domingo, 12 de junho de 2016
This political spectacle
This political spectacle
What links Vladimir Putin to Barack Obama to Donald Trump.
By MATTHEW KAMINSKI 6/11/16, 5:33 AM CET
We live in a new populist age. The leading players fit multiple conventional categories and at the same time none of them. Pablo Iglesias in Spain is on the far reaches of the left, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland and Viktor Orbán in Hungary the right, Jeremy Corbyn and the UKIP “Outers” in the U.K. span the ruler, and the Dutch and French have varietals of the far-right blooming ahead of critical elections next year. And in America you have in Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders two men who until not long ago didn’t even belong to the Republican or Democratic parties, respectively.
But what’s really new? Certainly not the public anger and thirst for change that drives this crowd’s poll numbers and thrusts them close to or into power. Muslim migration in northern Europe or Mexican immigration in U.S., austerity (southern Europe), threats to the welfare state model (France’s hot spring of strikes) are sparks particular to the time. But the urge to upset an existing order is as old as politics. No need to fall back on analogies to the 1930s to clarify our thinking. Here’s Hotspur in Shakespeare’s Henry IV: “O gentlemen, the time of life is short! … An if we live we live to tread on kings;/ if die, brave death, when princes die with us!”
There has never been a better time than now to pull off the Trumpeze act.
The new wrinkle is the means available to the would-be revolutionaries. In our age, with the speed of politics sent into hyperdrive by modern media and communications, the smart politician shrinks the distance between himself and the voter by neutering or bypassing, whether through the tube or Twitter, the traditional arbiters: political parties, big donors (a force more pronounced in America than in Europe) and the media.
The last “normal” presidential election in America was in 2004. The incumbent, George W. Bush, and challenger John Kerry were approved by the usual vetters. Back then, for probably the last time, newspapers were the dominant agenda-setters in media. It was Barack Obama, not Donald Trump, who showed how a charismatic new man could upset the system. When Hillary Clinton came into 2008 backed by her party, big donors and some of the media, Obama used his natural charisma on the television screen, and soon a mastery of digital data and media, to trump, ahem, her. He got around Big Money by going straight to small donors, a trick that Bernie Sanders used to stay competitive with Clinton to the very end in this cycle. Eight years after the then part-time state legislator and part-time law professor couldn’t get into the hall at the 2000 Democratic national convention, Obama was the true “maverick,” to use the phrase that became a punchline about that other outsider of 2008 Sarah Palin (a mentally duller version of Obama).
The brilliance, if you will, of Trump in 2016 is to take the Obama playbook to another level. Unlike the sitting president, Trump didn’t start the campaign as a sitting U.S. senator; he’s never won public office. Trump didn’t even try to win over party mandarins. The so-called establishment was more useful as a foil to mobilize his supporters. He didn’t need big donors. Trump has some money, though a lot less than he claims, and what’s more he got so much free media and advertising (about $3 billion worth, far more than anyone else, by one count) that he had no reason to buy his own. Spurning the media’s authority, as the media critic Jack Shafer has pointed out, he used it and all the other platforms at his disposal better than anyone on the Republican side. It helped that Trump spent the last decade plus honing his shtick as a reality TV celebrity.
There has never been a better time than now to pull off the Trumpeze act. The arbitrators that people once relied on are not only less dominant — radio didn’t kill the newspaper, but the Internet shrunk all traditional media down in size — they’re also more openly distrusted and disliked than ever in history. More than three in four Americans had a positive view of their government in 1960, according to the Pew Research Center. With a brief blip up to 60 percent around 9/11, that number has fallen steadily since Watergate to 19 percent in 2015. The military and small business are the rare institutions that remain high in peoples’ esteem. The media tracks the sorry record of the rest. In 1976, a few years after Watergate, over 70 percent of Americans told pollsters they trusted the media. An all-time low of 40 percent do today, while 55 percent don’t trust it, according to Gallup. The recent falls in support have been steeper among Democrats than Republicans, even if the GOP traditionally views “liberal media” with deeper disdain.
Putinism comes West
The departure from the scene of the Walter Cronkites, who like Simon & Garfunkle’s “gone Joe DiMaggio” personified the certainties and authorities of another time, brought in a new nastier climate. People don’t merely hold different opinions about politics. They can express more loudly than ever irreconcilable versions of reality. Again from Pew: 64 percent of Americans in 2015 said they feel “their side” loses more often than it wins in politics (80 percent among Republicans, 52 percent Democrats). Surely majorities can’t all be getting shafted. But they think they are, and that’s what matters. On top of that, a majority, 59 percent to 39 percent, thinks that “compared to elected officials, ordinary American will do better to solve the country’s problems.” So naturally they hanker for “authentic” “non-career politicians” and hate the “elites.” The joke is, of course, that born-rich billionaire Donald Trump or the Oxford-via-Eton patrician Boris Johnson are the “authentic outsiders” of our day.
This new political style has a surprising early pioneer in Vladimir Putin.
“Here we are now,” Nirvana sang, “entertain us.” Substance is out in our politics. In this media world, basically our real world, showmen are would-be kings. The masses want their candidate to “tell it like it is,” “stand up to the man,” “relate to me and you” (at a large distance via the cable news show or Twitter feed). The smarter politicians have figured out how to use the media without playing by the media’s rules, without deferring to it. You can’t trust these guys, Trump told these guys in a press conference last week, covered fulsomely in turn by the same guys. Iglesias, the co-founder and leader of Spain’s far-left Podemos, gets the rules too. The charismatic upstart with a clear message doesn’t need to resort to coup or violent revolution (one assumes). All the disruptive tools are available for the savvy pol in our democracies. Speaking to the filmmaker Fernando Leon de Aranoa in the new film “Politics, a Handbook,” Iglesias says: “Doing politics for real is doing politics inside TV sets and in the newspapers. They’re much more important than parliaments.” We’ll see for sure later this month in the Spanish elections, but Iglesias knows the media and political environment he is living in better than his opponents.
This new political style has a surprising early pioneer in Vladimir Putin. The former KGB lieutenant colonel never had to fight for votes or win over crowds the conventional ways. He came from nowhere to grab hold of Russia’s throat for the past 16 years. His demiurge is a man named Vladislav Surkov, a former playwright and brilliant cynic who forged Putin’s various images — from young modernizer to “sovereign democrat” to nationalist war leader — by manipulating the (state-dominated) domestic media message. The best book on this period is Peter Pomerantsev’s “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible,” published in 2014, which doesn’t even mention Putin by name in describing the cold brilliance with which Surkov has kept his man in power so long. “I am the author, or one of the authors, of the new Russian system,” Surkov told Pomerantsev.
Behold the spectacle
And in his own way, elements of our own. “Nothing is true and everything is possible” captures Trumpism’s blend of mutating political positions and outrageous gaffes that would kill off a more mortal, or conventional, pol but in his case so often seem to make him stronger. It captures well a lot of current political mood in Europe, not least in the debate ahead of the Brexit vote later this month.
Politics were always a bit of a spectacle in democracies.
A year before the Paris May of 1968 ushered in another revolutionary era in Europe, the French Marxist Guy Debord wrote a somewhat abstruse philosophical tract, “The Society of the Spectacle.” Roughly translated, the final stage in the degeneration of bourgeois democracy comes when the media-driven “spectacle supplants genuine activity,” Debord argued. The most visible, “spectacular” show of democracy leads to its destruction. Debord presented his argument in the form of 221 discrete paragraphs. #9: “In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood.” #60: “Media stars are spectacular representations of living human beings, distilling the essence of the spectacle’s banality.”
You see of course a lot of the Debordian spectacle in our current politics. Left is right or vice-versa, truth is a lie, image is substance and reality is the show. Yet remember that one man’s populist is another man’s successful electoral politician. Politics always had a large bit of a spectacle in democracy going back to Athens. So maybe the parting lesson for beleaguered establishments in this unsettling day is simply this: Learn to play by the rules of the fast-paced game to defend and propagate your so-called mainstream ideals, or soon find yourselves as outsiders. Or as Trump loves to put it, losers.
Matthew Kaminski is executive editor of POLITICO. This article is adapted from a lecture on “America’s Global Election” at the Amerika Haus in Vienna last week.