Category Archives: Politics

About political communication

The Divider

Nothing stands out more in the rhetoric of Donald Trump than his apparent pleasure in pitting Americans against each other. 

Classic studies of the American Presidency always include detailed histories of the office’s rhetorical style. In the most visible office in the world form usually follows function.  Presidents have always been called upon to find common values and beliefs that transcend regional and party differences.  In the words of analyst Mary Stuckey, the nation’s leader is the “interpreter in chief.”  His (and someday her) job includes finding the common threads of the American experience, then celebrating them in statements and appearances.  Others in Congress may function as professional partisans. But the Presidency has usually found its natural buoyancy when a leader tries to speak for the entire nation. Even past Presidents swimming in private resentments usually managed to celebrate the American experience. Most have not strayed from their constitutional oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  That includes not just honoring the independence of the press and judiciary, but celebrating the transcendent principles of tolerance and inclusion laid out in the expansive amendments to the Constitution.

Or so we thought.

Nothing stands out more in the Trump administration than his seeming delight it pitting Americans against each other.  To be sure, leaders have been intense partisans. We know from the record that this was true of F.D.R., John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson.  Johnson is an interesting case. The former Senate Majority leader from Texas was an old ‘pol’ in the classic sense of the term. He learned about the uses of power from Richard Russell, an unreconstructed southerner. But he also understood how long-standing problems of race and poverty could be acted on in ways that would bring out the best in Americans. His televised address to Congress in 1965 supporting the Voting Rights Act remains an impressive demonstration of political courage.  In his slow drawl he reputed the racism of his mentor, embracing the promises enshrined in the nation’s founding documents.  Here are a few pieces of that address.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Voting Rights Act Speech

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

"What happened in Selma is part of a larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America.  It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.  Their cause must be or cause too.  Because it’s not just Negroes, but really all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.    

And we shall overcome."

It was an electric moment. Johnson spoke to our aspirations rather than our fears.  The act that passed eventually opened up local politics, leading to more registered voters and many more African American office holders.

It’s hard to fathom the horrible fact that some news organizations must supply their own security at Trump events.

Trump’s instincts are much more personal and strategic.  He seeks to celebrate himself more than the diverse corners of American life.  He feeds long standing resentments centered on race, vulnerable new arrivals, Muslims and any number of corporations and sports leagues. Most shockingly, he regularly campaigns against a sacred principle of public life: the value of a free and vigorous press.  He attacks the single feature of American political life that has been most admired and duplicated in emerging societies. His  vile and dangerous claim that the press is “the enemy of the people” is stunningly unamerican.  And from a more legalistic perspective, some verbal attacks at rallies approach the definition of felonious “incitement to violence.”  It’s hard to fathom the horrible reality that at Trump events some news organizations use their own security people to protect their journalists.

What motivates a person who publicly loathes so many?  If governing requires dealing with large segments of society that one finds distasteful, what rewards and motivations can exist?

One explanation from a psychiatrist writing in the New York Times doesn’t include a mental disorder, but a simpler habit of mind. He wrote that Trump has “a personality that privileges destructiveness and revels in the destruction of others and their ideals, whether they be refugees seeking asylum or carefully constructed policies that recognize the danger of Russian aggression.”  He notes that the President is not a “broken man,” but one “fully in tact” who simply gains pleasure from wreaking havoc on basic presuppositions grounding both conservatives and liberals raised in certain protocols and traditions of governing. He’s an anomaly in politics, not to mention the hospitality industry.

Trump will someday pass from the scene.  The more troubling problem is the mounting evidence that too many Americans seem to share his desire to destroy the values of liberal democracy.

We Were Warned

Arguably, some of the best forewarnings have come from the British, even in the film Love Actually (2003), where the PM is none too happy with the bullying of his American counterpart.

There is no question that Hollywood warrants its old label as a home of escapist entertainment.  But it is also true that there is a growing list of mainstream films offering narratives about the devolution of American political life.  Most were first presented as fiction; but hindsight makes some remarkably prescient.  These are films plotted around acts of political corruption, deception or exploitative media. Who knew that we should have paid closer attention?

Overcoming studio timidity was never been easy.  The cautionary Vietnam fable M*A*S*H (1970) was shot by director Robert Altman in a California state park, away from the prying eyes of nervous Fox executives. Even so, the studio demanded that the film must appear to be about the politically safer Korean War.

The most interesting films include plot lines that anticipate our current moment. For example, in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) propagandists from China and the Soviet Union brainwash a veteran in an effort to have him subvert the United States government.  The idea of Communist brainwashing has never been very convincing. But the fact that we have a President seemingly in the thrall of the heirs to the Soviet Union seems like a fantasy that has become uncomfortably real.

Some films are reminders that Americans are easy marks for cynical populists.

There are also a number of films that suggest how easy it can be for an empty vessel of a leader to attract the support of audiences short on reasoning but ready to accept simple-minded bromides.  Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd (1952) suggests that fame can be easily manufactured and sold to ordinary citizens. It’s emphasis on the susceptibility of media audiences is mirrored in other iconic films like writer Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (1976), or  All the King’s Men (1949), based on a Pulitzer-winning book by Robert Penn Warren.  The latter film is an extended riff on a figure like Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, a populist demagogue we sells a stream of lies to a clueless public.  Depending on the person, films can “mean” many things.  For me,  Warren’s character of Willie Stark and Network’s Howard Beale are reminders that many of us are easy marks for cynical populists.

Of course, the corruption that may come with power was a theme familiar to Shakespeare’s audiences. It also fascinated film legend Orson Welles, who put the abuse of authority front and center in the form of corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan in A Touch of Evil (1958).  And there’s also the ruthless Hearst-like newspaper magnate in Citizen Kane (1941), who had his own seaside Mar-a-lago.

Even Charlie Chaplin gave us reasons to be wary about the abuse of power, consistently using the gentle figure of the Tramp to deflate the police and the pompous. His pattern of mocking leaders is carried on by a handful of late-night television hosts, in sharp contrast to talk radio’s continuing love of reactionary politics.

Viewers of films about the McCarthy era may also see the coming pattern of the current president to scapegoat problems to immigrants, Mexicans, China or even NFL players.  The Wisconsin senator’s bludgeon was anti-communism.  His penchant for making baseless accusations against whole categories of Americans is well-represented in Bryan Cranston’s 2015 portrayal of blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.  This accustory strain in American politics has its own fascinating lineage of sobering Hollywood jeremiads, ranging from a film version of Arthur’s Miller’s The Crucible (1996) to the Edward R. Murrow biopic, Good Night and Good Luck (2005).

More recently, the best forewarnings on film have come from the British. In the surprising case of the otherwise negligible Love Actually (2003), a  perfect rebuke is directed to a bullying American President. Hugh Grant is the PM, and is none too happy with the high-handedness and arrogance of his American counterpart: words that would work equally well for the embattled Theresa May.

Love Actually Scene – Hugh grant Speech

Britian’s Premier Minister Hugh Grant’s Speech against the American President

In the recent past, BBC Films and the U.K. Film Council win the honors for confronting the problem of governments who have gone of the rails.  In the Loop (2009) is played by Tom Hollander and Peter Capaldi as farce, but seems close to the truth in displaying the twin challenges of bad foreign policy (i.e., the invasion of Iraq) pursued by inept bureaucracies.  James Gandolfini is a cautious  American General who is no match for the spin doctors in Washington and London that are planning a disastrous joint invasion.  In The Loop is a good representation of contemporary suspicions of political discourse, where the energies put into defending policies come prior to determining their basic soundness.  What was British farce in 2009 is now evident in the prevarications of official Washington.

In The Loop – Trailer

From writer/director Armando Iannucci, IN THE LOOP is a crackerjack political satire centered on the Machiavellian art of spin in the 24-hour news cycle — where one’s choice of words can, in a heartbeat, affect international diplomacy and where language isn’t so much a virus, as a veritable weapon of mass destruction.

Top Image: Universal Pictures