Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
They Said It:
If these debates were held fifty years ago, Groucho Marx would have been the president….The guy who talks faster and better will become the next president. If you’ve got good breath control you can become the president in a second.
Do you realize this is the only business in the world, the presidency of the United States, where how you talk is more important than anything else? Or the best joke is more important than anything else?
Do you know of any other job in the word that depends on how fast you talk or which joke you tell?
If you are going to a dentist, do you ever stop to think how good he talks or do you want to know what kind of a dentist he is? I never heard somebody recommend a dentist by saying, “You know, he’s a fantastic dentist. Why? Did you ever hear him talk? What a talker? How about his dentistry? This I don’t know. But what a speaker!”
Comedian Jackie Mason, Radio Interview with Aaron Klein, August 9, 2015.
Slowly but surely, we are getting a feel for the direction and tone of the 2016 presidential election. Every election has a theme, of course, and those themes are especially strong when the incumbent president will not be on the ticket. In 2000, the theme was “normalcy,” which is to say that after eight years of Bill and Hillary, the country desperately wanted someone normal, a president with whom they would feel safe leaving their adolescent daughters. In 2008, after eight years of Bush, Cheney, war, and terror, the theme was “hope,” hope for a brighter, safer, happier, less frightened and less frightening future.
This year the nascent theme appears to be “bitterness” or “turnabout is fair play” or “two can play at that game.” In a word, at this point in the cycle, the 2016 election appears as if it will be about “revenge.”
Like almost everyone who writes about, thinks about, or even cares about politics, we’ve spent a great deal of time of late pondering Donald Trump. In so many ways, he seems refreshingly anti-political. He is blunt. He is brash. He speaks his mind and is unwilling to bow before the gods of political correctness. He is quick-witted. He is lively and engaging. He is the opposite of what we have come to think of as the stereotypical politician.
The catch, though, is that much of what we have come to think about politics and politicians is no longer entirely valid. Donald Trump may seem refreshingly anti-political, but he’s not. In truth, he is perfectly in tune with politics today, which is to say that he is very political, perfectly political, in fact. He is, in fact, the embodiment of the Right’s answer to the political culture that has been dominant on the Left for most of the last decade or more.
In this sense, it was fitting that he made his official presidential national television debut last Thursday evening. Running to succeed Barack Obama and appearing on cable TV opposite the final installment of “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, Trump erased any doubts about who and what he is: he is the Right’s Jon Stewart and Barack Obama, rolled into one.
As you may recall, in the two of pieces we’ve written about Trump already this summer, we’ve argued that his popularity is, in large part, the result of Republican voters’ extreme displeasure with their party’s establishment. The country class resentment of the ruling class and its narcissism has been festering for years, and to a great extent, Trump’s poll numbers reflect that resentment.
However, after last week’s debate and the aftershocks, it is clear to us that Trump doesn’t just appeal to voters who are fed up with the policies of the ruling class, he appeals to voters who are fed up with the liberal habits of scorn and mockery, with the politics of “smugness” that has become the hallmark of contemporary liberalism.
Now, you’ll note here that we did not say that these voters are fed up with scorn and mockery altogether, but exclusively with the liberals’ use of scorn and mockery. They are tired of being mocked mercilessly and, more to the point, tired of allegedly serious people thinking that this mockery is the same thing as political discourse. They are exhausted by the fact that the Left no longer feels that its policies and predilections need to be discussed, that merely to ridicule opposing policies and belief is sufficient. And they want to push back. They want fight fire with fire, or scorn with scorn, as the case may be. Donald Trump provides this. In spades.
Why then is Trump supposedly in trouble (again!) this week? Washed up. Kaput. Well, the story goes that he is in down and out now for two reasons. First, when asked by Fox News’s Megyn Kelly about having called some women “fat pigs,” and other nasty names, he quipped that it was “only Rosie O’Donnell.” And then, after the debate, he continued to “shock” with his derisive and mocking comments about Kelly. And the powers that be were scandalized, especially by his attack on the lovely Ms. Megyn.
But, of course, the powers that be were wrong. Trump’s numbers actually grew stronger after the debate and over the weekend. Instead of being disgraced, he got some laughs and lots of screen time, which is the currency of the campaign world. He “stuck it to” one of the most mockable liberal celebrities of all time, the perpetually angry and hypocritical Ms. O’Donnell, and the crowd loved it. He drew a little blood from one of the center-ring performers in the circus that passes for serious political debate today, which is what the audience came to see. Scorn and derision – the politics of smugness – prevailed once again, and Donald Trump became a hero and a champion to many.
The reason for this is simple. The entertainment colossus has all but taken over the business of politics. That which once was the province of stuffy intellectuals, egg-head economists, foreign policy gurus, and social scientists, has become a huge dollar business, akin to professional sports and television award shows.
Naturally, the Left was quicker to understand that the public was bored by complex economic and social theories; that emotions were a sine qua non, and these could come in the form of laughter, anger, images, and the creation of myths.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last ten years or so, you probably know that many Millennials – and other assorted leftists – rather proudly proclaim that they learn everything they need to know about politics and culture from a fake news show on a cable comedy network hosted by an aging comic. As hard as it might be to believe, Jon Stewart, the now-former host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” has been one of the most important political and cultural commentators in the country for more than a decade and over the course of the Obama administration especially. Consider, if you will, Dorothy Rabinowitz’s depiction of Stewart as a cultural force, published in the Wall Street Journal last Thursday, the day Stewart taped his final show:
Lena Dunham, the writer and creator of the series “Girls,” explains that Jon Stewart was “where I got my news. Watching Jon — an avowed defender of women’s rights, civil rights, all the democratic ideals I hold dear, really . . .” Watching had kept her amused, inspired and above all aware “in a time when picking up the newspaper was just not gonna happen.”
From Jon Stewart, his way of looking at things, his selection of facts, Ms. Dunham is telling us, she got her view of the world and what was happening in it without need of recourse to other sources. It is impossible to know what happens now to those, like Ms. Dunham, bereft of the monastically sheltered temple of instruction provided by Mr. Stewart and “The Daily Show.”
Ricky Gervais, the creator of “The Office,” testifies to Mr. Stewart’s larger powers. His audience is, he declares, “the sharpest, cleverest, most tuned in comedy audience of any show I’ve been on anywhere in the world, and that’s because of the culture Jon has nurtured.” There we have matters plainly put: Jon Stewart as the nurturer of a culture.
Just as the terrifying implication of this thought sinks in — a culture comprised of the audience for “The Daily Show” — Mr. Gervais elaborates. Sounding faintly like one of his own archetypal “Office” creations — Michael Scott, purveyor extraordinaire of philosophies for success — Mr. Gervais explains: “If you’re smart from the beginning, you get people who like smart stuff, and you can do even smarter stuff.”
Writing at the far-Left webzine Salon, some guy named Arthur Chu proves Rabinowitz’s point, demonstrating that the current generation of young liberals is not only indebted to Stewart for its worldview, but actually believes that he was far more than a simple comedian, a simple newsman, a simple bringer of destruction. He was everything to them:
It’s strange thinking that people my brother’s age who have just graduated from college remember Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” always being a political institution. It’s hard to explain to them just how big a deal Stewart’s sudden rise was back during the Bush years, what a shock it was to see Craig Kilborn’s tacky random-riffs-on-the-headlines show turn into the most credible source of news for the millennial generation, why Stewart’s impending retirement feels so momentous and sad. . . .
On election night in 2004 more of us tuned in to Comedy Central than to “legitimate” news sources, because none of the legitimate news sources would openly voice the one truth about the election — that the fact that the election was even close after the disasters in Fallujah and the exposé of Abu Ghraib and the lie about Saddam’s WMD proved that our country was mad.
When the results came in for Bush on the night of Nov. 2, 2004, the Serious Pundits — Democrats and Republicans — gathered together to analyze “values voters” and pontificate about how, if you thought about it from the right perspective, it made perfect sense to reelect a warmonger who’d sent thousands of American soldiers to pointless deaths just in case John Kerry might legalize gay marriage.
Jon Stewart didn’t. He tore up his index cards, slumped over in defeat, and wept.
It feels weird today, in a world of a thousand contending voices on Twitter and Tumblr and YouTube, to talk about how much it meant that there was one dude back then telling the truth. That there was someone in the mainstream media willing to kick a hole in the pusillanimous civil consensus of the respectable pundits, someone willing to call bullshit on the whole rotten circus, to reject the asinine convention that the party in power had to be given token respect simply because they were in power and to openly call them out as evil lunatics.
Jon Stewart felt like a Messiah. . . .
Jon Stewart was, in the end, a white savior. He was a better white savior than any of us had a right to expect, probably the best anyone in his position could have been. . . .
Farewell, Jon Stewart. We won’t see your like again.
Now, we know what you’re thinking. But no. This is NOT a parody. This is real. And this is really how many on the Left think about Jon Stewart. He is their Walter Cronkite, Lenny Bruce, Edmund Burke, and Oprah all rolled into one. He told them what was important. He told them what to believe and what not to believe. He made them feel better about themselves. He gave them a worldview (such as it is). And he did it all while making them laugh. The only problem for the rest of us is that he did all of this by being . . . well . . . the business end of the alimentary canal. He worked all of these miracles, fostered all of this engagement, and created this entire political ethos all by making fun of people who thought differently about things than he did. Sure, he occasionally lampooned his fellow lefties for their own foolishness, but the bulk of his commentary (if that’s what you call it) and all of his rage was reserved for anyone who dared to question the wholesale validity of the liberal dream world. Or, as Gerard Alexander, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia put it a recent op-ed for the New York Times:
It shows how gifted Jon Stewart is that his best moment happened on someone else’s show. He appeared in 2004 on “Crossfire,” a CNN yelling program, and asked the hosts to take seriously their responsibility to public understanding by having useful conversations instead of shouting matches.
It was Mr. Stewart’s finest hour. He made an earnest pitch for civility in a place where there really was none. Which makes it too bad that in his 16 years of hosting “The Daily Show,” he never lived up to his own responsibility. His prodigious talents — he was smart and funny, and even more of both when he was mad — perfectly positioned him to purge a particular smugness from our discourse. Instead, he embodied it. I loved watching him, and hated it too.
Many liberals, but not conservatives, believe there is an important asymmetry in American politics. These liberals believe that people on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum are fundamentally different. Specifically, they believe that liberals are much more open to change than conservatives, more tolerant of differences, more motivated by the public good and, maybe most of all, smarter and better informed.
The evidence for these beliefs is not good. Liberals turn out to be just as prone to their own forms of intolerance, ignorance and bias. But the beliefs are comforting to many. They give their bearers a sense of intellectual and even moral superiority. And they affect behavior. They inform the condescension and self-righteousness with which liberals often treat conservatives. They explain why many liberals have greeted Tea Partiers and other grass-roots conservatives with outsize alarm. They explain why liberals fixate on figures such as Sarah Palin and Todd Akin, who represent the worst that many liberals are prepared to see in conservatives. These liberals often end up sounding like Jon Lovitz, on “Saturday Night Live,” impersonating Michael Dukakis in 1988, gesturing toward the Republican and saying “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy!” This sense of superiority is hardly the only cause of our polarized public discourse, but it sure doesn’t help.
What Alexander doesn’t mention, but which we political junkies know to be true, is the fact that none of this scorn, derision, and contempt was ever relegated exclusively to entertainers. He notes, for example, the SNL bit with Jon Lovitz, but forgets, apparently, that it actually happened in real life. While Jon Stewart wept on Election Day 2004, John Kerry reportedly seethed. According to the New York Daily News, when Bush’s polls began to surge, Kerry “sighed to a staffer” “I can’t believe I’m losing to this idiot.” In a mere 16 years, from satire to reality, only with an ad hominem attack added for good measure. And it’s only been downhill from there. . . .
As you may or may not have heard, last month Politico revealed that twice during his presidency, Barack Obama has been desperate; twice he needed help, encouragement, a sympathetic nod from a friend who would see him through his troubles. And twice, he called Jon Stewart to the White House to give him marching orders. To anybody who has been paying attention, this should come as no surprise. Obama recognizes Stewart’s gifts and his reach and has made an effort to cultivate a relationship with the comic-newsman.
More to the point, Obama and Stewart are politically simpatico. They share not only an ideology, but an approach to politics, a belief in their own righteousness and the ridiculousness of any and all opposition. Last week, in the aftermath of the Republican presidential debate, James Taranto, the author of the Wall Street Journal’s “Best of the Web Today” column noted that the Obama presidency has witnessed the rise of “snark” as a rhetorical device among Democrats and, notably, that the President himself has set the tone for this shift. To wit:
[I]nsult comedy — or, as it’s more commonly known these days, snark — is frequently an instrument of political correctness. We’d go so far as to say that during the Obama years, it has become the left’s primary rhetorical idiom. . . .
The tone is set at the top. In a 2012 debate with Mitt Romney, President Obama channeled David Spade: “Gov. Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that Al Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not Al Qaida; you said Russia, in the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
Well, you had to be there.
Just the other day, Obama asserted that “Iranian hard-liners” were “making common cause with the Republican caucus.” The White House transcript reports that his audience greeted this calumny with “laughter and applause.”
One might say that such behavior, such language is “beneath the office of the President.” But in the current political milieu, that would be wrong. Such language, such “snark” is, in fact, precisely AT the level of the office of the present President. This president has made cheap shots, derision, and mockery his principal rhetorical tools. There is nothing, it would seem, that is beneath him – even comparing Republicans to the Iranians who lawlessly took Americans hostage and held them for 444 days. Obama began his administration by telling Republicans that they should pipe down with their concerns about the size of his bailout package because, in his words, “I won.” He seems bound and determined to end it the same way, dismissing anyone who opposes him as unworthy of his time – or his respect.
Enter Donald Trump.
Trump, like Obama and Stewart, is, first and foremost an entertainer, a celebrity, if you will. Maybe when all is said and done and President Cruz has been inaugurated, Trump can have Obama and Stewart compete on his show, “CELEBRITY Apprentice.” Donald Trump is out on the stump doing what Obama has done for the better part of the last decade and what Stewart has done for longer. He’s out there giving ‘em hell, poking fun at his opponents, making people laugh, and persuading a certain group of like-minded partisans that this is what REAL political dialogue is all about. Or as Taranto put it, “All this helps explain why Trump appeals to some conservatives and Republicans. Having endured this kind of abuse for years, why shouldn’t they be attracted to a candidate who seems willing and able to fight back in kind?”
Last Thursday, during their weekly radio chat, the inimitable Mark Steyn and Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio talk show host, author, and law professor, came to the conclusion that a great part of Trump’s appeal to Republican primary voters is that he exudes the air of an “alpha male,” which is precisely what the American political system misses at this point. According to Steyn, Trump is selling his authentic alpha maleness to voters, telling them “that once you buy him as that, you know he’s not going to be curled up in the fetal position like one of these Planned Parenthood baby-parts special-offers.”
Regular readers know that we rarely disagree with Steyn and generally find him more insightful than just about anyone else writing about politics, but this strikes us as a little off point. Alpha males, as we understand the sociological adaptation of the concept, don’t need to elevate themselves by belittling others. They don’t need snark to sell their dominance; they ooze dominance. Trump strikes us as less an alpha male than a boor, a guy who plays an alpha male on TV.
As with the rebellion against the ruling class, we don’t doubt that there’s something to this “alpha male” business that Steyn and Hewitt discussed. It strikes us, though, that the appeal here is more about vengeance and payback than real, bona fide leadership. It feels great when Trump stands up to the political bullies. It feels great when, as Steyn puts it, Trump refuses “to have sand kicked in his face.” It feels great when the Republican is the guy who gets the laugh and behaves as if the potential political consequences of his words don’t scare him. All of this feels great, in short, but that doesn’t mean that it is great. In fact, we’d guess that it is, in truth, precisely the opposite of great.
Steyn wants us to believe that Trump hasn’t “laid out his policies about whether the rate of corporate tax should be 13.8 or 27.2%,” because “the alpha-male business is the policy.” Trump won’t take any guff from anyone – at home or abroad – and the rest, presumably, will just fall into place from there. That would be all well and good, we suppose, if Trump were actually the alpha male. If as we suspect, however, Trump isn’t the alpha male that Steyn and Hewitt want him to be, if he has merely adopted the same dismissive snark-laden approach to politics that the likes of Barack Obama and Jon Stewart have, then the whole thing falls apart. Then there simply is no policy at all, no operative idea whatsoever behind the bluster. Indeed, the bluster is designed in large part to hide this lack of policy and the lack ideas. Who needs policies or ideas, after all, when it’s easier and more fun just to make the opposition look like cartoonish imbeciles?
The irony in Trump’s rise and the concomitant rise of ideas-free Republican snark is that the rest of the GOP field, from Paul to Cruz, from Rubio to Fiorina, is likely as heavy with smart politicians who have thought deeply and earnestly about the nation’s political problems and the solutions to them as any in memory. Trump did the GOP a favor last week, in that he drew some 24 million voters to watch an early season primary debate – the largest non-sports cable audience in history – and those viewers witnessed a GOP field loaded with talent, brains, and ideas. Not all of the other nine Republican candidates on the main stage last week are particularly great candidates, but some of them are. And many of them could very easily best Hillary Clinton.
Now, obviously, we have no idea what is going to happen here. We have no idea if or when the Trump bubble will pop. We strongly suspect that, at some point, Trump will fall back to earth, just as Rudy Giuliani did in 2008, and Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry did in 2012. Of course, up to now, everyone who has predicted Trump’s fall has been wrong. The guy continues to draw voters, and nothing he says or does seems to dissuade his core.
If we had to, we’d guess that eventually Republican voters will lose their appreciation for Trump’s idea-free snark. They may still want revenge, but they will discover that they can have revenge of sorts – intellectual superiority, at the very least – while getting policy ideas as well. It is no coincidence, we think, that the candidate who has gained the most from last week’s debate is Ted Cruz, who is not only the smartest student Alan Dershowitz ever taught at Harvard Law School (including Barack Obama) but is also several times the politician Hillary Clinton is. That’s not to say that Cruz will win the nomination, but he does strike us as the best poised serious candidate to capitalize on the Republican voters’ apparent thirst for vengeance.
We’ll note in closing that this revenge theme is one that crosses partisan lines. We hope to address what the Democratic desire for revenge looks like in a future piece. Until then, just know that if the Republican happens win the presidency next November, the denizens of the Left will do their very best to make sure that the next for years are as divisive and dysfunctional as possible. They see this as their own version of turnabout. That won’t be quite as much fun as Donald Trump’s candidacy has been, but nothing, as they say, is perfect.
Copyright 2015. The Political Forum. 8563 Senedo Road, Mt. Jackson, Virginia 22842, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.