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 barge billboard when it comes to communicating this important aspect about his worldview: he has rarely had to put up with anything that annoyed him or 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 somewhere Alabaman and rank with bodily fluids, Mark Zuckerberg—just laundered and encased by central air—continued clacking code on a taut keyboard.

That offended wince that you might mistake for the discovery of a seasoned 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, by either coincidence or design, breaking things at the same time and the same scale. The pair 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 one becoming much more democratic and less patriarchal. This evolving system was being touched by women, people of color, and members of LGBTQ community, so that (in real life at least) 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 these process-driven systems emerging in business, government, and higher education. The successful workings of large and complicated systems were not following the Great Man formula. Trump and Zuck sensed the real threat to white men as the prospect of white men no longer being able to compete solely against white men. With the risk of losing control of the means of competition, both embraced a credo that David Mamet cribbed from William Hazlitt: Never suck 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, since the turn of the millennium, have felt themselves diminished by new cultural norms. 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 these Matthew Whitaker clones looking ready to bust up a room? Could it be a man with cartoon hair—a man 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. These men 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—the winning ways of Tony Soprano and the ball-busters of Glengarry Glen Ross. 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 playing out up one tier into perpetuity—all abstraction.

To the bedfellows of Trump and Zuck, you need to add a third party—Malcolm Gladwell—who is even more of a stretch on the nerd scale. Gladwell hyped the idea that the early bird does not get the worm; it’s the uninitiated bird who recognizes something so “basic” it’s brilliant. Gladwell appealed to white, college-educated men in their thirties and forties with portmanteau theories that assuaged these men’s anxiety over their decreasing dominion and their hyper-anxiety over the new ways in which elite males were competing against one another. He went directly after the old guard of merit—scientists, academic researchers, credentialed experts.

First Gladwell and then Zuckerberg and Trump were the takedown artists of the new millennium. Denigrating a patriarchy that had turned benign—i.e., men prevailing by following the rules—was the one way left for white men to flex their muscle. After all, these bureaucratic operatives were complicit in allowing the system to become evermore female and much less white. Chronic impatience is what the white Gladwell and Zuckerberg cohorts shared with Trump—their leg jiggling under the table at the prospect of enduring incremental, process-driven progress fairly apportioned.

This friction seems to me similar to that animating the embattled camps of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. In Jefferson, you have a man pitifully unable to maintain a solvent personal economy telling a nation of imagined yeoman farmers how to live (a Fight Club for states’ rights). It was not just the slaveholding that Jefferson managed to get a pass on but his enormous debts and lifelong profligacy: no one would lend him a dime, and yet he was stocking his cellar with wines from France to the very end. Sure, he could turn a nice phrase, but in the moral decisions he made for personal comfort, he was as much of a spoiled brat as Trump and Zuck.

Adams, on the other hand, represented the company man, the office drudge without the savoir-faire. The intellectual prominence in his life of his wife, Abigail, tinged his reputation with the effeminate. The Trump team’s purges in the State Department are telling when it comes to this historical divide. The world of diplomacy requires emotional intelligence we associate with women; the Lavender scare during the McCarthy era went straight for State. When I watched the bowtied Ukraine expert George Kent testify at the impeachment hearings, it was a little heartbreaking to think how artisanal the maintenance of decorum and propriety had become. The holdouts at State are the Adams guys; they constitute the effeminate system where success is a long time coming—and against which the likes of Trump, Gladwell, Zuckerberg, and the Silicon Valley disrupters orchestrate their dog pile on the rabbit.

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, emotional intelligence, 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 (say, women for a change) 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. §