by Jonathan Todd
“I’m afraid I’m pretty much a flaming ball of hurt and anger at the moment.”
“Maybe you should stop reading tweets.”
That exchange comes from Purity, Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel. It a dirge, according to some reviews. But Uncut found it a fast paced engagement with eternal themes of longing and friendship in contemporary contexts of coffee shops and social media.
The “experts” are wrong about Purity, as they have been about Donald Trump, who was never meant to get this far.
Many Trump supporters are also flaming balls of hurt and anger. Made more so by time spent on Twitter. As Trump understands and exacerbates.
“This is a pattern,” observed Marco Rubio, before he crashed out of the Republican race, “this is the game he plays. He says something that’s edgy and outrageous, and then the media flocks and covers that and then no one else can get any coverage of anything else.”
There is finite media oxygen and Trump’s aggressive, social media driven campaign has starved Republican opponents of it. Nonetheless, if Trump fails to win a majority, he will be at the mercy of party procedure at the Republican convention. Which would be, in the vernacular of Twitter, a real #getspopcorn moment.
Uncut is unpersuaded, however, that there is enough popcorn in the world to stop Trump getting over the line as the Republican candidate. The likes of Eisenhower and Lincoln previously emerged as Republican candidates after contested conventions. But the power of backroom deals must be more limited in less deferential, more connected times.
Just to be on the safe side, Trump is laying the ground for this scenario, predicting “riots” if denied the Republican nomination after winning the popular vote. Not that he’d want to give his supporters any ideas. Not that his campaign hasn’t been more trash talk than soaring rhetoric.
Trump sucks in media coverage via “edgy and outrageous” comments and tweets, then sustains it by bad mouthing, often extremely crudely, any political or celebrity critics that dare to query him.
“Donald,” according to a business associate quoted in the New York Times, “is actually the most insecure man I’ve ever met. He has this constant need to fill a void inside. He used to do it with deals and sex. Now he does it with publicity.”
Social media techniques that Trump honed on the US version of The Apprentice are allowing him to be wildly successful at having politics “fill the void” and say, “you’re fired” to the rest of the Republican field.
It has sometimes seemed harder for Clinton to say the same to Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator, who has put up a surprisingly strong bid for the Democratic nomination. Sanders vehemently stands against Wall Street and Washington DC, casting Clinton as the vessel of these supposedly corrupt elites. Trump also pitches himself against these elites, claiming that by wholly financing his campaign himself he escapes their influence. Sanders and Trump, therefore, while being ideologically divergent, are united in being expressions of America’s anti-elite insurgency.
When International Women’s Day saw Sanders unexpectedly beat Clinton in Michigan, it felt like this mood might sweep Clinton away. Subsequent primaries have strengthened her position but Trump will paint her as the candidate of a failed elite in the general election.
Kim Kardashian spent International Women’s Day differently, tweeting pictures of herself without clothes. Trump’s “edgy and outrageous” comments trade on fear. Of Muslims, Mexicans, whatever. Where Trump draws social and traditional media crowds through fear, Kardashian – undoubtedly an attention seeker, potentially also motivated by filling “a void inside” – does through sex. Then she’s as quick as him to retain these crowds through caustic rebuttal of celebrities with the temerity to question her. Mitt Romney is a favourite Trump punch bag, while Bette Midler performs a similar function for Kardashian.
American political progress, given its many checks and balances, often depends upon compromise and consensus, while the media strategies of Kardashian and Trump require sustained shock and awe.
It would be foolhardy to look at this pair and think, “only in America”. We have all the ingredients: fear, sex, mistrust of elites, social media. The application of primal feelings (fear, sex, mistrust) to abrasive use of new technologies (social media) – the marriage, like a Franzen novel, of the timeless and the here-and-now – has potential beyond the US. But a highly partisan traditional media, devoid of much akin to the BBC, has, Uncut believes, made the US more susceptible.
Sam Dale has given Uncut the reasons to be optimistic about Clinton’s chances versus Trump. Clinton has more easily presented herself as the continuity candidate to President Obama than Al Gore, President (Bill) Clinton’s vice, found it in 2000 to be so to Hillary’s husband.
“If Clinton is elected,” Dale argues, “then she will be standing on the shoulders of the most significant liberal politician since LBJ.” Gary Younge in the Guardian feels less warm about the Obama legacy. Whatever it represents, Obama has aimed for compromise and consensus, not shock and awe.
Perhaps pragmatic politics retains enough potency to take Clinton to the White House but inadequate for Dale’s view of Obama to be widely acclaimed. If we all followed the advice of Purity – stop reading tweets – then, maybe, the favourable historical judgment that, Uncut suspects, is Obama’s destiny would more quickly emerge.
Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut