire Black people without reason and a Harvard punk could not pimp Americans’ private lives to Vlad Putin.

Both men saw a troubling lack of testosterone in the accountability and cultural sensitivity emerging in business, government, and higher ed. They saw the prospect of white men no longer being able to compete solely against white men as a significant threat. With the risk of losing control of the means of competition, both embraced a credo that David Mamet cribbed from William Hazlitt: Never suck up to your inferiors; they will hate you more for it.

Having filled his void of intellect and curiosity with bullying and cheating, Donald Trump developed a lifelong need for having social classes and demographics to loathe. A big part of his fan base are men who’ve felt themselves diminished by new cultural norms since the turn of the millennium. Here was a nation of balding white guys cajoled into shaving their heads—something that used to be too gay to contemplate until Bruce Willis gave way. Who could brighten the outlook for men looking ready to bust up a room? Could it be a man with cartoon hair—one who boldly lived as if time stopped in 1992?

However cruel, callous, or brutish Trump’s behavior, however deep his love for humiliating others, however abysmal his taste, business acumen, and common sense, white male voters were awestruck by his unwillingness to bend to conventional wisdom. They suddenly had a different way of confronting cultural change abetted by Oprah-loving wives and girlfriends—respecting the reviled.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Ivy-tracked suburbia would at first glance seem anathema to the likes and loves of Trump’s base, but when you put class conventions aside, you see that testosterone rises to the surface across the demographic spectrum. The white suburban culture that spawned Zuckerberg began with South Park and moved into self-parody during the Jackass franchise years in the early 2000s. Many have lamely traced this era’s toxic masculinity to video games, drawing parallels to the 1999 film Fight Club. But the masculinity that fed the Zuckerberg cohort was cerebral: it was not about outsiders trying to break into a system or even insiders attempting to break out. It was about the already initiated (white dude) taking the whole thing down, whether in a machine-made Navajo sweater (The Big Lebowski), a black trench (The Matrix), or a blowsy oxford shirt and a baseball bat (Office Space).

The Zuckerberg cohort was so acclimated to performance-on-demand that “studying” at Harvard was resoundingly anticlimactic. With “the Harvard B” trophy presented to all who enter, the Bill Gates route of quitting cold was the only carrot on the stick. The resale value of Harvard admittance was the connections. As instinctively as moles tunnel toward other moles, these guys homed in on what was elite and ultra-competitive among their peers. If the Trump worldview constituted competition in fact, mano-a-mano in a defined arena, the Zuckerberg alternative meant competition where it’s all abstraction, into perpetuity.

To the bedfellows of Trump and Zuck, you need to add a third party—Malcolm Gladwell, who appealed to white, college-educated men with portmanteau theories that assuaged their anxiety over decreasing dominion. He identified incremental, process-driven progress fairly apportioned as an efficiency problem. He went directly after the old guard of merit—scientists, academics, credentialed experts—that was becoming less white and male to suggest that true thought leaders were the clever dudes asking child-like questions of complicated systems. All you need is the balls to disrupt.

Zuckerberg may have come the closest he’s ever come to squirming when compared to Donald Trump, but he followed Trump’s lead of cheating: he recognized an exploitable vulnerability in America’s software and flung his pure, undiluted ego at it without the maturity or moral character to handle the repercussions. He had followed the classic Trump swindle to the letter, pointing out in the fine print that Facebook is not a media company but a platform. He pulled the ultimate Jackass stunt, presenting to the world the seductive option of endless high school unaccountability as a tool for running a democracy.

The danger of Mark Zuckerberg has been enlightening in the context of Facebook’s support of Pete Buttigieg, who, on the campaign trail, has replicated the Zuckerberg hauteur by scolding the olds in Congress for their failure to understand how social media platforms work. When our elected representatives question big tech’s subversion of democratic norms, how is Zuckerberg’s and Buttigieg’s rolling of the eyes any different from Alec Baldwin’s oily admonition to “always be closing”?

Zuckerberg allows us to see that the things that connect white entitled males run deeper than where on the spectrum of checkbox progressivism they lie. His wince seen round the world reveals the enormous ruse of the disrupters that everything will be different when in fact the most essential part of the disruption is the maintenance of white male power. When you have all these white guys breaking things, there is a tripping point where the breakers must be replaced by fixers—and not the Trump kind who wind up behind bars. These fixers would break things up. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to break up Facebook, Amazon, and other tech giants prompted Zuckerberg’s defense that “if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight”—a threat as Trumpian as they come. §