by David Levi Strauss
Dispatches from the Campaign
Dispatch 15: Wikitrump?
Sunday, July 31, 2016
I understand why Vladimir Putin would want to do anything he can to put Donald Trump in the White House, because a Trump presidency would fuel a resurgence of Russian aggression on the world stage. Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had already attempted a complete makeover for Putin surrogate Viktor Yanukovych, before the former Prime Minister had to flee from Ukraine to Russia to avoid a newly incensed population in Ukraine. Manafort’s advising of Yanukovych ended badly two years ago, but the Trumpmeister’s business dealings in Russia and Ukraine continue. There’s no sense in letting a stinging political defeat interfere with one’s own personal financial interests.
What I don’t quite understand is Julian Assange’s position. The leak of thousands of Democratic National Committee emails hacked, presumably, by the Russians, on the eve of the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia was obviously intended to harm the Hillary Clinton campaign, but to what end? To give a last boost to Bernie Sanders’ supporters at the convention? Or to help ensure an eventual Donald Trump victory?
Assange had announced the coming Clinton leak back in June. When he was asked then if he’d prefer Trump as president, he replied that what Trump would do as president was “completely unpredictable,” whereas we know that Hillary would be a liberal war hawk and continue what Assange sees as her attacks on freedom of the press. He also views her as a personal foe.
The timing and method of the release of the DNC emails drew a tweeted rebuke by Edward Snowden on Thursday: “Democratizing information has never been more vital, and @Wikileaks has helped. But their hostility to even modest curation is a mistake.” Assange responded within an hour and a half, impugning Snowden’s motives: “@Snowden. Opportunism won’t earn you a pardon from Clinton & curation is not censorship of ruling party cash flows.”
Meanwhile, Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Trump’s 1987 book The Art of the Deal, which sold over a million copies and earned its author and subject millions of dollars in royalties, has come out to decry the book and the Real Trump he discovered in the writing of the book. In an interview with Jane Mayer for the New Yorker, published on July 25, 2016, Schwartz said, “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility that it will lead to the end of civilization.”
Dispatch 16: My New Order, Up & Down
Monday, August 1, 2016
On Friday, Donald Trump had to be rescued by the Colorado Springs Fire Department when an elevator at a resort there stalled between the first and second floors, trapping ten people inside. Officers lowered a ladder down to the passengers from the hatch in the roof. There was no word on how Trump reacted to this emergency, but it was reported that earlier that day he had criticized the Colorado Springs Fire Marshall for limiting the number of people allowed into one of his rallies.
Most of the news yesterday focused on Trump’s splenetic response to the father of Capt. Humayun Khan, a Muslim Army captain who was killed in action in Iraq. Khizr Khan’s speech last Thursday at the Democratic Convention called Trump out for having sacrificed nothing and for being ignorant of the contents of the U.S. Constitution. Trump tweeted that the elder Khan was wrong to stand up in front of millions of people and criticize him. In a later interview, he intimated that Khizr Khan’s wife Ghazala, who stood silently by him on stage at the convention, didn’t speak because she may have been prohibited from doing so by Muslim mores. Ghazala replied to this insult in an editorial in the Washington Post, saying that she did not speak because she could not talk about her dead son without being overcome with emotion. A number of Republican leaders reacted negatively to Trump’s attacks on the Khans yesterday.
Today, John McCain released a carefully worded statement about the incident, rebuking Trump. “While our party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.” Like Trump’s claim earlier that a federal judge from a military family could not be fair in his handling of a suit involving Trump because of his Mexican heritage, the Khan Affair may be a turning point in the discourse of the campaign. When the rhetoric of right-wing talk radio and reality TV comes up against the rhetoric of mainstream media, the former doubles back on itself, retweeting into solipsism, and, in this case, exposing the lengths to which Trump’s naturalized prejudice against people of Mexican descent and Muslims causes him to make other bad choices.
Dispatch 17: Big Stupid Data
Monday, August 1, 2016
On the last night of the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, after the balloons dropped and the music died, I was sitting in the press tent, cooling my hot heels, when I saw Nate Silver come in, with a cell phone glued to his ear, pacing from one end of the tent to the other, listening and looking very worried indeed. And well he should. He’s the current Data Master. Americans depend on him to tell them what’s up and what’s going to happen politically, and the numbers aren’t cooperating.
That’s because the fear and hatred that’s driving the Trump bump are difficult to measure using the current instruments. Nixon called them the Silent Majority for a reason. They don’t express their opinions publicly, so the methods of public opinion polling don’t work very well on them. They are the counter-counterculture. They hate those elite motherfuckers who talk about things.
Now, four days later, Hillary Clinton has received her post-convention bounce of about four points, twice what Donald Trump received after his convention, but that’s cold comfort to Democrats, because this bump is barely beyond the stated margin of error of three points. Nobody I’ve talked to in the Democratic Party understands why her lead is not greater, over a candidate who seems destined to self-destruct, and who continues to make rookie mistakes and say inane and insane things that would sink most campaigns nearly every day. What does a girl need to do to get a real bump over this dickwad?
The data suggest that Clinton is in trouble with a group that comprised nearly half of all voters in 2012: white people without a college degree. Among this group, Trump leads 60% to 30% in most polls, and 70% to 30% in some. The spread is even greater among white men without degrees. The Weapons of Mass Destruction in the coming election are White Men without Degrees.
It took the candidacy and election of our first Black president to reveal just how much racism still guides our political life, and the candidacy of our first woman president is revealing just how misogynistic American society still is. If only men voted in the coming election, Trump would win. If only white people voted, Trump would win. And if only people over 65 voted, Trump would win. So if you’re not a man, not white, or not over 65, the future of American democracy is in your hands. Please don’t drop it.
Dispatch 18: Simone Weil, T. J. Clark, and Bernie Sanders’s Grimace
Tuesday, August 2, 2016
“A political party is a machine for producing collective passion.”
“Collective passion is an infinitely stronger impetus to crime and lies than any individual passion.”
“If a single collective passion takes hold of a country, the entire country is unanimous in crime.”
“At the moment when a people becomes aware of its will and expresses it, there can be no collective passion.”
“Parties are organisms that are publically and officially constituted to kill the sense of truth and justice in our souls.”
“Almost everywhere—and often for purely technical problems—the operation of taking sides, of taking position for and against, has replaced the obligation to think. This leprosy of the mind began in political circles then spread throughout the country to almost all thinking. It is doubtful that we can cure this disease, which is killing us, if we do not start by abolishing political parties.”
—Simone Weil, Note on the Abolition of All Political Parties, translated by Ames Hodges (Semiotext(e), 2014), originally published in Paris in 1957, but written in the summer of 1943, just before Weil died.
“It is one thing to have an optimistic (or pessimistic) view of capitalism’s ability to weather the storm blowing from working-class Britain, another to underestimate the system’s endogenous vulnerabilities. What happened in 2008 will happen again. The break-up of the eurozone is one step nearer, the question now being whether it will be ‘managed’ from New York and Berlin or plunged into pell-mell. […] The political question therefore is this: could there be a future circumstance in which such a moment of capitalist crisis, or sequence of moments, none of them ‘final,’ could be greeted, in various nation-states […] by the beginnings—the first steps in a long reconstruction—of a minimal anti-capitalist resistance?”
—T. J. Clark, “Where Are We Now? Responses to the Referendum,” The London Review of Books, July 14, 2016.
Dispatch 19: Midnight in Daytona
Wednesday, August 3, 2016
Watching the Clinton Political Machine begin to go to work on The Little Demagogue Who Could is a thing to behold. The little-handed bully with the funny hair may fold up like the cheap seat he’s always been.
It was one thing to pull off an unlikely victory in the Republican primaries by using a mixture of Old Ideology (xenophobia, racism, sexism, and nationalism) and New Media (Right Wing Talk Radio, Reality TV, and the Alt-Right and Alright Internet and Twitterverse) to confuse and ultimately take down 17 self-destructive midgets, propped up by a Mainstream Media hungry for Red Meat and 24-hour ratings. But this is the Clintons, man.
They were triangulating and DLC-ing their way into power when you were still a grasping Democrat-in-waiting. Over the past four decades, they’ve built a political machine that eats punters like you for breakfast in Des Moines.
The convention was your first big test on this much larger stage, and you blew it. First, the security: turning downtown Cleveland into Guantanamo to contain and control a few perennial buskers with hand-lettered signs just looked desperate. I haven’t seen that level of over-compensation since George W. Bush locked down Madison Square Garden in 2004, and that was with a half a million of us marching outside.
Then there was the line-up. When Republican and celebrity A-Listers snubbed you, you turned to the B, C, and D-lists, and then threw them all together in an order that made no sense whatsoever. On night two, the last five groups and individuals on stage were playing to an empty arena. It was amateur night in BelieveMeLand, and it reflected badly on your self-vaunted skills as a pageant maker.
Your family did come through famously, but then you undercut them with your Bad Dad, il Duce impression of a speech, scaring the hell out of the nice people back home, and leaving your wife and children to sit on their hands flinching like abuse survivors. And you ceded the new grounds of patriotism, morality, and defense to the Dems in Philadelphia.
And here’s a little tip for you, Scooter: You may have thought it was cute to treat the Press badly throughout the primaries and culminating at the convention, drawing on that reliable reservoir of contempt the Public has for the Mainstream Media. But the Media has only so much patience for this kind of opportunistic demonizing. Media has a memory. And now that Ailes has left the building, you’re going to need all the Press you can get.
So I suggest you strap yourself in and strap one on, Little Donald. We’re heading into some serious turbulence.
Dispatch 20: A Viable Third Horse?
Thursday, August 4, 2016
Last night, CNN’s Anderson Cooper hosted the second Libertarian Town Hall in New York, with the party’s candidates for President and Vice President, Gary Johnson and William Weld. As the Trump/Pence campaign continues to hurtle toward dumpster fire status, these two Republican ex-governors, Johnson of New Mexico (1995 – 2003) and Weld of Massachusetts (1991 – 1999), may conceivably have a larger role to play in this election than was previously thought. Right before last night’s CNN Town Hall, one poll had them at 12% (most had them at 9 or 10%), and they only need to be at 15% to be included in the Presidential debates. CNN has Green Party candidate Jill Stein polling at 5%, and will host a Town Hall for her and her running mate, Ajamu Baraka, on August 17.
The performance of Johnson and Wells last night suggested that they might very well best Trump and Pence in their respective debates. It is less clear how they would fare against Clinton and Kaine. But as more and more conservative and moderate Republicans flee the Trumpster fire, looking for an alternative to apostasy with Hillary, Johnson and Weld may have an opening.
In the 1990s, Johnson and Weld were two of the most fiscally conservative governors, and both were also socially liberal, supporting LGBT rights and the legalization of pot. Against Trump’s bleak the-house-is-burning rhetoric, Johnson and Weld said last night that America is in a relatively good place now, but the ferocious rancor between the two main parties is making it impossible for anyone to get anything done. They’re offering an alternative to this governing gridlock.
Concerning the current campaign, they said Trump “has a screw loose,” and Hillary is part of the “beholden” class of “pay-to-play” politics. When Anderson Cooper asked them about their political models, both Johnson and Weld named Thomas Jefferson, for his “restraint and modesty.” At one point, Weld described himself and Johnson as “a couple of nineteenth-century Jeffersonian liberals.” Weld also said he admired Hugo Black and William O. Douglas on the Supreme Court, but declined to name his favorites on the current court.
In response to a question from the audience, Johnson said he and Bernie Sanders are in “about 75%” agreement on the issues; so disaffected Bernie supporters are another possible source of Libertarian votes. If their candidacy really begins to catch on, they might even attract some Democratic voters who harbor real reservations about their current standard-bearers, but that is, at this point, a long shot.
Their biggest problem at this point is Duverger’s Law, which says that third-party candidates cannot win within the current Electoral College set-up. One scenario would have the Johnson-Weld ticket drawing enough support away from the two major party candidates to prevent either from reaching the required 270 electoral votes, throwing the election to the House of Representatives. If that vote goes beyond the first ballot, we could have our first Libertarian President and Vice-President.
It is unlikely, but the current climate favors the unlikely. Whatever else happens, Johnson and Weld should be included in the debates, something that hasn’t happened with a third party since Ross Perot in 1992.
Dispatch 21: Clint ’n Trump, Talking to the Empty Chair
Saturday, August 6, 2016
In an interview just published in Esquire that was supposed to be about Clint Eastwood (whose movie about Sully Sullenberger starring Tom Hanks opens in September) and his son Scott (who plays an NSA official in Oliver Stone’s new film about Edward Snowden, also out next month), writer Michael Hainey wisely steered the conversation toward the current Presidential campaign, resulting in the biggest celebrity endorsement for Donald Trump yet.
It’s been a bad couple of weeks for Trump, but this should pick him up. The one thing that hasn’t been said about him is that he’s boring, and for Clint, that is the gold standard. If Clint were to write a stump speech for the candidates today, what would he say?
“‘Knock it off. Knock everything off.’ All these people out there rattling around the streets and stuff, shit. They’re boring everybody. Chesty Puller, a great Marine general, once said, ‘You can run me, and you can starve me, and you can beat me, and you can kill me, but don’t bore me.’”
About Trump, he said, “He’s onto something, because secretly everybody’s getting tired of political correctness, kissing up. That’s the kiss-ass generation we’re in right now. We’re really in a pussy generation [which is pretty much what Eastwood said about my generation 40 years ago]. Everybody’s walking on eggshells. We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist. […] What Trump is onto is he’s just saying what’s on his mind. And sometimes it’s not so good. And sometimes it’s […] I mean, I can understand where he’s coming from, but I don’t always agree with it.”
And Hillary? “What about her? I mean, it’s a tough voice to listen to for four years. It could be a tough one. If she’s just gonna follow what we’ve been doing, then I wouldn’t be for her.” Another Empty Chair. “She’s made a lot of dough out of being a politician. I gave up dough to be a politician. I’m sure that Ronald Reagan gave up dough to be a politician.”
Hillary made it being a politician. Reagan made it being a bad actor and a worse president. Clint made it by feeding the American public’s desire for law & order vigilantism with big guns and then becoming a beloved icon of world cinema.
So if the choice is between Clinton and Trump? “I’d have to go for Trump.”
And with those six words, eighty-six-year-old actor and director Clint Eastwood solidified the angry old white guy vote for Donald Trump. Maybe it’s the angry-old-white-guy-without-a-degree vote (Clint dropped out of L.A. City College to pursue his acting career). Call it the Gran Torino Vote. Talk to the chair, man, talk to the chair.
The reason that Trump is still in this thing, after running his general election campaign like a drunken teenager, is that enough people out there still see him as their protest candidate: a representative of the Old America, where, as Clint says here, you “get in there and get it done. Kick ass and take names. And this may be my dad talking, but don’t spend what you don’t have. That’s why we’re in the position we are in right now. That’s why people are saying, ‘Why should I work? I’ll get something for nothing, maybe.’” “That’s the pussy generation—nobody wants to work.”
If you squint your eyes real hard, and look at Trump, you can glimpse your hero. Set aside for now the facts that Trump inherited his money and hasn’t really made much of anything. He’s made an image. And if that image resonates for enough people, like Dirty Harry, or the Outlaw Josey Wales, or William Munny in Unforgiven—the put-upon male just trying to muscle through and hold it all together while being attacked by stuffed shirts and “progress” and the Liberal Media and freeloaders and women with irritating voices—we could all still be in a lot of trouble.
Dispatch 22: Trump 2.0, Turning the Tables
Sunday, August 21, 2016
We’re seventy-nine days from the finish line in the race for the U.S. presidency, and Donald Trump is trailing badly in the polls. Within the Reality-Based Community, it’s beginning to look like a possible Clinton landslide. In Trump’s beloved home city, he would lose 71% to 18% if the election were held today. It is becoming increasingly clear that he cannot win in a traditional campaign scenario. His only hope is to knock over the table, scatter the pieces, and emerge heroically victorious from out of the ensuing chaos. He must become part of the disruptive political economy that gave him his only constituency.
This is the rationale behind the recent shake-up in Trump’s staffing. Paul Manafort has slipped back into the shadows of international intrigue. Stephen Bannon, the voice of Breitbart News, is the new CEO, pollster Kellyanne Conway is now Trump’s campaign manager, and Roger Ailes is his unofficial consigliere and media handler. Rather than striking out into new territory, these three “hires” signal a return to the origins of the Trump campaign, in alt-right conspiracy and hate mongering, Frank Luntz-style linguistic twisting and subterfuge, and the image-conscious conventions of the new age of rightwing radio and TV.
It is a brilliant, if desperate, move. Kellyanne Conway came out of the gate hard, appearing on every mainstream media outlet that would have her (and they would all have her). She is a highly skilled spinner and disciplined messager, a worthy disciple of Luntz. Bannon has held back for the moment, but his fingerprints are all over Trump’s new teleprompter speeches. And Roger Ailes, the undisputed Master of the Dark Arts of mass media manipulation, is working so far behind the scenes that even his lawyers can’t find him. But if anyone on earth can pull off a magical reversal of electoral fortunes for Donald Trump, Ailes is the one.
What makes a turn-around even remotely possible are the established voting patterns of Americans. Unlike other representative democracies, the U.S. has a shockingly low participation rate. The largest and most influential voting bloc in the U.S. has long been composed of those who choose not to vote. These are people who are so alienated from the political process that they freely abdicate their first right of citizenship. These most separated citizens are the Holy Grail of electoral politics. And in the recent history of American politics, the Right has been much more successful in awakening this sleeping giant, by appealing to their sense of alienation, resentment, and paranoia.
This group is also demonstrably, historically fickle. In the last go-round, some of them succumbed to the hope and change message of Barack Obama, and many of those now feel they were duped. Perhaps it’s time to turn the tables, they think. Or turn over the table.
Dispatch 23: Why Trump Can’t Lose
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
The current contest to choose the next President of the United States might very well be the first contest that Donald Trump has ever been involved in where someone other than himself will decide who wins. It is the first game he’s ever played in which someone else is keeping score, and this has him terrified.
Think about it. He was born into wealth and privilege, where from birth he enjoyed the glorious protection from competition that those things bring. He never had to work for someone else. He never took orders in the military. His losses in business were initially covered by his father, and later by bankruptcy protections written into law by lawyers and lawmakers bought and paid for by big business interests. If the deal works, you keep the profits; if it doesn’t, the public absorbs the losses. You can’t lose. Risk is for the suckers who come to your casinos, and the poor slobs who work for you.
“Winning,” in Trump’s terms, means figuring out how not to play. If you can’t make it as a real-estate developer, create an image and a persona of success, and license that. Sell that. Sell the sweet smell of success. Every one of us, at some point in our lives, is susceptible to this sales pitch. We want to believe that we can get something for nothing, and that the only thing keeping us from the good life is our attitude, and other people.
If Michael Moore is right, Donald Trump never really wanted to be President, and he doesn’t want it now. In a piece published on Alternet, Moore says he knows for a fact that Trump only ran in the primaries in order to boost his brand and wheedle a better contract from NBC for “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice.” But then some Americans took his campaign seriously, and began to vigorously support him. He stumbled upon a whole new audience for his pitch. It felt good, at first. It felt like winning.
But then, problems arose. The principal problem, for Trump, is democracy. At least so far, the United States is still a semi-functioning representative democracy, wherein the president is chosen by voters in an election (or by a 5 to 4 vote of a partisan Supreme Court). At this point, it looks as though Trump would lose in such an election, bigly. He cannot let that happen.
Moore’s hypothesis is that Trump is currently sabotaging his own campaign as part of “his new strategy to get the hell out of a race he never intended to see through to its end anyway . . . so that he’ll have to bow out or blame ‘others’ for forcing him out.” The system, as Trump keeps telling us, is rigged.
If Moore is right, and Trump never wanted to be President, he is now actively looking for a way out, especially one that is advantageous to a new rightwing global media platform built by Trump, Bannon, and Ailes.
The only thing Trump cannot do is lose.
Dispatch 24: The Lauer Depths
Thursday, September 8, 2016
With luck, money, and Matt Lauer, who needs a plan? The “Today Show” host should send Trump an invoice, after tossing him softballs for most of his half-hour interview last night, and failing to provide a modicum of fact-checking of the candidate’s patently false statements. Or perhaps NBC News chairman Andy Lack has a bigger deal in the works, for a new “White House Apprentice” show on NBC.
NBC’s event, sponsored by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association and held at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum off the West Side Highway in Manhattan, with a clear view of the World Trade Center site, one week before the 15th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, should have been a serious event. Instead, NBC treated it like a game show.
Trump won the coin toss and elected to go second. Matt Lauer opened round one by asking Hillary Clinton what she thought the most important quality was for a Commander-in-Chief. When she replied, “Steadiness. Steadiness and strength,” Lauer said “You’re talking about judgment,” and launched into a series of oft-repeated accusations about Clinton’s use of a private email server as Secretary of State that took up half of Clinton’s time. He paused only long enough to take the first question from the audience, from Lt. John Lester, a Republican. His question was, basically, “Why aren’t you in prison?”
Granted, this was going to be a tough crowd for Clinton, no matter how it was handled. Polls show Trump is up about 20 points among veterans. But Clinton’s credentials and experience in military matters are sterling, and to prevent her from talking about them in this forum was a premeditated crime.
Trump won the night because the form was all in his favor. He was more entertaining. You could see it in the faces and the body language of the veterans sitting around him. He said some outrageous things. He said that the people who gave him his mandated intelligence briefings made it clear (through their body language) that they were angry because Obama, Kerry, and Clinton had not taken their advice. He said the generals had been “reduced to rubble” by Obama and that he would choose new generals. And he said that he would “take the oil” in Iraq, because “to the victor go the spoils.” The first two of these statements involve illegal and unconstitutional actions, and the third would constitute a war crime.
But Matt Lauer didn’t respond to any of these outrageous statements.
This debacle on the Hudson is a dark harbinger of the Presidential debates to come, beginning with the one September 26, moderated by “NBC Nightly News” anchorman Lester Holt. If the Lauer/Lack methodology continues in this forum, it will be almost impossible for Hillary Clinton to make her case to the public, and the rise of Trump in the most recent polls will continue.
Donald Trump’s campaign, from the beginning, has been designed to obliterate the line between entertainment and politics. Obviously, this is a process that began long ago, and we are now in the terminal stages of it. We’re still using the old language, but it’s a new game. We still talk about “Trump supporters,” but we mean Trump fans. Some older reporters who still remember “the News” and “broadcast journalism,” natter on about their responsibility to the American people and the importance of a reasoned debate about political policies and issues. Trump himself continues to use this antiquated language at times, even as he ignores all of its precepts.
But this is truly a New Media World: one in which Trump’s methods, and his politics, have the clear advantage.
Dispatch 25: Rope-a-Doping the Mainstreaming of Deviancy
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
One of the many curious sights in Cleveland at the Republican Convention was boxing promoter Don King, who had apparently been snubbed by Trump as a speaker at the convention, working the room like a conquering hero. His salt and pepper Eraserhead fro caught the bright lights of the arena as he did interview after interview with adoring conservative media, draped in a massive denim jacket emblazoned on the back with a patriotic display, topped off with an American flag kerchief.
I thought of King in the run-up to the first Presidential debate, as Paul Begala, among others, predicted that it would be “the most-watched event in human history.” In October 1974, that designation belonged to the Rumble in the Jungle, in Kinshasa, Zaire, organized and promoted by the then unknown King, that pitted undefeated heavyweight champion George Foreman against former champion Muhammad Ali. In that fight, Ali invented the rope-a-dope technique, baiting Foreman to pummel him with ineffectual blows as he leaned back against the ropes, until Foreman punched himself out, and Ali decked him in the eighth round.
The first Presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump wasn’t quite as impressive, in the end, but Clinton was able to bait Trump and goad him into a flurry of attacks that left him winded and gasping. She didn’t knock him out, but most post-debate commentators gave her a clear victory on points. Neither candidate was working with new material, but Trump repeated old talking points and doubled down on positions he’d previously abandoned. He just couldn’t help himself.
The weird thing is that Clinton might have won the debate, but still lost votes. Most people didn’t think Trump could last through a ninety-minute debate, and he did show, as Maureen Dowd pointed out, that he can’t take a punch. But he survived the encounter without visibly frothing at the mouth or weeping uncontrollably.
In the end, Trump might have benefited mightily among undecideds from a kind of Presidential “mainstreaming of deviancy.” My old friend Bob Dole used that term in another context when he was competing for the Republican nomination for President in 1995 (on the way to being defeated by Bill Clinton), and trying to shore up his conservative bona fides. Dole’s target then was the entertainment industry, including the music business, selling “songs about killing policemen and rejecting law,” and Hollywood’s dream factories, turning out “nightmares of depravity” that “revel in mindless violence and loveless sex.” He singled out 2 Live Crew and Oliver Stone’s movie Natural Born Killers, among others. “The mainstreaming of deviancy must come to end,” said Bob, “but it will only stop when the leaders of the entertainment industry recognize and shoulder their responsibility.”
What a difference twenty-one years of mainstreaming make. Today, Donald Trump has moved the language and methods of the entertainment industry over into the political realm, and it’s mostly working. What Dole decried as a cultural coarsening is now seen as evidence of authenticity. Trump said some outrageous things last night, but they were normalized by the serious setting (and the constant equalizing split screen) of a real Presidential debate. Racist and xenophobic statements became part of mainstream political discourse, and will remain so for some time. Bob Dole’s nightmares have come home.
Dispatch 26: Hurricane
Saturday, October 8, 1:42 am
Matthew eclipsed Donald briefly earlier today, with lots of grey images seen through rain-dropped lenses, until late in the afternoon, when the Washington Post released a three-minute video made by Access Hollywood in 2005, featuring Donald Trump bragging to professional celebrity lapdog Billy Bush about his remarkable power over women due to his stardom. When Billy Boy brought up a particular woman, Trump said he had “moved on her like a bitch,” when she was married. He then mused that “When you’re a star, you can do anything” to women, and they just take it.
It was remarkable to watch the entire news apparatus turn on a dime from the storm wreaking havoc in Haiti, Cuba, and Florida to the one doing the same to the Presidential campaign of 2016. It felt like a violent change in the weather. Commentators and analysts went immediately to gale force, opining that this was “the worst October Surprise any Presidential campaign has ever faced,” and predicting that this could finally be the end of Trump; that he would not be able to survive this politically.
Trump first released a statement about the video that read, “This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course—not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended.”
I know locker room banter. And this was no locker room banter. This was the insecure posturing of an almost sixty-year-old rich predator who has always believed that his wealth and celebrity give him the right to degrade and abuse other people—especially women.
The timing of the Access Hollywood release couldn’t have been worse for the Trump campaign, coming on a Friday night, two days before the second debate. The campaign went to DEFCON 2 very quickly, and released a video at 12:20 am EST on Saturday that was immediately characterized as “a hostage video.” Squinting into the media glare, Trump said he wasn’t really the person in the video, anymore (he’d changed), that this was “nothing more than a distraction,” and that, anyway, Bill and Hillary Clinton are much worse. An hour before this “apology” was aired, Trump ghostwriter Tony Schwartz called it, predicting that Trump’s statement would just make matters worse.
Access Hollywood says there are many, many more hours of video available from them, and Mark Burnett must be wondering if he is destined to become the Rose Mary Woods of our time.
Even before the release of Trump’s statement, it was being reported that many Republican lawmakers (including every one in Utah) were jumping ship, a meeting with Paul Ryan and others on Saturday in Wisconsin was cancelled, and Republican strategists around the country were openly contemplating how Trump might be convinced to withdraw from the race. Suddenly, Mike Pence’s Vice-Presidential/Presidential performance in Tuesday’s debate looked more strategic and prescient than ever. If Trump is still looking for a way out of the race, he might just have found it.
Dispatch 27: The New Real
Friday, October 9, 2016
When Trump supporters view the Access Hollywood video, they see and hear something completely different from what anti-Trump people see and hear in it. But this is only the edge of the chasm. For Trump and his followers, words and images do not have a necessary relation to the Real. For them, words and images are endlessly malleable and therefore fundamentally untrustworthy. Their relation to the Real is always already negotiable.
When the video first appeared, Trump said, “This does not reflect who I am.” Melania said, “It does not represent the man I know.” Neither they nor any of the Trump surrogates questioned the literal veracity of the video. They admit it shows Trump doing and saying those things. But that does not make it probative. It is just one more picture, no more consequential than any other. You have your images (and words), and we have ours.
Where does this fundamental challenge to representation itself come from? It comes from two very different responses to the communications environment that we’ve all come to inhabit over the past twenty years.
Trump fans hate “the media,” because what’s left of that entity still acts as if there is some underlying relation between symbolic systems and the Real. They compare claims and statements and images and try to determine their relative truth value. Trump supporters see this as inherently biased against them, and they are right.
They have their own channels of communication, distinct from what Sarah Palin used to call “The Lamestream Media.” Three of the architects of this right-wing alt-media apparatus—Roger Ailes, Stephen K. Bannon, and Kellyanne Conway—are currently running the Trump campaign.
This campaign can be seen as the most recent twist in the culture of “disruptive innovation,” and their ultimate target is the old model of critical questioning and debate that has been the basis of representative democracy in America for 240 years.
Whether they win this election or not, their campaign to disrupt this model, and replace it with a new authoritarian order of uncritical solipsistic certainty will continue for some time to come.
Dispatch 28: It’s Just Words, Folks. It’s Just Words
Friday, October 10, 2016
I believe that Donald Trump lost the 2016 Presidential race for good in the first fifteen minutes of the second debate. After staging a pre-debate press conference with three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment in the past and then seating them in the front row of the gallery to glower at Hillary, marshaling his entire family to march into the debate as “spouses,” and petulantly refusing to shake hands with his opponent, he seemed spatially disoriented onstage, even more nasally challenged than in the first debate, and generally cowed into submission.
The one thing Trump absolutely needed to do in this debate was to staunch the bleeding from the Access Hollywood video by stopping the defection of Republicans and other voters in swing states from his campaign. To do that, he needed to clear the air by coming out strongly and apologizing directly and convincingly. Instead, he again dismissed his speech on the tape as generic “locker room talk” (“It’s one of those things . . . frankly, you hear these things, they’re said . . . people say this”) and then stated that the things he said on the tape weren’t nearly as bad as ISIS beheadings and torture. From that point on, anyone who was in any way “undecided” or “uncommitted” was no longer listening.
If they were, they would have heard Trump throw his running mate Mike Pence under the bus over Syria, threaten to throw his opponent into jail if he is elected, and accuse the moderators (especially Martha Raddatz) of being on Hillary’s side. They would have also seen him smirk like an insecure teenager on the split screen, and then sneak up behind Hillary as she was speaking to the voters seated onstage and loom over her menacingly. In the last half of the debate, he finally found his rally voice, and repeated all his usual talking points fairly effectively. But if this had been a prizefight, Rudy Giuliani would have thrown in the towel after fifteen minutes, and Anderson Cooper would have thrown his body across Trump’s to protect him from further unanswered blows.
Hillary Clinton managed to keep her cool despite Trump’s adolescent antics, as did Martha Raddatz, and they both showed superhuman restraint when Trump began to pontificate about his vast knowledge of military matters to these two longtime experts. Talk about locker room talk. His assertion that Assad and Putin are both “killing ISIS” was especially galling.
After the debate, CNN commentator Van Jones speculated that Hillary did herself a lot of good by not knocking Trump entirely out of the race in this debate. By holding him up, she kept him in the race for the time being, giving him time to bleed out. He’s got thirty days to go.
Dispatch 29: The Base
Friday, October 14, 2016
At this point, twenty-five days from the election, it appears that Donald Trump has rebuffed all remaining attempts by surrogates and advisers to get him to do what is needed to broaden and extend his base to comprise a winning coalition. Instead, he has doubled down on the least attractive stances of his campaign and personality in order to isolate and harden his core constituency. The increasing danger for the country at large is what happens when this isolated and hardened core melts down.
This core or base (we remember that “al-Qaeda” means “The Base”) could turn more violent at any time, as they continue to be publicly shamed and mocked, but especially when they conclude that the election of their supreme leader and political martyr has been stolen from them in The Big Fix.
I remember going home to Kansas for Christmas in 1994, to visit my family. My youngest sister’s son had been living in Idaho with his estranged father, and had been radicalized into the militia movement there. When I spoke with him, he calmly espoused conspiratorial, anti-government, and xenophobic ideas, and at one point pronounced, “What happened in Ruby Ridge and Waco will not go unanswered. Something big is going to happen soon. You’ll see, and you’ll know.” Four months later, on April 19, 1995 (the second anniversary of the siege of Waco), Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols parked a Ryder truck, rented in the town of my birth, Junction City, Kansas, and loaded with explosives in Herrington, a few miles away from where I grew up, in front of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and blew it up, killing 168 people and injuring another 680.
In his speech yesterday in West Palm Beach, Florida, Trump said, “the Clinton Machine is at the center of this Global Conspiracy and the Media Organizations.” He said the WikiLeaks documents released that morning prove that “Clinton meets in secret with International Banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these Global Financial Powers, her Special Interest friends, and her donors.”
Dismissing the recent press reports about his serial sexual assaults on women, Trump said, “I take all of these slings and arrows, gladly, for you. I take them for our movement, so that we can have our country back… This is our moment of reckoning as a country and as a civilization.”
This is not the language of a presidential candidate. This is the language of the leader of a violent movement to oppose a democratically elected government. I still believe that Trump stumbled into this role unwittingly, like the stooge he is, but at this point, the language and the rhetoric he is using is pushing him farther and farther to the Right and his followers closer and closer to a violent backlash that he will have no control over.
Earlier tonight, the FBI arrested three men in Garden City, Kansas, for plotting to use car bombs to blow up an apartment building housing mostly Somali refugees. The three militia members had written an anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant manifesto and planned to carry out their deadly attack the day after the presidential election.
Dispatch 30: The Elites
Saturday, October 15, 2016
It is the elites and their elite thinking that has screwed everything up for us. Elite thinking is dominated by political correctness. Their political correctness has caused them to put the welfare of blacks, hispanics, gays, and others over our own needs. These groups are fine, but the elites act like these groups are better than us, more deserving. But blacks, hispanics, and gays didn’t build this country. We did.
The elites have let illegal immigrants get away with coming into our country and taking all the good things that were meant for us. They’ve let China and other countries take our jobs and then sell us back our own goods at inflated prices. They’ve given away everything our parents and grandparents worked for in unfair trade deals. Because they feel guilty about American power and dominance in the world, they’ve given up too much in trade.
Hillary Clinton represents the elites. She wants open borders. She wants to throw open the door and let everyone in, even radical Islamic terrorists who want to destroy us. She’s weak. Elites are weak. They spend all their time thinking about how to take more from us and give it to politically correct groups. They have all kinds of excuses for why this is a good thing to do, but we just keep losing things.
When we look back, all we see is us losing things. We used to be on top, but now we’re on the bottom. Maybe we should just give up and take welfare, like all the politically correct groups. But that’s not our way. We’re not like the Takers. We’re Givers, like Donald Trump. He fought his way up and made something of himself, and now he’s trying to give us hope, and a way forward.
He sees through the elites. He knows them. He could be with them if he wanted to be, but he chose to be with us. He understands us. He loves us. The elites hate him because of this. The elite media will do anything to bring him down. But we see through their attempts to demean and destroy him. They just can’t stand that we love him. It drives them crazy.
When this is all over, we’ll be on top again. Order will be restored. We’ll take our country back. Trump will make everything work like it used to. He’ll make everything okay again. We’ll go back to the way it was, before the elites took over. We’ll be nice to the politically correct groups, but we’ll be on top. This is the way it’s supposed to be. It’s only right.
ContributorDavid Levi Strauss
DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.