The Idiot Box Election II: Keeping it Unreal

by Paul Mackintosh

“This inconvenient working-class revolution we are now witnessing has been accused of stupidity—I cursed it myself the day it happened—but the longer you look at it, you realize that in another sense it has the touch of genius, for it intuited the weaknesses of its enemies and effectively exploited them. The middle-class left so delights in being right! And so much of the disenfranchised working class has chosen to be flagrantly, shamelessly wrong.” Zadie Smith, “Fences: A Brexit Diary,” NYRB, August 18, 2016

This passage, written after 17 million citizens of the UK voted to leave the EU, goes a long way in explaining how millions of Americans will cast their votes for Donald Trump on Tuesday. In the same essay, Zadie Smith wrote about a liberal myopia that comes of an obsessive concern for “being right,” and most Americans shocked at Trump’s candidacy, and driven bonkers by his success, share this myopia. How could people even consider voting for such a ridiculous, dishonest, unqualified, vulgar, and reactionary candidate, they wonder (rhetorically). The answer they can’t accept, of course, is that most Trump supporters are consciously choosing to vote for this ridiculous, dishonest, unqualified, vulgar and reactionary candidate.

What distinguishes the presidential election from the UK referendum, however, is not only that the US is not voting on any single idea or way forward, but that Americans don’t have the sort of class consciousness that would make any victory seem a “working class” revolution. Americans will choose between candidates who, by nature of the American presidency, will not be in a position to dictate very much in the way of policies, much less a national way forward; and neither candidate uses the phrase “working class” with any frequency, even in speeches to workers. Smith’s description of a large group of disenfranchised voters who don’t especially care about being “wrong”, does seem to apply to many if not all of the Trump supporters; but what these people are rejecting is not a particular platform or ideology but fairly basic realities of American life.

When Melania Trump gave a speech last week in Pennsylvania, supposedly to increase support for her husband among women in the suburbs, what she said conformed to a pattern that seemed as puzzling as the success of the Trump candidacy itself. She declared that, as First Lady, the issue she would make her priority was the prevention of bullying! This was absurd in several respects, and that absurdity was what many in the media seized upon; but actually it was perfectly consistent with a pattern or campaign strategy that might be called: Keeping it unreal.

Throughout the primaries, and in the general election as well, candidate Trump has shown a disciplined preference for extravagant assessments and claims. His wild statements have successfully pulled media coverage, and political discourse, away from the facts and constraints of American reality. Even when the topic has been one in which clarity about facts might seem to favor an outsider’s position, Trump has preferred an almost gratuitous degree of hyperbole. Whether in the form of made-up statistics, or impossible engineering feats, or claims that are immediately recognized as false, his embrace of the unreal didn’t appear to hurt his candidacy. Unlike the merely exaggerated claims of some in the “Leave” campaign, Trump made claims that were often obviously both untrue and unrealistic. The infamous wall that Mexico will be “forced” to pay for, and his claim last week that Clinton’s support for “open borders” will mean that the US will triple in size in three days if she is elected, are just the first and the latest of this wild approach. (Today the campaign is claiming that the security alert caused by a protester in a Nevada crowd with a “Republicans Against Trump” sign was an assasination attempt!)

What made the “Keeping it Unreal” strategy so successful? Certainly Trump’s experience and expertise in so-called “reality television” helped a great deal, as did the fact that a large portion of the American population is angry or in denial about current economic, demographic, social, and geopolitical realities. But what is less understandable is how his commitment to the untrue and the unreal could successfully cause what I’ve described in a previous post as the country’s first “Idiot Box Election.” In the face of Trump’s non-stop hyperbolic and “shock” politics, news outlets great and small abandoned all sort of rules of professional journalistic practice in order not to be scooped, not to lose market share, or just while they figured out how to cover a candidate who seemed determined to “keep it unreal.” The result was that Trump’s “Unreality Show” was broadcast and reprinted endlessly, at face value, for much of the campaign.

In the last half of the 20th century, the American public relied on professional journalism to act as a critical filter for candidates’ and party claims. A journalistic commitment to truth meant, among other things, that there were facts of the matter even in political speech, and that candidates had to justify their beliefs and claims by appeal to those facts in order for their speech to be considered worthy of constant coverage. Trump wisely realized that, at the beginning of the 21st century, the news outlets (no less than other media outlets) were so dependent on the perpetual production of “content,” that the quality of that content was not nearly as important as its quantity and availability. And Trump has always provided that perpetual production!

The millions who voted for Brexit, and will vote for Trump on Tuesday, shed a critical light on Eliot’s famous line from Four Quartets: Human kind can bear quite a bit of reality, but denial is a kind of bearing. What the election of 2016 presents to the future is the sobering follow-up question: How much unreality can a democratic system of government bear?

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