Having moved house across town (a lot easier than moving between cities or from country to country as I have done) I am now free to turn to my current favorite entertainment spectacle.
For those who watched the recent Clinton/Trump debate it’s pretty clear from the numbers that Clinton won.
Or so it appears.
Now I don’t say this because I am supporting a douche canoe like Trump or because I am not supporting a sleaze like Clinton but because watching the debate, the coverage around it and how the current US presidential election has developed its clear that there were two very different debates taking place on that stage and appealing to two different audiences.
On Clinton’s side you have a politician, who grubby history aside, was willing to go into the debate cycle of the election and play it like all previous presidential debates had gone; debate the issues and the policies, a sound strategy and one that hits the all-important “logical” button with potential voters.
It also follows the time tested formula of “talking straight” and thereby proving oneself onstage in what amounts to an important and symbolic nod to the long dead skills of political oratory by attempting to correlate (in the minds of the voter) the ability to speak well with the ability to be a leader but which is now nothing more than a glorified popularity/debate contest for candidates and a formality of getting elected (a somewhat demented and deranged debutantes ball if you will).
And in earlier times the ability to speak well was a lot more important for being a leader; from inspiring troops to go into battle (and possible bloody death) to swaying an undecided parliamentary house to vote for a particular piece of legislation or even just because the power of words to move minds had yet to be made irrelevant in the political context.
And that is what Clinton would have had in mind going into these debates, her training regimen included sparring against people who spoke and thought like Trump and simply being skilled on all potential issues that might come up (Syria, The economy or China for example) so that she could calmly and clearly say something and sound like she knew what she was talking about AND that she had a solution to any particular situation or problem.
On Trump’s side you have a full out media spectacle, confrontational talk show where reasoned debate (or at least as reasonable as any political debate can get), is thrown out the window in favor of a full out orgy of hate, anger and accusations all layered over with hints of scandal (bringing out those women) and the kind of nervous unscripted tension that only reality television can provide (ie “what will they do next?”).
It was a made for TV political ambush, although it would be been an actually effective ambush if he had not announced in advance what he was going to do but then again it probably was not his intent to simply embarrass the Clinton's (and that particular photo of a gaunt looking Bill Clinton peering worriedly in one direction certainly conveyed that idea (even if it had been taken out of context) but rather simply air Bill and Hillary’s dirty laundry in a hitherto forbidden forum.
Previously, even in celebrity obsessed America where stars are royalty and royalty are stars, such a thing would simply not have been possible, or even considered aside from muttering things to the press corps while out on the campaign trail and then letting them percolate back through the media (Lyndon Johnson's supposed referenced about one of his senatorial opponents having carnal knowledge of pigs to the horror of his aides, comes to mind) but now it was billed and advertised and millions tuned into watch.
Now before you dismiss the above separation as gibberish consider why YOU tuned into watch the debate? What were you hoping to see? Were you really there to see Clinton rationally talk through the issues facing the US at this time (God knows what they are because they have not even been tabled this time round, it’s not just about the candidates it IS the candidates) or were you there to watch what had been billed (and yes it had been as hyped up as any big name fight card) as Trump Vs Clinton – The Sex Scandal Edition live on your screen.
If you say the former then you’re lying though your teeth or a hard core Clinton supporter. If you say the latter, good on you for being honest but shame on you for helping lower the tone of the debate.
And here is where we are now, on the cusp of a change in how the highly mechanized political machine in the US operates. If a candidate cannot go out on stage without worrying that her husband’s mistresses and sex crime accusers will be sitting front row then what remains off the table? What dirt, real or otherwise, will not be loaded into the muck cannons and sprayed at a candidate as they try to talk about foreign policy? What is left in the escalating arms race that is the scandal farm of US politics?
But so what I hear you cry, Trump is a deranged loon (on that we agree) and as soon as he is flushed by Clinton in the election we will hear no more and things will go back to the way they were before (on that we don’t agree).
It’s not that I don’t think Clinton will win this election but that I don’t put it past the Republicans to engineer another Gore/Bush 2000 Florida style voting crisis (because when you look into who runs the companies that make those machines, who they are connected to and a growing body of documentary evidence that electronic voting in the US is a serious problem) just to get back into power, even if they can’t stand Trump, because if they don’t it’s another eight years out of the oval office and all attendant offices.
What I don’t agree with is that things will go back to “the way they were”. Is it really likely given the (de)evolution of politics in the last 60 years that such a tactic is not going to be brought up again or that a candidate like Trump (despite all his obvious flaws and issues) turns out to be the only candidate (and message) that people on one side of the line can get excited about voting for?
Can we imagine the vast new territories for spin doctors to chart in the course of campaign assassination of their masters opponents (and for these evil little gnomes my feelings about them run pretty much the same as Bill Hick’s for people in advertising) and what piece of gossip or innuendo (true or otherwise) will now be unmentionable on the campaign trail?
No the trajectory of modern politics is far too clearly diving into the primordial scum pond for this to not be the next, un-Darwinian, leap forward. All you need is the dirt and a candidate willing to use it.
And pause for a moment before you think that it might happen in the US but not in safe, clean and neat NZ because if National’s Dirty Politics scandal was something else than a well organised smear campaign** for the parties benefit then we clearly know where your allegiances lie.
So we have the method (mudslinging as you have never seen before) and we have the motive (power for powers sake) but do we have candidates (not just in the US but here in NZ)?
Clearly in the US we do because Trump has made it this far despite his buffoonery, despite his racists and sexists comments (perhaps even because of them) and despite being an overly entitled member of the wealthy with the business sense and history of a rock melon.
But the US is a highly partisan pressure cooker where it’s one side or the other and no third parties or middle ground; where rabid frothing attack politics is the order of the day and cognitive dissonance reigns (you can see the flaws in the other sides candidate but not yours); could such grotesque politics really work in the long run there or even in little ol Godzone?
You bet your bottom dollar they could!
There are several reasons why this is the next step forward and not just an errant blip on the political radar.
The first is that nothing has generated more coverage of the US elections this year than the Trump vs Clinton muckraking. Donald’s dodgy tax and business history is exposed; his outright comments about Mexicans and women, his bankruptcies etc. Clinton's email server, her husband Bills peccadilloes, the highly suspect Clinton Foundation and its cash for access activities etc.
Or compare Colin Craig's dirty laundry being aired daily in the media while the declining voter turnout in local body elections barely made a ripple in the news or got a reaction form the public.
These are the themes that have defined the US campaign and NZ political coverage (although the housing hernia still continues to swell and poverty remains an issue but there is just no action being done to fix them). Not foreign policy (like Syria or North Korea), not even domestic politics in a time when issues such as race and police violence, the US spying on its own citizens, water issues and many more demand attention.
No what has driven this debate are the candidates themselves and the general disgust voters have for both of them and that disgust is due to neither being much of an exemplar of anything except wealth, corruption and naked greed (you can decide if I am speaking about Clinton or Trump).
The Second is the declining levels of democratic participation in both the US and elsewhere (like the afore mentioned local body elections) in the world and like any TV show with sagging ratings the producers have turned to a new marketing gimmick to boost viewers and keep that sweet ad revenue flowing in.
So in effect politics has been given, by Trump and his camp, a reality style makeover (not so surprising when you remember that Trump has already had his own reality TV show); no more fixed cameras and scripts, now its gladiatorial style battles to the death and at the end of each episode (just like Survivor) someone is voted off the island until they get down to the final two.
And the punters like it as well. As I noted above, why have most people been tuning into these debates, do we really want to hear what the candidates are going say about the economy or some aspect of foreign policy? No we don’t, like Game of Thrones we can’t wait to get our next fix of sex and violence; we can’t wait to see who dies next and which way the plot will lurch.
People I know who have never taken an interest in politics ever, let alone US politics will now debate the Clinton/Trump situation like seasoned pros, except that the level of discussion is more along the lines of professional wrestling than an actual discussion of any real political weight or substance (ie policy planks or issues).
The third reason is what I like to call FukYoo or Gotterdammerung politics***; these are democracies where voters are not just beyond disillusioned with their political leaders (hence the low voter turnout) but they are also now feeling the sharp pinch of their “leaders” greedy and grubby actions in enriching themselves while everyone else tightens their belt.
These are people who don’t care if they win or lose but who will happily take as many down with them by voting against their own party (I referred to this on a previous post at KP as politics of the Joker; referring to Heath Ledgers Joker character in Batman who simply wanted to "watch the world burn") or values because they can’t abide their own parties candidate) or who have invested their political hopes in a candidate who will say anything to win (much like politics in the Philippines where there has been with a succession of “tough guy” leaders who end up doing nothing of any substance).
All of these three factors exist in the US and NZ and we are only fooling ourselves if we don’t expect the 2017 election here in NZ to not have elements of dirt and scandal of a new and potent strain or if a post Trump political system will not simply codify the ground-breaking techniques he has pioneered and modify them to a sleeker, more palatable, more marketable candidate that is under party control and not careening around like a drunk in bar.
In this sense Clinton lost the debate as the rear guard of the old school of politics facing down a monster which she cannot slay (every head she cuts off two more appears). In the conventional sense she won but few if any were tuning in to watch that kind of debate.
*-The title is from Russel Crowe in Gladiator but the sentiment is all Frank Zappa when he said "politics is the entertainment arm of industry".
**-As anyone who has worked in Wellington for any period of time, I have herd (and on occasion seen) all manner of dirty, dodgy and sometimes wonderful stories about MPs, the PM and assorted hangers on in Parliament (some from my friend Q who looked after them but others who were also in proximity) which would cause all manner of scandals if they got into the public space (my favorites are the parliamentary groupies and who knows about various wanted individuals now residing in various parts of NZ with full knowledge of the government)
***-I thought I was being clever when I first thought I had coined that term (Gotterdammerung politics) a few months back but a quick google search showed that I was not by far the first person to link Trump to such a term