Politics happens in (at least) three places:
political institutions, like legislatures, courthouses, and executive offices, places governed by elaborate rules and traditions;
public spaces, like debates, protests, and media appearances, which are ruled by law and economics but driven by rhetoric;
bodies and matter, where people, often but not always government and other political agents, use power, violence (direct or indirect), and the threat of violence (same) to hurt people and take their stuff. And sometimes (for most of us, probably more rarely/indirectly), to help people and give them more stuff.
These categories all bleed into each other and still leave a whole lot out, but for a quick and dirty chop-job of the universe, well, I’ve seen worse. (And done worse.)
It helps to focus on one but not forget about the others. Keep your head on a swivel, like my football coach used to say. And each sphere has its own grammar, its invisible rules.
Some of the best writing about the Trump regime has been on the second, imaginary sphere, by TV critics on the politics of media. You might think this is the easiest of the three to tell stories about, but the degree of difficulty is absurdly high if you aim to do more than just summarize or react to the thing we’ve all just seen. Help me see. Change my vocabulary. Show me how it works. Show me why it works.
Lili Loofbourow’s glossary of Kellyanne Conway’s rhetorical moves helps you see.
“Most Americans are very focused on what their tax returns will look like while President Trump is in office, not what his look like.”
Conway frequently takes the words from the question — tax returns, Trump, Americans — and recombines them. It gives the impression of straightforwardness. The question, you’ll recall, was how Trump will respond to a petition signed by 200,000 Americans demanding that he release his tax returns. Conway takes those concepts — “the people,” “tax return” — and reshuffles them in a way that a) denies the premise (the 200,000 Americans who signed that petition fall out of her framing — let me tell you what the people care about, she says), and b) removes Trump from the sentence as an agent called upon to respond.
Besides “concept scrabble,” there’s “faux frankness,” “impatience signaling,” “Cool girling,” “Agenda Mad Libs,” and more, all illustrated with examples.
Emily Nussbaum’s “How Jokes Won the Election” helps you see — in this case, how many of Trump’s outrageous statements during the campaign had the structure of jokes. A lot of people have made a lot hay out of the “seriously”/”literally” dichotomy breaking down, but Nussbaum focuses instead on how it limits your ability to react, especially when you’re the subject of the “joke”:
The political journalist Rebecca Traister described this phenomenon to me as “the finger trap.” You are placed loosely within the joke, which is so playful, so light—why protest? It’s only when you pull back—show that you’re hurt, or get angry, or try to argue that the joke is a lie, or, worse, deny that the joke is funny—that the joke tightens. If you object, you’re a censor. If you show pain, you’re a weakling. It’s a dynamic that goes back to the rude, rule-breaking Groucho Marx—destroyer of elites!—and Margaret Dumont, pop culture’s primal pearl-clutcher.
When Hillary described half of Trump’s followers as “deplorables,” she wasn’t wrong. But she’d walked right into the finger trap. Trump was the hot comic; Obama the cool one. Hillary had the skill to be hard-funny, too, when it was called for: she killed at the Al Smith charity dinner, in New York, while Trump bombed. It didn’t matter, though, because that was not the role she fit in the popular imagination. Trump might be thin-skinned and easily offended, a grifter C.E.O. on a literal golden throne. But Hillary matched the look and the feel of Margaret Dumont: the rich bitch, Nurse Ratched, the buzzkill, the no-fun mom, the one who shut the joke down.
Conway can float in and out of different modes than Clinton can, partly because she has different political talents, but partly because she’s under different rhetorical constraints. These things are all imaginary, yes — but they work.
Still, Conway can be wrongfooted, too — here’s Loofbourow again:
In thinking about how to transcend the Conway effect, it’s instructive to study the people who’ve effectively interviewed her. Seth Meyers turned out to be a master at it: Comedians have a lot of experience quickly analyzing and calling out behaviors and tricks in ways that scan as funny rather than aggressive…
Meyers took Conway’s statement — meant to discredit a press report — and took its interpretation away from her. In his hands, her statement became the terrifying story of a president-elect who couldn’t be bothered to read his own intelligence briefs, even when they were about him. And he did it by using a more complex version of Conway’s multifactorial rhetoric.
There are limits to what we can learn about politics from comedians and comedy tropes — most of the time, the battles over laws and bodies exceed anybody’s ability to turn a phrase. But this imaginative sphere, too, is all part of the bigger combat, and there are still so many things we can learn about how the fight is fought.
If you weren’t watching the new HD remaster of The Wire over the holidays, you may have been tuning in to Black Mirror on Netflix. Charlie Brooker’s dystopian sci-fi series was broadcast in Britain beginning in 2011 but only recently became available in the US on Netflix. Emily Nussbaum reviews the show for the New Yorker’s latest issue.
Still, for all the show’s inventive storytelling, its true provocation is its righteous outrage, which shares something with Mike White’s whistle-blower series “Enlightened,” although it’s overlaid with a dark filter. Like “Enlightened,” “Black Mirror” is about love in the time of global corporate hegemony. It’s a bleak fairy tale that doubles as an exposé. An anthology series, it consists of six one-hour episodes spanning two seasons (plus a Christmas special), each with a new story and a different cast. In various future settings, Brooker’s characters gaze into handhelds or at TV-walled cells, using torqued versions of modern devices. In one episode, a couple has sex while stupefied by virtual visions of earlier, better sex. In another, a woman builds a replica of her husband from his photos and posts on social media. In a third, workers watch streaming schlock and are docked points if they shut their eyes. Some plots deal with political terrorism (or performance art-on this show, there’s little difference) and the criminal-justice system; there are warped versions of reality TV. Though the episodes vary in tone, several have a Brechtian aggression: the viral video “Too Many Cooks” would fit right in. But, in even the most perverse installments, there’s a delicacy, a humane concern at how easily our private desires can be mined in the pursuit of profit. The worlds can be cartoonish, but the characters are not.
Like Nussbaum, I also watched the show “through occult means”1 and it’s fun hearing from friends who are catching up on it. Too bad the show couldn’t have found a way over here earlier.
Update: From Josh Dzieza at The Verge, I can’t stop comparing everything to Black Mirror:
A friend recently told me that his favorite thing about the show Black Mirror is that he finally has a term for a certain type of technological anxiety. It’s a type of anxiety that seemed everywhere this year. The Sony hack could have been an episode of Black Mirror, as could Gamergate. In the same way that we refer to Blade Runner as shorthand for gritty dystopian cityscapes, Gattaca for worries about corporate use of genetic information, and Terminator for ominously powerful AI, Black Mirror has become shorthand for a certain type of contemporary internet-age creepiness.
Now that I’ve caught up on True Detective, I have to agree with Emily Nussbaum’s take on the show and finale: a stylish well-acted show with a “hollow center”.
To state the obvious: while the male detectives of “True Detective” are avenging women and children, and bro-bonding over “crazy pussy,” every live woman they meet is paper-thin. Wives and sluts and daughters — none with any interior life. Instead of an ensemble, “True Detective” has just two characters, the family-man adulterer Marty, who seems like a real and flawed person (and a reasonably interesting asshole, in Harrelson’s strong performance), and Rust, who is a macho fantasy straight out of Carlos Castaneda. A sinewy weirdo with a tragic past, Rust delivers arias of philosophy, a mash-up of Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and the nihilist horror writer Thomas Ligotti. At first, this buddy pairing seems like a funky dialectic: when Rust rants, Marty rolls his eyes. But, six episodes in, I’ve come to suspect that the show is dead serious about this dude. Rust is a heretic with a heart of gold. He’s our fetish object — the cop who keeps digging when everyone ignores the truth, the action hero who rescues children in the midst of violent chaos, the outsider with painful secrets and harsh truths and nice arms. McConaughey gives an exciting performance (in Grantland, Andy Greenwald aptly called him “a rubber band wrapped tight around a razor blade”), but his rap is premium baloney. And everyone around these cops, male or female, is a dark-drama cliche, from the coked-up dealers and the sinister preachers to that curvy corpse in her antlers. “True Detective” has some tangy dialogue (“You are the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch”) and it can whip up an ominous atmosphere, rippling with hints of psychedelia, but these strengths finally dissipate, because it’s so solipsistically focussed on the phony duet.
I enjoyed the show and am seated in the McConaissance cheering section, but True Detective is far from TV’s best thing evar. And Nussbaum hits the nail right on the head: the lack of good women characters is to blame.
Something I’ve noticed about my favorite TV shows: they are mostly testosterone fests where the women are more interesting than the men. Mad Men is the perfect example. Game of Thrones is another. And Six Feet Under. Even in Deadwood, which I am rewatching now and is loads better than True Detective, women more than hold their own against the men. It’s fun to watch the men on these series generate bullshit, but it’s much more interesting to watch the great actresses who play these women navigate and elevate through the predictable male privilege.