Podcast • September 8, 2016

Election 2016: Unreality T.V.

Barack Obama has kept his distance from this campaign, but he did intervene last month to remind Americans that they’re not voting to give someone a recording contract: “This is a really serious job. This ...

Barack Obama has kept his distance from this campaign, but he did intervene last month to remind Americans that they’re not voting to give someone a recording contract: “This is a really serious job. This is not entertainment. This is not a reality show.”

Hillary Clinton likes that line, too, and has used it more pointedly against the former host of The Apprentice: “You can’t say to the head of another nation’s government… if you disagree with them, ’you’re fired!’ That is not the way it works in the real world!”

It’s true, of course—but the rise of Trump reminds us that American politics lost their humble, aldermanic relationship with a simple “real world” a long way back.

Obama’s own victory was telegraphed and televised—the dignified, better-than-human First Black President got screen-tested more than once in Morgan Freeman and Dennis Haysbert. And a Brooklyn-ready media rollout teased an age of “hope” and “change” that the candidate was unable fully to bring about.

The gap between the real and the imagined isn’t a new phenomenon—it’s old as politics itself, and only accelerated by TV. As early as 1960, Norman Mailer read John F. Kennedy aright—not as a job applicant but as an avatar for two Americas, old and new:

this candidate for all his record; his good, sound, conventional liberal record has a patina of that other life, the second American life, the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz.

The author and journalist Ron Suskind is in our studio—he was the one who transcribed a gem of ideology from a secret source in the Bush White House:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Trump may be imperial in that same sense, if Matt Lauer’s botched tackle of the two presidential candidates is anything to go by.

For more on the realm of unreality we’re in, we turn to Veep‘s Frank Rich, and The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum (above), if the age of mass-media politics that began with the glow of Kennedy is ending with the groan of Trump—himself made-for-TV. His unpredictability, his familiar pout, his Lorax coloring and proportions are keeping him in a race and a conversation he might have lost, on the merits, long ago.

To millions of Americans, Trump has some real effects; he represents hope—maybe for boardroom efficiency or a frank simplification of political questions—or a change in atmosphere, away from managed expectations and polite coastal contempt. His may be a dark fantasy, but he sees that politicians, like TV personae real and semi-real, are in the business of fantasy, and that the “show horse” part of the job can’t be so easily shrugged off.

How do we talk about political reality from so deep inside the world of the reality show?

June 22, 2016

Give ‘Em Hill?

When almost everyone you know is scared to death at the prospect of The Donald as The President, it can feel like we’re barely thinking about his opposite number. She’s become the default choice—the option that ...

When almost everyone you know is scared to death at the prospect of The Donald as The President, it can feel like we’re barely thinking about his opposite number. She’s become the default choice—the option that isn’t chaos.

So, after the year of Trump, at last a meditation on Presumptive Candidate #2—and she’s a Hill of a lot more difficult to get a handle on. As we stand at the altar, are there any objections to this marriage? Do we have a real picture of this woman after her 40 years in politics?

Hillary Rodham Clinton has been America’s most admired woman in the world for 20 years running. She’s also the most disliked candidate (other than Trump) since 1984, and the first Democrat more disliked than liked. Can the Hillary puzzle be solved?

The Clintons’ legacy is unclear, at best. The name conjures that strange period in the 1990s: peace and prosperity right alongside scandal, pettiness, and selling out. Our guest Doug Henwood wrote a whole book called My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency(the cover is the now-iconic painting by the visual artist Sarah Sole, above).

My Turn is a well-written laundry list of private complaints and public scandals that’s bound to make you think twice about the couple, and Hillary herself. From Honduras to Libya, “superpredators” to superdelegates, Hillary isn’t just historic in the good ways—she and Bill would bring a lot of our checkered past back into the White House with them.

Then again, Ellen Fitzpatrick reminds us that female presidential candidates tend to get a lot more than the usual scrutiny—and in her book The Highest Glass Ceiling, she has the history to back it up. If you didn’t know that more than 200 women have sought the highest office in the land, then you knew that before H.R.C., none of them even got close.

And Hillary has a further, post-feminine mystique. The critic Terry Castle—who wonderfully wrote up her meeting with Clinton at a fundraiser earlier this year in the London Review of Books—sees her, admiringly, as both woman and not-a-woman. Even as first lady, she left the familiar female identifiers in the kitchen with Tammy Wynette a very long time ago.

As “Val,” a salty old bartender on Saturday Night Live, Hillary is comic, charming, even “hot”—a glimpse of the private person that so many people have come to adore. But then the last time we elected the person we’d like “to have a beer with,” we wound up with George W. Bush—who is only now, eight years after his unhappy departure, more popular with voters than Hillary

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Jh2n5ki0KE

Hillary Clinton—overexposed but uncomprehended—raises all kinds of questions for voters and citizens. Where does the personal end and the political begin? What can we learn about a potential presidency by everything that came before it? And how should we read her—by what standard? As woman or war-maker, private self or public persona, historical breakthrough—or more of the same?