Fear and Loafing

So what kind of book will emerge from the 2016 presidential campaign? For more than a year now, I’ve been saying a secular metaphysical cleric from deep in South America—Borges, say, or Julio Cortázar—should compose it. I recognize that they’re both “with the ancestors.” But would a Book of, or by, the Dead about Campaign 2016, complete with mix-and-match chapters and faux arcana, be any less opaque to real life than Donald J. Trump, a presidential candidate who exists in his own alternate universe, where feelings are facts and facts always lie?

As many others besides me have remarked, being alive in America right now is almost like existing in a dystopian novel. And I’d be fine with this predicament if most of the reporters who are alive—or profess to be—bothered asking follow-up questions whenever Trump blurted flat-Earth statements like the one he made about the incumbent president’s being the founder of a global terrorist network that, in fact, wants him dead. When somebody did hold the Republican nominee’s feet to the fire for equating Barack Obama with the Islamic State, it wasn’t a mainstream newsperson but a fellow right-winger, namely talk-show host Hugh Hewitt. When even Hewitt couldn’t get Trump to walk back the cray-cray, whatever now passes for “objective” media finally decided that it was finally OK to cry foul. The week I wrote this, the Associated Press acknowledged reality: “Trump Refuses to Back Away From False Claim Obama Founded ISIS.” Maybe it’s a trend; maybe an anomaly. We’ll know better by the time you read this.

Or not. News networks’ obligation, or compulsion, to give Each Side its chance to say whatever it wants, no matter how ill-informed or abusive, for the sake of whatever’s regarded as “balance,” will likely continue to bewilder or enrage their audiences—anything except actually inform them. Like house pets, political reporters will chase any shiny object you throw near them, barely suspecting that there may be more substantive chew toys concealed behind somebody’s back. They’ll also do anything to avoid being considered boring or biased. Chasing down ephemera about private lives (or e-mails) is the most expedient way to keep eyeballs on their product. Unfortunately, it also allows them to avoid nailing down the veiled bigotry of Trump’s glandular discharges. That task has, thus far, been left mostly to the “fake news” broadcasts of John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and other alumni of The Daily Show. Like Trump, they’re entertainers with attitude, and therefore trusted to ID toxic shtick when they smell it.

And, as always, the calliope music, white noise, and relentless barking accompanying a presidential campaign reliably keep the suckers from noticing, or caring about, the hidden forces that guide candidate behavior and that therefore actually matter. One of the most enduring of nonfiction political chronicles, Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus (1973), discloses how both the show horses and workhorses of political journalism were so caught up with what was happening on the 1972 campaign trail that they all but ignored the implications lurking beneath a “third-rate burglary” that would metastasize into the Watergate scandal. The impression one still receives of these eponymous “boys” from Crouse’s book is of a pack of white guys hermetically sealed off from everyday life by their collective hubris. The boys were blinded by their competitive urge to be as all-seeing and -knowing as Theodore H. White, whose Making of the President books, which covered the campaigns of 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1972, purported to capture the dense-star grandeur of this quadrennial ritual in near-numbing detail. By 1972, White’s hyper-meticulous reporting had become so omnipresent that even he was sick of it, and said so to Crouse. “Who gives a fuck,” White said, “if [a candidate] had milk and Total for breakfast?”

Hate to tell you, Teddy, but we’re no smarter about this stuff now than we were then. Politico and their online ilk have expanded the capacity for reporters and self-styled sages to go long and windy on what candidates do (or don’t) eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama respond to such increased “scrutiny” by throwing up force fields so wide and thick as to make Richard Nixon seem transparent by comparison. Going off-line won’t help either. Watch any of the Sunday-morning Washington chat fests on the major networks, or any of the cable-news panels of “experts” drawn mostly from within the Beltway, and you’ll find that the bubble evoked in Crouse’s book has become, if anything, bigger and more impenetrable, its lighter-than-air buoyancy maintained by empty platitudes and anachronistic precedents. Early in the campaign, after a Trump primary win, I would hear at least one pundit actually raise some variation of the following question: “Why haven’t we heard from the Reagan Democrats yet?” Invariably, I would shout back at the screen, “Because most of them are either dead or in nursing homes! That’s why, you overpaid half-wit!

Darryl Smith/Flickr.
Darryl Smith/Flickr.

Just as 1972’s overflow of junior-league Teddy Whites was oblivious of Watergate, so this year’s plague of bloated punditry and free-range outrage is keeping all of us from seeing something underplayed and potentially just as significant over the longer haul. Another scandal? Please. We have plenty of those, real and imagined. My own suspicions begin with what seems a self-evident truth: The story of any election, in the end, is a story about voting—and voters.

News outlets know this, of course, which is why so many rely on polls and polling to propel their ongoing narratives. But even with Hillary Clinton’s widening lead over Trump in the polls (as of this writing), things still feel too uncertain and volatile out there to be able to know who’ll actually win.

I also feel sorry for the poor drudges working for CNN and NPR who are forced by their editors to do one-on-ones with those attending candidate rallies as a means of “taking the electorate’s pulse”—or whatever cliché suffices. The people they’re talking to likely wouldn’t be at this rally, no matter whom it was for, unless they’d already made up their minds. So all their comments add to the story is a (maybe) less-scripted version of whatever’s being said on the podium, needlessly ramping up the hype and blather on behalf of a candidate’s sales pitch.

But what, then, of people who haven’t made up their minds—or who don’t even know they have a vote? One hears, from both those for and against Trump, that the candidate’s from-the-hip bombast has drawn out multitudes of previously alienated white working-class people—men, predominantly, allegedly—for whom past generations of conservatively oriented demagogues weren’t enough of a spur to register. Yet I haven’t seen any hard data to back this up and neither, apparently, have Gallup pollsters, whose data, as cited by the Washington Post, indicates no overwhelming evidence that Trumpeteers are as easily categorized by class as has been so far assumed. (Trump, by the way, revoked the Post’s press credentials in June, apparently inconvenienced by its admirable impulse to challenge his whoppers.)

Relentless polling, though, still allows the media to think they understand voters better than they do. The aforementioned Gallup poll was based on 87,000 interviews, and many stories are written based on such data because, as noted, they stoke the horse-race narrative. But in ground-level human terms, voting, and thus voters, are still the Undiscovered Country of political journalism. Where to begin the process of discovery?

I heard a similar question asked in Philadelphia during the week of the Democratic National Convention. It was at a forum sponsored by The Nation magazine, whose featured speaker was the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson. The full impact of his groundbreaking 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns is all but forgotten, even by those still grousing over Bernie Sanders’s losing to Hillary Clinton. Among many other things, those campaigns inspired voter registration of minorities in both the rural South and the urban North, thus helping create the consensus that would, two decades after Jackson’s last run, twice elect the country’s first African American president. So he was the proper person to ask, as a white woman from Georgia attending the forum did, how and where to begin registering voters where she lives.

Jackson told her to start at the high schools: “If you don’t think there are eighteen-year-olds in high school who don’t know they’re qualified to vote, think again.” Then go to the colleges. That, he told her, is always a place to look, because there are even more eighteen-year-olds—and older—who don’t know or haven’t yet thought about registering.

If I were writing about the 2016 campaign—an article, a book, an article that wanted to grow into a book—I would start by following that woman home. I would watch her go to those high schools and colleges and seek out each student old enough to vote and try carrying out the one task in a democracy that has any feasible hope of success: persuasion. I would see how many of these young adults buy her pitch. Even if it’s only one, I would follow that student around to see whether she is excited enough by her freshly minted enfranchisement to encourage others to feel a similar rush. If she is, I’d follow her around and watch her collect enough young voters to make up a small contingent of persuaders who will seek others, not all young, not all employed, not all black or brown, who otherwise didn’t think of registering beforehand. And I’d keep following those folks until Election Day. And if I didn’t think I had enough to make a book, I’d stick around to see how they did with the off-year elections that don’t get the fat hype of the presidential carnival but have proven to be just as significant, if not more so, to their respective futures.

My book would not, in other words, chronicle the making of a president. It would be about the making of an electorate, of a consensus; perhaps of a growing majority of small-d-democratic enablers affecting not just one campaign but many more, in the very long run, whose implications we’re not equipped to imagine yet. It would be a book that speaks to a nascent feeling that the present cacophony of smart alecks and prefabricated sages on all sides of the political spectrum can’t bring themselves to acknowledge: hope for the future, and scattered, distant signals from people, most of them young, that for varied reasons they will no longer accept conditions as they presently exist. If you can’t or won’t acknowledge such possibilities, if you’ve been led by the aforementioned din of thwarted entitlement and puffed-up indignation to expect the worst this November and beyond, then you’re neither above nor beyond the shitstorm your cynicism purports to despise. You’re part of it. And my book, whoever writes it or however it’s written, wants nothing whatsoever to do with you.

Gene Seymour is a frequent contributor to Bookforum. He is currently working on an essay collection.