Dispatches from the Campaignby David Levi Strauss
Dispatch 27: The New Real
Sunday, 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 two hundred and forty 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
Sunday, October 9, 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 31: Apprentice
Saturday, October 22, 2016
Donald J. Trump is very good at one thing, and that is drawing attention to himself. He has spent his entire life honing this skill, and he must now be acknowledged as a master of it, in the Century of the Self, when being famous for being famous is at its peak. Trump knows that the Media cannot resist this tautology. This is the New Reality.
But the most consequential serendipity, for Trump, has been surviving into a time in American politics when a large portion of eligible voters, probably
35 – 40%, are so disgusted with the actions of politicians over the past decade, so frustrated by the system, and so angry about it all that they are willing to risk tearing it all down, rolling the dice, and starting over. Ever mindful of popular trends, Trump picked up on this growing frustration as an opening on the Right years ago, and began re-shaping himself into a spokesman for it. When Democrats were popular, he was a Democrat. Now, he’s an apocalyptic Republican.
Up until now, perhaps until the third and final debate, the mass of the disaffected has been able to ignore the glaring character flaws of their messenger, including his naked bigotry. All that mattered was the core message of outrage, flung into the teeth of the hated Elites and their Media apologists. Yes, he’s a jerk, but he is our jerk. Good or bad, he’s our Voice.
Tragically, the American Left has given them no viable alternative.
Trump’s triumph has been to bring the bigoted language and rhetoric of social media, right wing radio, and Reality TV into a Presidential campaign, for the first time. If that breach holds, political discourse is doomed in this country. I don’t think it will hold.
The event last Wednesday night was not really a political debate, but a psychological pageant. Hillary Clinton held her own in this new arena. She gave as good as she got. Rather than hold back and let Trump destroy himself, as many advised, she went after him, and dominated him. The Hillary Clinton that confronted and bested Trump in Las Vegas on Wednesday night deserves our support.
Just as there are Americans who could never accept a black man as President, there are many Americans, male and female, who will never accept a woman as President. But they are a minority, and they are going to lose this election decisively. What they will do in response to this crushing defeat is unknown, and worrisome.
In refusing to say that he will accept the results of the election, Trump has set himself outside of the democratic process. The system may indeed be rigged, but it is not rigged in the way Trump is claiming it is. He is gaming the system the same way he always has, as a coward and a cad. But he’s right about one thing: this election has indeed become a battle for the American character.
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.