September 21, 2016

Revenge of the 90s

If all elections are about the future, why does this one come with so much baggage from our political and cultural past? It was in the misfit decade of the ‘90s that both Donald Trump ...

If all elections are about the future, why does this one come with so much baggage from our political and cultural past?

It was in the misfit decade of the ‘90s that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton cemented their almost ubiquitous presence on the national stage. Trump, already a bold face name in New York real estate, left the Plaza Hotel behind for Hollywood. (Here he is on Letterman Show, here in Home Alone 2, and over here The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.) Hillary debuted as First Lady, but bet on her skills as a West Wing wonk for the prize assignment of reforming health care. Her penchant back then for secrecy, loyalty, and vast right wing conspiracies started the trail of scandal headlines—Travelgate, Whitewater, Filegate—that dog her today.

Our guest Maureen Dowd of the New York Times calls the 2016 election the “Seinfeld election.” ”It’s really about nothing,” she says. “Except the two most famous people on the planet that nobody really seems to know.”

freshprince

So we’re looking back at the Seinfeld decade—that sunny time after the Cold War that ended abruptly with 9/11. The era of peace and prosperity. The heady days of business porn, corporate synergy, and the “personal brand.” The first digital decade, a drug decade in Pharmacy Nation (including Viagra, Prozac and Ritalin). The Third Wave Feminism decade, too.

The ‘90s live on, not only in our Truman Show-like obsession with Trump, or the persistence of Third Way politics, or normcore fashion trends, but also in wounds never healed from NAFTA, welfare reform, the 1994 crime bill, and finance deregulation. Maybe with these two candidates we’re trying to resolve the ‘90s: the racial violence, the feminist and gender identity questions, the inequality, the global war and domestic safety. Let’s party like it’s 1999 and get our heads around the origin story of Campaign 2016.

 

March 17, 2016

Donald Trump Is Breaking News

This spring and summer, millions of Americans will go to the polls and vote. For most of us, our political participation begins and ends at the ballot box. The rest is mediated: through a mix of respectable ...

This spring and summer, millions of Americans will go to the polls and vote. For most of us, our political participation begins and ends at the ballot box. The rest is mediated: through a mix of respectable newspapers and radio firebrands, punditry, hearsay, and Tweets.

The play of politics came with a set of old-saw formulas. The respectable candidates ended up winning. Ad spending buys votes. Gaffes are costly. And the party decides.

None of that has proven true this unconventional year. So maybe it’s no surprise that the big papers and networks seem to have first missed, then dismissed, then discouraged the popular movements behind Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

This exciting, profane, profound election has served as chum on the water for a media industry that was already agitated by the Internet, “disintermediation,” and vanishing income. 

But has the frenzy diverted American journalism from its fourth-estate duty: of holding candidates accountable? Giving voice to the voiceless? Referring readers to history and policy? Staying straight and honest with the citizenry? Or is that all 20th-century nostalgia?

Some of our guests, and most of our Twitter followers, feel that the big story this year was of a confrontation between a dissatisfied people and an establishment — that goes for the media, too. The big papers and networks seemed to have first missed, then dismissed, then discouraged the popular movements behind  Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. But that’s just the beginning — there were lots of weird media stories on the trail this year.

Let us know your favorite subplot in the grand electoral soap opera in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter.

March 3, 2016

2016: Protest Vote or Cry For Help?

Act One of the freaked-out 2016 campaign for president may be drawing to a close, with Clinton and Trump continually atop polls. So what have we learned? Trump may be the big story, with more ...

Act One of the freaked-out 2016 campaign for president may be drawing to a close, with Clinton and Trump continually atop polls. So what have we learned?

Trump may be the big story, with more than 3.5 million Republicans checking his box. But then Bernie Sanders — whose path to the presidency may be murkier now — has received 2.5 million votes himself.

Seen from afar, that’s nearly 6 million primary protest votes for the unlikeliest of outsider candidates.

There’s next to no chance of an left-right merger, for all sorts of reasons. But when Sanders says working folk have had enough of a “rigged game,” and Trump tells them he’ll help them start winning again, can we hear the resonances?

Dan-Ariely-Stephen-Voss

Dan Ariely is the behavioral economist who charts the gap between what we want and the many ways in which we fail to get it.

Ariely has found that almost all Americans — 93.5% of Democrats and 90.2% of Republicans — want good healthcare, redistribution, and economic fairness, as a matter of deep principle and instinct.

But just as we end up buying checkout-line chocolate in addition to broccoli and milk, something happens on the way to the polling-place. Single-issue fixations, character biases, and media distractions come into play, and we end up voting against what we think really matters.

Ariely cheers the appearance of Sanders as a sign that a misdirected electorate has begun to realize where to apply its energy. Our third-party panel of Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader cheer on convergences of working people’s interest, in spite of the deep partisan divide.

Meanwhile the leftist novelist Benjamin Kunkel begins to look for utopia, or at least a healthy national psyche, after years of panic, crisis, and self-deception.

We put the big question for our guests: what can be made of the many “change” votes for Sanders and Trump, if neither of those candidates finds his way to the White House? If Americans are angry now, what do they want instead – and do they stand any chance of getting it in the near future?

January 28, 2016

Plot-Twist Politics

In 2016, the presidential election became electric. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have separately disrupted the fixed matchup of another Clinton and another Bush, and flat-footed, for now, the mainstream consensus about everything from who ...

In 2016, the presidential election became electric.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have separately disrupted the fixed matchup of another Clinton and another Bush, and flat-footed, for now, the mainstream consensus about everything from who can be elected and what they can’t say, to what Americans want from both their leaders and their political process.

The Iowa caucus is days away, and what was laughable in the springtime now looks entirely plausible. Meaning upsets, betrayals, collapses and mis-coronations — all of which works well as pure drama.

Frank-Rich

Frank Rich is the perfect person to watch this shaggy-dog primary as a theater piece. At The New York Times, Rich began as a theater critic, then grew into the paper’s leading columnist who saw a mix of policy and performance, news and entertainment.

Today he practices both, with a column at New York Magazine and as executive producer of Veep, HBO’s fictional sendup of the very real pettiness, over-packaging and obscurity of our politics.

There’s more than a few irresistible storylines so far in this reality show of a primary process (and it’s still early).

August 13, 2015

Trump This!

If Jeb Bush were caught, on a secret recording, dissing John McCain for getting captured by the North Vietnamese, he’d be denounced by every Republican living, even his dad. If Ted Cruz told a female staffer she’d look ...

If Jeb Bush were caught, on a secret recording, dissing John McCain for getting captured by the North Vietnamese, he’d be denounced by every Republican living, even his dad. If Ted Cruz told a female staffer she’d look better on her knees, he’d be sent back to Canada.

So why is that from the billionaire candidate Donald Trump, wide-open narcissism, sexism, and anti-Mexican racism are accepted, even applauded? Maybe because Trump fits so comfortably into a mood of malcontent skepticism. Think George Wallace and Curtis LeMay before him: crazy or cynical, maybe, but in a familiar, American way.

So this week we’re looking for the many meanings in the Donald’s for-now popularity, and asking what his long candidacy might mean a new understanding of what America’s looking forward after Obama. So with historians Rick Perlstein and Heather Cox Richardson, and a chorus of voices, let us count the ways. 

1. Trump’s a TV brand.

Trump has brought a certain televisual atmosphere with him — the look of entertainment news, The Apprentice and advertising, roasts and resort vacations — into an otherwise stale and overcrowded horse race. Our guest Jeet Heer says the Trump candidacy works like professional wrestling — it becomes scripted battle, and spectacularly vulgar. (We shouldn’t forget Trump himself has thrown a few punches at Wrestlemania.)

2. He’s a high-school archetype.

The novelist of Election and screenwriter Tom Perrotta told us that Trump’s a kind of callback to high school: the entitled-and-he-knows-it prom king who has the car, the girl and the grades (despite not working). And all he sees around him are losers. Look at Trump’s first appearance in the New York Times: at age 27, already with a monogram license plate on his Cadillac.

3. He’s an aspirational figure.

Through it all, says Mark Singer of The New Yorker (who’s gone ten rounds with Trump), Trump represents a hypercharged version of the American dream that appeals to blue-collar voters, what Rick Perlstein called “a poor person’s version of a rich person”: he bet on himself, against the odds, damned the doubters, and built what they call a “personal brand” long before that was mainstream. Now he flies a jet with his name on it, and he’s willing to lie or go bankrupt to keep the show going.

4. He’s a truth-teller in a corrupt country.

 Trump is leveraging Citizens United the way Stephen Colbert did before him: slamming our “broken” system and at the same time proving it’s broken by his mere presence. Trump donated to the Clinton Foundation, so the Clintons came to his wedding (see above). Before they were adversaries, Gov. Scott Walker gave him a thank-you plaque for his support — now Trump won’t let him forget it. 

5. He’s a populist clown — and some clowns are scary.

Trump’s not alone: he’s part of a global class of outré anti-political politicians. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, once the Senate’s hippie scold, has preached socialism to a hundred thousand Americans on the trail.  Rob Ford, Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor, remains a city councillorFor now Italy’s second-place pol is the ex-comedian Beppe Grillo, and Geert Wilders, a xenophobe with almost Trumpian hair, is way up in the Netherlands.

But Buruma conjures prior clowns with a caution: Hitler, Mussolini, and Putin were all laughingstocks before they won power — on an aura of emotional connection with their people and a promise of national resurrection. All this, Buruma’s clear, is not to call Trump Hitler, but to remind us that outrageous demagogues can turn serious in a hurry. The dynamics of The Great Dictator are in play:

https://youtu.be/yPQKFDf2BEM?t=17m53s