And you may ask yourself: “How did I get here?” — Once in a Lifetime, The Talking Heads
Before you tuck in, I should warn you that I’m about to write about politics. If you’d rather watch YouTube videos or ingest household chemicals I wouldn’t be offended. Still here? Good!
There are two often heard misnomers in this year’s’ election: “Trump Supporter” and “Hillary Supporter.” It’s easy to see how someone can make this mistake. The Idea of supporting a political candidate is a very American one. Prior to the establishment of The United States government, representation looked a bit different. Britain’s parliamentary system at the time of the revolutionary war did represent the will of the people—the parliament of the modern age began in 1707—but the campaign is truly an American invention. Lincoln was the first to have his portrait on a campaign button, and in 1896 McKinley was the first to mass-produce buttons for his campaign (by the way, did you know both presidents were assassinated? Coincidence? Um, yes.)
With slogans, songs, infamous debates and all sorts of electoral buffoonery, America pioneered the modern campaign. It certainly makes sense that it would happen here. Most governments at the time were playing by well-established rules. Parliament evolved out of a need to check the power of the King, Dictators, benevolent and otherwise, had been conquering and ruling since before recorded history, and tribal systems had been around for even longer. We had a new form of government, and we were separated from Europe’s cultural influence by the Atlantic Ocean and a national disdain for (or at least a strong disinclination to) the ideals of the old world; anything we were going to create was bound to have an element of throwing spaghetti at the wall.
Every civilization has a founding myth, and every civilization has cultural and/or civic rituals that bind together its citizens and lend them legitimacy, link them back to a kind of natural order, at least in the minds of those that participate. The solstice celebrations, biblical genealogies, high holy days, the ritual first hunt, religious pilgrimages, national holidays, they’re all a variation on this theme.
The Enlightenment allowed us to have a clean break from spiritual tradition in governance, but human societies’ reliance on myth necessitated a new kind of hero. Our nation was founded by charismatic and brilliant men (alternate but equally true sentence: Our nation was founded by ambitious insurgents who made compromises with the lives of the native and enslaved in order to consolidate power and national order) perfect for lionizing. The Founding Fathers became symbols for American-style Freedom with all its imperfections and compromises. They were intellectual giants that thought all men were created equal, a slave should count for 3/5ths of a person, and women weren’t fit to have a say in how a country is run, and for good or ill, they’re just as famous as our founding documents, our secular scripture.
Presidents are remembered for a combination of action and personality. Washington was a paragon of morality who helped freedom triumph over tyranny. Jackson was a man of the people who stood up to an unfair financial system. Lincoln’s wit and affability serve to reinforce the picture of a man fighting to keep the nation together while maintaining an almost irrational optimism. Teddy Roosevelt was the ultimate man’s man who busted the trusts and didn’t break a sweat. FDR was an avuncular aristocrat who ushered the nation from poverty to prosperity, expanding social welfare and helping to put in place an infrastructure we revere to this day (The art of the WPA, projects like the Hoover Dam, the TVA, social security, et al.) He also won a war from the discomfort of a wicker wheelchair.
Thanks to the perspective that several generations’ distance provides we confidently separate our presidents into good and bad for various reasons, but after WWII the ways in which we measure the quality of a president changed.
In the summer of 1945, The United States became the first and only country to use a nuclear weapon against another sovereign nation. Witnessing something with that much destructive power does something to a society. And no longer fighting for your very existence really opens up some mental space, really allows one to think.
We, as a nation, had wrestled with some pretty big ideas before—what does it mean to take your destiny into your own hands? Is a union worth fighting for? Who counts as a person? And the constant question of What does an American-style democracy look like? The aftermath of WWII gave us a new question to answer: what does it mean to be civilized? We started to actively build a societal structure laying out rights, the new picture of a nuclear family, institutionalizing racism and misogyny while paying lip service to equality, and coping with rapid scientific development. Mass production had never been more efficient, and the idea of the Good Life had never been closer thanks to advances in food science, engineering, fashion and new products in the service of hygiene and beauty.
All of this can be boiled down to the question of “Who are we?”
It’s a very fraught question, and historically very few people were up to the challenge of answering it. Luckily for those living in the 20th century, commerce had the answer. The Machine (the impersonal force that drives progress, in the avenues of art, commerce, social structures and technology) invented archetypes to aspire to—the captain of industry, the sophisticated lady, the artist, the alpha male, the compassionate liberal, the housewife who can do it all, the breadwinner who is always a white knight—and the best part was you could buy your way to actualization. Why struggle for years with the question of what it was to be a man when you could buy a nice suit, some Brylcreem, drive a certain kind of car, go to certain places and treat others in specific ways? A man is nice to his mother and sister but should feel free to smack other women on the ass and call them “sweetie.” A man deftly crushes his opponent on the field or at work. A man has all the answers. A man has rock hard abs and a rock hard façade that doesn’t show sensitivity or weakness. A man never cries.
Everything one would watch on TV, read in Playboy, see in the movies, or hear in casual polite conversation would attempt to reinforce this idea of easy identity because it’s a far simpler thing to sell a product by piggybacking on a deeper human need to belong and to succeed than trying to build the case for your product from the ground up.
Ephemera used to convey identity isn’t new, but until the 20th century it was the tools of your vocation. Farmers had ploughs, monks the pen, plus countless butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, coopers—sometimes even a person’s last name was their vocation. Different tools for different jobs. The computer has changed all of that. Graphic designers, accountants, receptionists, filmmakers, musicians, teachers—all of these jobs can be done by computer, and aside from cosmetic differences, the essay written on an iPad in a coffee shop is indistinguishable from the essay written at home on a 10 year old Dell.
This strange identity void has inspired some people to engage in nostalgia-based purchases of vinyl records, polaroid cameras and mustache wax, but for the majority, we’ve taken to crafting a social media persona. Your pinterest board is now the artifact that confers identity. A finely curated Instagram feed is a great way to show the world how well you’re pulling off the Urban Outfitters/REI/[random persona here] lifestyle. Why work on cultivating wit when you have thousands of memes to choose from? And when you can feel superior by posting a meme, it’s very easy to feel like an authority without actually being one. For the majority of the 20th century, if you were published that meant you had something to say, or you were rich—both if you were George Plimpton. Even the zines of the punk era took commitment and time, laying things out by hand and developing a unique aesthetic. But whether you had brains or money, you had organic authority. Now, everyone is an expert. Or at least that’s what the machine would have you believe. (as an aside, look how things are sold. “You get it, therefore this product is for you. The ignorant need not apply.”) The Informed Person is a new archetype born of the information economy and is motivated by competition. This is different from The Intellectual (defined by how they think, not what they think) or The Geek (possessing a passion for and an encyclopedic knowledge of niche topics.) Before the invention of this new archetype, being informed was an incidental part of being human—now being informed is a way to artificially inflate one’s own value. How easy it is now to look down on people that don’t really have it much better (or worse) than we do. It’s a convenient distraction.
Branding is the act of crafting a persona, usually for the inanimate. Branding techniques are used to narrowly define something until it’s a nice shiny platonic object that is meant to, paradoxically, stand in for itself. Thanks to ESPN, NBC Sports, NFL on FOX, CBS Sports et al, we know exactly what competition is for and what it looks like. The idea of playing games used to be more of a grey area but now competition is defined through logos, voices, pregame shows and the like. We’ve honed the idea of sport to a very sharp point. We use the same signifiers for the entire spectrum of sport, from the NFL all the way down to little league.
From there It’s not that much of a stretch to treat every competition as a kind of sport. It certainly doesn’t require any extra thinking. And when life is this demanding, when you’re just one accident away from astronomical medical bills, when you live in a world designed to take up 100% of your time, if an easy solution is handed to you on a shiny silver platter why wouldn’t you take it? In this way modern politics are treated like sports in terms of coverage, branding, graphics, even office water cooler talk. People apply campaign bumper stickers the same way you’d don a jersey.
An identity will go to extraordinary lengths to protect itself. Fortunately for them, the internet is a bottomless well of articles (of dubious quality) to be used as ammunition. Every difference of opinion is a competition, and as such, we conflate competition in entertainment and competition in politics.
The key to winning, according to the Informed Person is a feeling they have some access to a secret that others don’t. If you don’t like objective facts, choose your own and claim conspiracy. Challenging your own identity by having to admit you were wrong on climate change is apparently a lot more difficult than dealing with super storms and unbearable heat. (GMOs are another fine choice.) The Informed Person already knows what he thinks and to him there is no greater shame than uttering the phrase “I don’t know.” He must win at all costs.
So, If victory is being right, isn’t the ultimate victory being the leader of the free world?
The current election has some interesting players. Donald Trump—the furthest thing from a self made man and even farther from a business success—is trading on a persona that he’s a captain of industry. This man is no Rockefeller, though his mistreatment of employees and contractors harks back to the gilded age.
Hillary Clinton isn’t what I would call a classically inspiring figure. She has been a staple of american government ever since I could remember. She’s a benign opportunist, and while she may have been working towards certain kinds of political change, I’d hardly call her a radical. Her views seem to be ever so slightly to the left of dead center. Her healthcare initiative relied on insurance, she has always been rather hawkish, she supported same sex civil unions when that was slightly controversial but ultimately a safe move, and the list goes on. She embodies mid 20th-century american politics, when TV was in full swing but before people like Gingrich and Delay tried to upend things through techniques commonly used in advertising—creating a stylized smokescreen that feels like reality but crumbles under close scrutiny.
What these two candidates provide are identity. Being an Obama supporter probably meant you were inspired by the man himself. Republicans treat Reagan like their own personal Hercules, even Bill Clinton and George Bush were personalities, but being a Trump supporter doesn’t mean you actually like the man. Support for Trump is one of the first socially acceptable ways of striking out against your crumbling reality in a long time. You can’t say out and out racist things, but supporting a flamboyant character who often says “build a wall,” “kick them out,” “black people love me,” etc. is a means of forcefully shoving reality to the side for one that makes you feel like you’re part of the silent majority and embattled minority at the same time. How special you are.
Support for Clinton is a bit more enlightened but she’s no less a surrogate for certain ideas. If you eliminate all the ad hominem attacks from Fox News and conservative talk radio, what can be said about her that can’t be said for any other good career politician? She’s responsible, clearly loves the interworking of American politics, makes moral compromises to get ahead, but isn’t irresponsible in rhetoric or action. She loves the system and wants to captain the ship on a familiar course, with incremental growth, not deviating very much from a course set way back in the Kennedy administration. Her views don’t make her unique, her experiences do, and for that she’s an inspiration to some. The most significant thing that she will do for this country is be a role model for some future female president whose’ mantle of ‘inspiring figure’ will be far more justified.
We should always try to strive for something greater than ourselves. It’s even in our constitution’s preamble— “a more perfect union.” Our presidents were the gods we chose, but they were gods. Historically, support was earned through impassioned speeches, new ideas, fear mongering or just good old fashioned charisma. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are identity surrogates—that’s why it’s so hard to satirise them. They feel like punchlines already, and you can’t make fun of a joke. Support for these candidates just seems like a doubling down on one’s own personality.
As a dog and pony show, this election is interesting but what I’m really wondering is how much evidence we can see while denying its implications. We’ve lost the idea of what politics actually means and the aftermath of the election may be a chance to re-examine politics, finally realizing this isn’t a sport and that identity is so much more than a bumper sticker.