Have you ever read a book and although you enjoyed reading it, especially in the beginning, it began wearing you out? The plot became boring. The characters were too repetitive. You became emotionally exhausted to the point that you no longer cared about the story, just the ending. You wanted to finish reading, but the book was no longer pleasurable; it became painful. If so, did you skim, jump ahead, put the book away, or continue to read carefully all the way to the end?
The book like this I am reading is the 2016 Presidential Election Campaign, better known as the Donald Trump Pageant. For the last year and a half, I have read articles every day about the election; watched the debates and conventions; and studied the websites and TV commercials of all the major candidates. I remember all five Democratic candidates and all seventeen Republican candidates. That seems like decades ago. I even donated a small amount of money to two of the candidates who are no longer in the race, so I read never-ending pleas for more money.
But while the story was engaging, surprising, sometimes vulgar, and nothing like the other books in the series, as I near the end, I question the usefulness of a close reading of the last chapter. This is because the weekly, sometimes daily, controversy has worn me down. The prediction that the campaign would eventually settle into a typical campaign never happened. While Donald Trump continues to find new shocking things to say, the commentators have run out of new ways to analyze them. Me too. What is left to write about Donald Trump? And Hillary? Like Bernie Sanders, I am sick of hearing about her e-mails. While both candidates say they want to talk about the issues facing the country, neither candidate does. They spend their time trying to make the other candidate look bad, which they already do.
Once upon a time, the election book read differently. If a candidate had a specific strength, the other candidate would downplay its importance or explain how their strengths were more important. However, in several recent elections, the opposition instead denies that the other candidate has that strength at all. The facts mattered little. For example, take a former presidential candidate like John Kerry. Is he a war hero? Not if you swift boat him. The opposition can find ten people who were in the military who say Kerry was a coward. Facts? Who cares? And it isn’t just about trying to amputate a candidate’s strong hand–it’s also about questioning a person’s legitimacy. Is Barack Obama a United States citizen? Not with a name like that and no birth certificate, they’d say.
The press has little idea how to handle these kinds of accusations. They are trained to get the perspective of the person they interview. Yes, they should challenge falsehoods, but what do journalists do when the claim is irrational and unsupported? Typically reporters ask follow-up questions showing the facts differ from what the candidate said, but the interviewees refuse to engage in the argument. They change the subject. They say additional outrageous things. Such obfuscation should result in the American public concluding that the interviewee is an idiot which would result in a loss of interest in the person. Instead, since some people would prefer a different set of facts or believe there is a conspiracy; they want to hear more. The press, having had an upsetting ride on the media convergence train, wants to write and talk more about these candidates because the never-ending stories are good for their advertising rates. The stories are easy to write. No digging necessary.
How does a con work? First, you offer something people want to believe in. For example, you indicate that they can make thousands of dollars a week if they know the “secrets” of real estate. It’s easy, you say, while you point out success stories. Next, you use some sleight-of-hand. Convince the marks that they are getting something of great value in return for the small amount of money they are spending. So, for example, you tell the marks that the course is a university course taught by successful hand-picked faculty. You distract the marks from the facts, like questioning why the instructors would be wasting their time teaching the course when they can apparently make so much money doing what they are teaching. And, third, when the marks start questioning the results? Why, they say, after all the money I spent, is there no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Here’s where you, smart con artist, get the marks to empty their bank accounts, so the marks won’t have any money to sue. You suggest that they need a more advanced and only “slightly” more expensive additional course. Ultimately, the marks’ pre-ordained failure is said to be due to a lack of effort or an inability to follow directions.
The press can say that the public is being conned, but factions of the public really want to believe. They don’t listen. So, the press continues to repeatedly tell the same story. The characters haven’t changed. Clinton is a typical politician. She is self-centered, calculating, secretive, and evasive. But, in her defense, her record clearly shows she has worked hard to make the world a better place. She has been unfairly vilified. Trump has no political record to defend. He continues to say whatever attracts attention. Interestingly, he has taken multiple positions on many issues. Generally, ideological purity is one of the highest priorities for Republicans, but Trump can sell himself to anyone on the issues because people can pick whatever position they like, since he has supported just about all of them at one time or another. A pageant is all about looks.
The story, however, is the same. The events and issue of the week change, but the plot is already set. Trump has attacked Hillary by attacking Barrack Obama, and he will probably attack her by attacking Bill in the debate or in the last days of the campaign. He thinks it will be his trump card. But the story has already been told. Only the ending is up in the air. What’s at stake is the future of the country. I’m hoping for a happy ending.