Political Theatre

WHAT IF YOU ADAPTED the 2016 election campaign into a play? How would you stage this grueling saga about a bunch of uniformly unlikable characters in unhappy situations saying patently ridiculous things? You could start by looking at Mark Peterson's new book from the campaign trail, Political Theatre, in which he presents our nationwide absurdist freak-out as a stark melodrama. His pictures of media scrums, starstruck Trumpkins, forlorn Jeb! events, Village of the Damned–looking Rubio fans, Bernie in various grumpy poses, and tragically overconfident Hillary rallies remind us exactly why our national anthem might as well now be three letters long: WTF. Interspersed with the photos are pages emblazoned with some of the players' most memorable quotes: the Donald's "great, great wall" and "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody"; Hillary's hideously flubbed line about how half of Trump's supporters belong in "what I call the basket of deplorables."

Ted Cruz at the RedState Gathering, Atlanta, August 8, 2015. Mark Peterson.

These ultrasharp, super-high-contrast, black-and-white images look at once like Weegee photographs, Twilight Zone stills, the grunge-scene snaps of Charles Peterson, and Robert Longo's charcoal drawings. Mark Peterson often shoots his portraits with a blazing flash, from a noirish low angle, and must be happiest when he captures, as Diane Arbus did, an animalistic grimace or a tellingly vacant expression. In one nightmarish two-page spread, we see Sarah Palin hollering; a child happily holding an assault rifle that's as tall as she is; a close-up of a Stars and Stripes tie beneath a man's grizzled turkey-neck flesh streaked with tangled black and gray hairs; and a woman in an American-flag sweater towering over us, cheerfully wielding an iPhone (in a matching rhinestone flag case) as if she's photographing our exhausted and haggard faces. We see the reality-TV-star-in-chief's lying taco-bowl hole and poorly groomed nostrils from an uncomfortably close, Melania's-eye view, cops suited up as if aiming for a part in Ant-Man, and HRC with that familiar overjoyed look—like someone trying to persuade a skeptical toddler to give her a high five. Frankly, why revisit any of this stuff? Judging by the book's title and the included quotes from Ronald Reagan and Marshall McLuhan, which gesture at the primacy of the image in politics, part of Peterson's point is that it's all a sham: The politicians are merely interchangeable screens for our powerful projections. But overall, Political Theatre seems to resist that idea—its subjects feel awkwardly human and painfully singular. It's hard to imagine anyone other than these people saying these things. Stronger together: Who else but Donald J. Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton could have brought this pox on all our houses?