Until 2016, political consultants were widely seen as master manipulators, which never quite made sense to me. After all, if guys like Karl Rove and David Axelrod were such geniuses at propaganda, why could they never convince more than half of eligible voters to show up on Election Day?
Despite (or perhaps because of) the effort that goes into focus groups, press releases, and speechwriting, most Americans despise politicians. The main focus of any campaign is not to reverse this dynamic but to selectively enhance it, to kindle our fear and hatred of the opposition to the point that we’ll come up with our own reasons to support their candidate.
This is now obvious. Donald Trump did everything wrong during his campaign. He insulted the family of a fallen soldier, fired two campaign managers, and was caught on tape bragging about being a sexual predator. He was wildly disliked, not just among “coastal elites” but everywhere. Here’s a remarkable Associated Press report from April 2016:
Seven in 10 people, including close to half of Republican voters, have an unfavorable view of Trump. . . . It’s an opinion shared by majorities of men and women; young and old; conservatives, moderates and liberals; and whites, Hispanics and blacks — a devastatingly broad indictment of the billionaire businessman.
Even in the South, a region where Trump has won GOP primaries decisively, close to 70 percent view him unfavorably. And among whites without a college education, one of Trump’s most loyal voting blocs, 55 percent have a negative opinion.
And yet Trump managed to win the presidency because, like an unskilled but dirty basketball team, he has a genius for bringing everyone around him — opponents, reporters, debate moderators — down to his grubby level.
Trump’s campaign was the logical culmination of a political culture that was already almost entirely based on demonizing the opposing candidate. Long ago, the American political class mastered the jujitsu of using the force of our dissatisfaction with the status quo against us by channeling it into the two status quo parties.
It wasn’t an ideal arrangement — I’m sure our politicians would prefer to be loved than to be grudgingly tolerated — but it maintained stability while the 1 percent vacuumed up the national wealth, and that was good enough.
Each election, candidates would praise the courage and wisdom of the American people, but you could always feel the contempt they really had for us in the unbearably bad campaign materials.
A typical ad is about as subtle as a World War I propaganda poster: twenty seconds of creepy music and grainy black-and-white footage of the opponent, followed by a montage of the smiling candidate in the bright sunshine with family, soldiers, and the flag.
If corporate ad guys made a spot like this, it’d be dripping in hipster self-awareness — annoying, most likely, but at least acknowledging our intelligence: you know and we know that we are trying to sell you this Whopper, so let’s have some fun.
By contrast, the analysis that goes into most campaign ads is astonishingly primitive. Democratic consultant Carter Eskew, explaining the conventional wisdom about the initial wave of general election commercials in 2012, had this to say: “The first ads that are run are in many ways the most important because the mind is the most open and uncluttered at that point.”
Sigmund Freud created modern psychoanalysis over a hundred years ago, and since then, I don’t know anyone who isn’t a political hack describe the human brain as an empty vessel just waiting to be filled.
We assume that campaign ads are effective because more money is spent on them each election. But could it be that we only think they work because the people who tout their supreme effectiveness are the same folks who are paid to produce them and the media outlets paid to run them? As with most advertising, it’s hard to find definitive proof of their effectiveness, but here’s some anecdotal evidence: everybody hates them.
Imagine how much more fun campaign ads would be if they borrowed from the corporate world and adopted the old strategy of marketing weakness as a strength. In 2012, Mitt Romney could have embraced his reputation as an out-of-touch billionaire with a Polo-style ad featuring Mitt and a crew of gorgeous young blonde women and men on a yacht, frolicking in crisp white linen shirts and drinking gin and tonics.
Obama could have countered with a “most interesting man in the world”—style campaign, featuring him laughing with imams in Indonesia, dancing with the Masai in Kenya, and speaking to hundreds of thousands at the Brandenburg Gate in Germany. “I don’t often run for president, but when I do . . .”
Trump has had expert training in flaunting his weaknesses, since that’s pretty much the job description of a reality television star. So Hillary needed to respond in kind. Instead of her doomed attempt at posing as a cuddly grandma, she and Bill should have bumped Kevin Spacey, taken over the last season of House of Cards, and finally given us all a chance to get some enjoyment out of their ruthless scheming. The episode where they dump Anthony Weiner’s body in the lake would have been worth it alone.
Off the Rails
The presidential reality show worked smoothly for many decades, taking the country on a wild ride every four years that would eventually and inevitably weed out anyone deemed too extreme, through a lack of fundraising or media exposure or approval, and then safely return to one of the handful of establishment-approved candidates. But in 2016, the rickety contraption finally went off the rails.
If I had to sum up the 2016 election in one sentence, it would be this: the Republican Party was too divided and discredited to stop Trump, the Democratic Party closed ranks to block Bernie Sanders, and, as a result, Trump was the only alternative in November to the hated Wall Street–funded status quo represented by Hillary Clinton. I do have more than one sentence, however, so let’s dig into how we got to that explosive point.
The central story of mainstream US politics over the past few decades is the Republicans’ steady evolution from the leading party of world capitalism to a semi-unhinged fringe that wants an effective prison state for racial minorities and the poor, free rein for corporations, and politicians who will pander to their every Internet conspiracy — while still commanding the resources and power befitting one of the major two parties.
This relentless rightward trajectory has been accelerated by the party’s need to differentiate itself from a Democratic Party also moving rightward, as well as by its unmooring from its three main ideological strengths in recent years.
First, the disastrous consequences of the Iraq War, supported by most Democrats but infamously and incompetently led by George W. Bush, weakened the Republicans’ reputation as the party of national security. Second, the global financial crisis and bank bailouts undermined the dogma of the free market — a belief system also shared by most Democrats but traditionally associated with the GOP. Lastly, the incomplete but profound victories of the movement for LGBTQ equality, legally but especially culturally, have deprived the Republicans of one of their key battlegrounds in the culture wars.
So while the party was able to dominate many states and regions — sometimes through dirty tricks like gerrymandering — on a national level it didn’t have any coherent message other than “Things were better back in my day!” In this vacuum, the party became a collection of loudmouths and lowlifes competing for the attention of a shrinking but passionate base of pure reaction.
As a result, con artists have had fertile ground to pose as presidential candidates. In 2008 and 2012, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain took full advantage of the Republican primaries to audition for Fox News and sell their books. By many accounts, Trump also initially saw his presidential run as a simple exercise in brand building. But his timing was different.
By 2016, the party diehards had moved too far to the right to accept another Mitt Romney type, and the strain of pandering to them while simultaneously appealing to the general public was too much for early favorites like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, who came across like traumatized Ken dolls after years of rough play.
Trump’s “America First” nationalism was an echo of Pat Buchanan’s Republican primary campaign in 1992. Like Buchanan, Trump had the support in the early primaries of roughly a third of the electorate. But the same degree of backing that left Buchanan a clear loser in a one-on-one race with George H. W. Bush was enough to win Trump many of the early states, thanks to a the comically overcrowded Republican field.
Trump may not have been that popular among Republican voters, but the party leadership was liked even less. Trump only started winning more than 35 to 40 percent in state primaries when his opponents tried to unite against him and publicly floated the idea of blocking his nomination at the convention.
It was an elaborate plan that never factored in the part where voters were supposed to choose someone else, and it only succeeded in allowing Trump to claim that, once again, the elites were conspiring against him.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was being rocked by its own internal rebellion, as an aging, self-described socialist — whose thick Brooklyn accent amusingly belied his “senator from Vermont” label — came out of nowhere to seriously challenge what the entire country had assumed would be Hillary Clinton’s yearlong coronation.
Bernie Sanders’s proposals for funding universal health care and college education through major tax increases on the rich reignited the fire of protest that, for almost two decades, has made explosive appearances every few years: in the 1999 “Battle in Seattle” against the World Trade Organization; in the enormous protests against the Iraq War in 2003; in the resistance to anti-immigrant legislation in 2006; and in the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements in the Obama years.
For the most part, the Democrats had successfully defused these movements by convincing their constituents that protesting is less important than voting for Democrats in order to stop the latest Republican apocalypse. Demands for amnesty for all immigrants or for bringing the troops home disappeared replaced by Beltway talking points about bipartisan immigration reform and responsibly waging the war on terror.
And so Democratic Party leaders were far more united and confident than their Republican counterparts about shoving an unpopular candidate down their voters’ throats. After all, they figured, even if Hillary Clinton was an uninspiring candidate, the Republicans were in such disarray that they were about to nominate someone who couldn’t possibly beat her in November.
Take a step back to look at the overall process, and you’ll notice a striking result. The essentially New Deal program of Bernie Sanders was barred from the political system on the grounds that it was too extreme, but the door to the world’s most powerful office was left wide open to an erratic racist with far-right advisers. As Dan O’Sullivan concluded in a post-election article, “Incredible though it may seem, our systems are better girded against a soft left than a hard right.”
We’re told that our system of checks and balances, the Electoral College, and the rest may be inefficient and even borderline dysfunctional, but at least they work to promote stability and prevent despotism.
Well, guess what? We now have an unstable despot for a president — and it’s because of this same vaunted system, which at every turn instinctively supports the few over the many and treats a rogue, racist billionaire as a harmless nuisance while seeing danger in the raised expectations of tens of millions of working-class people that a better life is possible.