If the campaign is going to be a "feelings" fight, is the handwriting on the wall?
"What is truly revealing is [Antonio Sabato Jr.'s] implication that believing something to be true is the same as its being true. Because if anything, that was the theme of the Republican Convention this week. It was a four-day exercise in emphasizing feelings over facts."
-- John Oliver, on last Sunday's Last Week Tonight
Is it possible for one and the same person to be the one who talks a would-be jumper out onto the ledge and the one who gives him the hope he needs to come back down from it? I'm all too afraid it is, which is why I'm trying to come to grips with horrors like a Supreme Court reshaped by President The Donald.
Yes, sure, The Donald's rhetoric reeks of the apocalyptic, which makes it odd to accuse him of being the candidate of "hope," while Hillary Clinton is the candidate of, well, whatever -- more of the same, say. Nevertheless, it looks to me as if an important segment of the electorate is having a ball being frothed into a rage (I'm sure modern-day brain scientists could explain the basic chemical brain processes that make this so pleasurable) while also being seduced by the promise of Making America Great Again.
Nobody would have been more surprised than John Oliver was to find the theme of the Republican Convention "accidentally" summed up by that "IMDB-page-awarded actor" Antonio Sabato Jr., "who delivered a relatively restrained speech before opening his heart regarding President Obama to ABC News."
The key point here, John argued, isn't that Antonio is wrong about President Obama being a Muslim, or even that Antonio is an idiot. I've put what he found "truly revealing" here atop this post: Antonio's "implication that believing something to be true is the same as its being true. Because if anything, that was the theme of the Republican Convention this week. It was a four-day exercise in emphasizing feelings over facts," reaching its apex in the newly anointed candidate's acceptance speech.
ANTONIO: First of all, I don't believe that the guy is a Christian. I don't believe he follows the God that I love and the Jesus that I love.
REPORTER: You believe that President Obama is a Muslim?
REPORTER: Is that what you're saying?
REPORTER: And that is based on what you feel in your heart.
ANTONIO: Yeah, that's what I believe, yeah. And you know what? I have the right to believe that. And you have the right to go against that, but I believe it.
Feelings about all sorts of things -- about crime, about the economy, and on and on -- feelings that the feelers are entitled to believe, just as Antonio says, but that don't become any more true, when the facts are otherwise, no matter how strongly they're believed.
It's what I've been grousing about here for years under the rubric of "reality substitute" -- the legacy of Ronald Reagan, that reality can be whatever you want it to be, whatever makes you feel best, even if "feeling good" for you means flying into apoplectic rages over those damn liberals. Yes, "reality substitute" requires using real names, real places (as if most Americans would know the difference between real and fake place names), and even situations with some sort of factual link or cladding. But from there, you can paint the reality you wish to acknowledge living in. Or let your favorite demagogue do it for you.
ENTER NEWT GINGRICH, THE ONE AND ONLY
Yes, it's America's own beloved former House Speaker Newt, rising to the challenge of defending The Donald's brand of "reality substitute." Confronted with the statistically demonstrable fact that violent crime is down in the U.S., Newt throws out statistical exceptions to the clear overall numbers, then retreats from, or perhaps rises above, mere numbers.
Which brings an explosion from John: "No, it isn't! No, it isn't! It's only a fact that that's a feeling people have." And he puts up a graph showing the U.S. violent crime rate descending from 1990 to 2015 and comments, "It's not a fucking Rorschach test. You can't infer anything you like from it."
NEWT: The average American, I will bet you this morning, does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer.
INTERVIEWER: But we are safer, and it is down.
NEWT: No, that's your view.
INTERVIEWER: It is a fact.
NEWT: But what I said is also a fact.
Which doesn't stop our Newt.
NEWT: The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics which theoretically may be right, but it's not where human beings are.
INTERVIEWER: But what you're saying is --
NEWT [starts to talk] --
INTERVIEWER: But hold on, Mr. Speaker, because you're saying that liberals use these numbers, they use this sort of magic act. These are the FBI's statistics. They're not a liberal organization.
NEWT: What I said is equally true. People feel more threatened.
INTERVIEWER: They feel it, but the facts don't support it.
NEWT: As a political candidate, I'll go with how people feel, and I'll let you go with the theoreticians.
JOHN: He just brought a feeling to a fact fight.
BUT JOHN, AREN'T CAMPAIGNS ALWAYS "FEELINGS FIGHTS"?
Especially now that consultants have taken over the strategizing? What is modern campaign science about if not identifying feelings among the electorate which can be manipulated for political gain -- and not just manipulated but actually engineered?
And among the feelings there are some that are not just understandable but legitimate, like the feeling more and more Americans have that the economic system has been gamed against them, that geopolitics and the world economic order have been so effectively targeted to benefit the neoliberal elites that there isn't much left over for anyone else. Of course the notion that The Donald is any sort of solution is laughable, but it's a feeling that doesn't lend itself well to "Let me have some more of the same." That's a feeling that wasn't helpful to Al Gore after the two terms of Bill Clinton's presidency, and Gore hadn't been demonized to anywhere near the extent that Hillary Clinton has been.
Nor does it seem to matter that Hillary has been reduced to a caricature that probably bears only occasional resemblance to any actual person, let alone the candidate herself. It sticks. While it's true that The Donald is facing some pretty heavy media scrutiny of his own, the reality of it seems to me that none of that, however true, apparently holds much interest for potential Trump voters, whereas anything bad that can be said about Hillary, however far-fetched, has an impact on her potential voters.
I have the greatest difficulty imagining what a Trump presidency would be like, but increasingly less difficulty imagining that we may find out.